“Two thousand and five hundred years after I passed into nirvana, a great city will sprung up on the plain below this mountain. And the ogress will become the king who brings this great city to glory. The great city will be the center of the religion I established.”
Mandalay was built by King Mindon of Konbaung Dynasty. The establishment of Mandalay was a strange one. According to the official history, King Mindon was a devoted Buddhist, and a strong believer of Buddhist prophesies. According to one popular legend, when Gautama Buddha visited Burma, he arrived at the Mandalay Hill. There, he met one particular mythical giant who cut one of her breasts and donated to Gautama Buddha. Gautama Buddha declined the donation as it is against the principles of Buddhism, but nevertheless, he prophesied that here in the foot hill of the Mandalay Hill, a great city will appear in the year 2,400 of Lord Buddha. King Mindon, as a true believer of the great prophesy, built the city in the exact place on 13 February 1857, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
Foreigners might think this is a pure madness of a Burmese king. However, there is something more than a madness and pride of a Burmese king. The king has just lost a war with British a few years ago, which is a very humiliating fact for a new king who considered himself one of the greatest in Burmese history. British had just finished building the new capital Rangoon in lower British Burma. It is thus important for the new king to establish himself as a real monarch in the eyes of his followers. The legend and the prophecy, in my opinion, are purely a valid reason and a coincidence. It is only a reason to legitimize his authority in the eyes of the ordinary people. He needs to build a better, bigger, grander and more elegant capital than what British built in occupied Burma. Moreover, the old capital Amarapura is quite cramped and full of misfortunes. Thus, it is understandable that King Mingdon wanted somewhere better to move so that he could forget the unhappy memories, and at the same time, could establish himself among his people as a true king prophesied by Gautama Buddha himself 2,400 years ago.
The new capital was named Yadanabon (Ratanapura), meaning “The Bejeweled City”. The Royal Palace was named Mya Nan San Kyaw (“The Royal Emerald Palace”). However, people called the city simply Mandalay, due to the fact that it was situated at the foot hill of Mandalay Hill. The new capital was 25.5 square mile in area, comprising of 144 square grids formed by roads passing north-south and east-west. The center of the city was the Royal Palace City (although actually, the Royal Palace City was in the North of the city). In the center of the Royal Palace City was the Royal Palace itself, which was actually not built from scratch but dismantled from the old palace in Amarapura, which in turn was also dismantled from the ancient city of Ava. The process of dismantling and reassembling the Royal Palace took two years to complete. The construction of the city and the Royal Palace was officially completed on Monday, 23 May 1859.
Mandalay was perhaps the largest, most elegant and grandest ancient royal capitals built in Burma. However, it was also the shortest royal capital, with only 26 years, and finally falling into the hands of the British soldiers in 1885. During its time, only two kings, Mindon and Thibaw, ruled the city.
During the colonial period, not only the Royal Palace was looted by British, some of which are still in Victoria and Albert Museum in London, they also changed the name of the Royal Palace City to Fort Dufferin.
Although Mandalay ceased to be the capital of Burma, it flourished as the commercial, cultural and religious capital of Burma during the British colonial period. The city expanded and became the most important city of upper and middle Burma. However, Mandalay met its most devastating destruction during World War II when British bombarded the Royal City and the Royal Palace. The old palace was totally annihilated. A few years later, the city met another destruction during the civil unrest in the early days of the independence Union of Burma.
Today, Mandalay is the most important city in the upper Myanmar. It has become a multicultural city with many Chinese occupying the center of the city. However, it still remains the most important cultural and religious center of Myanmar, and home to the country’s finest dance and music traditions.
Editor’s Note: Many of the above information has been obtained from our reference book Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar (Burma)