King Mindon Min (1808-1878) of Burma created the largest book in the world. It’s a book you need to walk through in order to read, but a book nonetheless. He was afraid that Buddhist teachings would be lost with the imminent encroachment of the British in Burma (Myanmar) and wanted to preserve the teachings for at least 5000 years. Paper would not last that long so he had the entire Pali Canon (sacred texts of Theraveda Buddhism) reproduced on stone tablets, carved on both sides. There are 730 tablets (1460 pages), each tablet housed in a small stupa, all 730 of which are arranged around a large pagoda (Kuthodaw Pagoda), in which is a library of religious texts. Information about how this sculptural book was created is carved onto the 730th tablet.
Each marble tablet is three and a half feet wide, five foot tall, and five inches thick. It took scribes three days to copy 80 to 100 lines on each side of the tablet. Each stonemason could carve about 16 lines a day. Originally the carved words were filled in gold. It took about 8 years to finish (1860-1868).
In 1885, King Mindon Min’s fears were actualized when the British annexed Mandalay and troops were billeted in the temples and pagodas including Kuthodaw. The Burmese people were no longer allowed to visit their shrines and temples. One brave Burmese, U Aung Bang, decided to appeal to Queen Victoria herself as she claimed that the British would respect all religions in their colonial empire. She did, in fact, order the troops to remove themselves from the shrines. When the Burmese returned they discovered these sacred sites had been looted. In Kuthodaw, precious gems (each stupa had one) and bells (each small stupa had nine) were missing as well as destruction of some of the decorative work on the stupas themselves and other structures. Restoration work began in 1892.
What is a book? (When is a book a book, When is a book a book II) Must it be something that is only held in one’s lap? Why shouldn’t one literally and physically move through a book? King Mindon Min stretched the concept of “book” and created its largest physical manifestation, a kind of book as architecture. Sometimes a book needs a lot more space than we are used to, needing to burst from its covers and cover tangible geography as well. Maybe this kinesthetic approach to reading helps the content to sink deeper into the reader, or rather, the reader to journey more deeply into the content.