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Ancient Burmese stupa restored to original glory

Ancient Burmese stupa restored to original glory

Standing 150 metres above sea level on a promontory of Phnom Yat mountain, the Aung Sula Mani stupa is the only surviving trace of Pailin’s Burmese community, which transformed the sleepy town into a regional hub through the gem trade in the mid-19th century.

They settled here, built a community, and then disappeared. They all disappeared.

A crumbling stone stupa atop a remote mountain in Pailin province may hold the key to determining the origins of a Burmese ethnic group that once dominated Cambodia’s gem trade, according to Pyonne Maung Maung, who is heading up efforts to restore the monument.

Erected more than 100 years ago, the Aung Sula Mani stupa is believed to have once contained a tooth belonging to Buddha.

It’s the only remaining trace of Pailin’s once-thriving Burmese community, known locally  as  Kola, who transformed the town into centre of arts and literature in the 19th century.

Ten months and US$100,000 worth of painstaking restorat-ion work by Pyonne, chairman of the Burmese IT company SeaNet Technologies, will pay off on Thursday as the stupa re-opens.

He hopes the resulting publicity will encourage descendants of the Kola community to come forward.

“We still don’t really know who they were. But they were not just a small group of people from Myanmar who crossed the border into Cambodia, built the stupa and left. The people were living here for over 100 years as one of the ethnic groups of Cambodia,” he says.

“The name ‘Kola’ has no meaning for Burmese people and doesn’t make any sense in Khmer. We still don’t even know which Burmese ethnic group they were from.”

Pyonne and several coll-eagues stumbled across the 25-metre stupa, 150 metres above sea level in the foothills of Phnom Yat mountain, in June last year while travelling to the Thai border.

Noticing the distinctly Burmese architectural style,  and inscriptions on its surface in Burmese script, the group stopped their car and  began asking around about the stupa’s history.

Pyonne told the Post he was amazed to learn about the historical presence of a large Burmese community in the area – a discovery that prompted him to offer to fund the restor-ation of the monument.

“The first objective was just to restore it, as it’s an old monument related to the people of Myanmar, and as a link between the two countries,” he says.

“But then later on, after doing more research, I was fascinated by the historical background, how the people settled here a long time ago, found some gems, decided to stay here, built a community with a lot of intelligent people – and then disappeared. They all disappeared.”

Pyonne told the Post his team had been able to piece together bits and pieces of the stupa’s history from local records and folklore, including its name, Aung Sula Mani, which roughly translated means “successful heavenly stupa”.

“Aung is definitely Burm-ese, but Sula Mani comes from Sanskrit.

“This is not a Cambodian stupa that was used as a tomb. In Myanmar, a stupa is a temple that is supposed to contain relics of Buddha – in this case, a tooth that has since vanished.”

According to Pyonne, Aung Sula Mani was erected in 1890 as a place of worship for the hundreds of Burmese prospectors who came flooding into Pailin, then under Thai control, following the discovery of gems in the area 20 years earlier.

“People from Myanmar came freely to do trading and search for gems, and after the 1870s they began to form the small gem-mining town of Pailin,” he says.

“The Kola were big in the gem industry. They started to get wealthier and wealthier and, especially after the French took over Indochina, they started sending their sons  to study in France.”

The influx of wealth into Pailin saw the town grow into a regional centre of around 5000 people Pyonne says, and it quickly gained a reputation as a centre of learning and the arts.

“Because of the level of education, Pailin produced a lot of books and literature that were very famous. For example, there are surviving novels and poetry from Pailin, and evidence that these books were well known among Cambodians at the time,” he says.

The Burmese presence in Palin persisted until the 1970s, when the community found itself targeted for eradication by the Khmer Rouge.

Waves of migrants to the area following the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge guerrillas in 1996 have completely changed the character of Pailin, and now the only remaining trace of Burmese influence is the hill-top stupa.

After approaching Pailin’s governor and the Ministry of Culture last year, Pyonne and a team of Burmese engineers and local labourers were granted permission to begin restoring Aung Sula Mani in December.

After erecting lattices around the stupa’s spire, the team set to work chiselling out the crumbling cement between each stone block and mending the gaping cracks on its surface.

Structural work on the stupa will finish on Thursday Pyonne says. The occasion will be marked by a visit to the site by Burmese government officials including Energy Minister U Than Htay.

Aung Sula Mani will be off-icially inaugurated next March during Cambodia’s National Cultural Day, which is scheduled to be held in Pailin in 2012.

For his part, Pyonne told the Post that restoring the stupa was just the beginning, and he plans to erect a museum next door, pending approval from the government.

“I’m proposing to have a kind of museum on the hilltop as a place for people to come and learn about the Burmese influence in Cambodia and help solve the mystery of who these people were, and whether there are any of their descendants left.”


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