via The Smithsonian, December 2019: Feature story on Mrauk U, the ancient city in western Myanmar.
It is said that Man Pa, king of ancient Arakan for nearly 20 years, erected the temple to celebrate a naval victory over a Portuguese armada and a military campaign against cities across the Bay of Bengal. He adorned the roof with 27 bell-like stupas, or domed Buddhist shrines, enclosed the inner sanctuary in a maze of corridors, and crammed the complex with 80,000 representations of the Buddha in various incarnations. These include real and imaginary animals; bodhisattvas, human beings delaying entry to nirvana in order to alleviate the suffering of others; demigods; protective spirits; and scenes from the Jataka tales, ancient allegories from the Indian subcontinent, built around the past lives of the Buddha. Lording over the panoply is a colorful painted-stone relief of Man Pa himself, a slender, godlike figure wearing a gilded robe and three-tiered golden crown shaped like a pagoda. He stands balanced atop an elephant, surrounded by adoring members of his court. The variety and richness of the images are astonishing, and attest to both the king’s piety and ego.
With my translator and guide, Zaw Myint, a teacher of English, I go deeper into the temple, called Shitt-haung, and enter its heart: the ordination hall, consecrated for ritual ceremonies such as the upasampada, the undertaking of an ascetic life in the manner of the Buddha. Carvings of leering trolls loom on the lintel, warding off evil spirits. At the far end of the room, squeezed into an arched niche, is a ten-foot-tall seated Buddha with immense earlobes and a richly folded tunic, all encased in gold leaf. Direct sunlight pierces a narrow aperture, bathing the figure in what seems like a divine aura; a halo painted vibrant blue, green, red and yellow encircles the Buddha’s head.