October 27, 2021

The Kuthodaw Pagoda

The Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay in upper Myanmar is usually mentioned because the “Worldʼs Biggest Book”(Ludu Daw Ahmar 1980: 5). 2 Consisting of 729 marble stelae3 cover a 5.2 hectare site the Pagoda may be a large, coherent and historically unique inscriptional complex that preserves an authorised mid-nineteenth century Myanmar recension of the Palicanon, the first scriptures of Theravāda Buddhism. Mandalay was founded in pre-colonial upper Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 1857 and therefore the Kuthodaw complex is one among the cityʼs earliest structures. At the centre of this complex is that the monument popularly referred to as the Kuthodaw Pagoda, the“Pagoda of Royal Merit”[Fig. 1].

The 729 stelae are arranged in seven concentric squares round the pagoda. Each of those stelae varies in size̶a typical one being 1.3 metres high, a metre wide, with around 75 lines inscribed on each side̶and is housed during a separate open-sided mini-pagoda around three metres tall (Grönbold 2005: 35) [Figs. 2 & 3]. The version of the Buddhist scriptures on these stelae is that the results of an outsized editing project ̶a recension̶commissioned within the mid-nineteenth century by Myanmarʼs penultimate king Mindon (reigned 1853-1878) who, to fulfil during a ll|one amongst|one in every of”> one among the religious duties of Myanmar kings to preserve Buddhist teachings in a changing world, initiated two ventures regarding the Buddhist scriptures [Fig. 4]. the primary began in 1857 when he commissioned the copying of a replacement set of the canon onto palm leaves (Ludu Daw Ahmar 1980: 15-22).

As an outcome of that project the marble stelae at the Kuthodaw were inscribed with a version of the edited text between 1860 and 1868 (Ludu Daw Ahmar 1980: 50-52). Mindonʼs second initiative was to revive the first Theravāda tradition of holding a council (san 4 gīti) for the recitation and verification of the words of Buddha . The“Fifth Buddhist Council”was held in 1871, with 2,400 monks orally reciting the whole canon. Following this, revisions were made to the stelae. The Fifth Council version remained the quality one until the“Sixth Buddhist Council”was held within the mid-twentieth century (1954-1956) in Yangon (however, not all Buddhist traditions accept all of those councils). In 1855, before his first initiative, King Mindon had presented an entire set of the scriptures as then constituted (in fine gilded royal manuscripts) to Arthur Phayre, who visited Myanmar as a British representative (Herbert 1989: 64). That set preserves a preKuthodaw version of the text and has lain within the British Library since 1886 only occasionally used.

King Mindonʼs carving of the whole Pali canon on large marble stelae at the Kuthodaw Pagoda was unprecedented within the Theravāda Buddhist world, and subsequently proved to be highly influential, being the inspiration for the later production of marble stelae editions of the Pali canon, or parts of it, at several sites elsewhere in Myanmar and acting as a model for the carving of non-canonical Buddhist texts at yet other sites within the country (Bollée 1968: 495; Ludu Daw Ahmar 1980: 42-45). 4 the primary example of this was undoubtedly the Sandamuni Pagoda site directly adjacent to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which preserves the Pali commentaries and sub-commentaries carved on 1774 marble stelae at the instigation of U Khanti (1868-1949) in 1913. it’s highly likely that Mindon undertook the above projects as a part of his plan to consolidate Buddhism because the state religion and ensure its centrality to the identity of the Myanmar people within the face of the threat of British territorial ambitions in Myanmar̶the British had annexed lower Myanmar in 1852, some eight years before the start of labor on the Kuthodaw marble stelae and clearly had territorial ambitions over upper Myanmar also .

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