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Mon and Pali languages excluded from Shwedagon Pagoda reconstruction

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BY Kon Chan: The Dhammaceti stone inscription at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, which was damaged by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, is in the process of being reconstructed by a team of experts; this team has opted to re-carve the inscription in Burmese and English, using the latter to replace the Mon and Pali that originally graced the artifact.

According to a Shwedagon Pagoda Gawpaka, a monk who oversees the maintenance of the monument, the Dhammaceti inscription, which recounts both sacred Buddhist teachings and key passages of ancient Mon history, is located on the edge of the “Sunday” corner of Shwedagone Pagoda. The original inscription was carved 500 years ago in the Mon, Burmese, and Pali languages.

The newly restored inscription stone is set to be finished and ready for public viewing by mid-April.

According to Mon legend, Shwedagon Pagoda was built over 2500 years ago, when a pair of traders living in the ancient land of Rehmonnya collaborated with the Mon King Ukkalapa in the construction of a pagoda worthy of sheltering eight hairs given to them by Gautama Buddha. Unfortunately, a Mon religious scholar informed IMNA, the Mon people’s role in the pagoda’s construction has been gradually weeded out from Burmese history books since General Ne Win took power in the 1960’s.

The structure sustained significant damages when the infamous Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008; strong winds tore off the gold paneling and precious gemstones that had previously decorated the building.

A second Shwedagon Gowpaka informed IMNA that a team of researchers and historians had to be collected to reconstruct the Burmese portion of the new inscription, as the remains of the section had become faded with age; he further that the exclusion of Mon and Pali from the reconstructed inscription was merely due to a dearth of Pali and Mon scholars knowledgeable enough to handle the project.

This explanation has been soundly rejected by various cultural and historical coalitions in Mon State. A member of the Mon Literature and Culture Committee informed IMNA that the substitution of English for Mon and Pali in essence destroys a valuable Mon historical artifact.

The committee member explained “I say this because they are destroying our Mon inscription. We ethnic minorities should maintain our ancient literatures’ writing styles as much as we can, and preserve things written in [for example] the Mon language or the Shan language.”

He further predicted that the current Mon Youth population will die only knowing a small amount of their rich cultural and historical inheritance, and that Mon history will be totally extinct within a few decades.

A Moulmein resident who recently traveled to Rangoon told IMNA, “They [the Burmese government] have tried to eradicate us [the Mon people], our literature, our culture, and our history many different times. Recently, the Buddha’s inscription is also being included in this, after they have already eradicated our literature and culture.”

“We also have experts [on the Mon language] if they are willing to let them help,” he added, responding to the Shwedagon Gowpaka group’s claims that Mon State lacks sufficient linguistic efforts to aid in the inscription’s recreation.

The reconstructed Dhammaceti inscription will be available for viewing in Shwedagon Pagoda’s east archway. The original engraving contained passages recounting the Mon people’s devout practice of Buddhism, and the story of Shwedagon Pagoda’s construction by the Mon King Ukkalapa. It is unknown whether or not these messages will also be “lost in translation” during the inscription’s reconstruction.

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