The Strange Legend Behind the Pindaya Caves in Myanmar

The bizarre legend behind the strange scene.

Think of Myanmar and one thinks of hot air balloons floating over the temples of Bagan or villages adrift on the Ayeyarwady River. Maybe think of gold? The shimmering wonder of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon or the golden rocks of Mount Kyaiktiyo are some of Myanmar’s most dazzling sights, but neither is the country’s most exotic. That honor goes to Pindaya Cave, or officially known as “Shwe U Min Natural Cave Pagoda of Pindaya”.

road to nirvana

Pindaya in Myanmar’s Shan State isn’t where every Burmese visits. Some travelers might spend the night in this sleepy town just to wrap up their cross-country trip from Inle Lake to Bagan. They’ll likely spend the afternoon strolling along the shores of peaceful Pone Taloke Lake, dining at one of the tranquil lakeside restaurants before catching the bus back the next morning. Others might visit Pindaya, trekking in the remote hills above town. The secluded 6-mile hike to the traditional Yazakyi Temple is a popular option.

Pindaya Cave Additional Image 1

However, the best reason to stop by in Pindaya is to visit the town’s “world famous” Shwe U Min Natural Cave Pagoda – one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country, and certainly the most unusual.

High on the limestone ridge above the town lies a labyrinth of twisting natural caves and tunnels housing more than 9,000 statues of the Buddha—often called “Buddhas.” Year after year, there is an influx of figurines, installed by devotees hoping to gain favor in exchange for their efforts. For believers, the ultimate goal is to escape from reincarnation—the Buddhist series of deaths and rebirths—and ultimately achieve nirvana, or enlightenment.

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Insider informationThe Shwe U Min Pagoda is about 2 miles or a 20 minute walk from town. Taxi fare is approximately US$5. Take the elevator to avoid the last 130 stairs to the cave entrance.

A unique pilgrimage

The winding cave complex, crammed floor to ceiling with gilded Buddha statues of every shape, size and style, is breathtaking. Every inch of available floor space and every nook, crevice and cavity bears the image of an icon. Rows of statues vie for space among slimy limestone stalactites and stalagmites formed by mineral-rich water droplets over centuries.

The enlightened man can be seen in all his traditional poses and gestures, as well as the distinctive representation of Buddha holding a seed in his upturned palm. These caves are believed to be the only places in Myanmar where such depictions can be found.

It is unclear when and why the astonishing accumulation of Buddhist iconography began. There are many uncarved statues, but the earliest inscription dates from 1773. These statues are made of a variety of materials, including alabaster, brick, marble, lacquer, teak, and even cement. Regardless of what’s inside, however, all statues have the same exterior: gold. No matter where you go in Myanmar, devotees enthusiastically paint their statues of Buddha with gilded leaves, and the caves at Pindaya are a good example of this practice.

Many pilgrims embark on the journey as representatives of Buddhist organizations in their home countries, while for others it is a personal journey that connects them to their faith. Throughout the complex, devotees can be found prostrate on stone floors in front of sacred statues. Other enthusiasts squeeze themselves into narrow meditation chambers naturally formed in the cave walls.

There are no signs calling for silence or promoting modesty, but an eerie library-like calm pervades the void, encouraging visitors to communicate through whispers and gestures. The cave has the air of a cathedral. Only the cathedral is underground, hollowed out of limestone, dank, with no natural light, and very claustrophobic. So not quite like a cathedral, but equally extraordinary.

“I caught a spider!”

To enter the complex, visitors must pass through Shwe Umin Pagoda, climb a long staircase, and pass a 40-foot-tall gilded Shan-style seated Buddha. At the entrance to the pagoda sits Pindaya’s most incongruous exhibit.

If the sight of gazing at thousands of golden Buddha statues from the depths of an eerie cave isn’t unique enough, maybe a surreal sculpture of a giant spider with razor-sharp teeth is crushing on its guest.

8. Prince Kummabhaya and the Spider
7. Giant spider with razor-like teeth

There is a valid reason for such a strange thing to appear at the entrance of the holy place. Nearby is an incongruous sculpture of a prince with a bow and arrow, which in some ways explains the giant monster spider.

Pindaya got its name from a local legend. Legend has it that the seven princesses bathing in the lake below were snatched by a giant spider that lived in a cave. The brave Prince Kummabhaya and his trusty longbow rescue a teenage girl trapped in a giant spider’s web inside a cave.

When the prince killed the spider, he yelled “Pinku Ya-Pyi!” meaning “I have a spider!” Over the centuries, this eventually evolved into Pindaya, and explains why one of Myanmar’s most revered pilgrimage sites Something that arguably looks more at home in a theme park guards.

Where else in this country unlike any other can you see a gleaming Buddha cave guarded by giant spiders? Of all the pagodas in Myanmar – and there are thousands – the Shwe U Min Natural Cave Pagoda in Pindaya is certainly the most striking.

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