There are some things we experience on our travels that somewhat mystify us and, for me, a cave high on a ridge above Pindaya was one of those. Every nook and cranny of this cave’s cavernous spaces and of its many tiny joining tunnels are adorned with over 8,000 statues and images of Buddha – huge, large, small and tiny; wood, plaster,brick, metal and marble; painted, carved and golden. I don’t begin to understand it, although it’s obviously a place of great importance to Buddhists from all over the world.
The road to the cave winds and twists its way up to the high ridge above Pindaya and ends at a car park still some way from the cave entrance. Luckily for us,our driver took us even a little further up to deposit us right in front of a huge spider. Was I seeing things? Had we come to a form of Disneyland in Burma? Not really.
Although the spider is a fairly recent touristy addition to this place of pilgrimage, it actually represents an ancient legend associated with Pindaya. The story is as long as a good storyteller, like our Sunshine, wants to make it. I have read and heard about six versions, each with its own embellishments to suit the mood of the moment for the teller and time available for the reader / listener.
Essentially, the legend tells of seven fairy princesses who enjoyed coming to the lake below the cave to bathe. One night, the evening drew in before they could fly home to their kingdom. They had just time to fly up to the cave and take refuge there. While they slept, a huge spider covered the entrance to the cave with a strong web. He had his meals ready for days to come! In the morning, when they discovered their plight, the princesses did what many young maidens do in legends and stories – they screamed. And what happens then? Enter the handsome prince!
As in all good fairy stories the world over, a handsome prince just happened to be passing by. He heard the cries of the beautiful princesses and, of course, came to their rescue. As he killed the spider with his arrow, he cried out “Pint-ku Ya”, a cry that later evolved into Pindaya. (In Burmese, Pint-ku means a spider, and “ya” means “I have him”.) And we all know what happens next! The handsome prince chose one of the princesses as his bride and, with varying adjustments, according to whoever is telling the story, they lived ‘happily ever after’. It was great to hear a Burmese fairy story and even better to hear the much longer version that Sunshine told us, one his Grandmother had often told him.
Pindaya, is actually a Shan word meaning ‘wide plains’. As we stood on the entrance platform to the cave (added in 1925) and looked down over those plains, a fine misty rain added to the beauty of the view.
From here we could see the very old trees and the golden pagodas and stupas that we had passed on our way up the hill.
From the pagoda site far below, a long, covered stairway of several hundred steps leads up to the caves. That’s the way devout pilgrims, or perhaps very fit tourists, walk up this steep ridge.
Even from the place where the spider legend is commemorated (on the cliff in front of the white car), we were still about 100 meters below the cave entrance. Another covered staircase. More steps.
OR a glass elevator! Its a recent addition – one that we were pleased to see. That is, we were pleased until some of us got in, the door shut and the elevator refused to move! The power had gone off. Mains or generator, I don’t know. Power failure is a common occurrence in Burma and especially in country areas. They often don’t have mains power anyway. With a bit of encouragement, the door of the lift opened and we got out. The power came on again, and we gingerly stepped on board again. This time it moved upwards and we arrived on a landing bridge that lead to the cave entrance.
The cave is called Pindaya Shwe U Min Pagoda. Just inside the entrance is a 75ft high stupa, thickly covered with gold leaf. Because it is inside the cave, it’s not possible to stand back to look at it, so the photo is straight up.
The stupa’s spire rose high into the great cavern at the entrance to the cave’s labyrinth. According to village history, this cave remained hidden and forgotten for years. Some time during the 18th century, some locals gathering firewood on the cliff sides noticed a dark opening behind the thick vines. On clearing them away, they were astonished to see into a deep cave, its walls adorned with some Buddha images.
After that re discovery, the place immediately became a famous pilgrimage site and additional images were donated, as early inscriptions inside the cave testify. Even now, statues are added by Buddhists, rich and poor and from many parts of the world. Many have the names of the donor added.
While we waited for others to come up in the lift, we read some charts that attempt to explain some of the Buddhist concepts of life, death and reincarnation, a major concept of their belief structure. It is believed that what and / or who we are reincarnated as depends largely on how we live our lives here and now. I do not begin to understand this belief, but one chart listed the “Causes of Ripening in Hell” – hindrances to getting to that state of Nirvana that Buddhists strive to reach. It was a little like a Buddhist version of the Biblical “Ten Commandments”.
The rest of the group arrived and it was time to climb up a few more steps into the cave that extends inwards for about 490 feet along a series of well-worn paths. Every inch is lined with 8,000 plus images of Buddha. Everywhere you looked there were images. It was fascinating but all a bit overwhelming.
Some of the older statues and images in the cave have inscriptions dating to the late 18th century; the earliest one dates from 1773. There may be some images that have no inscriptions that are older, but based on the style elements, it’s believed that none of them is older than 1750.
The collection provides an impressive display of Buddhist art and iconography from the 1750’s to today. Many of the Buddhas show the style of Mandalay craftsmen. Others show the vastly different style of Shan artisans.
The images also have various poses of hands and feet, each of which has a different meaning. The one above is known as a ‘Healing’ or Bithetkaguru image. In this one, the left hand is upturned on the lap of the crossed legs. On it rests a small covered bowl, believed to symbolize a container of blessed water. The right hand hangs over the right knee with the palm turned outwards.
The thumb and forefinger of that hand hold a small round fruit Hpan Khar, (Terminalia chebula), a plant known in English as Myrobalan. According to old medicinal texts, this astringent fruit is often used in traditional medicine and is good for burns and sore eyes. It’s also believed to promote long life if taken once a week with milk. The covered pot and medicinal fruit in combination symbolizes health, longevity, regeneration of cells, flourishing and growth. The ill and elderly often pray at such images in the hope of better health and longer life.
The expressions on the faces were different, too. I wondered what thoughts made this Buddha smile! He had much decorated ears too, so may be the donor of this Buddha was a thankful, happy person.
Maybe these tiny images were the gift of poorer people.
David had gone on with a small group to explore ever more dark tunnels and paths. I turned back to try to just take in what I was seeing. At the very end of one path, I found this female Buddha image. I was pleased but astonished by my find. The golden decoration was beautiful and very intricate.
I was also surprised to see some small, painted, wooden images. They appeared to be very old.
Another small, carved, painted image appeared to be female, dressed in a longy. In the dark of the cave, these images were easy to miss and I had to take a flash photo to see the colours properly.
I found yet another of these small female, wooden, carved images close to the entrance of the cave. It made me wonder if these were perhaps some of the original images found by the wood gatherers long ago in the 18th century. But that is something I did not have time to find out. The cave was about to be closed for the night and we still had to face that ride down in the not so reliable lift before we walked down the steps back to the proper car park – all before it got too dark to see. In the tropics, night falls quickly and it was almost 6.00pm. It had been a long day and we were glad to get back to our hotel.
We both thought we’d seen enough Buddha images for awhile – as you, my readers, must have done also. I was somewhat relieved to learn that for the next few days, we would be immersed in real life with real people as we travelled back through the countryside and ventured out onto Inle Lake. We’ll share that with you in coming journal entries.
Jennie and David
Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels