In our school geography books, Burma was described as a land rich with natural recourses. It had tin, oil, gold, silver, jade, rubies and huge teak forests. For me, it was a mysterious and romantic land. In ancient times, it was made up of rich princely states, peopled by colourful tribesmen, (169 tribes in all). They were fierce, proud and independent.
Then the British came and changed all that. They ruled for one hundred years. Though they did bring some semblance of unity among the erstwhile warring states, today there is little to show for those 100 years of British rule, except for a railway that somehow struggles along and some potholed roads.
When the Japanese came during the war, the British left in a hurry and abandoned all. We heard about pockets of Gurkhas who are still living there because they had nowhere to go when their White masters left them. The war ended and the British came back when the Japanese surrendered, but by then the Burmese were agitating for independence. For a while there was hope, and Aung Sang was going to lead the Burmese forward in leaps and bounds. Then came the brutal murder of Aung Sang and several members of his cabinet, including his elder brother, by radical elements in 1947.
The many successive governments that followed failed to control the regional rivalries that were gaining ground and finally, in 1962 the military were ‘invited’ to take over. By now Burma was already moving steadily backwards due to wrong policies and repressive measures. English schools had been closed down, foreign aid was rejected for fear of attached strings and the government refused to be part of the South East Treaty Organization. Repression was the order of the day. Burma became Myanmar. Popular political leaders were jailed or placed under house arrest. The fate of Aung Sang Su Kyi, the charismatic daughter of Aung Sang drew protests from around the world, but the Military government continued to ignore international opinion and drew their version of the Bamboo curtain tighter around their now completely isolated country.
Today it is a forgotten part of the world and no one seems to care about them anymore. Though they ostensibly hold elections now, one person cryptically remarked that ‘It is the same people who are in power. All they did was changed their clothes from Military uniform to civilian dress’! Progress and modernity have bypassed them altogether.
Touching Down in Yangon
For some reason, I and my friends wanted to go to Myanmar. Despite raised eyebrows, we persisted and made our plans. It was a poignant and unforgettable experience.
We arrived in Yangon on a hot October day. Dominated by the Swedagon Pagoda, it is a charming city with its old bungalows and tree lined roads, if a little moth eaten and under developed. Downtown Yangon is crowded, the roads jammed with cars of dubious vintage. The Strand area has some lovely old colonial buildings and Yangon boasts of some beautiful, old world hotels. But it is at least half a century behind most cities of the world.
In Mandalay, we expected to see Amitava Ghosh’s ‘Glass Palace’ and experience the romance of Kipling’s Mandalay. As children we could repeat his poem about the Burmese girl calling him back to her country, “On the Road to Mandalay/ where flyin’ fishes play/ and the dawn comes up like thunder outer’ China/’crost the bay”, like parrots in the classroom. And, in our minds, Mandalay was a rich and exotic place.
The road to Mandalay is now a huge concrete highway, gifted by the Chinese, with no traffic on it except for a few broken down trucks and old Toyotas. The enormous walls of the Palace of King Thibaw are still standing, but the palace itself went up in flames when the British bombed it during Japanese occupation, during World War 2. All that remains of this beautiful wooden palace is a small hall which was relocated to one corner of the enormous compound. Made of aging timbers carved like lace, it is still used as a prayer hall.
Prayer is everywhere in Myanmar. Buddha is the glue that is holding the country together. Gilded Pagodas, old and new, are at every crossing. Gold beating is a very important craft in Myanmar. Whenever there is a festival, people throng the temples to put gold leaf on the Buddha and thus earn merit. One guide told us that with the application of gold leaf through the centuries, the Buddha image in the Mahamuni Temple at Mandalay was covered with 5 inches of gold. Temple offerings are made by all, even the poorest of the poor.
Monks are revered and survive mainly on alms given by the common people of Myanmar. Sagaing Hill in Mandalay has 900 monasteries, each with its own Pagoda and here monks of all sizes and ages devote their lives to chanting scriptures and studying the Buddhist texts. Simple village folk start their day by making offerings of Lotus, other flowers and fruits to the Buddha and by feeding the monks. They may have little, but much of what they have goes to the Buddha. You can say that faith is all in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s Answer to Angkor Vat
Bagan was our next stop. From the air we saw the lush green vegetation and forested mountains which were a welcome change from the hot dry plains of Mandalay. At the airport we saw a counter where visitors have to pay an entrance fee for entering an ‘Archeological Zone’. We paid the fee and dismissed the claim as so much red tape. But as we drove towards the old city of Bagan we began to understand that it was indeed an archeological zone and a national treasure.
We were driving down roads with Pagodas of all sizes and shapes scattered alongside, among the green fields like ancient gems. East of the Ayerawaddy River, in 16 square miles of greenery are 3000 Pagodas in various stages of repair and disrepair. These were built from the 11th to the 13th century when Bagan, or Pagan as it was known in those days, was the seat of the Myanmar dynasty.
The end of the 13th century witnessed the fall of this dynasty when invaders from the north despoiled thousands of pagodas. Everyone fled and abandoned the pagodas, and the great mass of religious edifices was left to decay and ruin. Some people have likened Bagan to Angor Wat, but as our guide pointed out, the pagodas of Bagan are much more numerous, and since the peasants returned to cultivate their fields after the invasion, the Pagodas were never ‘lost’ or fully abandoned. After the earthquake of 1975, only 2217 of about 5000 pagodas were left standing, but today many have been restored and 3000 are still standing.
As we wondered among the pagodas, a little boy, U Win, came up to us and started following us around. We learnt a little bit about his life with help from our guide. His 8-year-old brother is a monk in the monastery. Head shaved, barefoot and red robed, he will remain in the monastery and devote himself to studying the Buddhist texts till he is a teenager and old enough to decide whether he wants to remain a monk or lead a normal life. Miu Miu, his mother, wakes early in the morning, cooks food for the family, washes herself in the river and sets out to tend her patch of field with ‘Tanakha’ on her face to protect her from sunburn. The little children help her a little and soon they get tired and start playing hide and seek among the old pagodas.
U Win’s father works in the Lacquer factory which is near the river. He can splice a length of bamboo, by holding one end between his toes, so fine that he is never out of work. In the evening, he goes to the local Toddy shop and sometimes he comes home drunk. They do not have any news of their government in Yangon, leave alone the rest of the world. They do not have any concept of ‘freedom’, as in other countries. There is no money for luxuries, and nothing much to buy in the shops. To us, their future seems bleak. But where we would expect despair, we had to admit we found only content and smiling faces.
In the late afternoon, we climbed some grueling steps up to the top of a tall pagoda to watch the sunset and were transported to an ancient, eastern fairyland. There was a great silence as the red sun went down behind a beautiful Pagoda and all around us was serenity and beauty.
After that we went to our hotel on the banks of the huge, silent Ayerawaddy and sat down on the steps in front of our beautiful rooms. We amused ourselves with the antics of a large frog who croaked and croaked till his would be mate emerged in the mud below. Unfortunately the ledge he was on ended with a sheer drop of at least five feet to where the lady was. If he were to jump to her, he would surely die. Though they made huge overtures to each other it looked like an impossible situation to us. We imagined that his large eyes looked sad in the gathering darkness. And that made us laugh more. Since we had to go up and get some dinner, we never did find out if they ever got together!
Row, Row, Row your Boat!
Though loathe to leave Bagan, we left for Lake Inle where the Inthar people have the same lifestyle that they have had for centuries. A huge lake formed by rivers flowing down from the surrounding hills, it is 22 km by 10 km. Water is everywhere. The water folks have houses that seem to float, but are actually anchored by stilts. These are the famous ‘leg rowers’. They actually stand up on their dugouts and control their long paddles with one arm and one leg. This leaves the other arm free for fishing. They live in clusters of houses on the lake and grow vegetables like tomatoes on floating islands of vegetation. They are still pursuing the same crafts as their ancestors for centuries before them. There is the silver smith’s village, the blacksmith’s village and the silk weaver’s village.
One Inthar woman was so devout that she wanted to weave something very special for the Buddha. She managed to find a way of spinning silk out of lotus stems and made an exquisite robe which she took to the temple. To this day, this painstaking art survives and the silk made out of lotus stems is beautiful and precious.
We practically lived on the lake ourselves for the next two days and went everywhere by boat. Little children, rowing themselves to school, waved to us cheerfully as we passed by on our boat and wherever we stopped, boats from the floating markets would pull up alongside and we were tempted to buy the lovely wares on display. The children swam like fish and would pop up from under the water at the most unexpected of places, take a deep breath, smile and wave.
Our hotel on the water was built like a grand old palace of carved teak. Teak wood was everywhere, on the floors, the walls, the grand old rafters and on the roof. We lived like queens for two days.
After this, it was back to Yangon and time for some frantic shopping and good food. We said goodbye to Myanmar with sadness in our hearts. It is a country that can change you forever.
Words and photos: Neena De
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast (September 2015) issue