Saturday, 12 October 2013

Walking Paths Amid the Sagaing Hills

The Meditator Guidebook to Myanmar is in its final stages. As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis and meditators may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from the section on the Sagaing Hills, known as the place where monks and lay people who are serious about meditation come to work in silence and seclusion:

As the British colonial government took over control of the country, life in the forest monasteries of Sagaing Hills was little affected. Writing in 1907, V.C. Scott O’Conner describes his own visit here in Mandalay and Other Cities of the Past In Burma: “By far the most interesting part of Sagaing lies in the hilly country above it, where austere monks live; and every peak bears testimony to the piety of bygone kings and people…. The effect of the spectacle is enhanced, and lifted up to something strangely majestic, by the atmosphere, dry, prismatic, mystical— glorious with all the effulgence of Sagaing… One does not come upon sights like this out of Burma. There is some unconscious undercurrent of great qualities in the Burman personality that alone makes them possible.” 

Even as recently as a generation ago, a lay person coming to pay homage to a particular revered monk would have to bushwhack a path up the mountains and be on the watch for snakes, and monks had to keep an eye for tigers and leopards while on their alms rounds, including one monastery that was even built as a kind of tiger safe-house. Despite the signs reading “Cut One Tree, Three Years In Jail,” modernity is slowly finding a way to seep in, with some paved tracks laid allowing easier transport to the start of the Sagaing Hills and pushing the remote ascetic’s life deeper into the forest. But make no mistake, still today the best way to explore the hills is on foot, as many small monasteries are totally inaccessible by cars or even motorbike or bicycle. Burmese author Khin Myo Chit notes that while some of these sites “can be reached by motor road, the pilgrim whose sweet and wholesome hours are reckoned with the tinkling of temple bells is not pressed for time; this pilgrim prefers to ascend one of the brick stairways zig-zagging up the hill.” Some of these walking paths were laid down several hundred years ago, and the tread of royal processions and monks that walked upon the can still be seen in the grooves of the stones. Others have become so narrow that they are just one meter wide, while others have become completely reclaimed by jungle.

Original artwork in Shwe Lan Ga Lay shows a typical stone staircase that one finds when wandering through the Sagaing Hills

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