Queen Sein Don’s monastery patiently awaits rejuvenation
IT’S a sunny, peaceful day on the grounds of the monastery. Aside from gongs and the occasional distant recitations, it’s mostly just the sounds of birds, or some traffic from outside. Today, however, resident monk U Yay Wa Ta hears a crashing sound. It seems near. He runs across the yard to see what has happened, and it is as he had expected. Some timber planks on the west side of the compound have collapsed due to rot.
“It’s happened three times this month, I don’t know when the next time might be. All of the compound is in ruin,” U Yay Wa Ta said. For a monastery of such historic and national significance, Yadanarbon Myint is in a fairly sorry state.
The monastic compound, named “Yadanarbon Myint”, or “Very old Monastery”, has been standing for over 120 years. It is known also by the name “Queen Sein Don Monastery”, in respect to its benefactor Sein Don, wife of venerated late kingdom ruler King Mindon. The monastery sits at the base of the Mawlamyine Taung Yoe hill.
Queen Sein Don, one of a number of queens to the regent, had a personal role in designing the monastery with aesthetics inspired by royal buildings and even a replica of the Lion Throne, which can still be seen today. The corridors of the one-time palace are resplendent with gilded figures, floral designs and minute hand-carved decorations in the high court fashion. It is said she gave away much of her wealth to religious causes, in addition to bestowing her personal touches on the monastery which was built by a wealthy local donor. Queen Sein Don died at the age of 69 in 1905.
Proper care would require a steady supply of gold leaf. Per the rules of the old kingdom, a monastery with poles decorated in glass mosaic indicates that a king built the structure. Gold decoration indicates that a queen built it and plain wooden columns indicate that a non-royal individual built it. According to research, monasteries of high importance also have three distinct stair entrances; one for the king, one for monks and one for subjects.
Today, edifices and original decorative forms can still be seen throughout the compound, but are badly in need of restoration. The resident monks have made contributions to its upkeep over the decades as best as they can, but lack the skills and the resources to maintain such a special monument. Each year’s rainy season brings with it the threat of water damage and further rot to the wooden sections of the compound. At present, there are two monks charged with its care, one being U Yay Wa Da.
“Such a historical place cannot be maintained by just two people,” U Yay Wa Da said.
Calling on the government to provide funding and expertise has attracted some attention which may yet yield results. Last year, engineering experts from the archaeological department of the National Museum and library were sent to make an appraisal of the potential cost of restoration of the compound but a final figure has not been released.
Residents of Mawlamyine hope the government will repair the Queen’s monastery.
“This is not only a historical place for our township, but also the nation,” resident U Tun Maung said.
The site attracts around 40 people per day, a mix of tourists and pilgrims, with western visitors making the trek there to capture sights of genuine, original kingdom artworks.
“It has amazing artwork, built by the queen. It is sad to see such a historical place suffering damage,” a British tourist who identified himself as William, said.
U Yay Wa Da reported that private businessmen have even offered to purchase the compound, but the monk remains wary of their intentions, and will not sell the national treasure to anyone. Instead, he will wait for public or government assistance, with which he can be sure the history of the site will be respected and visitors will always have free access.
“We don’t want to lose such a historic site. We will continue to campaign on behalf of this place and maintain as best we can,” he said.
Motorbikes pass the Queen Sein Don’s Monastery in Mawlamyine township on November 4, 2018.