An Unusual Ritual In Mandalay

Washing the Buddha’s face and teeth brushing

Early morning daily ritual at Mahamuni Pagoda, Mandalay. Every morning at around 4am, the senior monk washes the face of the Buddha image and brushes the teeth.

I have always been fascinated by aspects of Buddhism, not so much the religious teachings and philosophy, for which I have the utmost respect, but more the rituals and traditions which vary greatly across the Buddhist world. Having lived and worked in Southeast Asia for much of my adult life and being married to a wonderful Thai lady, I’ve seen a fair amount of the stuff, but I admit to understanding little, particularly when it comes to all things Myanmar. One remarkable ritual is the Buddha daily face washing and teeth brushing at the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar. It’s unique and steeped in mythology. This is not a tourist attraction, it’s a serious ritual for locals and pilgrims alike, although visitors are permitted from a distance. Factors that make this ritual less visitor-friendly is the daily start time at 4am, which means getting out of bed around 3am and the ceremony is usually over in less than an hour. Also, women are prohibited from coming too close to the ceremony and especially near the buddhist monks, although the views from the gallery are fine.

So what is this unusual ritual? Every morning at 4am or 4.30am, monks and devotees gather around the Buddha image enshrined in the main sanctuary chamber of the Mahamuni Pagoda. The Buddha’s head is wrapped in large yellow cloths (brahmic robes) with the face still visible. Given the nature of the ritual, in some ways it resembles a VIP customer at the barber or hair dressing salon. The ritual commences with the head monk, dressed in orange-red monastic robes repeatedly washing the face of the Buddha image. Between washings, the face is carefully dried with clean towels. Alternate washings and dryings are performed. The head monk also vigorously brushes the teeth of the Buddha. This particular Buddha image has distinctive big white teeth. Sandalwood paste is used for the cleaning. Assistants dressed in white robes and caps carefully pass forward silver bowls of water and cleaning materials in a chain formation. The ritual is over in forty minutes or so. Finally, when the monks have departed, pilgrims and worshippers come forward and rub gold leaf around the base or throne of the image. The latter probably goes on for the rest of the day as visitors come and go to the pagoda. So much gold leaf has been rubbed around the base of the Buddha over the years, that it has taken on a distinctly bulbous appearance and texture.

The origins of this Buddha image is reportedly from the Arakan kingdom, where the Lord Buddha once visited during his earthly life and was an honoured guest. During his visit an image was made in his likeness by order of the King of Arakan and the image subsequently became known as the Mahamuni Buddha. How it ended up in Mandalay, I don’t know. Perhaps the washing and brushing ceremony is somehow symbolic of the hospitality given to Lord Buddha by the people of Arakan? It’s a mythology, legend and superstition unique to this place.

Hoping she would have the real answers, I asked my wife, Took, why the local people went to so much effort washing the face and brushing the teeth of this particular Buddha every morning? and what is the true Buddhist meaning ? Her simple response with a shrug of the shoulders – “Don’t you wash your face and brush your teeth every morning?”

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