Thursday, 27 August 2015

An Unlikely Place to Start a Revoluion

Travel 85 miles west of Mandalay to a merchant town of nearly 200,000 people, and the pilgrim is welcomed by a humble yet honest sign announcing: “Capital of the Northwest, Monywa Must do Better than Other Towns.” For the yogi willing to look past its inhospitable terrain and hot climate, he travels back in time to a land where an unlikely confluence of events came together that would ultimately transform the monkhood and the faith— for this pilgrim, Monywa certainly does “do better!” In his essay, “Chindwin,” David Lambert captures the unusual opposing dynamics that characterize Monwya, writing that “beyond the conventional radar, this is the heart of yogi tourism, where foreign meditators, carrying tourist cash dollars, come to explore the heartland of their spiritual souls. For some, this is the area ‘where it all began.’ ”

Whether lay or monastic, a certain resilience was always needed to survive here. It has long been a very hot and dry region, something that even the later colonial irrigation projects did little to alleviate. Monks first came out here nearly a millennium ago during the Bagan Era, when the region was full of thickly wooded forests, and functioned as a kind of forest refuge for paṭipatti-minded monastics who wished to put some distance between themselves and the royal capital. As Michael Charney notes, the “harshness of the Chindwin environment and its relatively low population base may have dissuaded all but the hardiest monks.” More monks began to stream in the mid-18th century, when the region was spared the wars then taking place elsewhere in the country. As greater civilization came to settle in this area, the competition between city and forest monks (gamavasi and aranyavasi) eventually became so fierce that at least once even spilled over into violence.

And yet, still prior to the British arrival, Monywa was little more than a village. The town’s rise to worldly prominence can be traced to when the British named the town the Headquarters of the Lower Chindwin District in 1886. 
The British had originally chosen nearby Ahlone, but had to move following local unrest. Recently, Monywa was named the capital of the Sagaing Division. 

This happened to be around the same time that a young monk named U Nyanadhaja would venture into the Ledi Forest, to continue his scholarly work and meditation practice in the quiet that the vast wilderness provided. He would remain there for the following thirteen years, and would forever be known afterwards as the Ledi Sayadaw. 

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