The Yawnghwe Haw

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I finally got to go to the Yawnghwe Haw. I’ve always wanted to visit it.

in the city of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State, near the famous Inle lake, stands the Haw (Palace) that had once belonged to the Sawbwa – ‘sky lord,’ the Shan princely ruler of the area.

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Nyaungshwe was the core of what was once Yawnghwe, one of the most powerful of the many Shan States that proliferated in Northern Burma from medieval times up to the early days of Independence from the British in the late 1940s.

The military regimes of post-independence Myanmar were suspicious of the former royal families,  and many Sawbwa Haws were demolished – one of the little known cultural atrocities committed during the decades of military rule.

The Yawnghwe Haw is one few which remain standing.

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Probably part of the reason why it survived is the fact that Nyaungshwe was always a vibrant cosmopolitan city because of its proximity to Inle Lake – it continues to be so today because of the lake’s tourist market. It was too prominent to destroy, so the authorities might as well capitalize on it by keeping it as a tourist attraction: for much of its history after it was abandoned by the last Sawbwa, it was a Museum for Buddhist statues.

Another factor that led to its prominence was that last Sawbwa. Sao Shwe Thaik was Myanmar’s first president after the country gained independence. In the aftermath of Bogyoke Aung San’s assassination, the power vacuum had been filled by  U Nu, who would serve as prime minister, but the symbolic role of Aung San as face of the Union could not be filled. Why exactly Sao Shwe Thaik was chosen to take the  largely ceremonial but prestigious presidency is unclear , though I suspect that, as an influential figure in the Shan leadership around the time the Panglong agreement was being brokered, he was given the post to cement the union.

This of course is a tenuous reason – the former royal family of Yawnghwe was not spared from the military regimes’ brutality. When Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, his eldest son Hso Hom Fa, who was 15 years old, was shot dead. He himself was arrested and died in prison (yes, Myanmar killed its first President). His family is still in exile in Canada today, with a few relatives left in Nyaungshwe.

Some source say though, that the main reason why the military regime never razed the Haw down was because there was a curse placed on whoever destroyed it.

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The Throne of the Sawbwa of Kyaintaung, an even more powerful Shan State. As one of two museums ran by Shan State (the other being the State Museum in Taunggyi), The Yawnghwe Haw also contains artifacts from other Shan Sawbwa.

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The Haw is old and musty, but behind its stuffy abandoned feel you can still get a sense of the grandeur it once had. The basement, where many offices used to be, is dingy and empty. It is much less a museum and more an archeological site, and will not be fun to those who don’t like history. Pictures are not allowed inside, so many of these photos were taken by accident.

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The eye-catching seven tiered Pyathat of the Haw

It is the only Haw among the Shan states to have been allowed by the Burmese king to have a pyathat, the distinct Burmese tiered roof, with seven-tiers.

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Portrait of Sir Sao Shwe Maung, courtesy of Philip Klier

The privilege stems from the fact that Sao Shwe Thaik’s uncle, Sao Shwe Maung, was very close to King Mindon, the penultimate king of Burma. Sao Maung’s father, Sao Suu Deva, was the crown prince of Yawnghwe but was assassinated by a cousin, who subsequently usurped the throne. The young Sao Maung asked the powerful king Mindon, most famous for establishing Mandalay, to help him gain back the throne.

On his successful conquest of Yawnghwe Mindon granted Sao Maung the privilege of seven tiers. Sao Maung subsequently had the Haw built with the pyathat.

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The Throne of the Sawbwa of Yawnghwe, now topped with replicas of the five Hpaung Daw Oo buddha statues

The Haw once played a prominent role in the famous Hpaung Daw Oo festival. Every year, four of the five legendary Buddha statues from Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda would be taken to different towns around Inle lake, ending with Nyaungshwe. Historically the statues would first be displayed in the Haw before being led to the town’s pagoda, but today this part is skipped.

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The Karawaik, which is used to transport the five Buddha statues across Inle from Hpaung Daw Oo pagoda. I was in Nyaungshwe during the festival last year. The President of Myanmar, U Htin Kyaw, is somewhere in that picture.

It would be nice if they revived that portion of the tradition.

But I doubt they will: with Myanmar’s new democracy still at its infancy the Haw has more pressing issues. The former Royal family is still alienated with its management, and there are plans to build the palace’s vast courtyard into a marketplace, presumably to cater to tourists.

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Though they’re alienated, the royal family still bothers to donate these water dispensers.

I like the idea of a tourist-oriented marketplace, but I am worried it might damage the building’s immeasurable historical value. And the royal family has to be consulted on this. they are after all part of the heritage.

Like the rest of newly open Myanmar, Shan State is facing the dilemma between culture and modernity. I just hope that, in its pursuit of global participation, it does not lose sight of what makes it a beautiful country.

 

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