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Taung Kalat Monastery
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrTaung Kalat is a Buddhist monastery which is perched on top of Mount Popa - a volcano which rises up to a height of 1,518 meters. Situated in central Burma, almost 50 km from the medieval city of Bagan, Mount Popa is one of the most prominent pilgrimage sites of the country where thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock each year to see the Nat temples and numerous relic sites on this volcanic mountain top. It can be seen from a distance of 60 km on a sunny day and the mountain looks like a gigantic, rock castle with a pretty monastery nestled on its top. The name Mount Popa is derived from the Sanskrit/Pali term ‘Puppa’ which means “flower”, while the term ‘Taung Kalat’ means “Pedestal Hill”.
The MountainThe volcano is composed of Pyroclastic deposits and Basaltic-andesite lava flows along with Scoriaceous materials which originated from the Strombolian eruptions. The mountain also features a caldera which is 0.85 km deep and about 1.6 m wide. Covering an area of 27 square meters, one can find a 0.72 cubic mile debris avalanche on the north of the caldera.
The Taung Kalat which means “Pedestal Hill” lies on the southwest of Mount Popa, which is a volcanic plug or a neck. It was formed because the magma, while rising up on its way towards the vent, somehow froze inside the vent. The Taung Kalat rises up to a height of 737 meters with the monastery situated on its summit. The Taung Kalat is also at times referred to as Mount Popa and therefore, to avoid confusion the main range is also referred to as ‘Taung Ma Gyi’ or the Mother Hill.
Legend and HistoryLegend has it that the mountain sprang out of the ground as a result of a great earthquake in 443 BC. The presence of the Nat temples suggest the existence of an earlier animist religion which was later incorporated into mainstream Buddhism in Burma. It has been suggested that some time before the rule of Anawrahta, the King of Bagan, many animals were sacrificed as a part of the Nat ritual. Mount Popa used to be the most prominent center of the Nats and has been referred to as the Mount Olympus of Burma.
According to a legend, a Nat brother and sister from the Kingdom of Tagaung, who were trying to escape King Thinligyaung of Bagan, were granted refuge on Mount Popa where they were supposedly enshrined.
According to another legend, the Mother of Popa named Me Wunna used to be an ogress who survived on flowers. She was enamored with Byatta, who was the collector of flowers for King Anawrahta of Bagan. However, the King was displeased to hear about the liaison and Byatta was executed. The sons of Byatta and Me Wunna were carried off to Bagan and as a result, Me Wunna cried herself to death and Byatta became a Nat or a spirit.
Their sons excelled in the services of the King but even they were put to death for neglecting their duties during the construction of a pagoda. After their death, the brothers also transformed into powerful spirits or Nats and to this day, a festival is celebrated in their honor in Taungbyone.
What to ExpectThe traveler has to climb 777 steps which leads them to the mountain peak. Even though the climb is arduous, the visitor will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape, including a stunning view of Mount Popa and the city of Bagan. The golden ‘stupa’ of the monastery is a marvellous piece of architecture. From the top of the mountain, one can enjoy a spectacular view of the entire city of Bagan which is only 50 km away and further behind in the North, one can see the majestic peak of the Taung Ma-gyi.
The area surrounding Mount Popa is arid but the mountain itself has more than 200 streams and springs which makes it appear as an oasis amidst the dry and arid landscape of central Burma. The surrounding landscape lacks the lush, green forests and rivers which characterizes Burma, and is drier with stunted vegetation consisting of thorny plants. The area is recently developing as a national park and the reservoir of Kyetmauk Taung waters the gardens and orchards nearby.
FestivalsThe two most important festivals are celebrated during the full moon of Nayon , in the months of May and June, and also on the full moon of Nadaw, sometime in the months of November and December.
Local people go hiking in groups from Kyaukpadaung, the foot of Mount Popa in December and April. The Thingyan festival in April celebrates the Burmese New Year. In olden times, under the reign of the Kings of Bagan, thousands of animals were slaughtered during these festivals.
Some of the festivals require a medium, who has to be a transgender and would supposedly be possessed by a Nat spirit. The Nat would enable them to communicate between the common people and the spirits. These are the kind of festivals which would greatly intrigue the Western's mind, and thousands of tourists from all over the world come here to witness these unique festivals of Burma.
- People who are faint-hearted or have vertigo must not dare look down from the top of the monastery as it will surely give them spells of dizziness, and the lack of hand rails make the situation riskier.
- Since this region is home to hundreds of Macaque Monkeys, the visitors are advised to take good care of their valuables since the monkeys, who live on either side of the stairs, are known to snatch items from the tourists.
- It is suggested that you avoid wearing the colors red, black, and green since those colors are known to offend the spirit of the Nats.
- Visitors should not carry meat items, especially pork, while visiting the shrine.
How to ReachTourists in Bagan generally make a one day trip to the Taung Kalat. One can hire a car from Bagan and reach the area in an hour. New Bagan is equipped with an airport so travelers can catch a flight from the Yangon International Airport to New Bagan, or one can choose to fly to Bagan from the International Airport at Mandalay.
Bagan can also be reached by train and bus both from Yangon or Mandalay.
Spoken LanguagesAlthough Burmese is the mother tongue of Burma, but being an erstwhile British colonial nation, English is also widely understood by the educated class.
Chinese is also known by certain people in Burma.
Similar LandmarksVisitors in Burma must visit the Mandalay Hills dotted with temples and pagodas and the beautiful Mandalay Palace which is noted for its architectural elegance.
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Author: SubhasishMitra. Last updated: Sep 08, 2014