The Mandalay palace was conceived and constructed during the reign of King Mindon who took the throne in a bloodless coup following the Second Anglo-Burmese war in 1852. At that time the royal city was in Amarapura which was built in 1782. The city’s past was filled with royal intrigues and atrocities and this, combined with the recent humiliation of defeat to the British, drove King Mindon to seek a fresh site for his capital.
Seizing upon a fabricated prophecy that detailed the birth of a great Buddhist centre sited at the base of a great hill and on the 2,400 year anniversary of Gautama Buddha’s death, King Mindon set out to build a “Golden City”. He told his people that he had a vision in three dreams which required him to relocate his court to Mandalay. He felt the ruse was necessary because many of the 150,000 residents would experience great sacrifice and hardship in being forced to gather their possessions and follow the king.
After consultations with court astrologers, the most auspicious date was selected. On 13 February 1857, the first stone was placed in Mandalay. Great care was taken to follow the ritual and layout of earlier royal cities. Many elements of the palace design can be traced back in time, past the early Bagan kings into ancient Chinese and Indian dynasties. The orientation of buildings was extremely important since the east was seen as the most honorable point of the compass, the source of life; and the west was the direction of death, where all funeral processions would leave the palace through the west gate. It is rumored that the tradition of performing human sacrifices was followed, with 52 men, women and children being buried below massive teak posts which were set in strategic points about the palace. The ghosts of the victims were thought to remain close to their point of death and provide protection for those living within. Construction was completed in 1859 and Myanmar’s final royal city became fully occupied.
The city was a perfect square, measuring 6,666 feet (about 2,030 m) per side. The palace was placed exactly in the centre with its outer walls facing the cardinal points of the compass. Twelve gates lead into the city each marked with a different zodiac sign. Viewed from afar, it resembled the other worldly abode the king had sought to create.
The palace was dominated by a 78m tall tower known as the “centre of the universe”. This pyat-that tower had a seven-tiered roof structure that was completely gold plated. It rose directly above the Lion Throne and was supposed to be a great conduit for wisdom from above. The Lion throne resided in the Great Audience Hall where the most important ceremonies were conducted. Kadaw (paying homage ceremonies) were held three times a year with court officials and princes appearing before the king to swear an oath of loyalty.
All the structures of the palace were made of wood, much of it coming from the dismantled palace of Amarapura. Everything was carved with mythological creatures, floral designs and astrological symbols. A huge watch tower, from which guards scanned the city for fires, was constructed completely of teak and topped off with an exquisitely carved pyat-that.
King Mindon died in 1878 and, sadly, his Mandalay palace was completely destroyed by fire in 1945. A recent government reconstruction of the palace is an ongoing project.