Mandalay and the Art of Building Cities in Burma

Bruno Shirley

François Tainturier meticulously reconstructs the vision, the ambition, and the stakes underlying King Mindon’s foundation of Mandalay, the last independent royal capital of Burma’s Konbaung dynasty. Mandalay and the Art of Building Cities in Burma reaches across the disciplinary divide to present a compelling narrative, which will be of equal interest to scholars of Burma, of Buddhism, and of architecture and urban planning.

The work’s central argument is against the unchallenged ubiquity of the “cosmic city” model: an attempt to replicate the universe in miniature, in a symbolic display of royal power (see pp. 9-11). While many studies of premodern Southeast Asian city planning have assumed such a “cosmic city” to be the aspiration of city-founders, Tainturier draws on an impressive range of evidence – textual and material – to demonstrate otherwise for Mandalay. King Mindon and his courtiers, Tainturier argues, deliberately turned away from this model in favour of an innovative city-as-sanctuary design, on a scale not previously attempted in Burmese urban history.

This is not to suggest that Mandalay’s founders were unaware of or disinterested in precedent. On the contrary: Part One emphasises continuity with earlier city-planning even in uncertain times of British incursion and dharma decline. The first chapter documents the Konbaung court’s internal negotiations and studies of earlier founding protocols. Court officials presented King Mindon with a range of precedents from earlier city-foundings to (literally) build upon. After this preliminary research, court officials employed ritual acts and occult sciences to establish an “auspicious territory” for the future city (described in Chapter 2), before beginning construction of the royal palace itself (described in Chapter 3). Tainturier’s study of this palatial architecture is a particularly effective instance of his broader argument against the “cosmic city” model, which earlier studies often see evident in royal palaces’ symbolic identification with Indra’s divine palace Vaijayanta. Tainturier argues instead that Mandalay’s palace was designed with a keener interest in “the notion of cosmic renewal” (p. 78) and in more immediate domestic concerns such as the separation of private and public space (see particularly p. 94) – a much more nuanced perspective.

The innovations outlined in Chapters 1-3 seem to have been made relatively cautiously, with eyes trained firmly on precedent in order to emphasise a degree of continuity. In the latter half of the book, Tainturier argues for a more “radical shift in emphasis and scale” (p. 103), particularly in the ambitiously orderly planning of the outer city. While earlier royal capitals’ outer cities may have grown out of “a progressive expansion of the built-up area,” Mandalay’s was the result of “a deliberate plan systematically implemented by the royal authorities as part of the founding protocol” (p. 125). This approach, Chapter 4 suggests, was a pragmatic response to both the British occupation of Lower Burma, and to Burmese embassies’ exposure to the radically different cityscapes of Calcutta and Paris. Mandalay’s planner, Tainturier suggests, took inspiration from the sheer scale on which these cities were planned. However, they did not merely mimic the scale of Western urban design: they created a uniquely Burmese, and decidedly Buddhist, cityscape, across which a new vision of Burmese Buddhism was made material.

Chapter 5 turns to the construction of the “seven places,” the concept of which had grown increasingly important in Konbaung-era building projects. The evolution of the “seven places” as detailed in this chapter is noteworthy for its demonstration of material concerns – the construction of new royal capitals – influencing literary texts. This provides an important counterpoint to those studies (of Burma, and of the wider Buddhist world) which assume the primacy of the written text. In Mandalay, far more so than in earlier Konbaung capitals, these “seven places” underwent even more dramatic changes: they spread out amongst the outer city rather than being confined to the palace, and they included more explicitly Buddhist structures than ever before.

This highly visible orientation towards Buddhism is highlighted further in Chapter 6 with the introduction of the “Blessed One’s Bazaar.” The bazaar was originally a simile found in the Questions of King Milinda, a text particularly significant in Burmese Buddhism; King Mindon sought to make it physically manifest in the outer city of Mandalay, in order to preserve both his kingdom and Buddhism itself against threats both tangible and spiritual. The bazaar’s “merchandise” included Buddha-relics obtained from Sri Lanka, Bo tree plantings, Buddha images, and inscriptions of the Buddha’s teachings, all to sanctify the outer city and “materialise the entry of the Buddha into the new royal city” (p. 185).

This work is a valuable contribution to the history of Burma, over which the Konbaung dynasty and its last capital naturally loom large. But Mandalay and the Art of Building Cities in Burma also makes critical interventions into wider fields. Scholars of urban history, for example, will no doubt find the work a valuable contribution, providing as it does a remarkably thorough example of urban design policy motivated by a soteriological logic far removed from the Western case studies that are otherwise so predominant. Of particular note, however, is the effectiveness with which Tainturier undermines a (still-too-prevalent) tendency within Buddhist Studies to prioritise the textual, and to consider the material only as an afterthought. The book demonstrates the need to consider these media in dialogue: even textual sources as central as the tipiṭaka – the scriptural “canon” itself – underwent editorial processes informed by the needs of King Mindon’s ambitious urban plan (pp. 182-184).

This emphasis on materiality is borne out in the impressive number of illustrations: 82 in total, 15 of which appear before a single word of the Introduction. This is an argument clearly meant to be seen as much as read, and it is a pleasure indeed to see. A very few of these images do not meet the overall high production standards, such as the low-resolution charts in Figures 35, 37, and 65-67. Elsewhere, some images are conspicuously absent. The impact of the Standing Buddha on Mandalay Hill (discussed on pp. 12, 30, 54-55), for example, could only have been made more immediate by the visual aids which so assist other key arguments throughout the work. Overall, however, this is that rarity of a book as at home on the coffee table as in a textual scholar’s bookshelf – an achievement for both scholar and publisher.