Brushing Buddha’s teeth and washing his face in Mandalay

It all started innocently enough. “Anyone want to get up early tomorrow to see Buddha get his face washed and his teeth brushed?” asked our local guide. And then he added the clincher. “It’s a local custom, for the local people, not for tourists”.

Which is why I get my wake up call at 3.15 am, and am in the lobby at 3.30am to join two fellow travellers and our driver. Its pitch black and cold outside, with no other traffic. There’s a small queue of about a dozen people at the door of the Maha Muni pagoda, and we have plenty of time to peruse the stalls to buy offerings for the temple , as we discover that the doors will only open at about 4.45am today. The queue is slowly growing as tour groups arrive (so much for the ‘not for tourists’ claim), but it seems that these groups are buddhists visiting from other asian countries, we are still the only westerners here.

The Buddha at Maha Muni is famous for having grown ‘fat’ from the amount of gold leaf rubbed onto it for the last one hundred or so years. When the doors open we are all shepherded into areas in front of the Buddha statue, where we place our tray of offerings on a bench and then sit down behind it on the floor. This is the point when my sleep-deprived brain remembers that I struggle to sit cross-legged for more than five minutes at a time, and that’s before I add in a stone floor. Uh-oh, better find the endurance switch, and quickly.

As a distraction, and following the lead of the more experienced visitors, we open the packets of food on our trays, peel the top half of a banana and the top half of an orange, and try (unsuccessfully) to arrange all the food in an attractive pattern on the tray.

The actual ceremony is carried out by the head monk and a number of lay helpers (distinguished by their white robes). My silent hope that this turns out to be a spectacular but surprisingly short ceremony is quickly dashed.

First many ornate containers and platters are carried up to and placed in front of Buddha. The monk then presents these to the Buddha one by one to be blessed. The monk wraps a large gold cloth around Buddha’s neck and shoulders, and climbs up on a platform so he can easily reach Buddha’s face. One of the lay helpers passes up a large urn of cooked rice, and the monk takes a handful and proceeds to scrub Buddha’s teeth with the rice (or more accurately he scrubs Buddha’s lips, as the statue does not actually open it’s mouth).

This is repeated for about ten minutes with more handfuls of rice. Eventually the rice is passed back down and the monk starts to wet Buddha’s face with a spray of water from a golden can. The face is washed with a cloth in a series of rhythmic arm movements, over and over again, and then dried with a series of towels in the same repeated rhythmic pattern. Strangely this reminds me of Karate Kid – wash on, wash off! The drying is then finished off with the waving of a golden fan.

While the repetition and rhythm of the ritual is very relaxing on the mind, it hasn’t helped at all with my attempts to sit still on the floor – I am changing position every few minutes, and struggling to remember to make sure my feet always point away from Buddha. I marvel at how my hips can be completely numb and yet very painful at the same time. Eventually I admit defeat and drag myself out of the viewing area – the hardest part is trying to stand up – it takes another ten minutes before I can walk with any ┬ánormality again.

Now that we are standing we realise that the best viewing spot might actually be to the right hand side of the buddha (when facing the buddha). In this area you can stand or sit, with room to stretch and it is much less crowded. It would also be a good idea to bring a cushion!

Elsewhere in this pagoda I am able to admire the soaring gold arches of the hallways, the intricate patterning, the collection of ancient Angkor sculptures which had been stolen from Cambodian kings during wars over the centuries, and an impressive row of large bells to ring to share your good merit. It’s also a good site for charcoal and ink sketches, the quality here is a lot better than the ones for sale at U Bein bridge.

So the final verdict is yes, the face washing and teeth brushing ceremony is a unique enough local ritual to get up early for. It’s also far too uncomfortable for me to ever do twice, if I happen to make it back to Mandalay.

Especially when I learn that the length of the drawn out process of washing and drying with multiple cloths is driven by economics. Buddhist pilgrims like to buy a cloth used in the ritual as a souvenir, as the cloths are considered to be blessed by Buddha. So the more the monk uses, the more they can sell, which enhances the pagoda’s ability to support the local population. I call it a trade-off between charity and hip bones.