Pyat Kha Shwe Taung Pagoda
Burmese kings first arrived here between the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries to build dams throughout the region. They rode on royal processions preceded by a retinue of white elephants— there was a well established tradition in Burma linking these animals to the faith, for 33 white elephants were said to have carried the Tipiṭaka into the country from Mon state and there is believed to be a telepathic connection between the beast and the king.
King Anawrahta was the first of these kings to arrive in the area. After receiving a replica of the Buddha Tooth Relic from Sri Lanka in the 11th century, he set out with his favorite white elephant, proclaiming that it be allowed to wander freely, and wherever it stopped he would build a pagoda which would enshrine the Relic. This was not an uncommon practice at the time, and at least four pagodas in Bagan were constructed this way. The elephant paused as he reached Shwe Thar Hlaung Hill, the site that would become famous from the historic meeting of Sayagyi U Ba Khin and Webu Sayadaw. However, it was somehow divined that the great animal did not designate this to be the chosen spot for a pagoda, and so he was allowed to continue, and when on until he reached Pyat Khar Shwe Hill. Even as the king chose to have the pagoda built at the latter site, he authorized another pagoda to be constructed at the first hill as well. After the pagodas were completed, great festivals were held at both sites. Later, after laying an advanced system of canals in the Kyaukse region, the King suggested that Thadingyut be celebrated in the region by paying respects to and sharing merit with the white elephant. A competing theory for the founding of this pagoda is that it honored the patron Nat of elephants, Uttay Na, who is believed to have power over all elephants and oozies (trainers). Uttay Na shrines have been placed at elephant camps for many centuries.
Today, the pagoda’s annual festivals includes the exhibition of large, hollow, paper maché elephants inhabited and brought to life by two people within. The craft of making these very life-like costumes has remained a secret for generations, passed down only within family lineages. Prizes are given each year for the best costume and dance, with families and communities competing against one another, and routines include dainty steps and acrobatic twists and turns to the music of a traditional orchestra. Choreography may be practiced an entire year prior, and the winning teams from the respective age groups perform at the pagoda on the ensuing full moon day, as well as at novitation ceremonies and other religious functions in town. After the competition, village residents and visiting pilgrims ascend to the pagoda to present offerings to elephant figurines.