Kaba Aye Pagoda
Kaba Aye Pagoda also spelt Gaba Aye Pagoda; lit. World Peace Pagoda), formally Thiri Mingala Gaba Aye Zedidaw, is a pagoda located on Kaba Aye Road, Mayangon Township, Yangon, Myanmar. The pagoda was built in 1952 by U Nu in preparation for the Sixth Buddhist Council that he held from 1954-1956. The pagoda measures 111 feet (34 m) high and is also 111 feet (34 m) around the base. The pagoda is located approximately 11 km north of Yangon, a little past the Inya Lake Hotel. The Maha Pasana Guha (great cave) was built simultaneously with the Kaba Aye Pagoda and is located in the same complex. The cave is a replica of the Satta Panni cave, located in India, where the first Buddhist Synod was convened. The six entrances of The Maha Pasana Cave symbolize the Sixth Great Synod. The cave is 455 feet (139 m) long and 370 feet (110 m) wide. Inside, the assembly hall is 220 feet (67 m) long and 140 feet (43 m) wide.
As prime minister of Burma, U Nu built the Kaba Aye Pagoda and the Maha Pasana Guha Cave in 1952 in preparation for the Sixth Buddhist Synod that he convened and hosted and which lasted two years, from 1954–1956. This Synod coincided with the 2500-year anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. In Burma, the kings traditionally built a pagoda in their honor to stand as a relic of their rule. For example, Ne Win built the Maha Wizaya Pagoda in his honor. The construction of the pagoda and cave were a part of U Nu’s attempt to establish Buddhism as the official religion of Burma, thereby creating a Buddhist state.
The Kaba Aye pagoda is open daily from 6 am to 8 pm, with an admission fee of $5. In addition to the Burmese who make religious pilgrimages, the pagoda attracts domestic as well as foreign tourists. The Kaba Aye Pagoda compound is large and is intended to be peaceful and quiet for the tourists, monks and devotees who visit.
The circular platform surrounding the main pagoda is enclosed in the style of a cave-temple. There are five porches decorated with colorful arched pediments. Lotus flowers, lotus buds and swastikas are carved in stucco around the outside. The main pagoda is 117 feet 6 inches high, with smaller pagodas on the five porches each 8 feet (2.4 m) high. Vendors sell handmade products on the entrances to the pagoda. The pagoda, which is hollow, has a middle point inside which features four great Buddhas (four great pillars) in commemoration of the four Buddhas who have already appeared in the world. A room inside the pagoda houses Buddha relics, including a large silver statue of Buddha, over eight feet tall. There is also a room inside the pagoda, which is used to keep Buddha relics.
The Maha Pasana Cave, which translates to “great cave of stone,” is located to the north of the Kaba Aye pagoda. The cave is a replica to the cave by the same name in India, where the first Buddhist Synod or Great Council was held just some months after the Buddha underwent Parinirvana. During the sixth Buddhist Synod in 1954, 2500 monks converged on the cave to recite the words of the Buddha in Pali, the entire Tipitaka. The monks recited, edited, and approved all of the Buddhist scriptures, known as the Three Pitakat.
U Nu was the first Prime Minister of Burma after the 1947 Constitution of the Union of Burma was passed. U Nu was a devout Buddhist and he tried to establish Burma as a Buddhist country. On August 29, 1961, the Parliament announced that Buddhism was the official state religion, mainly as a result of U Nu’s efforts. Cow slaughtering was officially banned in Burma. However, in 1962 Ne Win, who succeeded U Nu, repealed this measure and the effort to make Burma a Buddhist country was effectively halted. The construction of the Kaba Aye complex was part of U Nu’s attempt to institutionalize Buddhism at the national level.
The Kaba Aye complex also underscores the failure of U Nu to standardize and institutionalize Buddhism. There are numerous minorities in Burma such as the Kachins and Karens who felt alienated by this effort to make Buddhism a state enterprise. Furthermore, Buddhists did not believe that Buddhism should be a part of a political institution. They wanted Burma to be a moral society but did not wish their religion to be imposed on the citizens. The monks who want religion to be a social practice that is separate from the state do not associate with these pagodas. Therefore, the pagodas such as the Kaba Aye are not affiliated with any monasteries. The fear is that if these monks become tied to a pagoda, which was built by the state and is run by the state, they will be captured by the state and lose their autonomy.
Significance and Origin of Pagodas in Burma
The most sacred pagoda in Burma is the Shwedagon Pagoda (Golden Pagoda). This pagoda towers at 321.5 feet (98.0 m) tall, is gilded in gold and is also located in Yangon. It, too, contains relics of the past four Buddhas inside of it. According to legend, the pagoda is 2500 years old. Burma is most famous to the western world because of the Shwedagon Pagoda. For the Burmese people, seeing foreign tourists visit the pagoda and looking at it in awe is a source of national pride.
In the 11th century, King Anawrahta invaded the Mon Kingdom of Thaton in what is currently part of southern Burma. Following the successful invasion he returned to Pagan with the missionary monk Shin Arahan and the Buddhist scriptures he had brought with him from Ceylon. After establishing his Pagan dynasty through constant warfare, Anawrahta established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion in 1056 and built many pagodas. Some feel as though he built these pagodas in order to make up for the violent warfare by which he built his Pagan dynasty. Anawrahta implemented a tradition of pagoda building that has continued until the present. It was in keeping with this tradition that Ne Win began building his Maha Wizaya Pagoda. Furthermore, the military regime that succeeded him built the Swedawmyat (tooth relic) Pagoda. Currently, hundreds of pagodas dot the Burmese landscape. Scholars suggest that besides King Anawrahta, many other leaders built the pagodas not out of devotion to Buddhism, but rather to assuage the guilt that they felt for carrying out multiple invasions of other kingdoms in India and Thailand, in addition to other parts of what is currently Burma.
On December 25, 1996, two bombs exploded at the Kaba Aye Pagoda and Maha Pasana Cave, killing five people and wounding 17. The initial explosion took place at the Kaba Aye Pagoda at 8:20 pm, but nobody was injured because pilgrims did not use that entrance. However, the second explosion, which detonated two hours later as authorities were looking into the other blast, went off inside the temple as it was filling with pilgrims, causing the fatalities and injuries. At the Kaba Aye compound Buddha's tooth relic was on display, and thus many more pilgrims were at the site than during normal times. The tooth relic, on loan from China and believed to be one of two surviving since the Buddha's death 2500 years ago, was not damaged in the bombing.
The explosion followed a crackdown on student protestors who were demanding more civil liberties. The SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) accused the All-Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) and the KNU (Karen National Union) of carrying out the bombing. Both groups denied the accusation. Aung Naing U, the foreign affairs liaison officer of the ABSDA, denied all involvement and added, “This is just an excuse by the SLORC to use force in suppressing the democratic forces. We learned that more security forces were placed at the site of the bombing; despite this measure, the explosions took place. Thus, it is assumed that it must be the work of the SLORC.”
Even before the bombing at the Kaba Aye complex, the Burmese government had been accused of staging disturbances to justify crackdowns that would follow. Namely, the government freed prison inmates in 1988 who then turned pro-democracy protests into riots that were stopped with bloodshed.