Kuthodaw pagoda is situated at the base of the South East stairway (zaungdan) of Mandalay Hill, just to the east of Sandamuni (Sandamani) Pagoda. The pagoda is surrounded by high walls on all four sides, with the central structure being the Maha Lawkamarazein Paya (Stupa). The central stupa is 30 meter high (57 meters from the ground level), and is modeled after the famous Shwezigon Pagoda of Bagan, the merit of King Anawrahta. It has a compound of 13 acres. What make this pagoda so special is the 729 Pitaka Pagodas surrounding the central stupa. These Pitaka pagodas are called Dhammazedis (Pagodas that house the teaching of Gautama Buddha).
The Kuthodaw Pagoda and the Pitaka Pagodas were built in 1860. Each Dhammazedi houses a marble tablet with inscription of Buddhia’s teaching (Tripitaka or Tipitaka). It took 2,400 monks six months to recite the whole texts of Tripitaka (Tipitika) during the Fifth Buddhist Synod of 1872.
The marble slabs that record the Tripitika were carved from Sagyin Hill marble 12 miles north of Mandalay. This is the same Sagyin Quarry from which Kyauktawgyi Buddha image was carved. Each marble stone slab is 5 feet high, 3 feet 6 inches wide and 6 inches thick. The work of carving started in October 1860 and finished in May 1869, and took place in a special hall within King Mindon’s Royal Palace. Originally, the letters on the marble slabs were veneered with gold leaves. However, all the gold leaves are gone now.
The marble stone slabs of Tipitika are arranged within three enclosures around the central stupa. The first innermost enclosure contains 42 marble slabs, the second middle enclosure contains 168 marble slabs and the third outermost enclosure contains 519 stone slabs. There is one slab at the south east corner which records the history of Kuthodaw Pagoda. That makes up a total of 730 marble inscriptions (729 Tripitaka and one history inscription). These 729 stone inscriptions are often called “The World’s Largest Book”.
In addition to these 730 marble inscriptions of World’s Largest Book, there are 34 brick rest houses around the pagoda on three sides (except on the east side). Main entrance is in the south of the pagoda through the massive teak doors. These teak doors are ornately carved with floral designs, scrolls and guardian spirits (nats).
Annexation and desecration
After the British occupation of Upper Burma in 1885, British troops had occupied the Mandalay Royal Palace and renamed it Fort Dufferin. In addition to the Royal Palace, the British troops also occupied the Mandalay Hill as well as pagodas, temples, monasteries and many religious structures on and around Mandalay Hill. These religious and sacred places for Burmese Buddhists became off limit to Burmese. It was the effort of U Aung Ban who was a revenue surveyor at that time who appealed directly to her majesty the Queen Victoria who promptly ordered the immediate withdrawal of all British troops from all religious precincts in Mandalay in 1890.
After the British withdrawal from Mandalay Hill, Burmese people found to their dismay that the Kuthodaw pagodas had been looted from hti (umbrella at the top) to its terrace. Hti was lying on the ground; all bells, jewels, gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, precious stones were robbed and looted by the British soldiers. Various resting places (zayats) were left in ruins. Bricks were used in building roads for the troops. All brass bells from all Dhammazedis were looted (9 each multiplied by 730 pagodas, total of 6570 bells). Gold ink on the letters and sides of the marble slabs were also gone. All the ogres lost their heads while marble eyes and marble claws of chinthes (lions) were also gone.
A committee of senior monks, members of royal family and former officers of the king were formed to restore and repair the buildings destroyed, damaged or looted during the occupation. However, it took many years to complete the restoration work. The buildings were again badly damaged during World War 2 and repair had to be done again after the independence of the Union of Burma.
Editor’s Note: Many of the above information has been obtained from our reference book Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar (Burma). This is a very good guide book on Myanmar, and essential book that you must bring on your trip to Myanmar. The book can be obtained from Amazon store.