Manuha is about captivity

The Manuha temple is one of the earliest in Bagan. Tradition says that it was built at the behest of Manuha, a king taken captive by the founder of the Bagan kingdom, Anawrahta.Seated Buddha in the Manuha temple in Bagan The most memorable thing about this boxy-looking temple is how cramped all four Buddha images are. There is space for just about one person to move in front of the images.

There are three images of the seated Buddha facing the entrance. For some reason we walked to the back first and saw the image of the reclining Buddha shown in the featured photo. The perspective makes it look enormous. Near the foot of the statue is a flight of stairs which takes you up to a point where you are supposed to get a good view of the face. On this day, having come across so many broken stairs, we were not inclined to climb.

We walked to the front to see the other images. These look even more imposing: you stand right at the feet of the Buddha, with no space even to throw your head back. The story is that the architecture is designed like the prison the captive king found himself in. The temple is so closely associated with captivity in the Burmese mind, that the first thing which Aung San Suu Kyi did after her release was to come here to pray.

Images of the king and queen in the Manuha temple in Bagan

It is easy to miss two small but well-dressed statues in a little alcove off to the side. These are images of king Manuha and his wife, queen Ningaladevi. Manuha was the king of the Mon kingdom Thaton. It is said that he was captured because he refused to give Anawrahta a copy of the Tripitaka, a book of Buddhist teaching. His defeat and capture brought to Bagan many Mon crafsmen and artisans and was important in the development of the Bagan style of architecture. It is likely that the temple structure is small because the captive king had no money to pay for a grander structure.

Aung San Suu Kiy

There can hardly be a foreign visitor to Myanmar who has not heard of Aung San Suu Kiy and her long-drawn and courageous fight against a military dictatorship. Even before she won a Nobel prize, people were beginning to compare her peaceful battle with Nelson Mandela’s. Every tourist here knew about her long house arrest. I’d read accounts of people trying to walk past her house and not exactly feeling comfortable about it. It is completely different now, of course.

Gate of Aung San Suu Kyi's house

Every local I talked to had a very high regard for the General Aung San’s daughter. On my last day in Yangon, I told my day’s guide, Ne Lin, that I was looking forward to seeing the house where she had been under arrest for a couple of decades. We drove there. I stood on the road and looked at the bland walls and the gate with her party’s flags, surmounted by a photo of her father. Nothing happened. Eventually a man in a longyi walked past (featured photo). Soon a little door in the gate opened and someone peeped out (photo above). The door closed, and again nothing happened. We decided that we had soaked in the atmosphere of this place which was once a prison, and we could leave. Tourists do strange things.

An ambiguous sight

Myanmar had existential problems for many years. Now with the new government trying hard to create a modern state within its existing borders, different ethnic groups are perhaps coming together. That’s a long-winded way to lead in to the featured photo.

I saw this old lady selling fruits at a temple in Bagan, famous for being the first temple which was visited by the newly freed Aung San Suu Kiy a few years ago. I thought that the lady looked like she had an unusually long neck. Perhaps she was Kayan, one of the group of Karen people who were displaced in the 1980s due to an ethnic uprising against the government of Myanmar. A large fraction of Kayans became refugees in Thailand.

The most well-known fact about Kayan people is the neck rings which the women wear traditionally. This pushes down their collar bones and is supposed to give them a longer neck. Without the rings, it was not clear whether this lady was Kayan. I strongly suspect that she is, but I did not want to ask.

Lack of development gives rise to many conflicts. A far-sighted leader can sometimes end these conflicts by a mixture of pragmatism and generosity. We have seen this work in parts of India (and not work in other parts). As we travel in Myanmar and meet so many extremely friendly and generous people, we hope that Myanmar is now about to get lucky.