If the Buddha’s rock rolled, it would really be a miracle



Tibor Krausz

The Guardian Weekly, January 21, 2004

Kyaiktiyo, Burma


"You'll see a great miracle. Very great!" my hired driver promises for the tenth time. He's a laconic Burmese fellow dispatching through his unrolled window regular gobs of betel-blackened saliva like so many distance markers — and he's racing along hell for leather on the two-lane dirt track, which just outside Bago abruptly hijacked the potholed blacktop out of Rangoon, symbolizing Burma's faltering steps to modernization.


Boy novices wait for alms on the roadside in the Burmese countryside

Every few minutes, whenever careering past meandering livestock, listless bullock carts, or vehicles even more clapped-out than our battered Toyota, my driver presses his palms together in an appeal to Buddha for protection. Once in so doing, he allows the steering wheel to swerve aside and we barely avoid crashing head-on into one of those lumbering made-in-the-Raj trucks that still ply Burma's roads. This must be the fifth time we've courted disaster, and we're barely halfway to our presumed miracle.


"It'll be a miracle if we ever get there," I venture, with half a mind to directing his attention to one of those roadside billboards that, courtesy of the governing military junta, warn motorists (and the populace at large) that "Obedience leads to safety."


He spits another gob out his window and rejoins: "No miracle. Protection." He points to his guarantees of safety: From around his neck cascade myriad talismans; dripping from his rearview mirror hang amulets and charms; arrayed atop his dashboard stand Buddha figurines and minute effigies of sacred monks. Dozens.


Clearly, he’d be hard-pressed with any less. Shortly thereafter we send a languorous bicyclist skidding for dear life into a roadside ditch. The journey — some sage once observed — is the destination; but I'm beginning to seriously doubt this.


Superstition is institutionalized in Burma, a land where even hillocks are afforded their own small stupas: The local kyat carries denominations of 45, 75 and 90 —  regarded as lucky numbers by Ne Win, the late general who seized power for the ruling military dictatorship in 1962 and who, when warned of a "rightwing conspiracy" by his astrologers, ordered traffic to switch overnight from British-style driving-on-the-left to driving-on-the-right, thereby preempting the prophesied "rightwing" upheaval.


Then at last after another close shave, this time with a bullock cart, we pull into Kyaiktiyo.


At the end of a steep winding footpath awaits the miracle. Pacing up to it, I overtake coolies bearing enormous panniers, proudly erect under their backbreaking loads. During the festival season in December and January thousands upon thousands of worshippers clamber uphill to the Gold Rock, one of this devoutly Buddhist country's primary pilgrimage sites. Today, I seem to be the only out-of-town visitor. Four youths hobble over, offering to carry me up in a makeshift palanquin. Their price is negotiable, but I'd hate to be borne like a raja by his slaves.


Lining the footpath are bamboo shacks peddling a hodgepodge of dead animals as magically potent curatives — monkey skulls, Himalayan bear paws, wildcat tails, whole bats, cobras, and tarantellas are lumped together in plastic washtubs. Jelled in some ghastly paste of blood, bodily fluids and magical potions, they appear freshly obtained from a witch's cauldron.


"What they cure?" a vendor with snake-skin charms wrapped around his biceps parrots my query. "Ever'thing! Ever'thing!" Cancer? "Yes." Diabetes? "Yes!" Gonorrhea? "Yes, yes!" Heat rash? "Of course!" He turns quizzical: "Why, you have so many illness?"


I seek shelter against the persistent monsoon drizzle under the low-lying branches of a gnarled sacred tree apparently home to a pantheon of forest nats (spirits). The nats' lavish doll house-like shrines should paint any Burmese commoner green with envy.


Two younger men in tartan longyis (Burmese sarongs) sidle up to me, clearly delighted to chat up a stranded Westerner. They're committing a crime: the junta has outlawed contact with foreigners for anyone without permission. It's a magical place, the two assure me. They tell me of a local zawgyi (alchemist) who disappeared forever into the adjoining jungle, the better to indulge his passion for turning into animals: now he turns into a tiger, now into an eagle. How about that sodden squirrel over there? I suggest. "Maybe that too!" they snicker.


"Take off your shoes! Take off your shoes!" The chorused injunction greets me as soon as the uphill path levels out. Before me lies what appears like the periphery of a public bath: ankle-deep water sloshes around on the cracked, uneven surface of a large platform covered in kitschy lavatory tiles.


Yonder on a ledge in picturesquely swirling mist looms a large goldleaf-coated boulder. It seems poised to topple over any minute, crashing into the jungle below -- if, that is, not for some mysterious force anchoring it firmly in place. Balancing atop the golden rock perches a small stupa ending in a conical Burmese umbrella: it looks like a giant pumpkin head wearing a pointed party hat. The gravity-defying boulder, a local guide explains, is held in place by a hair of the Buddha entombed within it. It really is a miracle!


In spreading His creed to the ancestors of the Burmese, I'm told, the Buddha left behind a single hair of his sacred locks, bestowing magical powers on this lowly boulder. Before it worshippers kneel, lighting incense and murmuring whispered pleas. On closer inspection the rock turns out to be lying securely on a flat broad surface, needing no magical counterbalance to stay in place; so much so that it'd take quite an earthquake to lever it into the void beneath. But let's not be spoilsports. The golden rock, shimmering ephemerally against a backdrop of lowering skies, appears like an epiphany straight out of Buddhist iconography.


As I trudge back down, passing overburdened coolies I've passed already climbing uphill, I'm besieged by men hawking amulets. On their palms lie coin-size ceramic and bronze medallions bearing images of meditating buddhas. This here protects against bullet wounds; this here against theft; this here against headstrong females....


I glance over at my driver fidgeting impatiently beside his Toyota, visibly anxious to light out for Rangoon before dusk. "Which one protects against road accidents?" This and this. "Give me both."


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