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MYANMAR

Mystery, magic and murder

Behind the gorgeous facade of Mandalay Palace lies a horrifying massacre

Perhaps I'd been stupid mentally reciting Rudyard Kipling's "Mandalay" on the flight from Bangkok. Images of a virgin territory full of exotic tradition, legend and mysteries are quickly dispelled as we arrive at Mandalay International Airport in the middle of the morning to find the staff turning on the lights, officers shouting at each other and two confused ladies hurriedly unlocking the toilets. Of the two rooms reserved for the ladies, only one is in working order and most of us decide we can wait.

The custom officers check our passports carefully before stamping them. Sweat is running down my face, not from fear but from the heat - the air-conditioners have yet to be switched on. After almost 20 minutes in the line, we eventually reach the arrivals hall and find our way to the waiting bus.

Mandalay is considered as the centre of Myanmar culture and was last royal capital of the independent Myanmar kingdom before its final annexation by the British.

Like most former capitals of Myanmar, Mandalay was founded on the wishes of the ruler of the time. King Mindon of Konbaung Dynasty moved the capital from Amarapura and founded his new royal capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill, fulfilling the Buddha's prophecy that a great city would be founded at the foot of Mandalay Hill in the 2400th year of his faith.

"On Mandalay Hill, you will find a contemporary statue depicting the ogress San Dha Mukhi offering her severed breasts to Buddha. It is said her self-mutilation so impressed Buddha that he ensured her reincarnation 2,400 years later as King Mindon," says Paothong Thongchua, a well-known historian, who is our unofficial guide in Mandalay.

King Mindon was one of the most popular and revered kings of Myanmar. He created the world's largest book in 1868, the Tripitaka. The 729 pages of the Buddhist Pali Canon were inscribed in marble and each stone slab is housed in a small stupa at the Kuthodaw Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill.

Mindon also built Mandalay Palace in the heart of the city. Constructed between 1857 and 1859, the palace was the primary royal residence of Mindon and Thibaw, the last two kings of the country. Much of the palace compound was destroyed during World War II by allied bombing although a faithful replica has since been built.

Mindon reused many of the materials from Amarapura in the construction of Mandalay. The palace buildings were dismantled and moved by elephant to the new location.

"A legacy of that exodus is U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. Constructed in 1849, this 1.2-kilometre wooden bridge across the Taung-tha-man Lake is the world's longest teak bridge. It was built by the mayor U Bein using the unwanted teak columns from the old palace during the move to Mandalay.

"With all beautiful carvings and decorations, the palace was truly a work of art. Ironically, the most intriguing thing about it was not its beauty but the horrid story of a massacre," says Paothong.

Hsinbyumashin, the Queen of Alenandaw or the Queen of Middle Palace, the third of Mindon's four highest-ranking queens, became more powerful after the death of the chief queen and plotted with some high officials to place the inexperienced Prince Thibaw on the throne. She reasoned that if the prince were to marry one of her daughters, her influence at the court would be the same as before.

On the day after the Mindon's funeral, the ambitious Hsinbyumashin hastily put Thibaw on the throne. She then offered her eldest daughter, Supayaji, to be his queen, but during the royal wedding ceremony Supayalat, Hsinbyumashin's second daughter, broke ancient custom by pushing in and becoming anointed queen at the same time as her sister.

"It is believed that Hsinbyumashin and Supayalat engineered the massacre of the entire royal family to prevent potential rivals from usurping Thibaw’s power. They arranged a big banquet in the palace and made sure that Thibaw's glass of wine was always full.

"Hundred of princes and princesses of all ages, all of whom were Thibaw's and Supayalat's half siblings, were captured and taken to the back of the palace. All were strangled or clubbed by intoxicated ruffians and flung, dead or alive, into a trench, which was then filled with earth and trampled by elephants.

"Every scream was covered up by the sound of the music from the banquet hall. When the wailing was loud, the band would play louder. It took three days to finish the killing and then all the music stopped," Paothong says.

Thibaw and Supayalat reigned from 1878 to November 1885 when the British troops entered Mandalay. The last king and queen of Myanmar and his family were then exiled to Ratnagiri in India.

The memento of Mandalay's glorious era is Shwenandaw or the Golden Palace monastery. The teak building was once an apartment of Mindon and his chief queen. Mindon passed away in this building and after his death Thibaw had the building dismantled and reassembled on its present site near Mandalay Hill as a monastery.

The Golden Palace, once surrounded by hundreds of royal apartments behind the Mandalay Palace wall, now stands alone. Its glittering charm is wearing out and the colourful paint has dulled. Even the sharp-line carving of the motifs and mythical creatures all over the monastery, once covered with gold leaf and cinnabar, are fading away, causing a melancholic feeling to wash over me.

Time inevitably devours everything that is man-made but Shwenandaw has tried hard to fight against ruin, perhaps wanting to pay testament of the rise and fall of Mandalay and maintain a semblance of the exotic traditions of which this city was once proud.

If you go

<< Air Asia operates 4 flights per week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) between Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport and Mandalay International Airport. Visit www.airasia.com.

<< Shoes, sleeveless shirts, short pants and short skirts are not allowed in the temple.


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