A project to restore three examples of Mandalay’s 19th century royal heritage has led to a surprising discovery, as workers unearthed evidence of an unexpected additional building while digging a toilet on one of the construction sites.
The wooden pillars discovered by accident are believed to be from a rest hall for Buddhist monks who were sitting examinations, U Win Myint Hlaing said, and are located near the Thudhamma Assembly Hall, just outside the walls of Mandalay’s palace. Their number and placement indicates a structure far larger than the assembly hall, said U Win Myint Hlaing of Win Family Construction, one of the engineering firms overseeing the project.
“Amazingly, the pillars of the newly found building exceed those of Thudhamma [Assembly Hall],” he said. “This [building] is also larger than Shwe Nan Daw Monastery.”
When King Mindon founded Mandalay as the country’s royal capital in 1857, he built seven key sites: the palace, the moat, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Ahtumashi Monastery, a Buddhist scripture repository known as Pitakat Taik Taw, Thudhamma Assembly Hall and Mahapahtan Ordination Hall. Most of the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1890, with further damage to the area sustained during World War II. Only the moat and Kuthodaw Pagoda emerged unscathed, though the palace and Ahtumashi Monastery have since been rebuilt in their original styles.
The restoration project, as its planning committee announced in February, will excavate and restore the remaining three sites: the ordination hall, the assembly hall and the scripture library. The foundations of each building were staked out in April, with three engineers and 150-200 workers a day carrying out excavations at each site.
U Win Myint Hlaing estimated it would take “three or four months” to rebuild the Thudhamma hall, with the final architectural details taking much longer than that. The building will be rebuilt based on its original foundations.
While the construction is being carried out using traditional Myanmar building methods, with the goal of matching the historical record as closely as possible, U Win Myint Hlaing said a concession has had to be made on one of the original building materials: teak.
The cost of teak and the difficulty of finding pieces large enough for the project mean concrete must be used instead.
“The [original] wooden pillars were made of teak but we cannot make the floor and the pillars with timber – it is rarely used in buildings today,” U Win Myint Hlaing said.
One area resident, U Myint Maung, 69, said many bits of burned wooden pillars have been pilfered from the site over the years.
“When I was 14 or 15 years old, many pieces of wooden pillars could be seen, but visitors came and removed pieces from the site because of its sweet smell,” he said, adding that he believed the pillars were made from fragrant sandalwood.
The team has been studying another building constructed during the reign of King Mindon, near Thigazar Creek in Mandalay, to gain further insight into the styles of the time, particularly the distinctive windows, which could be easily propped open for ventilation.
U Win Myint Hlaing said each of the three “new” royal buildings will include a public gallery showing relevant documents and examples of the original foundations, including bits of rock, slabs of brick and pieces of wooden pillars.
The costs of the project is estimated to exceed K2 billion (US$2 million) and is being covered by donor U Kyaw Win, who said the construction of the new buildings will be a way to earn merit for his deceased parents and grandparents.
One of the project’s main issues was how to gain access fairly to land owned by Basic Education High School 8 Aung Myay Tharsan. Ko Nada Soe, who is in charge of the site, told The Myanmar Times that negotiations are now complete, due in no small part to U Kyaw Win’s generosity.
“We plan to construct a new building for the school,” he said. “The donor said he is willing to [spend] whatever is needed so the project can happen.”
As well as donors, workers and engineers, the project has brought together architect Tampawaddy U Win Maung, senior monks and government officials, all of whom, according to one of the engineers, are collaborating to ensure the project is a success.
“At Sayadaw’s willingness, we want to have the restorations finished by kason [the start of next year’s rainy season],” he said, so that a Buddhist literature exam can be held at the site.
However, some tourism industry experts say they do not expect the new sites will catch the imagination of foreign visitors.
“Other sites that have been rebuilt, such as the royal palace, are not popular with visitors,” said freelance tour guide Ko Win Zaw Oo. “Rebuilding is not the same as renovating the original structure.”