The caves of Myanmar

Nathamee YetKannSin / angels’ loom 1985 with Aung Ko Oo

HsinChiTaing and MyinnChiTaing 1998

Nathamee YetKannSin / angels’ loom 2000

ThuDaNu prince slaying the spider which captured the angels April 2008

I have been writing “The limestone caves of Myanmar” for some time and the progress has been slow. The topic covers many limestone caves that I have been to and heard about and it will be a long time before I finish this. I now have the notion to change the heading to a broader “The caves of Myanmar” so as to include sandstone and other caves, including the constructed ones (Gu Phayars / cave temples). This will make finishing this topic a very difficult one so I will post the first part after I finish the Pindaya Shwe U-Min HlaingGu cave and post more as I progress.

Narga Setkyar Mahar Wingabar HlaingNgu TawGyi

Recently, I saw on MRTV-4 the Narga Setkyar Mahar Wingabar HlaingNgu TawGyi in PatheinGyi township near Htonebo quarry. It was found and is being developed by the MyaKyauk Sayardaw. The path to the cave is still a trail and the descent into the cave is lined by bamboo handrails and there are only a few Buddha statutes inside near the cave opening. The cave is a long one and the MRTV-4 group did not go beyond the pool of water which lies across the cave. From the commentary, there seems to be more of the cave on the other side of the water although it was not shown.

The cave contains marvelous stalactites, both from above and below and also a few stalactite pillars. There is also a KyaukMauung (hollow / resonant rock) on the wall at one place. The cave’s length was not mentioned and there seems to be an opening on the side at one place and the air does not seem to be deficient of oxygen as evident by the well lighted candles along the side and the absence of labored breathing of the group.

The cave is not near villages and is still unspoilt yet, but as the cave is now being developed as a Buddhist place of worship, archeology will be impossible unless the Archeology department acts quickly.

There was development of the PeikChinnMyaung cave beyond PyinOoLwin around 1990s. The eastern Yoma is a limestone structure and there will be many more large unspoilt caves in the Shan plateau and the Kayah and Karen States and these might contain evidence of Stone Age hunter gatherers. The Padalin cave is not likely to be the only one where human inhabitation occurred.

KyatGu

When I was young, I read an article in one of the magazines, the Shumawa, Myawaddy or NgweTarYi, about a KyatGu which contained coffins as far as one could go inside. I later saw on tv and the internet, caves in China and the Philippines that are used as burial places; one high up on the cliff beside a stream and people had to go up by using pulleys. The KyatGu has always been on my mind and I want to visit it but do not know whether the article is true or not and also where the cave is situated.

KyeePaSat

The first cave I have been to is the KyeePaSat cave at KyaikHtiYoe pagoda. It is not far from the KyaikHtiYoe pagoda and most pilgrims to the KyaikHtiYoe pagoda get to it. The cave lies beneath the KyeePaSat opening on the top of the rock into which people throw coins. The cave is small and can accommodate only about 6 persons and is supposed to reach the Sittaung river but I do not remember having gone inside for any memorable distance in the 4 times I have been from 1965 to 1999.

Pindaya Shwe U-Min HlaingGu

I got to the Pindaya Shwe U-Min HlaingGu cave the first time in 1970 summer with my friends on the trip to Kalaw, ShweNyaung and Taunggyi. We hired a jeep from Kalaw and went there on a day trip. I always stay at Kalaw and go there through Aungban where the road to Pindaya branches inside the town. The restaurant near the road junction is good. There is also a good food shop which serves KhaukHswe, ToHuu, AhKyaws, Mohingha, tea, coffee, etc., before the road intersection to Pindaya.

Beyond Aungban, there is a place with many pine trees where many movie scenes are shot. Before reaching Pindaya, there is a side road which joins the Yangon – Mandalay highway and one which passes by the Padalin cave where there are wall paintings and artifacts of people who lived 10,000 years ago.

I had always thought that the  Pindaya Shwe U-Min HlaingGu cave lies north of Pindaya but it was only recently that I learned that it is south to the town. The road to Pindaya must have entered it from the south and I remember passing the town and getting around the BokeTaLoke lake to reach the Pindaya Shwe U-Min HlaingGu cave which lies outside the town. On my last visit there in 2007, there is now a road bypassing Pindaya town and reaches the Pindaya Shwe U-Min HlaingGu cave directly.

There are large Nyaung / Banyan trees on the road to the cave which are unlike any Nyaung / Banyan tree I have known elsewhere. This area is the place where local pilgrims stay during the pagoda festivals. The road climbs the hillside and there is a parking lot near the southernmost of the 3 caves which is the largest and the main cave. On my last visit in 2007, there stands a large spider statute and the price who is aiming his bow and arrow at the spider. Local legend says that the NatThamees / female angels bathed at the BokeTaLoke / PoneTaLoke lake and one day, the spider caught them and kept them in the cave. They were rescued by the ThuDaNu prince who slayed the spider.

The main cave contains a stupa / SayTi near the entrance. It is supposed to be built by king Asoka / ThriDhammar ArThawKa MinnGyi and rebuilt by king AhLaung Sithu. There are over 8000 Buddha statutes in the cave and the earliest ones dates from the late 18th centuary AD, according to specialists, from the Buddha images. There is no evidence of earlier times. Only the Buddha images from the early KoneBaung period to modern times.

The cave opening was enlarged during the early 20th centuary and some Buddha images near the entrance were damaged. The Buddha TaTaung is a teak pillar composed of 4 planks on which was sculptured 1140 Buddha images. There is a maze of Buddha images near the main stupa. The Yadanar Muni standing Buddha statute has been adorned with rings on the fingers. There are 2 ChwayHtwet KoTaws / HnitHsu of sandstone sitting Buddha images that are coated with ThitSay / SitSay / laquer which have moisture on the surface from seepage or maybe condensation of atmospheric air.

From the cave entrance, there is a tunnel which goes 290 feet into the hill. It was formed by the water flow in ancient times inside the limestone. The eastern Yoma (Shan plateau, Kayah, Karen, Mon and the Thanintharyi) became land 230 – 210 million years BP (before present) so the limestones were formed under the seabed a long time earlier. The tunnel is quite large and over 10 feet high. It is here that I saw stalectites for the first time in my life. There are both KyaukSet PannSwe and KyaukSet MoeHmyaw and even those that have met and are now a large pillar KyaukSetTaing / stallectite pillar which is estimated to be 200 m. years age.

The KyaukSet MoeHmyaw Ceti (stupa) is near a stallectite post.

There are HsinChiTaing and MyinnChiTaing at one place. I was asked how elephants could enter the cave and the answer is that those with supernatural powers can bring elephants inside. There is also the question of how elephants could climb up to the cave entrance, let alone get inside.

On the wall at one place are KyaukSi KyaukMauung, where there were poles to strike them to make sounds. But they have been removed about 2 years ago on the advice of the specialist who said that the vibrations can damage the tunnel and one cannot demonstrate it anymore.

One place is called the Nathamee YetKannSin / angels’ loom. The wall is shaped like a loom at that place.

There is also a small bridge on the path at one place although there is no water underneath nowadays. There once was water and without the bridge no one could get inside. The place is called NatYayKan / angels’ pond. There is also a NatYayTwinn / angels’ well.

The tunnel ends at 290 ft from the entrance. The legend is that it once connects with the HgnetPyitTaung tunnel in Bagan and that it is now closed by the lime.

MoTaWa Gu

It was also during my Kalaw Taunggyi trip with my friends in 1970 that I got to the MoTaWa Gu at Taunggyi for the first time, thanks to our friend San Lin who got there ahead of us. I got there again in either of the 1998 and 2000 trips (I am uncertain which trip it was) with my family but the MoTaWa Gu was very different from the earlier visit.

We stayed in Kalaw for a few days during which we went to the house of a son of a Sawbwa / SaoPha who was a friend of Nyunt Than’s family. We were invited to dinner and we went there again.

We visited this house during our walk around the town and it was in the part on the west side but I do not remember exactly. He lived there with his sisters and they all were around 40 – 50 at the time. Their dining table was a circular one and had a rotating centre piece and it was the first time I have seen such a dining table. During our talk before dinner, we mentioned about our walk to MyinTaik the nearest railway station in the direction of Thazi. We went there accompanying U Tun Aung, a friend of my father who was also having a vacation in Kalaw. He is a great walker and walks or bicycles whenever he can, rather than take a ride in a car, and even goes bicycling to distant towns by himself or with his friends (his bicycling story was portrayed in the Shwe Thway children journal around 1980s). He (our host) then told us not to enter the old mines near Kalaw if we ever get there as it has not been in use a long time and would be dangerous. Although man made, it would be like a tunnel and a long cave. We did not get there as U Tun Aung has returned.

Our group consisted of 6 classmates attending the 1st M.B. at the time and we stayed in an empty railways quarters on the hill near the Kalaw station, eating at the station Htamin Hsaing / food shop. We came from Rangoon by train as the 3 of us got free railways pass as my (my elder brother Khine Soe is also my classmate) father and the father of Min Lwin worked in the Railways. After Kalaw, we went to stay overnight in a room at the NyaungShwe station, visiting InnLay.

Then we went to Taunggyi and stayed at the Haw / Sawbwa’s house of our Kalaw dinner host. It was in HawKone and having meals was a problem as there were no food shops nearby so we had to walk a long way to the main road and then take a bus ride to the market where there were restaurants and food shops. While there, we met another friend San Lin, who was attending the Rangoon Institute of Technology (he and all 6 of us were Paulians, who passed the 10th Standard from the SHS 6 Botataung in 1969; we were classmates since our 4th – 6th Standards; I met Chit Sein and Percy / Tin Myint in 4th Standard, Nyunt Than, Min Lwin and San Lin in the 6th Standard). San Lin was in Taunggyi, visiting his father who was an engineer in the Construction Corporation / Public Works Department. His father told us not to follow his son. His words were: “do not follow that AhYuu / lunatic”.

However, San Lin had already told us he would take us to the MoTaWa Gu near WaPyarr. From his house (it was his father’s quarters) we took the bus (actually, it was a Ranger Hino truck converted for public transport as a Taunggyi city bus by the RTC, Road Transport Corporation) to the terminal near the Taunggyi College. It was at WaPyarr and from there we had to walk a long time to reach the cave.

There were several Buddha statutes at the opening of the cave and several people taking care of the the MoTaWa PhaYarr / pagoda. We donated cash for an hour’s lighting and went inside after paying homage to the Buddha statute. The cave was about 12 feet in diameter near the opening, but got smaller as we went inside but could walk upright most of the way although we had to go in one after another. At one point, there is a hole in the floor with a stairs and we climbed down about 10 feet to find another tunnel. This one had flowing water and ended after a short distance. I do not remember going in both directions so maybe the other end began near the ladder’s foot. There were several other visitors around there and we had much difficulty passing one another in tight places. We climbed up the stairs and continued along the main passage again.

The wall electric bulbs lighted the tunnel until we reached a small Buddha statute. Here, the electricity light ended and we continued with our torches (we had only 2). The tunnel became smaller and we had to bend down and even crawl at one point but it became larger and we could walk again further inside. I was breathless from the effort and so were others too. After some distance, the tunnel opened up into a large cave and the torch lights could not reach the walls after a few feet. We tried lighting the candles but the matches did not light up. We knew the oxygen level was very low at the point. As we had only 2 torches for the 7 of us, we dared not go further and returned to the mouth cave and back to Taunggyi.

On my visits to the Southern Shan State in 1998 and 2000, I drove there myself and stayed at Kalaw and toured Pindaya, KoneLone and Loikaw in 1998, but only to the Pindaya in 2000 before going to Taunggyi. There, either in 1998 or the 2000, I inquired the way to the MoTaWa Gu and visited it again. This time we had to stop the car near a monastery and I walked to the MoTaWa Gu with my 2 sons. There was a steep climb down which seemed unfamiliar. The route seems to be a different one from the one we were taken along in 1970.

When we got to the MoTaWa Gu it was not as in 1970. There were no caretakers and apart from some boys playing there, the place was deserted. We entered the cave which was without any electricity and after entering a short distance, we came against a brick wall which closed the tunnel completely. Some disaster must have happened in the meantime so that the cave had been closed by the authorities. I had planned to explore the cave at least up to the place I had reached previously and had taken along torches. I returned very much disappointed.

Kawtgun cave

Kawtgun lies 45 miles northeast of Mawlamyaing and 12 miles southwest of Pa-an. There are numerous (thousands of) Buddha figurines including many on the 80 feet long wall. I got there in 1999 on my return from KyaikKhaMi, Setse after visiting Mawlamyaing through Pa-an via the new Mawlamyaing-Pa-an road over the new Attaran and Jyaing bridges. Although I had been to Mawlamyaing during my childhood, this was my first time to Pa-an. I had intended to go to ThaMaNya but on arrival at Pa-an, I heard that the Sayardaw had gone to Thailand and was not in ThaMaNya. We returned and visited the KyaikHtiYoe on the way back. I never reached the ThaMaNya as the Sayardaw passed away before I could make another trip that way again (I still have not visited there again).

The oldest of the Buddha statutes of Kawtgun are dated to be of 7th century A.D., although there are many of later dates. It would be contemporary with the Pyu (1st century BC to 9th century AD) and the Vesali / Waytharli (327 – 818 AD) of Rakhine. The Thuwunnabumi / Suvanabhumi is said to be located not far from Thaton near the present AhYetThaMa and TaikKaLarr villages. Suvanabhumi existed long before Buddha’s time in the 6th century B.C., as it is mentioned in the ZaNetKa Jataka that ZaNetKa went to Suvanabhumi across the seas to find wealth. ZaNetKa Jataka is one of the 10 previous human lives of Buddha and must be a very long time prior to the 6th century B.C. As Kawtgun is dated to be of 7th century A.D., it was established much later than the time when Suvannabhumi flourished.

There is a sandstone inscription in ancient Mon.

The larger statutes are of sandstone and the small ones on the walls are votive tablets. Some of the medium sized statutes on the walls are very similar in style to those at the AhKaukTaung at HtoneBo, near Pyay.

There is also a bamboo pole said to be more than 100 years old without putrefying.

The cave is a limestone cave as limestone is the main structure of the eastern yoma. Many caves of Myanmar are limestone caves as it is easily eroded by water which flows throught the cracks.

Hanthawaddy Kingdom, kingdom of the Mon people, who were powerful in Myanmar (Burma) from the 9th to the 11th and from the 13th to the 16th century and for a brief period in the mid-18th century. The Mon migrated southward from western China and settled in the Chao Phraya River basin (of southern Thailand) about the 6th century AD. Their early kingdoms, Dvaravati and Haripunjaya (qq.v.), had ties with the ancient Cambodian kingdom of Funan and with China and were also strongly influenced by Khmer civilization.

After the Mon moved westward into the Irrawaddy River delta of southern Myanmar in the ensuing centuries, they acquired Theravada Buddhism, their state religion, from Ceylon and South India, and they adopted the Indian Pali script. By 825 they had firmly established themselves in southern and southeastern Myanmar and founded the cities of Pegu and Thaton.

Kawtgun cave

to be continued later

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