U Khan Dee: The Hermit on the Hill
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U Khan Dee: The Hermit on the Hill

By Aung Zaw and Shawn L Nance JUNE, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.5

More than fifty years after his death, U Khan Dee, the hermit of Mandalay Hill, is still remembered as one of the most remarkable figures of Burma’s late colonial period. During the latter half Burma’s colonial rule, pious visitors to Mandalay Hill would recount their tales of the venerable hermit monk who possessed remarkable powers. Some spoke of his great height, others claimed he was invisible, still others said he could turn silver into gold. And although people all over Burma today still speak reverently of U Khan Dee, his life was marked by controversy. Also known as Yathee Gyi U Khan Dee (the Great Hermit U Khan Dee), his legendary status was achieved only through a long uphill struggle. In 1908, U Khan Dee first arrived at Mandalay Hill from Yamethin Township, Mandalay, after leaving the Buddhist monkhood where he spent 12 years. He was driven by the strong desire to reconstruct religious buildings and restore Buddhist statues that were severely damaged by the series of fires that ravaged the city around the turn of the century. It is also believed that Kinwun Mingyi U Gaung, an honorable minister held in high esteem by British colonial officials who eventually made him a senior advisor, invited U Khan Dee to come to Mandalay for restoration work on the Hill. U Gaung served under King Thibaw and his father, King Mindon. But this devotion to restoration work required the handling of donations in kind and in cash—a practice forbidden by religious doctrine for Buddhist monks. When he left the monastery to become a hermit monk, his elder brother, who was also a monk, disowned U Khan Dee for choosing to follow a more lenient path and refused to speak with him for the remainder of his life. Soon after arriving in Mandalay, U Khan Dee encountered other obstacles. Daw Khin Lay, an influential local businesswoman also known as Sense Khin Lay because of her penchant for playing poker, was engaged in her own religious renovation projects. From her "Burma Curio Shop" she sold silk, silver and lacquerware but also used the shop to collect donations for repairs on the Hill’s famous Buddhist images, buildings and zayats or resthouses. Threatened by this newcomer, Khin Lay vigilantly denied U Khan Dee’s advances upon her domain. Local residents and senior monks, however, were impressed by U Khan Dee’s resolve and gave him the green light to begin accepting donations to carry out his endeavors. Daw Khin Lay protested, calling on her close connections with British officials to fend off the challenge and eventually took her case to court. Restoration work came to halt during this legal stalemate over the control of donations. But her affiliation with colonial authorities caused many local people to rally to U Khan Dee’s support and they acted swiftly to end the dispute. They accused Daw Khin Lay of misusing donations for her own personal profit, while she retaliated with charges that locals were stealing bricks donated to her construction projects. Both strong public sentiments and the court ruling were in U Khan Dee’s favor and Daw Khin Lay retreated into obscurity in the annals of Mandalay’s history. In his 41 years atop Mandalay Hill, first at Su Taung Pyeit temple and later at Byant Gyi, he helped construct nearly 47 religious structures in over 20 cities, some as far away as Moulmein, Taunggyi and Pegu. He also repaired countless others on and around the Hill. One of the most venerated monuments attributed to U Khan Dee was one of his first projects. Around 1911, the Government of India gave Burma a vault containing some remains of the Lord Buddha, a gift that delighted the people. U Khan Dee initiated construction of the reliquary for the Sacred Ashes at the Hill’s summit. His ability to collect more than enough donation money for the construction of the palatial reliquary allowed him to expand his plans to build additional structures. Many of U Khan Dee’s contributions can still be seen today. The prayer hall and tazaung or the staircases leading up the hill, still stand. The large collection of marble inscriptions at the Sandamuni stupas—a preservation of the commentaries on the Tipitaka (Buddhist canon) once destroyed by fire—were completed with the aid of local senior monks and the head of Mandalay’s religious order and can still be visited today. Iron covered causeways and devotional halls on all four sides of Sandamuni were also constructed with the generosity of local Buddhists. This prodigious output could only be accomplished, however, by handling money, thus forcing U Khan Dee to become something of a de facto accountant. He once confided to his personal assistants that his preoccupation with financing his restoration work led to his self-imposed disrobing from the monkhood. Although he relinquished his monk status, he continued to practice as an austere monk, refraining from mishandling money and maintaining celibacy.

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