At 4:00 AM, the sky is about to welcome the first rays of dawn when the beating of the drum can be heard reverberating in one of the monasteries in Mandalay. A senior monk dressed in his monastic robe accompanied by several lay assistants in white and wearing traditional headdresses would commence with a ritual handed down thousands of years ago. This is not any usual ritual of incense lighting and chanting of the sacred texts. This is the everyday washing of the face and brushing of teeth of the Mahamuni Buddha. Wait, tooth brushing of the Buddha? Odd as it may sound it is a solemn tradition of Buddhists and devotees alike in the town located southwest of Mandalay.
It is said that Gautama Buddha travelled to the capital city of Arakan, Dhanyawadi. Buddha was spreading the noble precepts of Buddhism and came upon the King’s 26th anniversary celebration at the time. The King of Arakan along with his wife the Chief Queen Sandra Mala plus their entourage that numbered by the thousands paid homage to Gautama Buddha. They were so inspired by the teachings that the King asked for Gautama Buddha to leave an image of him for the people to venerate.
The Buddha sought a place where he can be alone and meditated for a week under a Bodhi tree. The king’s loyal members – Sakka and with his assistant Vissakamma, shaped a lifelike representation of the Buddha. They used ornaments of gold given by the king and his followers. Buddha was so pleased when he saw the lifelike statue because it was the only image that was true to his likeness. Buddha breathed his spiritual essence into the image and prophesied that it would last for a long, long time. The Mahamuni Buddha is also sometimes called Maha Myat Muni or Phaya Gi and its literal translation is The Great Sage. The image is seated in a relaxed manner, a position known as Bhumisparsa Mudra. Its legs are crossed with the soles turned inwards and with the right hand touching the ground. The left hand is sitting on its lap with an upturned palm. It is 3.83 metres tall and weighs 6.5 tonnes. It sits on a pedestal that is 2.13 metres high, cutting a very imposing figure. On top of the Buddha’s head is a crown inlaid with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Its whole body is in cast bronze but male devotees have gold leaves regularly applied to the countenance of the Mahamuni Buddha. The repeated layering has thickened the gold covering to 5.9 inches.
Every year, a festival is held known as the Mahamuni Paya Pwe. It is an event celebrated early in February. It would coincide with the end of the Buddhist Lent. Buddhist monks in saffron robes would recite sacred scriptures in groups of two. Guards would be stationed at the temples entrance and at the foot of the Great Image during these festivities. CCTV cameras are also all over the place to ensure protection of this sacred image of Buddha.