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The Road to Mandalay

And a land that time forgot

Burma (Myanmar to some) is increasingly in the news as some change begins. Ruled for many years by a ruthless, repressive junta, it suffers regular earthquakes and cyclone Nargis left more than a hundred thousand people injured, homeless or dead. Yet this is a magical place: a country of contrasts with a rambunctious history and a culture that is both awesome and fascinating.

Largely on a whim, the author decides to visit Mandalay, the "Golden City" foreseen by ancient Buddhist prophesies. Despite campaigns at the time suggesting no one travelled to Burma (thus supporting the regime) he takes a trip, much of it on the river cruiser "Road to Mandalay" sailing along the famous Ayeyarwady.

He finds people are universally welcoming. Along the way he encounters taxis pulled by oxen; rings the largest bell in the world; learns how to wear a skirt, the difference between a stupa and a pagoda; and why florescent pink tiles are used in temples. In this lively and light-hearted account of his journey he watches the best sunset in the world on the plains of Bagan and, as the sun sinks below the horizon silhouetting countless pagodas, concludes that this wonderful country is worthy of everyone's attention, and perhaps help too.

"(Patrick is) a born writer with a clear, transparent style, a great eye, and plenty of wit ...miles superior to most of the travel writing I read, and I read lots of it. It's also deeply felt, which is probably the most important thing of all ...I was really, really impressed." Read Beguiling Burma

Some history:
For Rudyard Kipling “the road to mandalay” was the “Irawaddy”, a river which culminates in the famed city of “Mandalay”. Its the main river of Burma flowing for some 1400 miles before merging into the Andaman sea. A Vedic/Sanskrit name, its source being "Iravati" the daughter of Kashyapa Muni and the mother of Lord Indras mount "Airavata". Its the counterpart of the river Ravi in India whose source is also mother Iravati. The Irawaddy journeys to the Andaman sea which is also Sanskrit/Vedic, the name "Andaman" being a corruption of "Handuman" which is a Malaysian corruption of "Hanuman" the great personality from Ramayana.

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“Mandalay” is simply the Sanskrit “mandala” meaning "circle" "district" "disc" "region" "wheel" "globe". Its meaning, one geometrical ( circle ) and the other geographical ( region ) reflects the micro/macro world of Buddhist/Vedic cosmology which saw the universe as a cosmic mandala whose influence spreads from a centre in a circular fashion, and as Buddhism spread throughout the Indo/Chinese peninsula, cities such as Mandalay was designed to bring heaven to earth.

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The Vedas explain how within this egg shaped universe there is a cosmic axial mountain known as "Sumeru" meaning "great ( su ) mountain ( meru )". On top of Meru is the abode of the Gods, known in different cultures as "Asgard" and "Olympus". Surrounding mount Meru is "Bhu mandala" a series of circular islands which spread out from the central point of Meru, and this is the model upon which these mandala states were formed.

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The earthly mandala had three concentric rings. Its centre was the King, just as the Gods upon Meru are the central pivot of the universal islands of Bhu Mandala. He was seen as the upholder of dhama, around which the citizens revolved and amongst the Buddhists he was honoured as the Bodhisattva to be. This first ring of the mandala state, whose central pivot was the King, contained the capitals Kingdom, the great temple and the monastry of Brahmans/monks who would advise, direct and bless the King. The middle circle of the mandala were provinces ruled by princes who were usually the sons of the Kings. Although in many ways independent Kingdoms, they formed an alliance around the King protecting its centre. The outer ring was a region of independent Kingdoms which paid a tributary.

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"Mandala" also means "circle of kings" as these mandala states spread out they would overlap other mandala kingdoms. The western system was introduced or influenced by the Romans, who would pace 1000 steps of conquered territory and place a marker which became known as a Roman "mile" the root of the word "military" which is appropriate as these boundaries were defined with "military" precision and authority. Without dwelling upon the western system, the "mandalas" of the east was based upon universal principles which placed the "Gods" in the centre and governed according to the universal laws of dharma.

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Southeast Asia was originally made up of mandalas, in Burma we have "Thaton" "Sri Ksetra" "Pagan" "Vaishali" "Pegu" and "Mandalay" all mandala states. In Thailand there was the famous cities of "Ayuthaya" "Sukhothai" "Nakhon Si Thamarat" "Ramannadesa" and "Dvaravati". In Java there was the mandala states of "Majapahit" "Kediri" "Singhasari" and “ edang", in Malaysia the powerful Kingdoms of "Tambralinga" and "Langkasuka" the very ancient "Sarawak" and in Vietnam and Cambodia we have the mandala states of the Champa and Khmer dynasties.

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These mandala cities, in their prime, were divine reflections of the higher spheres mentioned in the Vedas and the pure lands of the Buddhists. In Cambodia one such mandala still remains, the mandala state of Angkor Wat. Its central towers represent mount Meru, the cosmic axial mountain and the five walls and moats represent the mandalas ( concentric islands ) which spread out from its centre, Meru, the abode of the Gods.

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“ The adoption of Indian concepts of city planning incorporated a belief in the efficacy of the world axis that connects the centermost point in a properly constructed Mandala city with the city of the Gods above in order to assure prosperity throughout the kingdom below." – Dr. Richard M. Cooler (Prof. Northern Illinios University).

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“ Indian art had accompanied Indian religion across straits and frontiers into Sri Lanka, Java, Cambodia, Siam, Burma, Tibet, Khotan, Turkestan, Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan. In Asia all roads lead from India." Will Durant (1885-1981) American historian.

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“ This was the time of the great Indian expansion, when seafaring merchants fanned out across the Indian Ocean and brought to Southeast Asia a seething ferment of new ideas. From Burma to Indonesia, they established a chain of settlements along the coasts from which they traded for gold, precious stones, perfumes, and spices. The merchants brought with them their religion, Hinduism and Buddhism, their literary language, Sanskrit, their art and technology; and their science and mathematics." (source: Splendors of the Past: Lost Cities of the Ancient World - National Geographic Society. p.186-190).

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“Therefore, the Indianizaton of Burma and, particularly the adoption of art forms connected with Buddhism and Hinduism, was a peaceful and internally motivated process.” – Dr. Richard M. Cooler (Prof. Northern Illinios University)."

From Sanskrit, Language of the Gods - Read Beguiling Burma

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