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A wonderful account and description of the Mandalay Palace in the early part of the 20th century

Archeological Notes on Mandalay

written in 1917 by Taw Sein Ko

Superintendent, Archeological Survey, Burma.

Map of Mandalay Palace
Map of Mandalay Palace – Larger image below

Layout of Mandalay Palace in Early 20th Century

The layout of Mandalay palace in Early 20th Century was quite different to the layout we see in present times. It was sacked by the British after exiling King Thibaw and his family to India in 1885 and it was totally destroyed by fire in 1945. This below account is a testimony to what was once must have been the most beautiful palace in Myanmar.

The city of Mandalay, built in 1857 by King Mindon, is in the form of a square, each side of which is approximately 220 yards long, approximately 201 metres. The battlement wall of brick and mud mortar has a total height of 27 feet (the crenelations, being 7 feet high), is 10 feet thick in the lower portion and 4 feet 4 inches in the crenelations, and is backed by an earthen rampart. There are twelve gates, three on each side at equal distances from each other, surmounted by pyatthats (multi staged roof) or pavilions, and pyatthat at each corner of the wall, making 48 in all. The central gate on each side is larger than the others, and, in Burmese times, was reserved for the passage of Royalty.

The pyatthats (the wooden spires referred to in Myanmar as taing bu) over these four main gates have seven storeys each, the others only five. A moat averaging 225 feet wide and 11 feet deep surrounds the city, and was formerly kept full by a channel from the Aungbinle Lake, but, since 1902, the supply has been drawn from the Mandalay Irrigation Canal. The moat is now crossed by five road bridges, one to each main gate and one to the south-eastern gate which was formerly reserved for funeral processions, a corpse being an object of desecration and taboo.

There are also two railway bridges entering by modern gates on the south and north faces, and a foot bridge on the north; in former times, there were, in all, twelve bridges corresponding to the gates. Each gateway is guarded by a masonry curtain, and is under the protection of a tutelary nat or spirit represented by a stone image. Tradition says that the city is also under the protection of the disembodied spirits of human beings, who were buried alive under jars of oil at each corner of the walls. To the right of each curtain stands a massive teak post bearing the name of the gate.

The pyattliat over one of the northern gateways has been extended along the ramparts at each side and forms a residence for the Lieutenant-Governor. The Palace occupies the central space in the city. It was removed from Amarapura by King Mindon in 1857 A. D., and was re-erected at Mandalay. It was originally built by Shwebo Mzw in 1845 A.D. Its architecture is unique, and recalls its prototypes of Nipal and Magadha. The Palace
stood within two enclosures: the outer consisted of a stockade of teakwood posts, 20 feet high, and the inner was a brick wall about 15 feet in height. There was an esplanade, 60 feet wide, between the two enclosures. Each side of the outer enclosure measured about three furlongs. The inner enclosure was cut up into numerous courts surrounded by high walls, and in the very centre was a third brick enclosure containing the Palace. (The stockade and the brick walls were removed after the British occupation of Mandalay.)

The Palace faces east and the east gate is the main entrance. As one enters the grounds by this gate the Clock Tower (A-1 on plan) is seen on the right and the Tooth-relic Tower (A-2 on plan) on the left. A water-clock was used and a big bell and drum were beaten every third hour. According to this reckoning, day and night each consists of four watches, and begins at 9 o’clock. The Tooth-relic Tower is probably a heritage from the Talaings of Pegu. There was much intercourse between the Peguans and the Sinhalese, and, in the seventeenth century A.D., the King of Ceylon palmed off on the King of Pegu an adopted daughter and a false tooth of Gautama Buddha. A little to the north of the clock-tower is King Mindon’s tomb [A-3 on plan]. It is gilded and covered with glass mosaic, and is a simulation in brick and mortar of the usual seven-storey spire built of wood. It is a beautiful specimen of Burmese art, and, like the Taj Mahall, is seen at its best by moonlight, when the scintillation’s of the glass mosaic transform it into a fairy-like structure.

This was renovated by the Public Works Department in 1898, and the work now seen is of quite recent date. Nothing of the old work remains. To the south of the Tooth-relic Tower, and resting against the inner wall, was the Hlnttaw or Supreme Council Hall [A-4 on plan]. Here all state business was transacted. It was the highest tribunal in the realm, as all cases were decided by the King in Council. In the absence of the King, the powers of the Presiding Judge were relegated to the Heir-Apparent, or to some other member of the Royal Family, who was specially chosen for his tact, integrity and sound judgment.

The Layout of Mandalay Palace

The building consisted of two three-roofed wooden structures recalling to mind the cognate architecture of Nepal. The outer structure was reserved for the officials and the litigants; and the four Wungyis or Chief Ministers sat each leaning against a heavily gilt column and facing a throne placed in the inner structure. The Throne was separated from the seats of the Wungyis by a gilt wooden railing. The railing consisted of an upper and lower band of rosettes enclosing cylinders with central bulbs. The Throne is a gorgeous structure covered with gilding and glass mosaic. It was treason for anybody but the King to sit on it. It is called the ” Sihasana ” or the Lion Throne, and is an exact replica of that in the Great Audience Hall.

A gilt wooden figure of the lion is placed on each side of it. It is approached by steps from behind, as in the case of the Throne of the Great Mughal at Delhi, through a folding door of gilt iron screen work. In shape it is like the ordinary pedestal supporting an image of Buddha, narrowing at the cfigures of J6 nats or devas with Sakra in the middle. Sakra or Indra is the lord of all devas, and is the ” Recording Angel of Buddhism,” and his presence as a tutelary deity is required in the transaction of public business as well as in the performance of religious ceremonies. Sakra’s abode is called the ” Tavatimsa ” or the ” Heaven of the Thirty-three Devas.” What Sakra is to Tavatimsa, i.e. supreme and dominant, so is the sovereign to his kingdom.

On the outer edge of each jamb and attached to a line of rosettes is a row of the figures of seven devas ; and, at the foot of the inner edge of each jamb, is also the figure of a deva. Below the lintel the number of devas represented, exclusive of the two figures on the top of the jambs and of the sun-god and moon-god, is 16 ; and above it, the number is the same ; over all presides the Sakra. Thus the total number of devas shown is “thirty-three,” corresponding to that of the ” Tavatimsa.”

n-U Hman-se Shwe-Kyaung Monastery
Nan-U Hman-se Shwe-Kyaung Monastery – no longer in existence

The Burmese Kings claimed descent from the Solar and Lunar dynasties of India; hence it was essential that this genealogy should be symbolized on the centre of the jamb; to the left of the occupant is depicted the figure of a peacock,which represents the sun, and facing it on the right jamb is the figure of a hare, which represents the moon. According to the Aryan or Indian custom, the right is the side of honour, as with the right hand are associated dignity, courage, and strength; but, according to Mongolian or Chinese custom, the left is the side of honour, because the right is the working or servile hand, and because with the left hand are associated repose and peace, which are enjoyed by the master rather than by the slave. It is to harmonize with Mongolian custom that the sun, as the superior of the two planets, is represented on the left, and the moon on the right. This is, indeed, a striking instance of the co-mingling of Aryan and Mongolian ideas in Burma. Over the peacock and the hare are placed respectively the sun-god and the moon-god. On the top of each jamb is a deva holding a fan or chowri made of yak hair, which is included in the regalia of a king. These two devas are bearers of the emblem of sovereignty of their King Sakra.entre and expanding above and below. The lintel of the doorway consists of two curved, dragonlike ornaments, which are surmounted by a row of the figures of J6 nats or devas with Sakra in the middle. Sakra Indra is the lord of all devas, and is the ” Recording Angel of Buddhism,” and his presence as a tutelary deity is required in the transaction of public business as well as in the performance of religious ceremonies. Sakra’s abode is called the ” Tavatimsa ” or the ” Heaven of the Thirty-three  Devas.” What Sakra is to Tavatimsa, i.e. supreme and dominant, so is the sovereign to his kingdom.

On the outer edge of each jamb and attached to a line of rosettes is a row of the figures of seven devas; and at the foot of the inner edge of each jamb, is also the figure of a deva. Below the lintel the number of devas represented, exclusive of the two figures on the top of the jambs and of the sun-god and moon-god, is 16; and above it, the number is the same; over all presides the Sakra. Thus the total number of devas shown is “thirty-three,” corresponding to that of the ” Tavatimsa.”

The Burmese Kings claimed descent from the Solar and Lunar dynasties of India; hence it was essential that this genealogy should be symbolized on the centre of the jamb; to the left of the occupant is depicted the figure of a peacock,which represents the sun, and facing it on the right jamb is the figure of a hare, which represents the moon. According to the Aryan or Indian custom, the right is the side of honour, as with the right hand are associated dignity, courage, and strength ; but, according to Mongolian or Chinese custom, the left is the side of honour, because the right is the working or servile hand, and because with the left hand are associated repose and peace, which are enjoyed by the master rather than by the slave. It is to harmonize with Mongolian custom that the sun, as the superior of the two planets, is represented on the left, and the moon on the right. This is, indeed, a striking instance of the co-mingling of Aryan and Mongolian ideas in Burma. Over the peacock and the hare are placed respectively the sun-god and the moon-god. On the top of each jamb is a deva holding a fan or chowri made of yak hair, which is included in the regalia of a king. These two devas are bearers of the emblem of sovereignty of their King Sakra.

The two Main Deva – Visnu and Brahma

There remain only two more figures requiring explanation. They are attached to the centre of the folding door of gilt iron screen work. On the left is Brahma, and on the right Sakra, the former being the superior of the two. At the coronation of a Burmese King, the assistance of these two deities, as well as that of Visnu, was invoked, in their capacity as Hindu gods, rather than as devas of the Buddhist cosmogony.

The Lion throne

The Hluttaw and its appurtenances, having become unsafe, have been demolished, and the Lion Throne has been deposited in the Indian Museum at Calcutta. To the east of the Tooth-relic Tower is King Thibaw’s monastery (A-5 on plan). It is an elaborately carved building, of exquisite proportions, and serves as a perfect model of similar structures throughout the country. On the site of this Kyaiing lived Thibaw when he was an obscure Prince, whom nobody ever expected to see on the throne of Upper Burma. He donned the yellow garb, and passed his time laboriously and strenuously in the midst of Pali palm-leaf manuscripts. It was from the cloister that he was suddenly and unexpectedly summoned to assume regal power. When he became king, he built this monastery in order to commemorate his past happy life in learned seclusion. This building faces north on account of circumscribed space. It consists of four divisions:

(i) The Pyattliat saung, with the seven-roofed spire, or the chapel, where images of Buddha are kept;
(ii) The Sanii zaung, or the Master’s quarters, where the Sadaw, or presiding Abbot, lives ; (iii) The Saungmagyi, with triple roofs, or the hall, where
lectures are given, ceremonies are held, and junior monks are provided with apartments ; (iv) The Bawga zaung, or the dormitory of junior monks.
When completed by Thibaw in 1879, it was heavily gilt. Its loss of gilding has made it somewhat tawdry ; but the carving is still well preserved. After the British annexation, it was used as a Military Protestant Chapel 26.

Entering the second enclosure by the main or Eastern Gate to the right of the Hluttaw, one is confronted by the seven-roofed Shwepyatthat, the golden pyramidal spire over the Great Audience Hall, which is the pride and glory of the Burmese Palace as well as its most distinctive feature [A-6 on plan]. It is surmounted by a ti or umbrella of iron- work resting on a sikra. The umbrella is the symbol of sovereignty, and the sikra of divine right. Next comes a lotus-bud capital of duplicated and inverted form. Below these are the seven pyramidal roofs with carved gables. The original plank roofing of this and other Palace buildings was replaced with corrugated iron by King Mindon.

Prince Siddhartha, before he became Buddha had, for his summer residence, a palace or mansion with; seven storeys; and this model was probably adopted in Burma presumably because of its tropical climate. Under the spire is placed a Lion Throne facing the Great Audience Hall. The Chief Queen was invariably present sitting on the right of the King, whenever a levee was held. The Heir- Apparent and the principal Ministers of State took their seats on the left of the King, while the seats on the right were reserved for officials of lesser dignity. Foreign embassies were received in this Hall, and three times a year, viz., at the Burmese New Year in April, at the beginning of Buddhist Lent in June, and at the end of Lent in October, the King and his Chief Queen received the homage of their subjects. No ladies were admitted into this Hall, their homage on the above occasions being received in the Lily Throne Hall at the west end of the Palace. The spire, as the emblem of sovereignty, must be shikoed or kowtowed to by all tributary Chiefs and their Ministers,whenever they visited the capital, or whenever they received Royal presents or decrees in their own States. He who refused to conform to this custom was declared to be a rebel and was accused of high treason. Even criminals, before execution, had to kneel down and prostrate three times towards the Palace spire as a farewell act of allegiance and fidelity to the Throne and Person of the King. A similar custom obtains in China, and it finds a parallel among Moslems facing towards Mecca, and among Jews facing towards Jerusalem whenever they are engaged in prayer, and in the eastward position of Christians reciting the creed.

It would be interesting to trace the migration of this seven-roofed spire from the land of its birth, viz., Kapilavastu (Nipal) and Magadha (Bihar) to Kashmir, Tibet, Assam, Manipur, Burma, China, Siam, Cambodia, and Java. In China, it may be remarked, the shape of the structure is not
tapering or pyramidal, but cylindrical and uniform, while the inside is hollow and may be ascended to the uppermost storey by means of steps. But there, as elsewhere, the number of storeys is always odd, viz., 3, 5, 7 or 9, reflecting the prototype in Kapilavastu.

The separation of the sexes in State ceremonies necessitated the provision of a different hall for ladies, and the Lily Throne Hall [VIII on plan] was assigned for this purpose. This Hall is an exact counterpart of the Lion Throne Hall and was used for similar ceremonies. In November 1901, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, held a Darbar in it, and its surroundings and associations lent an air of splendour and magnificence befitting the occasion. It was then occupied by the Upper Burma Club, but the quarters of the latter have since been removed.

Audience Hall to the Deer Throne
The Audience Hall to the Deer Throne

The Eight Thrones

In this connection, it may be interesting to note that in the Palace there were eight thrones provided for the King and Chief Queen.

These were (marked I to VIII on plan) :

(1) The Lion Throne in the Great Audience Hall
(2) The Brahmani Goose Throne in the Ancestral Hall
(3) The Elephant Throne in the Privy Cuncil Hall
(4) The Bee Throne in the Glass Palace
(5) The Conch Throne in the Morning Levee Hall;
(6) The Deer Throne in the Southern Hall;
(7) The Peacock Throne in the Northern Hall;
(8) The Lily Throne in the Ladies’ Hall.

The distinctive name of each Throne, with the exception of the Lily Throne, is due to the nature of the two figures placed before it as well as of those placed in the small square niches cut in the pedestal. The Lion Throne or Sihasana was evidently derived from Kapilavastu. The lion is the king among beasts and denotes courage, strength, endurance, and power. Gautama Buddha was called ” Sakyasiha,” the “Lion of the Sakya Clan,” and ” Naraslha,” the “Lion amongst Men.” When Suddhodana, the father of Buddha, died, his remains were placed in a coffin, which was set ” upon the throne ornamented with lions.” ^ Ruli, son of Pasenadi, King of Kosala, was sitting on a Lion Throne ” when he was sarcastically reviled by members of the Sakya clan for presuming to sit on the throne, he being of ignoble birth,” – At the first Buddhist Council, held immediately after Buddha’s death in 543 B.C., ” Kashiapa appointed that Ananda should sit on the Lion Throne, with a thousand secretaries before him. They took down his words while he repeated the Dharma as he had heard it from Buddha.” * The Bee Throne (Bhamarasana) in the Hman Nan or Glass Palace; the Elephant Throne (Gajasana) in the Byedaik or Privy Council Hall, and the Brahmani Goose Throne (Hairtsasana) in the Ancestral Hall, were evidently derived from the Talaings, whose power was supplanted by the Burmese.

A beehive was regarded as an omen of power and prosperity; and it is recorded in Talaing history that, during the reign of Wareru (1281—1306 A.D.), a hive of bees settled on one of the city gates of Martaban, and gladdened the heart of the King. ” Byedaik” is a Talaing word signifying a room for young Ministers in attendance, and, as a State Department, it corresponds to the Board of Civil Appointments at Peking. Whenever the King attended in person the Council of the Atwinwuns, he would sit on the Elephant Throne. A Cakravartin or Universal Monarch must have a white elephant called the Uposatha; and the elephant serves as one of the symbols of sovereignty.

The Hamsa Bird

The Hamsa bird or Brahmani Goose was sacred to the Talaings. It signifies purity, dignity, and gentleness. One of the three main divisions of their country was named after it and called ” HamsavatI ” (the modern Hanthawaddy). It was in the Goose Throne Hall that golden figures of the Kings and Chief Queens of the Alompra dynasty were kept and adored by the reigning sovereign. Prayers in the Pali language were specially composed for recitation whenever  offerings were made to these figures.

The Conch Shell and other Mythological Creatures

The Conch Throne (Sankhasana) and Lily Throne (Padumasana) were apparently derived from Vaisnavaism. One of the many hands of a figure of Visnu holds a conch shell, and Visnu and Laksml are depicted as seated on a throne supported by a lotus. The Lily Throne also stands on a lotus
in full bloom. The Deer Throne (Migasana) and Peacock Throne (Mayurasana) recall the hunting habits of the Kings of the Maurya dynasty of Magadha. Hunting was of two kinds : hunting of quadrupeds with dogs,^ and hunting of birds with falcons. The quarry of deer, etc., was exhibited in the Southern Hall, and that of birds in the Northern; and seated on the throne, the King would discuss the topics of the chase with his attendants. The introduction of Buddhism, which forbids the taking of life, changed the character of . these two thrones. Seated on the Deer Throne the Kings
would inspect the offerings to be made to monks, and seated on the Peacock Throne ^ he would review troops, races, and tournaments. At one time, it was seriously suggested that the Palace should be demolished lest hopes as to the revival of the Burmese Monarchy should be kept alive ; but fortunately wiser counsels pre\’ailed, and the main buildings were kept intact. In this connection, the words of the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, recorded in his Minute dated the 2nd December 1901, may be cited :— ” Moreover, its survival and maintenance are both a comcompliment to the sentiments of the Burmese race, showing them that we have no desire to obliterate the relics of the past sovereignty, and a reminder that it has now passed for ever into our hands. I attach no value to the plea that the Burmans will be led by the preservation of the Palace to think that there is a chance that the Monarchy will one day be restored. Any such fanciful notion, even if it exists, cannot long survive. No one believes for a moment, because we preserve and are restoring the palaces of the Mughals at Agra, that we contemplate placing that dynasty again on the throne.”

The British occupation of Mandalay Palace

In November 1901, Lord Curzon made a minute inspection of the Palace, and arranged for its evacuation by the Upper Burma Club, Garrison Church and certain Government Offices, as also for the dismantling of the Hhittaw and the repair and restoration of the wooden pavilions on the walls of Fort Dufferin. As stated above, the Lion Throne in the Hluttaw was removed to Calcutta and set up in the Indian Museum there. In accordance with the orders issued by His Excellency, estimates were framed and sanctioned as follows : —

  • Rs. Construction of new pavilions on the walls of Fort Dufferin … … 43,968
  • Repairs to existing pavilions … … 23,000
  • Restoration of Palace buildings … 5,280 Total … 72,248

Originally, there were 48 pyatthats or pavilions on the walls of Fort Dufferin, namely, 4 at the corners, 12 over the gateways, and 32 occupying intermediate positions between the gateways. The corner pyatthats are larger than the intermediate ones, but have the same number of roofs, namely 5. Seven out of the 48 pavilions had disappeared owing to destruction by fire or natural decay ; and, by March 1903, 5 new ones had been constructed. Out of the remaining 41, 37 were in need of minor repairs, as rc-roofing, putting in new eaves and carving, and substituting new posts for those decayed. The execution of all the necessary repairs has been nearly completed, only three pavilions remaining to be taken in hand.

In the Burmese King’s time, the gateways, the curtains masking them, and the bridges across the moat were all whitewashed, white no less than red being the colour of Burmese Royalty. After the British annexation of Upper Burma, the Public Works Department had these structures coloured light grey. Under His Excellency’s orders, the original whitewash has been restored. In King Thibaw’s time whitewash was applied to three interior rooms, because of their darkness. They have now been re-whitewashed. The Crimson Throne, upon which stood the small gold images, has been replaced behind the throne door where it stood in King Thibaw’s time. The lions that stood on either side of the Lion Throne in the Audience Hall have been recovered, re gilt and replaced. One was recovered from the Palace garden, and the other had to be made. Perforated zinc doors behind the throne entrances have been repaired; and all thrones have been properly placed with reference to the relative position between them and the umbrella stands. The masonry pillars outside the Peacock Throne have been re-erected perpendicularly. The panels, with glass incrustations, have been replaced in their original position.

More images of Mandalay Palace today

Other Monastery’s in Mandalay nearby Mandalay Palace

Layout of Mandalay Palace in Early 20th Century
Layout of Mandalay Palace in Early 20th Century

Layout of Mandalay Palace in Early 20th Century

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