The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
CULTURE
Secrets of a Shan Palace
By TARA MONROE/SHAN STATE, BURMA MAY, 2005 - VOLUME 13 NO.5

Does a protective curse prevent the regime from pulling it down?

 

Yawnghwe Haw, the large wood and brick palace of Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaike, near Inle Lake in southern Shan State, has survived the ravages of Burma’s turbulent history—unlike its ill-fated former occupant, who died in jail.

 

 

Some suggest that the palace owes its survival to a protecting curse on anyone daring to pull it down. That was the fate of the famous Shan palace Haw Sao Pha Kengtung, demolished by the Burmese military junta in 1991.

 

Now known as Yawnghwe (Nyaungshwe) Haw Museum, Sao Shwe Thaike’s palace has undergone superficial renovation to repair damage caused by years of neglect, when squatters occupied outbuildings and graffiti was scrawled on some of the walls. The exhibits themselves have been catalogued and explained by the museum’s curators with only a cursory nod to historical fact.

 

Built in the Mandalay tradition and completed in the late 1920s, Yawnghwe Haw is a fine example of Shan palace architecture, though perhaps not as impressive as the demolished Haw Sao Pha Kengtung. The museum’s collection contains precious and beautiful artifacts—elaborate royal thrones, teak tables, divans, sedans and palanquins. Also included are numerous costumes belonging to the Shan sawbwas, or rulers, from Yawnghwe as well as Kengtung.

 

“Elephant supported chair” dated 1864 and used by Nyaungshwe Sawbwas

Visitors to the museum have access to three main wooden halls and the apartment of the Royal Mother. The Royal Throne Audience Hall houses the collection of thrones. The Inner Audience Hall displays primarily original costumes worn by the Mahadevi (Queen) and sawbwas of Yawnghwe, including some by Sao Maung, the sawbwa who preceded Sao Shwe Thaike. Most of these costumes date from the 1860s to 1890s. In the spacious Outer Audience Hall, visitors can view historic photos, statues, and an elaborate chair supported by carved elephants.

 

Laconic signs in English and Burmese explain the where, when and who of the artifacts in the collection; but the deeper history of these items and the people who used them is largely ignored, or perhaps intentionally excluded. Visitors are not told, for example, that the Inner Hall served as a place of worship for the family. Nor do visitors learn details of the daily lives and historical contributions of the palace’s residents.

 

Knowledgeable visitors can discover some of this deeper history by viewing the photograph collection housed in the apartment of the Royal Mother, and by recognizing the omissions in the photographic records. On display are images of Sao Shwe Thaike, his wife, parents and several relatives. The collection presents Thaike’s first wife, who died of tuberculosis, as the last Mahadevi of Yawnghwe. In fact, Sao Nang Hearn Hkam, Thaike’s third wife, was the last Mahadevi of Yawnghwe; and her exclusion from the museum constitutes only a slightly gentler revision of Burma’s history than the destruction of the palace at Kengtung and the subsequent building of a new palace in its place.

 

When the Burmese military seized control of the country on March 2, 1962, they raided Yawnghwe Haw and imprisoned Sao Shwe Thaike, who died some months later in jail. After her husband’s death, Sao Nang Hearn Hkam escaped to Thailand with her five surviving children. Two years later, she helped found the Shan State War Council and the Shan State Army, in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Visitors will not discover these facts anywhere in the museum.

 

Entrance to the Nyaungshwe Cultural Museum

 

Those interested in exploring further the history of Yawnghwe Haw and its place in Burmese history can find more substantive information in two books, written from widely divergent perspectives. The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions within Myanmar Naing-Ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad (Myanmar: SLORC, 1989) contains the only official regime reference to Sao Nang Hearn Hkam as the Mahadevi of Yawnghwe, though the book casts her as a traitor to Burma. Patricia Elliot’s more comprehensive and less biased The White Umbrella (Bangkok: Post Books, 1999) describes extensively the daily life and tumultuous history surrounding the palace and the lives of its residents.

 

Today, Yawnghwe Haw is quiet. Located at Nyaungshwe, the tourist gateway to Inle Lake, the museum occasionally attracts a foreign visitor willing to pay the US $2 entrance fee. One is more likely, however, to meet young Shan novice monks touring the complex during their school break.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group | www.irrawaddy.org