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Mandalay’s Timber Treasure

The Irrawaddy ...

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RANGOON — In Mandalay, a city known as “the cultural heart of Burma,” visitors are often quickly enthralled by the maze of Buddhist temples and centuries-old monasteries. With nearly every looming pagoda calling for attention, it can be difficult for tourists to choose a starting point.

Sir James George Scott, a British civil servant who spent 35 years in Burma during colonial times, offered a suggestion more than a century ago in his 1882 book, “The Burman: His Life and Notions.”

“To see the really gorgeous ecclesiastical buildings, one must journey to Mandalay,” he wrote. “There, Kyaung-daw-gyi, the Royal Monastery, is the most striking collection of edifices of their kind to be seen in the world.”

The 19th century timber monastery at the foot of Mandalay Hill is known by a few names: Shwe Kyaung, Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung Monastery and Kyaung-daw-gyi, all of which translate to the Golden Palace Monastery. It was first built within the king’s royal chamber of the Mandalay Palace complex.

Originally covered with gold leaf and glass mosaics, the building is known for the intricate wood carvings on its walls and roofs that show Buddhist myths. “The huge posts are gilt all over, or covered with a red lacquer; the eaves and gables represent all kinds of fantastic and grotesque figures,” Scott noted. In this building, King Mindon, one of the country’s most revered ancient monarchs, died in 1878.

Under his successor, King Thibaw, the building was moved to its current site outside of the Mandalay Palace moat, where it was turned into a monastery. During World War II, aerial bombardment destroyed most of the historical buildings inside the Mandalay Palace complex, leaving the Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung Monastery as the only remaining original structure from the 19th century palace.

In 1996, Burma’s Archaeological Department submitted the monastery for inclusion on Unesco’s World Heritage List, where it remains under consideration by the UN body.

Last month, the US government announced that the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation would join hands with Burma’s Ministry of Culture to preserve the centuries-old monastery. US Ambassador Derek Mitchell said the World Monument Fund, based in Washington, would implement the US$500,000 project, adding that the project would also include training in preservation techniques for Burmese officials and craftsmen.

“This is an original and still remarkable monument. We looked at a lot of different options, but we just felt that this is the good place to start,” Mitchell said.

“It represents not just a wooden monastery, but it has a connection to the imperial era and is worth preserving as it has deep historical relevance.”

The Irrawaddy reporter Zarni Mann contributed to this report from Mandalay.