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May 29, 2020

A Visit to Thaton

When the bus which left Yangon at 9 am arrived at the Sittoung Bridge, I woke from the light doze with a jolt. I looked at my watch to find that it was already 11 am. I, rubbing my eyes, glanced cursorily right and left down from the bus and saw some vestiges of the old Sittoung Bridge bombed during the Second World War on the right and turbid water flowing sluggishly under the bridge. I was aware that the landscape changed abruptly on the other side. Flat alluvial plains on both sides of the car road all the way were no longer seen. Instead, both sides of the road were laterite ridges covered with rubber plantations stretching away as far north as the forested Kyaikthiyoe Mountain standing vertiginous and green and as far south as the sea extending miles and miles. Our bus paused at Mupalin and we gulped our lunch down at one of the restaurants strung in a line on the road-side, fraught with hurrying passengers.  Then the bus continued on its journey.
We were now heading for Thaton, an ancient Mon city, to attend the Mon-Suvannabhumi Seminar and Workshop to be held at Thaton Computer University on 29 and 30 December under the auspices of the Mon State Government at the invitation of Saya U San Win, who was an authoritative Mon historian and part-time member of the Historical Commission. As the bus was shooting along the car-road which passed through Kyaikhto and Bilin Townships, the Kyaikhtiyoe Mountain, the Alan Taya Mountain, the Sakka Mountain, the Kusinara Mountain, etc on the right side of the road and the Kelasa Mountain, an isolated uplift, a little far distance on the left were being left behind kaleidoscopically. The mountains and the car-road were separated by a large stretch of low hills and ridges wooded sparsely in some places and thickly in others. Lush, green tropical trees and bushes growing wild were everywhere on the road-side far and near I looked at – along rolls of hill-locks, the mountain ranges, etc on the right and in chains of laterite ridges and gullies with a steep gradient lowering towards the sea on the left. This indicated that the Mon State called “Ramannadesa” (The Land of Ramans or Rmens or Mons)” was very fertile and enjoyed favourable climate. While drinking in  the breath-taking beauty of Ramannadesa, I suddenly reminisced about the etymological explanation of the word” Ramanna” by the Sanskrit- English Dictionary compiled by Vidyadhar Bide I had read some years ago thus: The word “Ramanna” has the Sanskrit equivalent “ Ramaniya” and the Pali equivalent “ Ramaneyyaka” meaning “ lovely, pleasant, charming and delightful.  Thus was I compelled to convince that Ramannadesa replete with enchanting, beautiful landscapes was fitted for its denotative meaning.
When the bus came to Naung Bo and Naung Kala Villages on the outskirts of Thaton, the Myathabeik Mountain Range which stood high above Thaton came into view. The covered stair-cause leading up to the gilded pagoda at the top of the mountain was an attractive sight to any visitor who saw it at a great distance. He or she would surely feel peace and serenity. The bus came to Thaton at 2: 30 pm and we got down at the stop in front of the Shwezaryan Pagoda standing at the heart of the town. I found Thaton to be a thriving town with many ancient religious edifices like pagodas, stupas, monasteries, ordination-halls, etc, modern houses and some colonial styled houses and public buildings. Large, perennial trees growing in abundance and the Myathabeik Mountain towering above provided a good shade and a cool weather to the town. It was inhabited by the Pa-Os, the Karens, the Bahmars and other minor ethic peoples in addition to the Mons. As it was a junction of the Yangon-Mawlayine car-road and the Pa-an –Mawlayine car-road, it was always bussing with the passengers en route and town-dwellers transacting commercial activities with the former.  Scholars assert that the word “Thaton” is corrupted from the compounded Pali word “ Sudhammapura”, meaning “ City of Good Law” through the intermediate terms “ Sudhum and Sathum”.  But the traditional Mon chronicles claim that it derived from the Mon word “ Go-thway-ga-hton”, bearing the sense “ The cave under the shady Banyan tree”, that as the Myanmars, the Shans, and other ethnic peoples could not pronounce it articulately,  “ Go-thway-ga-hton” was gradually altered to “ Thaton, ”after a long lapse of times and that it had been known under different titles as Sudhammapura, Sudhammavati, Upadeva, etc throughout its history under the rule of a long line of 57 Mons kings until it was occupied by King Anawratha in A.D 1057.
The stream of my thoughts on history of Thaton was cut in on when some officials who welcomed us turned up and called out my name. We were transported by a motor-cycle carrier called “Toke –toke” in the local parlance to the Catubhummika Nhgetdwin  Monastery where we were to put up. As it was situated across the precincts of the Shwezaryan Pagoda, we reached it within ten minutes.  Saya U San Win ushered in us and after resting awhile, we were fetched by him to a large hall in the precincts, where many votive tablets with Buddha images in standing, seated and reclining manners in high relief were put on display. They totaled 1357. Never before had I seen such a great horde of votive tablets that my eyes widened in astonishment. The Buddha images assume different mudras (hand-gestures) like Dhammacakkamudra, Jhanamudra, Vittakamudra, Abhyamudra, Bhumiphassamudra, Varadamudra , etc and various asanas (leg-postures) like Pallankasana, Maharajadhipatiasana, Maharajalalitasana, Padamasana, etc . The votive tablets depicts the Eight Scenes of the Buddhavamsa, the Four Scenes of the Buddhavamsa, etc including the birth of the Bodhisatta, the enlightenment of the Buddha, the preaching of the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, the demise of the Buddha, the Buddha’s victory over the Elephant Nalagiri, the Buddha’s victory over the Mara, the descent of the Buddha from Tavatimsa, the sojourn of the Buddha in the Pariyyela Forest ,etc. Besides, strangely, the votive tablets portraying the standing Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattas in Tribhanga manner was also found. Then we were introduced to Ven. Tikkhanyana, the presiding Sayadaw of the monastery, who then narrated to us that he had unexpectedly discovered such a large number of votive tablets in some layers stacked on the top of each other in August 2015 from the earth-stratum eight feet underneath the small stupa which was the grave-yard of the Nhgetdwin Sayadaw built within the precincts of the monastery about 105 years ago.
At about 4 pm, we paid homage to the Sayadaw and then rambled about downtown Thaton.  The roads were lined with many large, shady old trees. It is found that Thaton was a pleasant well-laid out town with tidily-paved roads and a good drainage system. But I felt as if it, being an old town, was under the spell of a sort of chill. While walking, our empty stomach grumbled. So we scurried to a road-side fried gourd-fritters stall under a tall Kukko tree with its branches outstretching in all directions on the road-side in front of No. 2 Thaton Basic Education High School and ate fried gourd-fritters ravenously. Then we sat again at a tea-shop near-by. I footed the bill for tea and snacks we had. I was aware that tea and snacks in Thaton were much cheaper than those in Yangon. The tea-shops in Thaton were not as much congested with customers as those in Yangon. When I looked up northwards, the Myathabeik Mountain seemed to me to be towering above our heads. Many monasteries, ordination-halls, pavilions with a tiered roof, and other
religious edifices clustered around its foot.

A few colonial styled residences were found standing in a wide well-fenced compound in the northern part of the town. When evening came on, we, at the invitation of U Tin Shwe, uncle of Daw Su Su Myint, who was a member of our group, went to Naung Kala Village by Toke-toke. It was a Pa-O village, which is named after Byatwi, the elder of the two Indian brothers who went ashore at Thaton during the reign of King Manuha after their ship-wreck in the high sea. All the villagers were generous, devoted Buddhists. Across the U Tin Shwe’s house was the village monastery which was a newly-built three-storeyed edifice standing in a wide precincts with a large ordination hall and a gilded pagoda of a considerable height. As U Tin Shwe’s house was a big, well-ventilated, wooden one in a large compound sheltered by trees of various sizes and with beds of seasonal vegetables, we felt as if we had escaped temporarily from the hustle-bustle of town. The hospitality of him and his family towards our group was incredible.  They always kept us under surveillance to know whether we ate the foods served heartily or not. If we pecked at the foods, they immediately registered the disapproval and urged us to have more. So I felt uneasy due to their incredible hospitality, wondering whether I could be hospitable to that extent towards them if they visited my house in Yangon. To be open,  I cringed at their treat , with the thought that my stomach could not digest all the foods served.  To our amazement, there was no trace of mosquito. So we slept in the large house-hold shrine room with the windows open and with no mosquito-net set up, breathing cool fresh air. Apart from the occasional sounds of the engines of vehicles which ran along the high way passing through the village, complete silence fell over the village. So we could enjoy sound sleep all night.
The next morning, we made for Thaton Computer University by Toke-toke, which is situated at Gaw Village, which is named after Ven. Buddhaghosa, who brought the Tipitaka from Sri Lanka to Thaton and compiled the Visuddhimagga in the 5th century A.D,  to attend the Mon-Suvannabhumi Seminar and Workshop. It was graced by the presence of Chief Minister of the Mon State Government and some State Ministers including Dr. Min Mwe Soe, etc. It started at 9am. The Chief Minister delivered the opening speech. It was presided over by Dr. Kyaw Win, Secretary of the Myanmar Historical Commission, Dr. Toe Hla, a member of the same commission, Dr. Aung Myat Kyaw Sein, Acting Rector of Mawlamyine University and Dr. Soe Aung, Retired Rector of Mandalay University of Foreign Languages. U Kyaw Myo Win briefed on the finds excavated from Winka region in Bilin Township , Dr. Yin Yin Aye and  Dr. Kyan Swan elaborated on geology and geography of Thaton.  Dr. Nan Hlaing, arguing against the authorities of some senior local and foreigner scholars, dated Thaton to Palasena Period in an assertive tone on the scrutiny of the votive tablets bearing a figure of standing Buddha flanked by two figures of Bodhisatta discovered from the Catubhummika Nhgwetdwin Monastery.  Daw Nan Kyi Kyi Khaing explained interestingly about the unglazed finds excavated from the Catubhummika Nhgwetdwin Monastery. Dr. Win Win Pyo summarized the arrival of Buddhism into Thaton region and U San Win spoke of his life-long devotion to the study of Thaton. I noticed that this seminar was held to date the Old Thaton on the discovery of the votive tablets yielded by the excavation of the stupa within the precincts of the Catubhummika Nhgwetdwin Monastery. In the light of Dr. Nan Hlaing’s assertion, Thaton might date back to Palasena Period. I had no objection to his assertion because I found that some Buddhas in the excavated votive tablets had some characteristics of the Buddha images  belonging to Palasena Period such as Padasmasana, the short neck, neck-ornaments,  Bhumiphassamudra, slim body with the swollen chest and slim waist, stupa-like or conical shaped hair-knot, etc. I was reminiscent of the finger-marked bricks found in the city-walls of Old Thaton, most of which were buried amongst residential quarters, during my previous visits to Thaton. Scholars accept finger-marked bricks as indicators for the first millennium. I also remembered the remark of Dr. Than Tun about the finger-marked bricks saying that the finger-marks on the bricks were employed as tallies in counting the number of the bricks already baked before the Mon alphabets(Pallava scripts) were arrived at Mon region and that as these scripts arrived in Mon region during the 7th century A.D, these bricks might belong to the earlier date than the 7th century. Besides, as a standing Dipankara Buddha image in Amravati style was found at Nandawya Monastery in Thaton, Buddhism was considered to have arrived in Thaton during Amravati Period (1st to 3rd centuries A.D). But I thought that only large-scale excavations could bring to light  the history of Thaton.  The seminar came to a conclusion at 4pm.
When the seminar ended, we were brought to Kyarpan Ywa(Village of Lotus) in a saloon car by Ven. Kondanna, a lecturer from the Department of English Relating to Pitakas of the State Pariyatti Sasana University (Yangon). It was situated on the way between Thaton and Pa-an. As it had wooded Myathabeik Mountain in the background and natural lakes in the foreground, it was a pleasant village. I saw a large lotus made out of stucco at the entrance to the village. It was surrounded on all sides by fields, plantations, forests, and natural lakes except the southern side bounded by the mountain. We all were fascinated by the beauty of the village and the winding high way skirting round the mountain bathing dreamily in the wooded mountain valley in the golden rays of the setting sun. We were fetched to the Kyarpan Basic Educational High School and introduced to some teachers gleaming with smiles from the school and served with dinner. Then U Kondanna led us to a make-shift stage built in the large grounds in front of the school and told us that eminent writers U Phone(Chemistry) and Akyidaw would conduct literary talks that night and that we should wait and listen to their talks. But he, saying that we would be too busy to do so, again took us to the Kyarpan Monastery which stood in the large precincts at western edge of the village. We stayed at his room awhile and went round the precincts fenced with bamboo-groves in lines. We were cooled down by a thick mass of foliage of the trees of different species growing abundantly in the precincts. I looked up and saw deep yellow rays of the dying sun dancing merrily on the tops of the high trees, a few of which slanting stealthily through the clumps of the trees.  Then we paid homage to Ven. U Kusala, the presiding Sayadaw, and sent back to U Tin Shwe’s house in Sayadaw’s car. The next morning, we were sent by car to the Bayin-ngi or Bayin-ji Cave on the way about 12 miles from Thaton. We were refreshed by the wooded lands unexplored and gurgling, crystal-clear rivulets and creeks on the way.  It is known that the term “ Bayin-ngi or Bayin-ji” derived from the terms “ Bayinyi-naung and Bayin-gyi”. Legend has it that the cave was the place where Mon King Mahimsaraja engaged in meditation in ancient times and the hiding place of Princes Sihakumara and Cittakumara, sons of King Manuha, who evaded the pursuit of the enemy.  It is a natural cave located in a large igneous intrusion standing out from the ground to the height of a few hundred feet. I saw some people swimming about in the hot spring at the base of the mountain. My friends persuaded me to swim in it by saying that the water in it possessed medicinal efficacy. But I rejected it on the grounds that I brought no extra dress to change after the bath. The stair-way up to the cave was thronged with the pilgrims, some of whom were foreigners. Monkeys were monitoring them with watchful eyes from the tops of the trees lining the stair-way so that they could snatch away the snacks and properties of the pilgrims when they were distracted. The statue of the guardian spirit of the mountain was found erected on the side of the stair-way up to the cave. As the stair-way led steeply, we found ourselves out of breath when we arrived at the cave. The cave commanded a bird’s – eyes view of the plains below. We found many tiny votive tablets engraved on the entrance into the cave and some seated Buddha images inside. We left the cave at 11 am so that we could catch the bus which was to leave Thaton for Yangon at 2pm.
In conclusion, on our three-day stay in Thaton, we got a lot of knowledge on culture, history, religion and socio-economy of the ethnic peoples. Moreover, we could enjoy the chance of exposing ourselves to the nature, our tired minds being revivified. So it was indeed a trip, so exploratory, so informative, so exhilarating and so inspiring. At the same time, it is suggested by the author that we should, at least once or twice a year if possible,  go on exploratory trips to the regions of our national brethren – the Shan Plateau in the east, the high mountainous terrain in the north and the south- west, the low coastal plains in the west, the deltaic regions and the coastal lines in the south-  in order that we will be able to get better understanding of these ethnic peoples and to promote our love for the nation, the people and the nature, thus consolidating the national unity and enhancing the spirit to cherish and conserve the natural environment.

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