14 August 2013

The Monastery Built on a Volcanic Plug

Yes, that’s right. A volcanic plug. Take a look at this amazing place. Taung Kalat, located in central Burma, thirty miles or so from the ancient city of Bagan towers above the earth like some sort of giant’s sand castle. Atop it there is a Buddhist monastery which rests upon the precipitous volcanic plug.

Yes, that’s right a volcanic plug. It sounds dangerous but at this stage in its life, Taung Kalat poses no threat. A volcanic plug (sometimes called a ‘neck’) is formed when magma, on its way up through a vent on an active volcano, hardens inside the vent. While the volcano is active this could well lead to the mother of all explosions and it would, you have to admit, be a shame if this beautiful monastery was to be catapulted in to the stratosphere. However, the volcano is thought (perhaps we should say hoped) to be extinct.

The monastery is still actively used in the practice of Buddhism. Although many locals divert from the religion in its strictest form, also worshiping the Nats, thirty seven spirits revered in conjunction with Buddha, the monks retain an important role in the community. The volcano is thought by the Burmese to be the home of the most important Nats and as such is often referred to as their country’s version of Mount Olympus.

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At dawn there is little to compare to the serenity and beauty of Taung Kalat. It is unsurprising that the local people believe it to be the home of the Nats. Which semi-divine being wouldn’t want to make his or her home here?

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To get to the top of Taung Kalat is arduous, but once there the views are breathtaking. There are an astounding seven hundred and seventy seven steps up to the top of the volcanic plug. One of the more renowned Buddhist hermits, U Khandi, who died in 1949, maintained these stairs for many years. A shame then, that the Burmese Government does so little to protect the site or the local people.

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The monastery is often called Mount Popa but this is a misnomer. That is the name of the volcano. The volcano, thought to be extinct, dwarfs the monastery, the name of which translates to ‘pedestal hill’. Here you can see Taung Kalat to the left of the picture. It clearly stands out but looks tiny when compared to Mount Popa itself. The local people call the volcano Taung Ma-gyi which means ‘mother hill’ to avoid confusion between themselves, but tourists tend to get it wrong.

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The stupa of the monastery are remarkable pieces of work. From this vantage point it is best not to look down as the walls of the plug seem almost vertical from here and there is little protection in terms of hand rails.

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In other words, don’t get dizzy and slip from this point.

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The Macaque monkeys have made their home on Taung Kalat. However, they are wild animals and should be approached with caution. They are quite likely to steal anything you place on the ground for more than a few seconds so tourists are always advised to carry their belongings at all time.

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Yet at the base a giant tiger keeps guard. Even so, watch out for those monkeys!

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If you can manage the steps up to the top of the plug then you will enjoy views in all directions around the monastery. There is the city of Bagan, ancient and inscrutable from one point. From another the volcano rises like a Burmese Mount Fuji. The caldera (its cauldron like shape, created when land collapsed) of the volcano is huge so that the mountain takes different shapes from the various directions.

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As well as being the bringer of death and destruction the volcano has ensured the area is rich in both flora and fauna, including the ubiquitous Macaques. Popa is thought to come from the Sanskrit language and means ‘flower’. While the areas around the volcano are fairly arid, the soil here is extremely fertile, being made up of so much volcanic ash. In contrast to much of the region, Popa has around two hundred streams and rivers.

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You are guaranteed a friendly welcome from the local vendors who rely on tourism for their living. It is unfortunate, however, that the Burmese government has not really done enough for the site's upkeep. The sites are not adequately protected from either the elements or the tourists and the army may even have used forced labor in the area. However, when stable government is fully returned to the country, this is bound to be high on the list for many to see.

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First Image Credit Flickr User Oriel Gascon