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November 18, 2018

The Legend and archaeology of Mei La Mu Pagoda

Maha Saddhamma Jotika dhaja
Sithu Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt

A sprawling metropolitan city of Yangon is amazingly surrounded by a multitude of old and new religious monuments in and around. In North Okkalapa Town, there sits one religious monument which attracts pilgrims and tourists near and far, in the booming tourism industry of the country.
In its vast precints, pagodas and buildings bear modernity in all aspects but the legend, archaeology, and history of the discovery of the pagoda take you back far into the remote past and beyond.
Where the present Mei La Mu Pagoda stands, there used to be an old ruined pagoda with a big Nabe tree growing right in its centre. This strange phenomenon inspired some pious passersby to pay homage to it. One of them was a lady named Daw Saw Nyunt Yee who paid frequent visits to this ruined pagoda which at that time was commonly called “Hpaya Ngote Toh” (bk&m;ikwfwdk) Short Stump Pagoda. During one of her visits in 1959, her younger brother climbed up to the summit of the ruined pagoda, and by chance, he discovered an old casket with a statue of a young lady inside it. On examination of this discovery by the Archaeology Department it was confirmed that the statue belonged to the past 400 to 500 years and judging by the hair style, dress and jewellery, the statue lady was of high social rank.
More excavation and restoration works at the site and ruined pagoda unearthed many artifacts of antiquity such as Buddha Statues of different postures and gestures, images of the Celestial King Sakka Deva [Thunder god], a hermit, a Naga Serpent King, and a lady sitting on the fruit of La Mu Tree, a pagoda composed of rings of stone, super-imposed one on top of the other in the tapering design of a pagoda spire. Two rings of stone have inscribed Burmese numbers 1 and 2. The rest, each has a letter of the first fourteen letters of Burmese alphabet in order, beginning with the first letter Ka-gyi (u) and ending with the fourteenth Hta Wun Bei (X). So far no expert should interpret their meaning.
However, by the strongest of coincidences, in 1958, just a year before the discovery of this stone ringed pagoda, the Government built a new satellite town of North Okkalapa, around the place where the Mei La Mu Pagoda stands. The residential quarters of this new settlement had already been named exactly like inscribed markings on the rings of stone on this pagoda. Two residential quarters named No.1 and No.2 and fourteen neighbourhoods were named after the first fourteen letters of Burmese alphabet from Ka-gyi (u) to Hta Wun Bei (X). The streets of this town were given names in Pali, taken from the Jatakas, Buddha’s birth stories.
About the mysterious Lady statue in the casket which was discovered on the top of Hpaya, Ngok Toh, investigation through legends and classical literature of other ancient pagodas revealed that the Lady was identical [with the exception of her hand gesture], with the statue of Mei La Mu, just below the statue of the Celestial King Sakka Deva [Thunder god] on the edge of the upper terrace of Shwe Dagon Pagoda south west of the spire. Thus a consensus was reached that this Hpaya Ngok Toh and Shwe Dagon Pagoda must have some kind of historical association and that the lady statue in the casket was undoubtedly representative of Mei La Mu.
The Legend of Shwedagon Pagoda has it that Mei La Mu was conceived in a big fruit of La Mu Tree. La Mu and Nabe trees are some of timber trees which flourish in Myanmar mangroves in Lower Myanmar and coast lines. Out of that Immaculate Conception, a beautiful girl was born, who was adopted by a hermit named Tisa. When she grew up into an exceptionally beautiful lady, the hermit wanted to get rid of her, as it was against Viniya religious disciplines to keep a female in the hermitage. Whereupon, Sakka Deva, assuming a human handsome young man came to the hermit and asked him to marry him to the lady. Because she was born out of La Mu Fruit she became known as Mei La Mu [madam La Mu] For two reasons the hermit and the Sakka deva arranged that marriage. Firstly, to raise the social status of Lady Mei La Mu. Secondly, they foresaw that a son born of Sakka Deva and Lady Mei La Mu would become king of Okkalappa Kingdom. He would enshrine eight hair relics of Lord Gotama Buddha, brought by two merchant brothers Taphusa and Balika in the old pagoda on the summit of Singuttara Hill in which the relics of the previous three Buddhas were enshrined and King Okkalappa would thus promote Buddhism in the country. All these came about in history. To-day, on the southside of Shwedagon Pagoda is a building with Buddha Statues in it. On its facades are decorative arts and a statue of Sakka Deva holding a naked baby boy, representing father Sakka Deva and his baby son future King Okkalappa. That statue especially the naked baby has become a well known wish-fulfilling icon for those married couples who want son. They pay special offerings including gold gilding and say special prayer to get a son. When prayers are answered and wishes are fulfilled they come back with their baby sons and make more offerings to the statue of naked baby son. This belief is quite wide spread—many foreign wishers come to believe it. We are familiar with the story of Sujata, the daughter of a wealthy man in Senagama village who came to offer concentrated milk rice to the Banyan Tree’s god [Yokasoe] because her wish and prayer made to that Tree god yokasoe was fulfilled as she now got a baby boy. At that time Bodhisattha [future Buddha Gotama] was seated cross-legged meditating under that Banyan Tree. When Sujuta saw him, she thought that he was tree god of that Banyan Tree, so she reverently offered her milk rice in a gold container. The Bodhisattha accepted and partook the milk rice and let go the gold container in the river.
Thus Hpaya Ngote Toh has now become Mei La Mu Pagoda of world renown. Reconstructions, development, renovation and maintenance works are constantly being carried out, with public donation of cash and kind, since 1959. Over 44 major religious monuments are found on its vast precinct. They are all painted and aglitter gold plates and glass mosaic.
Mei La Mu Pagoda is well known far and wide. It is a place of worship for pilgrims, a sight for tourists, also a haven of rest for those who want to shun the madding crowd of metropolitan city Yangon.


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