Faith Will Move Mountains
By Regina Sharpe
Standing tall and stark like a large fist thrusting out from the surrounding flatlands, the Taung Kalat volcanic plug in Mandalay is a geological formation unlike any other. Take one look at this peak from a distance and your eyes, along with your brains, will definitely attest to its unusual appearance. If you’d allow your mind the luxury to roam, it’d almost seem like a crater in reverse. This is where the Taung Kalat monastery resides, and it’s just a stone’s throw away from Mount Popa, which is another massive wonder of its own.
Before we carry on, it’s important to note that Mount Popa is used interchangeably between two peaks, one being the main extinct volcano, which is also referred to as Taung Ma-gyi, and the other being a shorter volcano plug, known as Taung Kalat. Do keep this in mind if you’re an avid hiker who’s looking for a trek in nature instead of a climb that ends up in the Taung Kalat monastery.
A Quick Primer
Mount Popa is the remains of an extinct volcano, believed to have erupted for the last time in 442 BC. It’s also believed that this was once a site of animal sacrifice for the nat rituals of the time, a practice dating all the way back to the 11th century. At the top of this volcano plug, standing at 657 metres above ground, is one of the most well-known pilgrimage sites in Myanmar. Devotees often make their way up to the peak to pay their respects, and this is where I’m headed today.
At the top of Taung Kalat lies the aforementioned monastery, and the 777 steps that precede it require from the visitor a fair amount of endurance as dues for its entry. Upon reaching the base of this site, I figure that my weekly jogs back at home will help in this pursuit and readily dismiss the route up as a straightforward hike. That confidence is quickly shattered.
Firstly, while the steps are well-paved, allowing for a convenient stroll, it’s still 15 minutes of unending climbing, and that’s 13 minutes too much for me. But I am in good company, which makes the journey easier, and the vendors lining the stairs also help take my mind off the effort.
Also, there are loads of cute monkeys that, while sometimes a little cheeky in trying to tug my water bottle, add to the charm of it all. We were recommended against wearing caps and carrying food or loose items, as these may encourage the monkeys to make their acquaintance.
The other beings in residence are the 37 nats, or spirits, who are believed to have made Mount Popa their home. Their statues are on full display at the base of the climb in the Tiger shrine, to which locals pray as well as present tributes such as flowers and donations. Each of these nats has its own stories and legends, and they each are guardians to different things, so locals pick which ones to pay homage to according to specific events.
The stories behind how these spirits came to reside here are very interesting, and while many are considered to be legends, it is believed that a few of these nats may actually have been real people from centuries past.
When you finally reach the top, you’ll be greeted by a bustle of activities taking place – prayers and donations, ringing of bells and gongs, tourists exploring the area or taking a rest from the climb, the gold glimmer that accompanies most worship sites in Myanmar. Most of all, you get a clear view of the surrounding flatlands and villages down below, a well-deserved reward for your efforts.
At the End of the Day
If you’re planning to visit this place, don’t make the destination your goal. That’s what I have come to terms with as I descend a separate flight of stairs back down. Most of this place’s splendour happens the moment you step out of your taxi, such as the friendly locals who are always willing to help, the sights and sounds during the climb, and the way life unfolds down at the base of the hill.
It wouldn’t do your trip justice should you visit Mount Popa just to get to the top, because like many other things in life, sometimes it’s all about the journey.