April - June 2005 Dateline

The Golden Rock That Balances on a Hair


The Burmese seem to have no concept of "The [mode of transportation] is full; please wait for the next one." When the wide back of the truck I had boarded for the trip up the mountain had filled up, a whole family appeared. Naturally, they were crammed inside. Finally, the giant truck/sardine tin made its way up the mountain. As it did the air became dramatically cooler and drier, and we passed several lovely waterfalls. They would have made good pictures had I been able to move even my arms! The air became dramatically cooler and drier. The bumpy, curving, standing-room-only ride would have been even more of an endurance test had the breeze not been so refreshing in the Burmese summer. Just as I thought we never would, we arrived at the foot of the trail to Kyaiktiyo. Along the steep trail were numerous souvenir stalls, stands selling snacks, and teahouses. Wherever you go in Myanmar you'll never be far from a teahouse. These are much more popular than restaurants among the Burmese. For Burmese pilgrims making the long climb a teahouse is a nice place to rest. Closer to the top I passed several stalls selling traditional Burmese medicine made from plant and preserved animal parts.

Near the top of the mountain I found two huge lions guarding the entrance to Kyaiktiyo. It's there that all visitors must remove their shoes and socks. In Myanmar shoes and socks must be taken off before entering the temple grounds, not just before entering buildings as in the rest of southeast Asia. As I climbed the last set of stairs I felt as though I were completing a religious pilgrimage myself, after the bus ride, truck ride, and steep walk in the thin mountain air. Finally, just as I thought it would forever be another staircase, truck ride, or switchback away, Kyaiktiyo came into view.

Photo of Kyaiktiyo rock balancing on a natural rock platform.

Kyaiktiyo rock balancing on a natural rock platform.

So what had I (and many Burmese pilgrims) gone through all this for? Well, to see a big rock, really, but not just any big rock. By itself, with no man-made embellishments, the Kyaiktiyo rock would be awe-inspiring. The boulder is about 25 feet high and sits on a natural rock platform that seems to have been built just to act as a pedestal for it. Yet hardly any part of it touches the rock base given its odd shape. It appears ready to crash down the mountain at any second. The entire boulder is plated in gold, and a golden, bell-shaped shrine sits on top. A gold lotus flower is painted on the base just below the rock. After climbing down the stairway I found myself in the main shrine complex. There are several viewing platforms, pagodas, Buddha shrines and nat spirit shrines. Directly in front of the golden rock is the platform where most worshipers make offerings and offer their prayers. Further away there is a circle of eight gongs (one for each day of the Burmese week) with four statues of nats and angels in the center.

Photo of viewing platform.

Viewing platform.

As at Shwedagon, the sacred and the festive seem to blend at Kyaiktiyo. The children seemed to be having a good time with the gongs, while the serene look on the adult's faces made it appear that they knew they were engaged in a sacrament. The most important shrine is to a hermit with a head shaped like the boulder. Legend has it that the hermit grew a hair of the Buddha and took it to the king with the instruction that it should be enshrined under a rock shaped like the hermit's head. The king was the son of a Zagwi (see the article on the nats) and a naga (sea dragon) so he had the power to find the rock at the bottom of the ocean. He built a ship that carried the rock from the ocean to the mountain. When he had the rock in place, the boat turned to stone. A stone that looks a bit like a ship is enshrined in the complex and is said to be the actual boat that transported the rock. As for the Buddha hair, it is said that the rock is balanced on the single hair.

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