Monday, March 20, 2017

The World's Largest Book

We often talk about 'losing ourselves in a book.' Here at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) it is quite easy to lose yourself among the serried ranks of the 729 dazzling white kiosks that are the 'pages' of the text of the Tripitaka, the Theravada Buddhist dhamma teachings, grouped around the spectacular Pagoda.

Each kiosk is lined with stone tablets, each containing 80-100 lines of inscription, originally in gold; a stone-mason could complete perhaps 16 lines a day. The 'book' was finished in 1688 and though it suffered a fair bit of destruction over the years – not least by the British during the Anglo-Burmese War, I'm ashamed to say – it has now been restored to its pristine state of splendour.

We've just come back from a holiday in this amazing country. For me, it fulfilled a dream I've had ever since I read Kipling's 'The Road to Mandalay' and wanted to see 'the dawn come up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay' – as indeed it does, a red and angry sun rising through the grey mists of the morning.

It is the first Third World country we've ever visited and certainly it has severe problems with a 10% child mortality rate and clean water a rarity in the countryside. The military dictatorship has ruined the economy and despite a fig-leaf of democracy in the person of Aung Snag Suu Kyi is still in control. Yet there is no malnutrition and in a fortnight we saw far fewer beggars than you would see if you walked along Princes Street in Edinburgh. The monasteries and nunneries, run solely on alms-giving, feed anyone who comes in – even if they do little towards medical care or modern education.

The sheer bling of the pagodas takes the breath away – tons of gold, thousands of rubies, sapphires and diamonds – but my principal memory is of the people themselves, smiling and sunny, and as intrigued by our foreign-ness as we were by theirs. Wherever we went little children would beam and wave or run up for a 'high five'!

I can't say it has given me useful ideas for a book. One guide engagingly explained that if there was trouble in the village the Chief Elder (elected every five years) would try to deal with it but if necessary would send for the police. If the police weren't coping, in the last resort they would send for the monk and after that, he explained serenely, everything would be all right. As a plot, I feel that would lack something.

What the experience did give me, though, was brilliantly summed up by Somerset Maugham in one of his Burma novels. When he travelled, he said, 'I do not bring back from my journey quite the same self that I took.'

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