Kyaiktiyo Balancing Stupa: Myanmar’s holiest shrine

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Imagine Rene Magritte being an architect and a Buddhist at that. Imagine that instead of his fixation on his drowned mother, he let her reincarnate peacefully and focused on worshiping Buddha through creating a stupa out of natural rock, defying gravity as much as the inverted mountains in his paintings. Kyaiktiyo is what he would have made, probably. But then, the ancient Burmese have succeeded perfectly without him. A giant boulder balancing precariously on the edge of a cliff, the shrine of Kyaiktiyo is one of the holiest Buddhist structures in Myanmar and a "must-see" item for tourists - for a change, deservedly so.

© Istock/vdvornyk

The story of Kyaiktiyo

What can keep a tremendous rock balancing on a precipice from toppling and rolling down the slope like a juggernaut, perhaps smashing a few unlucky pilgrims along the way? What can stabilize it for centuries, maybe forever? Cement? Not with its mass. And there is no cement - look closely, and you will see little twigs inserted between the boulder and bedrock, bending ever so slightly as the rock swings gently back and forth. No, the only power capable of this task is the weight of a single hair - a hair of Lord Buddha himself. As the legend goes, a wandering hermit once walked by with Siddhartha Gautama's hair woven into his own braid. The local king, a powerful magician, asked the sage to leave the holy relic to him and his people. This request was accepted on one condition - the king would have to find a rock in the shape of the hermit's head, build a stupa on top of it and enshrine the hair there. The king then used his superhuman powers to locate a suitable stone on the bottom of the sea, bring it to the top of a mountain, and ensure its perfect balance by placing the sacred hair in precisely the right spot.

© Istock/vdvornyk

Visiting Kyaiktiyo

The legendary temple of Kyaiktiyo is a pilgrimage spot, not a tourist attraction, and getting there is part of the penance. Wooden benches of passenger trucks, the only public vehicles reaching the bottom of the mountain, are clearly good for the soul, if not for the body. The one-hour climb to the top is probably good for both. Or else, if you feel like a colonial lord (or a feeble old ruin), hire a couple of porters to carry you up in a palanquin - you will see them at the entrance. The entire mountain top, as it is common in sacral places of Myanmar, is a mix of a prayer hall and a fairground - shrines clamber upon each other, and vendors sell anything from snacks and drinks to talismans and weird traditional medicines (such as pickled leopard cat feet) in between. One noteworthy shrine is Kyaukthanban, another venerated natural rock - it is believed to be the magic flying boat of that sorcerer-king, turned to stone after completing his holy quest. 

© Istock/sihasakprachum

Around Kyaiktiyo

The area around Kyaiktiyo is rural and extremely authentic, even by Burmese standards. It is also mountainous, with good hiking opportunities. The views from numerous hilltops are equally (and outstandingly) beautiful. Of course, none of them has unique balancing rocks, although you may come across other stupas. There is a waterfall nearby and a few old monasteries. The villages in the vicinity are perfect for anyone with an ethnographic interest and photographers, obviously. Oxcarts still outnumber pickup trucks here. Farming and riverside activities have not changed much since the days of royal Burma, and generally, exploring this region is no less exciting than visiting Myanmar’s holiest shrine.

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