Rising majestically out of the plains of central Burma, 2,417 feet up in the air atop an ancient, sheer-sided volcanic plug, the Buddhist monastery of Popa Taungkalat surveys the surrounding scene. An amazing example of a human construction merged organically with its natural setting, Taung Kalat also draws thousands of pilgrims each year because of its great spiritual significance.
Match made in heaven: Monastery and mountain appear seamlessly merged
There seems to be a tendency for religious structures to be built on top of massive volcanic plugs. It’s as if the architects of these places of worship were investing faith in the benevolence of the divine forces they venerated – or perchance putting their own religious beliefs to the test.
Spiritual site: Shining spires of the Popa Taungkalat monastery
In fact though there is little chance of the golden-spired Popa Taungkalat monastery being blasted to high heaven. Mount Popa, the nearby volcano to which it owes its foundation, is thought extinct.
Volcanic plugs are created when magma dries as it spews from a vent an active volcano. When they form, the extreme pressure build-up can lead to an eruption – but here such a danger seems to have long since passed.
Burma’s answer to Mount Olympus: Taung Kalat at sunrise
Indeed looking at, it seems as if the monastery draws nourishment from the volcanic landform on which it lies. To the Burmese, this is certainly a place of spiritual sustenance. The monastery is still active, and the Taung Kalat is also home to the 37 Mahagiri Nats – spirits of humans who met violent deaths revered in conjunction with Buddhism – their statues to be found at the base of the Shrine.
Image of me: Mount Popa, or Taung Ma-gyi, dwarfing Taung Kalat, left
While many tourists mistakenly call Taung Kalat (“pedestal hill”) Mount Popa, the volcano proper is situated northeast of the monastery-crowned outcrop that has so spectacularly resisted erosion over the centuries. Often called Taung Ma-gyi (“mother hill”) to dispel confusion, the giant volcanic cone is 4,980 feet tall and contains a mile-wide crater at its main summit.
Image: Ralf-André Lettau
View from above: Taung Kalat as it appears from Taung Ma-gyi
From the loftier perspective of Taung Ma-gyi, Taung Kalat retains a serene beauty, but it is from the smaller projection that the panoramic views open up. The ancient city of Bagan lies some 50km to the northeast, and beyond it the cone-shaped peak of Taung Ma-gyi towers like Burma’s answer to Mount Fuji. The surrounding areas are arid, but the Mount Popa area has many springs and streams, plus soil fertile from volcanic ash, making it something of an oasis in Burma’s dry central zone.
Lush and green: This volcanic region’s days of destruction are seemingly over
To get to the summit of Taung Kalat’s vertiginous protuberance, visitors must remove their shoes and climb 777 steps up a covered walkway to the top, where dizziness from exertion and thin air inevitably await. People must also run the gauntlet of gangs of Macaques, cheeky primates that may look cute, but which will snatch anything that looks vaguely edible without a second invitation.
Image: Donna Cymek
Monkeys at the monument: Beware the Macaques
There are however far greater threats to the tranquillity of this location; for one, the government’s focus on expanding tourism at the expense of cultural preservation – like the religious importance of a place like Mount Popa. The area needs protection from the negative effects of increasing visitors, so that sacred sites such as Popa Taungkalat are not allowed to fall into neglect.