At ‘Custom Mountain,’ an Abbot Fights to Protect Ancient Carvings

Lawi Weng The Irrawaddy

Htonbo Township — A British colonial customs office once stood here on a mountain beside the Irrawaddy River, levying taxes on teak ships and other boats heading south. The office is no longer here, but the hundreds of ancient Buddha images that remain, carved into the rock, are at risk of being lost due to a lack of help maintaining them.

The site in Irrawaddy Division is known as Akauktaung, Payar Ta Htang, or “Custom Mountain, a thousand Buddhas,” after the use of the site by the British and the religious carvings.

The rocky mountain rises steeply at the side of the river, on the boundary between Irrawaddy and Pegu divisions. Buddha figures of varying sizes, reclining and sitting, are carved out of the rock, some painted or adorned with gold leaf. It is thought the carvings were made as long as 2,000 years ago by traders passing the mountain.

Sayardaw U Pyin Nyar Depa, the abbot who tries to look after the site, told the Irrawaddy that only about 400 Buddha carvings remain since the mountain is prone to landslides, which have destroyed a number of them over time.

The abbot said he was disappointed that although the Ministry of Culture has deemed the area a heritage site worthy of preservation, it has not provided assistance to his efforts to maintain the Buddha carvings in the face of threats to their survival.

“Please tell the Ministry of Culture. All the Buddha images will be destroyed if there is no maintenance for a long time,” said Sayardaw U Pyin Nyar Depa.

He had been maintaining the carvings for some 25 years with the help of other monks, he said, but he was worried that he could not do enough to save them.

“[The Ministry of Culture] just told me not to paint color onto Buddha images. But they did not give any help to maintain the site,” he said.

Custom Mountain at present attracts some tourists, who are offered free vegetarian food by the abbot. But Sayardaw U Pyin Nyar Depa said he was working on constructing a pathway to enable more tourists to visit the carvings.

The area is also the native land of Thakin Mya, a Burmese independence leader who was one of the seven ministers assassinated in 1947 at Rangoon’s Secretariat building, including Gen Aung San.

The mountain hosts a two-day festival at the full moon of Buddhist Lent in July, attended by residents from Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions, according to tour guide Hla Min.

“A lot of people attend the festival. It is good, but there are some people who get drunk and make problems sometimes,” said Hla Min

Hla Min said more and more visitors were coming to the area of late. Tourists can hire a boat at a cost of 15,000 kyat, or about $16, for a trip to reach the site and view the carvings from the river.