Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Gyaungs of the Sagaing Hills



The Sagaing Hills are famous for what are called “gyaung,” ( ေခ်ာင္) These are small, isolated nooks where a monastery or nunnery is located. The word can be translated as a “secluded place where spiritual seekers go to escape the trials and tribulations of worldly life."

Over a century ago, the British traveler George Bird wrote about these in more detail: “A Gyaung in the vernacular means a valley, or ravine; but in Sagaing the name is applied to the monasteries and religious buildings built in the valleys, in which live, surrounded on all sides by the bare and rugged hill-sides, communities of very religious and austere monks and nuns. From the river these establishments are not visible, but on ascending to the top of any of the hills at the back of the village of Wachet the eye is enchanted by the view of these vales, in which nestle, amidst groves of graceful trees, and surrounded by pretty flowering shrubs, the monasteries of this austere sect of hermits....These at the time numbered 657. There were originally only nine, but there are now twenty-four of such establishments. Paved, zig-zag paths lead from one to the other, and to the pagoda platforms on the summits, and some are supplied with tanks and wells cut out of the rock. In the hill-sides, at the back of the monasteries, a series of caves have been cut out of the solid rock by the hermits themselves, the aperture being closed in each instance by a massive teak door, and in these dark, unwholesome cells, with the doors shut, excluding both light and air, these recluses spend from five to eight hours a day in silent meditation…Attached to each gyaung are several lay-pupils, whose duty it is to bring in supplies of wood and water, and to collect the offerings of the pious supporters in the villages and town below. They are so celebrated amongst Buddhists that no pilgrim from the lower province would think of returning to his home without paying them a visit.”