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An "Extraordinary Folly"? Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Donald M. Stadtner

[image] The Mingun pagoda was likely built between 1792 and 1812. Burmese masons produced millions of cubic feet of brick in local kilns. (Donald M. Stadtner)

"Small is beautiful" is a maxim unknown in Burma, where lavish and massive Buddhist temples reflected both royal piety and temporal power. It is therefore surprising that the Mingun pagoda, the nation's largest shrine, symbolized neither. The pagoda was left unfinished by a despotic king unable to meet the demands of the enormous project, according to a fanciful tale spread by the British, who were eager to discredit the Burmese court to justify annexation of Upper Burma in the nineteenth century. The stunted edifice was a visible metaphor for Burma's regressive spiritual and material condition, which only rational European rule could ameliorate. One British visitor, Henry Yule, dubbed the pagoda an "extraordinary Folly."

The Mingun pagoda was, in fact, the jewel in the crown of an ambitious building campaign sponsored by King Bodawpaya (ruled 1782-1819). Indeed, it is the largest brick temple in Asia, its outline dominating the western bank of the Irrawaddy River in the hamlet of Mingun. Its base is 256 feet square and it rises some 150 feet. But it is now viewed as little more than a "curiosity," enhanced by dramatic fissures in its wall created by an earthquake in 1839. Visitors climb to the top by a modern stairway mounted on the most ruined corner of the monument, but no access to the summit existed originally. Also at Mingun is Asia's largest bell, 13 feet tall and weighing 90 tons. Cast by Bodawpaya to complement the huge pagoda, it stands in its original location some 50 yards to the northeast. The pagoda is still considered unfinished, since it is without a tower, the hallmark of a Burmese temple, as exemplified by the graceful and lofty brick pagodas built between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries at Pagan, a little more than 100 miles downstream on the Irrawaddy (see "The Power of Pagan," September/October 1992). "An unfinished edifice that impresses only by its heaviness," is how one blunt critic, Indian scholar Niharranjan Ray, described the pagoda in the 1940s. But recent publication by Burmese historian Than Tun of hundreds of royal documents from the era of Mingun's construction, together with accounts by foreign travelers and Burmese court chronicles, suggests that its design likely sacrificed height for girth from the very beginning, forsaking a tall, tapering tower for a massive base. The pagoda we see today was, therefore, probably considered finished by Bodawpaya and his subjects.

Donald M. Stadtner was for many years an associate professor of art history at the University of Texas, Austin.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America