Mandalay, the swan song of the Burmese kingdom

Wednesday September 27, 2017: Mandalay, the swan song of the Burmese kingdom, lecture by Pierre Baptiste, curator general at the Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts, in charge of the arts of Southeast Asia.

The name of Mandalay, which was the last capital of the Burmese kings, between 1860 and 1885, evokes the poem of R. Kipling but also the conflictual relations between Western and Eastern cultures.

MNAA-Guimet has a small collection of quality old prints that have been restored and will be presented in a photo exhibition on Burma.

This city has a rather loose orthogonal urban layout that connects it to the traditions of other major capitals of mainland Southeast Asia. The royal palace of square plan, divided into blocks, surrounded by ramparts and moat was in the center of the city arranged in square around, at the foot of the hill Mandalay Hill. If, in Mandalay, the wooden architecture has totally disappeared or almost following the many fires, the old images refer to a disposition close to the royal cities of Angkor, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya or Bangkok.
The province of Upper Burma stretches from north to south, along the Irawady and Mandalay is born in 19rd century a bit by force of circumstances: in the 17thrd The Taungu dynasty had to abandon Lower Burma because of the growing presence of the Portuguese who will be replaced, from 18rd by the English who seek to expand their colonies and had already nibbled almost the entire Indian subcontinent.

The last Konbaung dynasty that will reign over Burma for a hundred years has at its head extremely strong men that the current nationalism puts a lot of emphasis. The founder of the dynasty, Alaungpaya, was a very great soldier who, from one province, would conquer the neighboring territories and establish his authority over the whole of Burma. His sons will continue the expansion policy and the second son, Hsinbyushin will sack Ayutthaya and repel Chinese invasion attempts.



No Title Uppercase letters Kinship Reign Notes
1 Alaungpaya Shwebo Village chief 1752 – 1760 Founder of the dynasty and 3e Burmese Empire; invades Ayutthaya
2 Naungdawgyi Sagaing matching tread 1760 – 1763 Invades Ayutthaya with his father



Ava (Innwa) Brother 1763 – 1776 Prit and devastated Ayutthaya, invaded Chiang Mai and Laos, invaded Manipur, repelled 4 Chinese invasions (1765-1769)
4 Singu Min Ava (Innwa) matching tread 1776 – 1782 Defeat the Lanna
5 Phaungkaza Maung Maung Ava (Innwa) Cousin (son of Naungdawgyi) 1782 The shortest reign: one week
6 Bodawpaya Amarapura Uncle (son of Alaungpaya) 1782 – 1819 Annexed the Arakan, attacked Ayutthaya
7 Bagyidaw Amarapura then Ava from 1823 Grandson 1819 – 1837 Participated in the 2e Expedition of his grandfather against Ayutthaya, invades Assam and Manipur, was defeated during the First Anglo-Burmese War
8 Tharrawady Min Ava then Amarapura from 1841 Brother 1837 – 1846 Rejected the Treaty of Yandabo
9 Pagan Min Amarapura matching tread 1846 – 1853 Reversed by Mindon after his defeat in the Second Anglo-Burmese War
10 Mindon Min Amarapura then Mandalay from 1860 Step brother 1853 – 1878 Concludes peace with the British, narrowly escaped a palace revolution led by two of his sons (his brother, Prince Ka Naung was killed)
11 Thibaw Min Mandalay Hill, matching tread 1878 – 1885 Last king of Burma, forced into abdication and exile in India after his defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War

When taking Ayutthaya, if there was looting, the Burmese also bring back artists who will bring the know-how and Siamese style thus influencing Burmese fashions and tastes.
The penultimate king, Mindon Min, will create a new capital and, despite a small kingdom since the English occupy the south of the country from Rangoon (Yangon), will restore some luster to the dynasty.
During the Konbaung dynasty, the capital changed several times for religious, political or strategic reasons. During these changes, all the palaces were dismantled and transported on elephant backs to the chosen site.

Map of different successive capitals.

Reception of Michael Symes at the royal palace of Amarapura. An account of an embassy to the kingdom of the Governor-General of India in the year 1795. London. 1800.

We get an idea of ​​the royal city of Amarapura thanks to the descriptions and engravings of the English who sent a number of trade embassies. An engraving from 1800 shows the great throne room of Amarapura supported by a forest of columns: the royal throne is at the back and the dignitaries of the court are seated on the ground on either side of the central axis.
Mindon Min will disassemble the Amarapura Palace to transport it to the site of Mandalay, the new capital. The royal city was officially named Yadanabon, Burmese version of his name Pali Ratanapura, meaning "the City of Jewels". Old engravings or photographs show that the city is centered around the royal palace of square plan, surrounded by walls and moats. But if the plan is Hippodamian, the wooden buildings on stilts are built along the streets, in the middle of gardens, thus not giving the impression of a dense city. We can see this today by visiting the royal palace which has been recreated on the old model, although there are less constructions. This reconstruction is perhaps not very archaeologically correct but is justified for the Burmese because Mandalay is the strong symbol of a capital which resisted the British. All the wooden architecture has been reconstructed according to the old models but there remains an old element which was transported to the Shwe-Kyaung monastery by the son and successor of Mindon Min. It is regrettable, however, that all the roofs are made of corrugated iron painted red.

Panoramic view of the royal palace and the city of Mandalay in 1896.

Shwe-Kyaung Monastery.

The corner pavilions of the enclosure, which are sanctuary towers (prasat), have an elevated architecture to evoke Mount Meru, residence of the gods. This system of repeated structures in layers superimposed reduction takes the architecture of all the great sanctuaries of the Indian world and Southeast Asia. In Burma, from the 18rd s., the architects have tended to schematize the forms, giving a certain stiffness to the whole which is however compensated by a multitude of carved ornaments. The doors of the enclosure are white in style, common to many buildings in Southeast Asia, on which is raised a pavilion. There are traces of all this architecture through illuminated manuscripts that the members of the court had done for their own pleasure and whose MNNA-Guimet has copies. We have more or less schematic plans of the royal palace dating from the end of 19rd s. raised by the British.
The palace itself was built on a terrace and each building had a specific function. The easternmost room was the main courtroom, but there were seven more.


Portrait of King Mindon Min.

Painting showing the surroundings of the royal palace of Mandalay.

View of the moat of the royal palace of Mandalay.

Like at the Forbidden City or the Royal Palace in Bangkok, there are rooms that hardly ever serve and the main courtroom was only used three times a year. From the illuminated manuscripts, we can see that the approach to the palace was made through several wooden palisades and an enclosure. Depending on their rank, palanquins or mounts were abandoned in these spaces to finish on foot and bow down to the king. The roof of the main audience hall is the highest in the palace but also in the city; it symbolizes the axis of the world, Mount Méru, residence of Indra, kings of the gods. All ancillary buildings were located behind and around them, with circulation under covered galleries. English engravings describing the royal palace of Ava or that of Amarapura clearly show that the same palace has been dismantled and reassembled in the different capitals over the years.
In Burma, the throne is a door that opens onto a stepped pedestal, also evoking Mount Meru, on which the sovereign sits on a mat. Access was via a staircase at the back. The king thus appeared in a very elevated position as in Ayutthaya during the reception by the king of Siam of the French ambassadors who remained very impressed. Of the eight thrones that were in the royal palace in Mandalay, only the lion throne was saved. Taken to Calcutta by the English, it was returned during the independence of India and is located in Yangon. The rich sculpted decoration is very inspired by the Indian vocabulary: devatas, apsaras, lotus flowers, etc.
All court ceremonial is governed by very strict protocol. A notebook in the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrates the costumes and distinctive objects of the Burmese nobility. The dignitaries sit on a pedestal or on a mat, they are entitled to a parasol or not, and in front of them are exposed their attributes: weapon, betel kit, vases, etc., their number being governed by the protocol according to of the row.

Painting showing a royal audience in the throne room of Mye Nan Phyatthat Royal Palace in Mandalay. Saya Chone, painter of the court.

The lion's throne from Mandalay. Golden lacquered wood with inlaid jewels. National Museum Yangon.

Princely character. Notebook presenting the costumes and distinctive objects of the Burmese nobility. Ink and watercolor on paper. 1860. © Victoria & Albert Museum.

The cultural tradition of offering betel is still very strong in Burma and this custom still allows for a certain conviviality. There is a whole set of containers or instruments to hold, cut, grind or grate and mix the betel leaves, the areknut and the slaked lime. These kits, often made of precious metals, are a testament to the owner's status and wealth.
Some court costumes have also been preserved in England, and we see that the clothes are much more covering than those of Siam at the same time, and that the use of silk velvet is combined with silk brocades and embroidery. Some very rich and heavy costumes, embroidered with silver thread and glassware, were worn only once a year during the royal reception. Their form is not without evoking the costumes of devatas and the "flying" should give the impression that the person was flying on clouds.

Betel box. Gold inlaid and set with precious stones. Around 1860. © Victoria & Albert Museum.

Photo of Prince Yawnghwe and his wife. @Dr Susan Conway.

Lady of the court dress, silk velvet, silk and gold brocade, pearl and precious stone embroidery. Around 1860. © Victoria & Albert Museum

Dancer hairstyle. Wood, lacquer, gilded metal, inlays of glass beads. 19th c. © Victoria & Albert Museum.

The regalia included a whole set of objects: thrones, crowns, the largest, richest and most complete betel kit, vases and vessels of various shapes in precious metals inlaid with precious stones, richly decorated weapons . Parasols and screens (fans?) Which are the royal symbols par excellence whose use could date back to ancient times as can be seen on Angkorian reliefs. All this is still relevant at the court of Thailand or that of Kampuchea during coronation ceremonies. A set of objects from the Burmese regalia are still visible in the Yangon museum as well as some furniture.

If the royal palace can be evoked by its reconstruction, the city of today, even if it follows the original plan, resembles all the cities of Asia with a great density of constructions.



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