Travelogue: A Bengali at Large in Old and New Burma
Amitav Ghosh, through his books, has perhaps singlehandedly resurrected Burma in the popular imagination.
Amitav Ghosh, through his The Glass Palace and Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma, singlehandedly perhaps resurrected Burma in the popular imagination for an entire generation of Indian readers of English literature.
There was, however, a time when Burma did not just exist in the realm of imagination. It was a place which many called home. Burma was a part of the British Raj in India till 1937 – thereafter it was granted the status of a separate colony. (The legacy of the rich moneylending Chettiar community still persists in the ‘Chetty rice’ available in the markets around Sule Pagoda in Rangoon.)
But the transformation of Burma to Myanmar has not been without its consequences.
The Connect Between Burma and ‘Bangla’
Most seasoned Burma observers will know that a ‘Bengali at large’ in Burma can literally mean ‘wanted posters’. In recent times, the only news coming out of Burma is that of the persecution of the Rohingya community whose very existence is denied by the Burmese state and have been dubbed as illegal Bengali migrants.
It is amidst such grim news and with much apprehension that I boarded an Air India flight from Kolkata to Yangon on 16 July.
As a historian working on Bengal-Burma environmental continuum, I not only wanted a first-hand experience of knowing the country and its people, but was also interested in visiting the National Archive Department in Yangon (Rangoon).
At the very outset, I must declare that the Burmese are exceptionally warm and welcoming to foreigners –and more so if they know that one comes from the land of Bodh Gaya. The animosity of the Burmese against the once affluent Indian community which economically dominated Burma for much of the colonial period is long forgotten. A few words of Burmese – Mingalaba (equivalent to the Indian Namaste) and Cezutinbadeh (Thank You) can do wonders!
Even though there are several restrictions regarding access to material, I was struck by the modernity of the archival system in Yangon.
While the National Archive of India is still struggling to digitise its collection, the National Archive at Yangon with the help of UNDP funds has fully digitised its catalogues. The Archive is located just off Pyidaungzu Yeiktha Street, Yankin Township down from the Indonesian and French Embassies. The Archive, housed in an old colonial building, is furnished with ornate teak wood furniture yet sleek computers. After perusing through the digital catalogue and placing my requests, I went off to explore Yangon.
“A Beautifully Winking Wonder”
My first stop was, of course, the legendary Shwedagon Pagoda, which truly lives up to its glitter. As I ascended the Singuttara Hill through the Western Gate on a series of escalators, I confronted a towering 98 m golden dome. The Shwedagon truly lives up to its hype and I no longer had any qualms about coughing up the hefty entrance fee of 10,000 kyats for foreigners.
The pagoda first built by the Mon people sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, continued to receive patronage by subsequent Burmese rulers. The greatest endowment was perhaps given by King Dhammazedi in the 15th century in the form of gold equivalent to four times his own weight and that of his wife for gilding the pagoda.
The original Dhammazedi inscription dating back to 1485 can be seen back in a corner of the platform. The inscription originally installed in the eastern stairway tells the story of Shwedagon in three languages – Pali, Mon and Burmese. The present form of the pagoda dates back to 1768 when it was repaired by King Hsinbyushin after an earthquake. It is believed to contain strands of hair of Gautama Buddha among other relics.
While for foreigners the golden glitter of the Shwedagon in the words of Kipling is perhaps ‘a golden mystery…beautifully winking wonder’, it is the holiest of pilgrimage destinations for the deeply religious Burmese who are adherents of Theravada Buddhism. The Shwedagon was also a site of protests by Rangoon University students against the British colonial government in the 1920s.
A lesser known gem is the Sule Pagoda which also doubles up as a traffic roundabout.
To my pleasant surprise, it was here that I discovered a beggar seeking alms while singing Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli! The area still has an Indian presence and one can hear the occasional chatter in Hindi.
A short walk from the Sule Pagoda took me to the colonial-era centre of Yangon together with its City Hall, High Court and the once fashionable Strand Hotel. I found the city centre exceptionally crowed as I happened to find myself on a very important and solemn public holiday in Burma. Every year, 19 July is observed as Burmese Martyrs’ Day, in remembrance of the martyrdom of General Aung San and his seven cabinet colleagues and one bodyguard.
Aung San – affectionately called Bogyoke (Major General) – is perhaps the only person more famous than her daughter, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Aung San, as founder of the Burmese military – the Tatmadaw, is a figure of consensus in life and death. As the founding father of Burma, he had successfully negotiated a power sharing arrangement with the ethnic minorities of Burma at the historic Panglong Agreement of February 1947.
It was his untimely assassination that plunged the nation into decades of ethnic conflict and civil war. Even in death, he remains a figure of consensus for both Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw, otherwise often on the opposite sides of the table on most matters.
The Timelessness of Burma
Over the weekend, I found myself boarding a tiny twin propeller Air KBZ aircraft headed to Nyaung – U. Nyaung-U with its tiny airfield serves as the gateway to the ancient ruined city of Bagan. The Bagan Archaeological Zone consisting of over 2,000 pagodas and temples is a product of the Pagan Empire.
The Pagan Empire at its height between 9th and 13th centuries unified much of modern day Burma and ruled over the Irrawaddy valley from Bagan. The main archaeological zone is mostly confined to Old Bagan. On the other hand, New Bagan with its hotels and famous lacquer workshops, caters to the other aspects of the nascent tourism industry. The Bagan Archaeological Zone (104 sq. km) forms a stunning landscape with pagodas and temples interspersed among lush vegetation flanked by the Irrawaddy River on the east and beyond which the Arakan Yoma (Range) rises like a majestic wall.
Even though Bagan was abandoned as a habitation, the site even today is a ‘living ruin’. Pilgrims come to pray in front of the gigantic Buddha statues just as they have been coming for centuries. Footwear is strictly forbidden at all the sites.
Around 17 pagoda and temple complexes are maintained and can be visited. The four most important among these are the Bu Paya Pagoda, Htilominlo Temple, Ananda Temple, and the Dhammayangi Temple, the largest of all the structures in Bagan. Most of the structures in Bagan are Buddhist – except for the Nanpaya and the Nathlaung Kyaung temples, which are Hindu.
Intricate murals depicting the life of the Buddha and other Bodhisattvas once adorned the walls of these temples and pagodas. Some of these murals have been restored in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India in recent years. Bagan perhaps best represents the timelessness of Burma.
Burma is perhaps one of those few places on Earth which can transport one back in time. It is still slowly opening up to the world. The timelessness of Burma, however, comes at a steep cost. Decades of military dictatorship which has kept Burma isolated from the modern world has also denied its people the fruits of development. In recent weeks southeast Burma, especially the Mon state has been affected by devastating floods. The new civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi since 2015 maintains an uneasy balance of power with the powerful military.
The crisis in Arakan (presently Rakhine) is a testament to the daunting challenges before the government. The crisis is not just of civil-military balance in Burma but one of the modern nation-state itself.
The Rohingya crisis of Burma cannot be condemned without condemning our very own attempts at exclusion in Assam through the National Register of Citizens. It is imperative to understand that the Bay of Bengal region has a much longer history that goes beyond the modern nation-states of India, Bangladesh and Burma.
It is the arrogance of these modern nation-states which makes them overlook this shared history of centuries where the free flow of material, people and ideas was the norm and borders of exclusion the aberration.
(Tathagata Dutta is currently in the second year of the Modern South Asian History PhD programme at Tufts University. His research interests lie in Bay of Bengal regionalism, South Asian and South East Asian transnational history, migration and diaspora history. He can be reached at Tathagata.Dutta@tufts.edu)
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