With so many pagodas in Myanmar, it is easy to dismiss them all as alike. Yet, Kuthodaw pagoda is something special.
Off a quiet road from the former palace walls, the Kuthodaw Pagoda, like all pagodas, is best visited at dusk, when the tiles are no too hot to walk on and when the bats start to come out the nearby banyan trees. Inside, small girls sell jasmine necklaces as offerings for the necks of the crowd of Buddha images. The central, covered walkway is flanked on both sides by 729 ‘pages’ of marble, inscribed with the Buddha’s teaching, held in individual, four sided shrines, each side guarded by a leogryph, the legendary half lion, half dragon chinthe.
A grill on each face locks the ‘pages’ into place. Recessed and with little light in the pagoda at dusk it can be hard to appreciate the enormity of their construction. In 1871, a synod was held, where over 2400 monks spent five months reciting the Buddha’s teachings from parabaiks collected in the Royal Library. Slabs of marble over 5 feet high were quarried in Sagaing over thirty miles away and floated on rafts down the Irrawaddy to Mandalay. The slabs were smoothed and polished by artisans that Mandalay has become renowned for. 50 scribes were employed by the Burmese King, who spent 7 years etching the teachings onto the slabs. Originally laced in gold, the indentations would have been filled in with soot from paraffin lamps, to make the teaching’s stand out and easily readable.
Now, a 150 years later, Kuthodaw pagoda is often billed as The World’s Biggest Book, which it technically isn’t, as a book must have a cover, but if a small lie helps attract pagoda-weary travellers, then perhaps it is for the best.