Along the Irrawaddy in Burma: Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda and an Elephant Dance

Main stupa at Tant Kyi Tuang Pagoda (Can you spot the little bird with nesting material in its beak in the metal “flower tree?”)

Although Bagan and its 2000 stupas was the ultimate destination of our river cruise on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer, the first time we saw the city was from across a wide spot in the river and only a few days into our week aboard the steamer. We stopped overnight at Tant Kyi village, so we could visit the hilltop Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda with its sweeping view of the Irrawaddy and Bagan in the distance. Also, being there in the morning allowed us to see the many boats full of locals arrive at sunrise to visit Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda before heading back across the river to Bagan. The point of this early pilgrimage was to try to visit four special pagodas in one day, Tant Kyi Taung and three in Bagan. Yen explained that doing this is said to bring about the granting of a prayer, but the only way to visit all three is to begin in at dawn.

Boatfuls of Burmese arrive at dawn at Tant Kyi to begin their four-pagoda pilgrimage

Sure enough, we heard the loud roar of local boats starting before sunrise. (It’s a miracle everyone in this country isn’t deaf by thirty given the onslaught of loud noises in so many places: engines, pounding hammers, slamming looms, blaring music… and no ear protection in sight. Thank God things quiet down fairly early in the evenings!) Boat after boat moored along the dirt bank as crowds of locals streamed ashore. In the distance, as the sun came up, we watched the first hot air balloon launch over Bagan, soon followed by more.

Sunrise over Bagan and the first hot air balloon is up (to the right of the sun). Meanwhile, boats of pilgrims still stream towards Tant Kyi.

Although visiting the Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda was on our agenda, too, we had no intention of trying to do the holy four so were able to get a more leisurely start to our day. Vans drove us through the village into the countryside and dropped us off at the base of a hill. We followed yen up what was nothing more than a forest path, past an ancient man-made reservoir with a naga-sheltered Buddha overlooking the quiet spot.

Buddha watching over an ancient reservoir on the path to Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda

Further up the hill, we reached steps that took us into the shops and monasteries surrounding the steps and tall, free-standing elevator up to the main stupa of the pagoda. This might be a good place to explain the terms “pagoda,” “stupa,” and “temple” as used in Myanmar. In Myanmar, “pagoda” refers to a whole religious complex and may contain many stupas and temples. A stupa is a solid religious structure, often but not always, bell-shaped and frequently gilded. A “temple” is a hollow religious structure that may be entered and/or that houses a Buddha. At least, these are the definitions I’ve been given and how I’ll use them here.

Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda centers around a large golden stupa (see top photo). Several smaller temples surround it, including one with a tall golden Buddha pointing east towards Bagan across the river. The view from the terrace surrounding the main stupa is, pardon the pun, stupendous.

View from Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda

After visiting Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda, we stopped at Ayardaw Clinic, one of eight in the area supported by Pandaw, the company that owns the fleet to which our riverboat steamer belongs. The clinic has an indoor waiting area, one small examining room, and outdoor seating on a porch overlooking the river. A sign informed us that 76,804 patients had been seen since 2011 at a cost of pennies/patient. Most received simple care, while some 543 had received “treatment” or more complicated procedures. The clinics are open two days a week and doctors travel a circuit to man them.

Elephant dance acrobatics. I loved watching the children, especially the boy holding his little sister (whose face is fully covered with thanaka). We saw lots of older siblings cheerfully caring for the younger ones.

Our last stop for the day was an “elephant dance” set up on the river bank near our boat, something that turned out to be charming and much more fun than we expected. Two men danced inside an ornate elephant costume to the music of a live band while local children and adults joined us to laugh and clap.

The men manipulated the heavy costume in head-wagging, trunk-swinging moves, then climbed atop a table or stairs to a small disc to continue their dance on the precarious perch. At times, one man would hold the other so that the elephant stood on its front or hind legs. Impressive!

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