Inwa, near Mandalay, Myanmar
For a foreigner, the history of Myanmar has become as repressed as its people for the past half century. The country closed its borders to the world and with the physical isolation came cultural barriers.
Before coming here, all I had generally heard about was the military junta which took control of the country in 1962, its human rights abuses and the imprisonment of The Lady. I was probably aware vaguely of the period of British colonialism but I can’t remember ever hearing it talked about much in the conversations of global history which, admittedly, I tend to flit in and out of and pay only passing attention.
I certainly knew nothing of the centuries before the British invaded and so it was a surprise to be taken to the remnants of an ancient city and told it was the capital of Burma for about 360 years (on and off) between the 14th and 19th centuries. That’s much longer than any other capital of this country.
The city is called Inwa and it’s about 20 kilometres away from Mandalay. What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s built on an artificial island, made in the 1300s by connecting the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers with a canal. The city of Inwa was also once surrounded by a huge wall, which apparently formed the outline of a seated lion.
Visiting Inwa, the old Burmese capital
What is left of the city is quite spread out and, after getting a small boat across to the island, there are plenty of horse-drawn carriages waiting to take you around. We canter and trot from sight to sight.
The old Bagaya Monastery is made completely of teak wood and in good condition for something built in the 1770s. It was used during the peak years to educate the royals… so it was quaint to walk in and find a small school still being run in one smoky corner of the building.
The watchtower, 27 metres high, looks precarious these days and you can’t climb up it. I took a while to work out it was actually on a lean and that it wasn’t just the heat playing tricks with my eyes.
There’s the large Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, built in 1822, that has rooms and passages all connecting to each other inside, where the cool air is trapped by the stone. Oh, and there was a cute little kid who insisted I took his photo and kept posing in front of different things.
The ancient walls give you a reference point from time to time when they reappear from behind some trees. Old temples sit by the side of the dirt tracks, protecting the ancient Buddha statues within.
There isn’t a whole city these days, though. A series of devastating earthquakes in 1839 destroyed most of Inwa and the decision was made by the King to not rebuild but move to the nearby location of Amapura.
But life has sprung up again and across the island today ‘modern’ life takes place. People walk their animals to water, they tend their crops, they bicycle past with the spoils of their farms.
Like much of Myanmar, the ancient parts of the country’s history have not become too overrun with progress. It probably helps that there’s little progress outside of the main cities. It means that, even though not all structures are in good condition, you can get a better sense of the past than in more developed countries.
I may not have known where the longest-serving capital of Burma was… but at least I can find out and see it for myself.