Where the golden spires rule

Aung Thu Nyein
An ancient temple in Myingun closely resembles the Ananda Temple in Bagan. (Photo – EMG)
An ancient temple in Myingun closely resembles the Ananda Temple in Bagan. (Photo – EMG)

Magway Region is home to many ancient pagodas and temples on the banks of Ayeyawady River. These Bagan-style structures can be found in three areas: Salay town(famous for its Salay Yokesonekyaung Monastery), Salay area in Yenanchaung Township, and Myingun town in Magway Township. 

During my recent trip to Myingun, I visited ancient ‘cave’ temples that look like those in Bagan, and especially the cave where Shin Izza Gawna is said to have forged a philosopher’s stone, and the 100 Pillars Monastery.

Myingun, a town of 800 households, can be accessed via Magway-Taungtwingyi Road. After travelling around 20 miles from Magway to Taungtwingyi, I saw afeeder road to Myingun on the right side of the road I was travelling on. Myingun is seven miles down that road, or two hours up the river by ferry.

The Lay Myat Nar Cavetemple and Shin Izza Gawna Cave are on the outskirts of Myingun in Innkone village of 170 households.

“Since ancient times, the Pyu people and the Chin people had lived together in our village. Legend has it that the village was originally called ‘Chinkone’ before it was renamed ‘Innkone’. The Lay Myat Nar Cavetemple is quite similar to the cavetemples in Bagan and there are stone inscriptions written with Pyu chracters in the northern building of the temple. People know about our village because of its proximity to Shin Izza Gawna Cave rather than this temple,” said Hla Shein, a resident of Innkone village.

Myingun boasts many ancient temples. (Photo – EMG)

“Shin Izza Gawna Cave used to be covered with trees and vines in the past so nobody dared to go there. The local residents only dared to go there after Atchihmyin Sayadaw led a clean-up campaign. Lately, more foreign tourists have visited here. According to a historical record, Shin Izza Gawna is believed to have forged a philosopher’s stone here after his sojourn in Bagan. The locals believe that explains why the temples and pagodas of Myinguna and Baganlook similar. We still don’t have any historical evidence but Pyu stone inscriptions have been unearthed here. Now the Department of Culture has appointed a restoration team and barred people from excavating around these archaeological sites,” he added.

According to local residents, there are 27 cave temples in Myingun area plus remnants of pagodas. Just like they said, I spotted piles of bricks all over the area.  The brickwork on the ceiling of the porches of many ancient cavetemples in Myingun comes in as many shapes as their builders wanted. The style of the ceiling brickwork looks like that of ancient temples in Sri Kestra. 

The outer stuccoed walls of most of the temples in Myingun have peeled off, and so have most of the interior murals. Faded murals are still visible inside temple No 1, 2, and 3.  Ruins of ogres and manussihas (man lions) lie scattered everywhere.For the rest of the temples, stuccoson the outer walls have fallen away, exposing the brickwork. Locals call them ‘red [brick] temples’.

“According to historical records, Myingun used to be a major commercial hub in ancient times. Now you will see broken bricks at the entrance to the village, themselves remnants of the city walls. Back in those days, even a person selling honeycombed griddle cake could build a pagoda so there’s a pagoda named Mote Paung Pagoda here. There’s also a pagoda called Kun Nyi Naung built by two brothers that sold betel nuts. Our elders said that both Bagan and Myingun have the same number of temples and pagodas.  I have learnt that the original number of pagodas and temples in Bagan can be counted based on the saying ‘hlae win yoe than ta nyan nyan, Bagan payar paung’ while those in Myingyan can be counted based on the saying ‘shwe la tar wah wah win’. According to these sayings, you can say there were 444,444 pagodas and temples in Myingyan. But only a few pagodas and temples remain intact while the rest of them lie in ruins,” said Thu Sara, chief abbot of the Mandalay Monastery in Myingun.

The 100 Pillars Monastery. (Photo – EMG)

Most of the pagodas and temples in Myingun are similar in style to those in Bagan, particularly the Ngar Myat Nar Cave temple, which looks very much like the Ananda Temple in Bagan although it is not as big and tall as the latter. Another pagoda built on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River looks just like Bu Pagoda in Bagan.

Besides ancient pagodas, Myingunis also home to many monasteries. There used to be 14 monasteries in Myingun, but now nine of them still stand. Among them, the 100 Pillars Monastery located in the Mandalay Monastery compound particularly catches my attention.As its title suggests, the hall with a tiered roof, the main hall, and the veranda are supported by 100 massive teak pillars. Since part of the hall has collapsed, there are only 90 pillars left. Although the monastery was built with 100 pillars, they were not sunk into the ground but only placed on a concrete base. Two brick staircases lie on the right side of the monastery, with sandstones laid out in square shapes on top of the brickwork.

Most of the Myingun residents are farmers who cultivate mainly sesame, maize, beansand vegetables on the farmlands and sandbanks at low tide. Despite agriculture being a major source of livelihood, tourism is now the lifeblood of the city, which offers easy access to another tourist destination Beikthano, one of the ancient World-Heritage Pyu cities.