Palaces of Impermanence

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 30 December 2012

At first glance, the Norman Monastery in Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township is a sight to behold. Supported by more than a hundred teak pillars and made almost entirely of the coveted, carefully oil-treated lumber, the 124-year-old structure sprawls along a plot of land nearly 200 feet (61 meters) long and 100 feet wide. Its facade is partly embellished with a traditional Myanmar motif of entwined tendrils, while its tiered roof is decorated with pinnacles and its gables are adorned with exquisite wooden carvings.

Step inside, however, and this first impression of dignified solidity quickly vanishes. When it rains, the roof leaks. The floors creak under the slightest pressure, and through a louver window with a missing hinge, you can see a pinnacle dangling like a fractured lance. The early evening light penetrates broken panes of stained glass, painting abstract patterns on the rust-colored robes of the monks who move through the gloom inside.

Called the Norman Monastery after a school that originally occupied the land where it now stands, this stilted building became a pongyi kyaung, or place of learning for Buddhist monks, in 1888, two years after Britain established colonial rule over the whole of Myanmar. Although it remains a proud reminder of the enduring devotion of the people of this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation to their native faith, it also attests to the Buddha’s teaching of anicca, or impermanence.

While there has been a growing movement in Yangon to preserve the unique architectural legacy of the colonial era, so far precious little has been done to protect the monasteries that for centuries have served as repositories of traditional craftsmanship. All over the former capital, age-old monasteries housing hundreds of monks are left to face the elements and the depredations of time, defended only by the efforts of their inhabitants and the generosity of donors.

This is not to say, however, that the need to do something for these noble structures has gone entirely unnoticed.

“Old monasteries are also on our protection list, and we are currently making an inventory of them,” said Daw Moe Moe Lwin, an acting director from Yangon Heritage Trust, a newly founded NGO trying to preserve the best architectural remnants of Myanmar’s past.

But monasteries are not a top priority for the group—ironically, because they are already entrusted to the care of the communities that have long supported them.

“Generally, religious buildings have trustees to take care of their maintenance, so they are somewhat safe from serious deterioration or demolition, unlike some other ancient buildings,” said Daw Moe Moe Lwin.

Those who must manage the upkeep of monasteries know, however, that there are limits to what can be done with the resources their supporters provide.

“We’ve been struggling on our own to maintain the monastery little by little,” said U Tezita, the caretaker monk of the Norman Monastery. “Given to the huge size of the building, we don’t dare to think about an overall restoration. It would be a Herculean task!”

For years, the 60-year-old monk and U Vicittasara, the abbot of the monastery, have managed to preserve their building with tiny cash donations from well-wishers.

“We can only do it once a year because we don’t have many donors to pay for repairs,” said the 84-year-old abbot. Every year, they have to make a list of priorities. “We have to decide what to repair and what to neglect, depending on the amount of money we receive,” he said.

“If our budget is only enough to replace a sheet of corrugated tin, that’s what we do,” the monk explained.

Yangon’s exceptionally wet climate makes the the job of maintenance much more difficult. The city receives on average of 103 inches (261.6 cm) of rain a year—far more than the roughly 40 inches (101.6 cm) that fall on more arid parts of the country.

“Rain is a big problem for this building as the roof is now very ramshackle,” said U Tezita. “The water streams down from the ridge pole, causing rafters and other parts of the building to fall into decay over time.”

Maha Mingalar Bon Kyaw Monastery, located near the famous reclining Buddha of the Chauk Htet Gyi Pagoda in Bahan Township, is another fine example of traditional monastery architecture, but sadly, it is also much diminished compared to its former glory. Still popularly known as the “Hundred Pillar Monastery,” the 124-year-old structure no longer lives up to that name.

“I had no choice. I had to get government permission to have some of the pillars removed. The only alternative was to pull down the whole building,” said U Ottara, the abbot of the monastery, explaining why its southern wing and dozens of supporting pillars were removed for safety reasons. Last year, the annex, which had begun to lean dangerously, was declared unfit for human habitation.

In 1998, Myanmar’s then ruling junta issued the Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Regions Law, which makes it a serious crime—punishable by up to five years in prison—to structurally alter ancient monuments and other historically and culturally important edifices. So far, however, the government has done little in the way of actively preserving old monasteries.

“We have been entirely donor-reliant for ages,” said the 76-year-old U Ottara, echoing a refrain heard at monasteries around the city.

Technically, at least, monasteries that are 100 or more years old are entitled to the same status and protection as other heritage sites. In practice, however, they are not usually given the recognition they deserve.

“Yes, they should be listed, and as a matter of fact, we are collecting data on old monasteries. But even if we do recognize them, we’re not sure if we will be able to support the preservation of all of them, because we just don’t have the funds,” said a senior official from the Archeology Department in Yangon.

“The best we can do is educate people living nearby about the cultural value of these sites, and ask them to cooperate with conservation efforts,” he added.

While the situation in Yangon is particularly severe, it is far from unique. Most of the country’s monasteries built in the late 19th or early 20th century are falling into disrepair, often resulting in a decision to tear down old buildings and replace them with cheaper, easier to maintain structures.

“The abbots and donors say it’s just too expensive to pay for the upkeep of older monasteries. That’s why they feel it’s better to just build new ones,” says Hsu Nget, a well-known writer who has called on Myanmar’s media to highlight the need to reverse this growing trend.

As a native of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city and home to some of the handful of old monasteries that have been carefully preserved for posterity, Hsu Nget believes that much more can be done to ensure that these unique examples of traditional Myanmar architecture aren’t lost forever.

“We need to let people know that these monasteries are in urgent need of conservation. We could learn a lot from countries like Cambodia about how to preserve our national heritage.”

In the end, Myanmar Buddhists’ reverence for their religion and traditions will not be enough to save their places of worship. Indeed, in some ways, Buddhist customs could even hasten the decline of monasteries from a bygone era.

According to U Silacara, a 33-year-old monk from the Norman Monastery, many donors are reluctant to give money to maintain monasteries built by an earlier generation of merit-makers. “Most would rather build a new one that they can put their names on. It’s no wonder that our monastery is in a sorry state.”

But even monks who feel duty-bound to do everything possible to spare their monasteries from preventable deterioration feel that it’s best not to cling too much to vestiges of the past.

“I would feel bad if something happened to the monastery,” said U Vicittasara, the Norman Monastery abbot. “But at the same, if it deteriorates beyond repair, I know I will have to let it go, because all things are impermanent.”

This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.