Thirty-thousand monks assembled in the early morning chill in Myanmar today for a spectacular alms-giving event, partly organised by a controversial mega-temple under scrutiny across the border in Thailand.
With many barefoot, Buddhist monks from Myanmar and Thailand and senior religious officials from a dozen countries collected alms next to an airport in the central city of Mandalay, that is also a heartland of the faith.
The event was the third and largest of its kind since 2015 and comes as one of the organisers, the Thailand-based Dhammakaya foundation, attempts to bounce back from an embezzlement scandal more than two years ago.
The Dhammakaya temple's massive compound in northern Bangkok was under siege for two weeks in early 2017 as thousands of officers tried to arrest the sect's spiritual leader.
Monks lining up during the alms-giving ceremony to 30,000 monks organised by the regional government of Mandalay affiliated with Dhammakaya Foundation at Chanmyathazi Airport in Mandalay today
Myanmar and Thai Buddhist monks praying as they take part in an alms-offering ceremony in the early morning chill of Mandalay today
A Thai woman holding a pile of Myanmar bank notes to offer to Buddhist monks. The event was the third and largest of its kind since 2015 and was part organised by the Dhammakaya Foundation
Myanmar and Thai Buddhist monks take part in an alms offering ceremony in Mandalay today in an area roughly the size of a football field
People watching on as Myanmar and Thai Buddhist monks take part in an alms offering-ceremony. Around 30,000 Buddhist monks from the two neighbouring countries attended the event today
Phra Dhammachayo was accused of colluding in a £25million ($33m) embezzlement scheme and was believed to be hiding somewhere on the temple's sprawling 1,000 acre grounds, an area twice the size of Monaco.
As the sun rose over the ancient town of Mandalay today, a sea of saffron and maroon-robed monks assembled in an area the size of a football field.
They meditated, prayed and collected alms in an event meant to tighten the relationship of 'monks and Buddhists between [the] two countries' and to 'strengthen the monkhood' in the region, according to a statement.
'I hope we can continue to hold bigger events in the coming years,' said U Thu Nanda, a 24-year-old Burmese monk.
Critics of Dhammachayo said the abbot distorted traditional Buddhist morality by encouraging materialism and spiritual rewards for donations.
Thai people holding Myanmar bank notes and food to offer to the Buddhist monks. Critics of Phra Dhammachayo said the abbot was encouraging materialism and spiritual rewards for donations
Myanmar and Thai Buddhist monks queuing up to offer alms - the giving to others as an act of virtue - in Mandalay, Myanmar
The monks meditated, prayed and collected alms in an event meant to tighten the relationship of monks and Buddhists between Thailand and Myanmar
A Thai Buddhist monk (left) poses for a photo today. This year they also organised two large alms-giving events in Thailand in September and October attended by 10,000 monks to solicit donations for flood victims
A Myanmar Buddhist monk taking a photo. As many as 30,000 monks assembled in the early morning chill in Myanmar today for the spectacular alms-giving event
But devotees point to the temple's accessible meditation methods to explain its popularity.
Experts also speculated it was under fire because of purported ties to the then-junta's political foes.
The abbot was never found but the temple is still operational. Meanwhile, its monks have been busy.
This year they also organised two large alms-giving events in Thailand in September and October attended by 10,000 monks to solicit donations for flood victims.
But the controversy was not a topic of discussion at the event in Mandalay, where many came to show support as co-religionists.
'Donating things to many monks in one place makes me feel the delight of being Buddhist,' said Khant Zaw Aung, a Burmese businessman.
A Myanmar Buddhist monk prepares his robe. The event was part organised by the Dhammachayo Foundation, the founder of which was accused of colluding in a £25m embezzlement scheme and was believed to be hiding in the temple's grounds
Around 30,000 Buddhist monks from the two neighbouring countries attended the event. Dhammachayo was never found after embezzlement accusations were made, but the temple is still operational