The Golden Rock, a huge round boulder, is perched on its parent rock, defying gravity. The parent rock is in the shape of a drum, its upper edges painted with lotus petals. Adding to the mystery is the 24 foot high stupa built on top of the boulder, all of it swathed in gold. Numerous male devotees are busy applying gold leaf to the base of the boulder. There are people below and to the side of the main event, in meditation and active prayer. Clouds of incense are swirling. The sun is going down and the boulder is taking on subtler colors. The flood lights come on and soon it begins to glow in its full golden splendor. In the background the loud amplified sound of a lone monk is calling out a mantra. There is gaiety all around – this is not a somber event. Old ladies, small children, boys, men, everyone is here. This is the second holiest site in Burma, the first being Schwedagon Paya in Yangon.
We are at Mount Kyaiktiyo, in south-eastern Burma, four hours drive from Yangon. It takes a lot of planning and a bit of physical stamina to get here. The last section of the trek is a 45 minute steep hike up an access road used only by trucks. The pilgrims walk this bit. If you are too challenged, or can’t carry your worldly goods, there are porters eager to help you.
I experienced Kyaikitiyo at sunset, and again at dawn the next day. Most people were up all night long, socializing, meditating and praying. This is a 24 hour moving tableau, similar to other large pilgrimage sites around the world. This is Burma’s happening scene, a mountain top aerie that calls out to everyone.
The legend of the Golden Rock involves an 11th century king and an ascetic that had a hair of the Buddha in his possession. The king was asked to find a rock in the shape of the hermit’s head and to enshrine the hair in a stupa placed on top of the rock. The king found such a rock at the bottom of the ocean and in his magical powers was able to transport it to the top of the mountain in a wooden boat. This boat then turned to stone and you can see it near the rock. Anyone for embellishments they’d like to add?
So, knowing this blend of storytelling, myth and devotion to anything having to do with the Buddha’s hair, I am called to identify my relationship to it. This is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site and I am calling myself a Buddhist. What part of this experience do I resonate with? Do I have to believe in something? I find myself comparing an American Christian’s experience in Lourdes. Do they find an easy communion, despite being an ocean away from home and in another culture? If it is an easy embrace for them, then it would follow that I could enter easily into the Buddhist fold here in Burma. However, it is not that easy, not for me. I am swept up by the devotion and pleasure all around me, and I am in awe of the improbable Golden Rock. But what part of this place is for me? The origin of the rock and it’s Buddhist connection feels like another Burmese cultural creation meant to engender a further connection to the faith.
I saw a color photo of this place, from a time not that long ago when the rock was not painted gold. Nor were there any commercial establishments anywhere, just two elephants carrying their local pilgrims to the top. This place has obviously been amped up rather recently. It is now going full tilt, and the commercial trappings are everywhere. There’s money to be made; a lot of loose, smiling people to service.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by all the commercialism, but you can’t fall prey. It’s too much a part of the scene to avoid it, so you just have to let it melt away. This is pilgrimage – a lot of happy-go-lucky people very pleased to be here.
It’s easy to get caught up in the free flow of people coming and going and doing their Buddhist thing. I am part of this place, saying mantra and clicking my wrist mala, grooving on the exotic display. No need to make this out to be more than it is.
I let myself enjoy the bright golden rock and marvel how it came to be here. Everybody is loving it up, all eyes glued. I find it satisfying that it is an abstraction. It’s not a statue, a painting, an image of the Buddha, or any anthropomorphized object. It’s just a rock attached to a story. Maybe the story is keeping it from falling off the side of the mountain. It sure looks like its ready to tumble at any moment. The top of that parent rock is at an incline, wanting to shed its golden child, but its not budging. Every once in while I have to hold my breath. I’m consciously not spending any time on the walkway below that rock.
The sun is now rising in the eastern sky and people are starting to filter away. I see that it was all about the evening, night, and early morning. The next wave must be making their way to this temple on buses, trains, cars and by foot, now miles and miles away. They are a happy lot, because tonight will be their night at the Golden Rock.
To see photos of Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock in the web site gallery, click here.