Sagaing Hills from Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda
“Towering above all is the golden Ponnyashin Pagoda, where tourists and devout pilgrims alike go first.” Khin Myo Chit, A Wonderland of Pagoda Legends
It is not hard to see why this pagoda receives a steady flow of local pilgrims and tourists alike, with its sparkling mirrors and tiles and fantastic views of the rolling Sagaing Hills and the white stupas peeking out amongst the vast greenery. The vast panorama includes the Shan Plateau, Mandalay, and Amarapura, and is especially enchanting as dusk falls.
The pagoda rests on Nga-pha Hill, meaning “Five Frog Hill”, so called because its shape resembles the reptile. It has also gone by the name of Dhammika Taung, or “Hill of the Dhamma Practitioners.” It is 684 feet in height, and one of 37 hilltops in this part of the Sagaing Hills. The rise got its name from its frog-like shape, and indeed, there are giant frog statues standing as guards before the main Buddha image inside. Its central stupa dates back to 1312, just before Sagaing became the royal capital. A local belief centers on a Buddha relic that U Ponya, a minister in the kingdom, acquired via a supernatural flight from Sagaing to the Himalayas, and that successive kings have since revered.
The word “soon” in the pagoda’s name refers to the alms food given to monks, and particularly the first alms offered by celestial beings ahead of any humans. To this day, it is known as the first pagoda in Sagaing to offer alms to monks each morning, doing so before any of the other hilltop pagodas. And U Ponya himself is also remembered as the first person ready to offer alms at dawn, having prepared the food earlier than anyone else in all of Sagaing. While it is considered greatly meritorious to be the first person ready with alms foods to offer, there is a traditional belief that no matter how much one endeavors to be first, one will always find a ceremonial plate already prepared at the base of a Buddha image, prepared by an even more industrious well-wisher. To this day, pilgrims hope to find themselves first to rise in front of Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, and foreign meditators may wish to rise to the challenge! This pagoda is also said to grant 14 wishes to pilgrims, such as gaining insights into future events, getting promoted, and being free from dying by murder.
Interestingly, the history of this land goes back even further than the orginal construction of the pagoda. Local legend tells of a hermit named Varuna who, similarly, also traveled by flight from the Himalayas to the forests of Sagaing. Joining with other spiritual seekers, the oral history relates how the Buddha himself came to this spot to teach them, and they presented a number of offerings. At this time an orangutan approached with flowers and fruit, and the Buddha was said to point towards what would become the later royal capital of Ava and proclaim that a great city would one day rise here. He is said to have gone on to say that as a result of the primate’s wholesome deed of making an offering to the Buddha, he would be reborn as its king. Some Burmese believe this to be the 14th century King Mingyiswa. The story ends with the local dragons burrowing under the earth in fright upon hearing such a prophecy, and the southern stretch of hills still bear the name Nagashore Taung, meaning “Dragon’s Burrow.”