16 March 2016

Meglomaniacs and Monuments

...'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'... 
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

The preening and braying of the megalomaniacal have been well documented in stone and brick, concrete and steel from times Classical and Egyptian to Modern and Bombastic. Neither the so-called barbarous past nor the equally so-called civilized present have had a monopoly on the erecting of egotistical edifices. Indeed, for as long as there has been building, men (and men are the main offenders here) have been squandering their lands' resources -- human and otherwise -- in grand structures of self-adoration.

In the year of George Washington's first State of the Union address (1790), King Bodawpaya, sixth king of the Third Burmese Empire, began his vain-glory project at Mingun. Just a short eight years before, Bodawpaya had gained the crown by disposing his nephew. Sounds like a relatively mild transition, and this is the impression that one would have if your only source for history was Wikipedia. But dig deeper one must if one wants to get closer to the truth of things. In fact, Bodawpaya had his entire family -- men, women, children, babes in arms -- and their servants burned alive. Realize that Burmese princes and kings in those days had many consorts and consequently tens if not hundreds of children. (Bodawpaya himself had 62 sons and 58 daughters by about 200 consorts.) Therefore, we are speaking of an unspeakable number of relatives executed. So much blood was shed that he abandoned his palace at Ava (south of Mandalay) fearing that it had come under an evil spell. It had of course. One generated by him. Regardless, he shortly there after began a massive stupa and pagoda building program in order to acquire enough karma to ease his way to nirvana.

Bodawpaya was a fervent Buddhist who proclaimed himself the messianic Buddha destined to conquer the world. In this self-anointed capacity he ran a-foul of and set about persecuting the Buddhist community at large. He also made drinking, smoking opium, and killing animals punishable by death. Oh, and he built many pagodas and stupas.

In addition -- as every megalomaniac with power must do -- he had other peoples and lands to conquer. To the west he quickly toppled the Arakan empire and enslaved tens of thousands of people to labor on his grand karma-building scheme. He then looked east, got greedy and invaded Siam. However, the Thai warriors (or their leadership) were of a different caliber and Bodawpaya was chased back across his borders, to eventually start his mega-stupa project at Mingun.

Located a mere 11 kilometers from the royal capitol of Mandalay, the otherwise insignificant village of Mingun became the center of the Burmese world for seven years. Tens of thousands of unfortunates slaved away trying to fashion what would have been the largest stupa in the world. (A stupa is a reliquary monument.) The planned height was to be 500 feet but in 1797 one of Bodawpaya's astrologers proclaimed: "Once the great pagoda has been wrought, the dynasty will come to naught." Likely this "revelation" was fashioned in order to prevent the empire from further descending into catastrophic debt (vast sums of silver had been expended) as well as to quell a growing, restless population, tired of toiling for one man's karma. The stupa was left unfinished, a giant, 150 foot tall crumbling pile of bricks periodically rocked and fissured by earthquakes -- including a particularly vicious one in 1839, which also toppled the heads of the two gigantic royal chinthes (lion-like creatures) into the Irrawaddy River.

In a way, the prophecy of that nameless astrologer eventually came true. Bodawpaya's annexing of Arakan put the Burmese next door to India and the then expanding British Empire. Over the next 60-plus years, increasing friction between the cultures led to two wars and finally a third Anglo-Burmese War that Burma was never foretold to win. In 1886 Burma disappeared as a country not to re-surface until both the Japanese were defeated and the British packed up and went home: 1948.

Today, with a new president taking office and the military hopefully in permanent decline from political power, Burma -- since renamed Myanmar -- is a peaceful land to tour. Its widespread and impressive monuments are there for the exploring and viewing. Its history a more or less open book. 

Megalomaniacs come and go, varying by their relative degrees of atrociousness, but united in their solipsism. We never seem to stop spawning them as power and desire are an intoxicating and bewitching brew, especially so for those with no sense of history and a every sense of self. Trust too that today's Bodawpayas will bray and preen, conquer and build, eventually to go the way of all, with perhaps a monument or two for future travelers to wander through and photograph.

... Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Irrawaddy River Approach to Mingun
Rump-end of Earthquake-Damaged Chinthe
Entrance to the One Extant Shrine of Mingun Pahtodawgyi
Earthquake Damage of Bodawpaya's Stupa
South Facade of Bodawpaya's Stupa (Mingun Pahtodawgyi)
More Earthquake Damage
West Facade
Panorama View from Top of Ruined, Incomplete Stupa

The Irrawaddy River and the Rear Ends of Damaged Chinthes
Photo-Ops for Monks
Monks Just Wanna Have Fun, Too