Thursday, 18 May 2017

From Siddhartha Gautama to Tony Soprano


The 705-foot tall Yankin Hill is three curvy miles east of Mandalay. Yankin means “free of danger,” so it is not surprising that the area affords a bit of peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Sir Herbert White more liberally translated the name as “Hill of Peace.” The hill also goes by the name Nga Yant Taung, after the fish described in the story that follows. Its name is also a testament to the safe refuge it afforded Mandalay residents from the intense fighting and bombing in and around the city during World War II.

The hill area was first developed as a pilgrimage site by U Khanti during the colonial era. Further playing to the meaning of its name, two Jātaka Tales attest to this being where the Buddha escaped enemies in former lifetimes, one of which places him as a snakehead fish in a pond in a cave near the top of the hill. The Jātaka Tales, or stories of the Buddha’s past births, appear to have been canonized in the 5th century (most appear in the Cariyapitaka i
n Khuddaka Nikaya of Sutta Pitaka). Apart from these, there are also the “apocryphal Jatakas” in which local cultures and contexts are brought in. In Myanmar this is known as လက္တန္း၊ ဒဏၭာရီ, and such stories are not found anywhere in the Pāḷi scriptures. This particular Yankin tale appears to be an example of this.

The Yankin area is famous for a reputed connection to the Buddha: that he was a snakehead fish here in a previous birth. Interestingly, fossil records trace this species back 50 million years to the Himalayan region of northern India, which also happens to be Siddhartha Gautama’s birthplace. The fish eventually migrated into European, African, and Asian waters.

However, in spite of the fact that some people find them an exotic delicacy, overall they are considered a big nuisance, partly because of their rows of small, sharp teeth. They are such an invasive species in the United States that it has been strictly illegal to bring live snakeheads since 2002. The theory is that at some point, someone must have tired of having a few as “pets,” and dumped them into a local waterway. After cleaning that pond or lake of prey, the snakeheads literally marched off in search of new waterways to conquer…on their fins, since they can breathe air for short periods. In this way, they migrated far and wide, wiping out local species as they went, waterway after waterway. This is not dissimilar to another invasive species from the Golden Land, the Burmese Python. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the reptile took over Florida’s Everglades and eventually stretched as far to south Texas, and was eventually banned for import in 2012. This has earned snakeheads such monikers as Frankenfish and Fishzilla. They have even wiggled their way into American pop culture, earning a mention on “The Sopranos,” no less, among other things.

Today, while snakeheads are apparently no longer found anywhere near “Snakehead Fish Cave” in Yankin Hill—they exist there still in spirit, through the plethora of statues all around the hill.

Another tale associated with this site took place many centuries ago. King Alaungsithtu, who ruled from Bagan in the 12th century, was concerned about his wayward sons, especially the oldest, named Min Shin Saw. The king sent him to the northern part of the kingdom, where he governed a town near Amarapura. There was a severe drought there and the town’s lake and water tanks had become perilously close to empty; Min Shin Saw began construction of an irrigation system connecting Aung Lake(south of Yankin Hill, although Aung Lake is no more; it has been filled in and transformed into many paddy fields) to the town’s farms. This irrigation system eventually supplied water to over 31,000 fields. But meanwhile, the drought raged on, and knowing the Jātaka Tale told above, Min Shin Saw ordered a large statue constructed of the snakehead fish. The story goes that from these demonstrations of piety, combined with monks reciting and making a collective “vow of truth,” the rains came back and the land once again became fertile. And in this case, when it rains, it pours…local Burmese believe that the rain kept on until the point of flooding, causing the villagers to lug the statues further up the hill so they wouldn’t be inundated. Once the statues reached the top of the hill, the torrential downpour finally ceased. In the years that followed, other snakehead fish statues would similarly be created in times of need, to be stored in the royal palace and brought out during droughts. Due to these seemingly miraculous events, many Burmese believe this is a region favored by the celestial beings, and there has been magical practices happening within the caves of these hills for some time.

Today, snakehead fish statues are found along the path leading up the hill, as are nga yant dwin (ငါးရံ့တြင္), “snakehead fish wells.” Annual festivals are held in June, in hopes of bringing about a good rainy season. These are regularly attended by farmers whose livelihoods are directly impacted by the weather, and the statues also get paraded through the streets of Mandalay.