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Posts Tagged ‘Anglo- Burmese wars’

This Shwedagon Paya and its precinct have much more to tell of the story of Burma than just its religious, Buddhist story. It holds an important place in Burmese history especially from the British rule until today.

Continuing our walk amongst the pagodas (P1090798 © Jt of jtdytravels)

As we walked, Sunshine explained not only the story of this stupa but also many facets of the Burmese way of life .. and of life here under British rule.

Doc Sue and David on the hot marble paths (P1090791© JT of jtdytravels)

Realising that we were all hot from our walk in the sun on those hot marble paths, eventually Sunshine steered us towards shady pavilions, just like sensible locals who know where the best shade is in the heat of the day.

A shady pavilion (P1090785 © Jt of jtdytravels)

The pavilion he chose for us to rest in was the home of a huge bell, the Singu Min Bell. But this was not the original bell. A much larger, 300-ton bell had been given to the Shwedagon Paya by King Dhammazedi in 1485. It was part of the scene here for over a century. Then, in 1608, a Portuguese adventurer called Philip de Brito e Nicote, plundered the stupa and its pagodas and took the bell. How his men actually managed to do that was not part of the story we heard! The intention of these men was to melt the bell down to make cannons. However, as the bell was being taken across the river, it fell into the waters and has never been recovered – nor has its place of resting been found. Myth or legend or history? Who knows.

The Singu Min Bell (P1090787 © JT of jtdytravels)

In front of us on a raised platform was a 23-ton bronze cast bell,  the Singu Min Bell, donated to the stupa by King Singu in 1779.  It suffered a similar fate, but this time at the hands of the British who had landed here on May 11, 1824 during the first of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars. They quickly occupied the Shwedagon Paya precinct as a fortress. They pillaged and vandalised, even digging into the stupa thinking that it was hollow and that it would make a great place to use as a gunpowder magazine. Of course, that was impossible. This stupa is solid, as are most Buddhist stupas. But one of the things the British did take was the Singu Min Bell, intending to take it to Calcutta. But it also fell off the ship into the river! This time they knew just where it was resting. The British tried but failed in their attempts to raise the bell. However, the Burmese said they could do it, but … they would only do it if the bell was returned to the stupa complex. ‘It’s not possible’, said the British. ‘If you can raise it, you can have it.’ And they did.

So how did the Burmese raise this huge bell and return it to this platform right there in front of us in this shady pavilion.  They did it by man power, persistence and some canny local knowledge! Divers tied hundreds of bamboo poles underneath the bell. The air trapped in the poles helped to float the bell to the surface at high tide. And then man power moved the bell back to its ‘home’.  (This was another clever and wonderful use of bamboo in a country that makes so much use of this plant in all areas of their daily life. We’ll show more of their use of bamboo throughout these journals.)

A place of prayer and offerings (P1020031 DY © of jtdytravels)

The British army left Burma but returned and re-occupied the  Shwedagon Paya once more in April 1852. Although the Burmese people were permitted to enter the area to pray and meditate, the stupa remained under British military control for 77 years, until 1929.

One of the many monks at the stupa (P1020060 © DY of jtdytravels)

British colonialism in Burma also upset the balance between king and monks in the order of things in Burma. Whereas the kings had been as ‘patrons’ of the monks and shrines, buying themselves some valuable good karma, the monks had taught both the kings and the population the tenants of Buddhist philosophy and way of life. When the kings were deposed by the British, the balance had to shift.  The monks needed to rely more and more on the general population for support… and the people, with no king to lead the way, more and more needed the teaching and example of the monks to support them through the repressive years.  This balance became more obvious to us as we listened to people willing to talk about their faith and to tell their stories. One thing neither the British nor the junta could take from these people was their Buddhist beliefs and hope.

At the beginning of the second era of British rule (from 1852), there was again much looting. Seeing this desecration of a place that meant so much to the people of Burma, Lord Maung Htaw Lay, the most prominent Mon-Burmese in British Burma, successfully appealed to the the British India Office in London to have the destruction and pilfering of the treasures of the stupa stopped. With financial help from Britain, he eventually restored this great Buddhist shrine to its former glory and status. He became the founding trustee of the Shwedagon Pagoda Trust which cares for the site to this day.

Rules for Foreign Visitors (P1010991© DY of jtdytravels)

The Board of Trustees don’t have to explain the rules to the Burmese pilgrims. They have been brought up to know the right forms of dress and behaviour in any religious precinct. But foreign visitors do need to be told.

No shoes. No socks. Anywhere. (P1020043 © DY of jtdytravels)

All Burmese pagodas and temples are bare foot areas. No shoes. No socks. The Burmese people have always removed their shoes to enter a holy place. In everyday life, they wear slippers, or thongs, and thus it’s easy to slip footwear off and on. For me, and others of our group, it was much harder. My poor old feet hadn’t walked on bare paths, and certainly not on very warm marble, for a very long time!  But I did it, as one must as a guest, respecting the customs of one’s host. Others chose not to enter these holy areas and I think they missed out on some great experiences and on seeing some fascinating Burmese architecture, craft and art.

Burmese are used to going barefoot (P1020041© DY of jtdytravels)

I shall digress a little here to give a few traveller’s tips for Burma / Myanmar as a destination.  We had been encouraged to make sure that we could walk two kilometres and walk up and down uneven steps unaided and without recourse to hand rails.  That was sage advice. What I would add, is that anyone unused to going bare foot should toughen up their feet and have plenty of practice on various surfaces and get used to wearing either thongs/ flip flops or open backed slip-ons. Throughout each day, it’s a shoes off, shoes on experience!

And while I’m adding a traveller’s tip or two, I’d also advise exercises in squatting down and getting up without aids… especially for we women folk. Even though we were often grateful to the British for leaving a legacy of western ‘sit-down’ toilets in many places, they are not everywhere. And public toilets are not common. Recourse to restaurants is invaluable. And,  I suggest, it is probably wise to go without, or at least limit, the amount of morning coffee and tea.  Need I say more!  At least the Shwedagon Paya has decent toilet facilities even though they are only available outside of the main precinct. I expect that many more ‘places of interest’ will improve toilet facilities as this country begins to be more and more ‘tourist conscious’.

Even the Spirit Nats are barefoot. (P1020033 © DY of jtdytravels)

Back to the “shoe question” which has always been a sensitive issue to the Burmese people since colonial times. At that time, visitors as well as British troops openly flouted the tradition.  Not until 1919 did British authorities finally issue a regulation prohibiting footwear in the precincts of the stupa. Even then, they made an exception for ‘government employees on official business’. This ‘shoes off’ question was indeed one of the things that stirred up the people in the beginnings of the Burmese nationalist movement.

An outer courtyard (P1010994 © Dy of jtdytravels)

Shwedagon Paya is not just a holy place for the Burmese people but it has been at the centre of their nationalist movement, of their struggle for independence and freedom. A few examples: In 1920, and again in 1936, University students held protest strikes at the Pagoda. In 1936, oilfield workers set up a ‘strike camp’ here.  In January 1946, the much respected General Aung San demanded independence from the British at a mass meeting at the stupa. On August 26, 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, so beloved by the people, addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa, this time demanding free and fair elections to free the people from the repressive ruling military junta.  This struggle for freedom is still in the balance, but the people now say that, with the new President having talks with Aung San Suu Kyi,, they have more hope in their hearts.

One last look at the golden stupa (P1020048 © DY of jtdytravels)

Far too soon, it was time to go back into the city of Yangon. It was time for lunch. There was just time for one last look, one last contemplation of the great, golden stupa before we had to leave.

Our walk here had introduced us to many facets of Burmese architecture, thought and culture and, although very hot, foot sore and weary by the end of our tour, I was so very pleased that we’d had the opportunity to experience this amazing place and take in some of its history and stories.

Jennie and David

Photography © Jennie Thomas and David Young of jtdytravels

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Our Thai B777 jet whisked us away from Melbourne towards Bangkok on the afternoon of Wednesday 3rd October, 2012.  As we flew over central Australia, visibility was good with photo opportunities looking down on some salt pans.

Crossing a salt lake in Central Australia    (P1010868 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Looking down on a salt lake, Central Australia (P1010872 © DY of jtdytravels )

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Abstract- islands in the salt, Central Australia (P1010875 © DY of jtdytravels)

Apart from gazing out of the window, we were fed during the 8½ hour flight to Bangkok; twice actually.  Of note was the cutlery, most of the pieces were date stamped.  The oldest piece David found on his tray was a fork with ‘07’ on it.  He wondered how many kilometres it had flown and how many mouths it had been in and out of!   I suppose there’s not much else to do on a long flight but to do a little wondering.

We had a few hours sleep in the airport hotel before getting up at 05:30 to be ready for our flight to Yangon at 07:55.  As we left Bangkok, the views down over the city showed a fast growing metropolis with increasing transport infrastructure.

Looking down on the River in Bangkok (P1010881 © DY of jtdytravels )

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Major traffic infrastructure in Bangkok (P1010883 © DY of jtdytravels)

In only 1½ hours we were flying over Burma / Myanmar and  looking down over Rangoon – now called by its Burmese name of Yangon.

An unexpected sight – a golf course! (P1010891 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Something more expected – a golden pagoda. (P1010892 © DY of jtdytravels)

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And then we had arrived – Yangon Airport. (P1010894 © DY of jtdytravels)

As we travelled by bus into the city, we found that the transport infrastructure here often grinds to a halt as more and more cars join a road system not meant for such numbers… and there appears to be no suburban train or tram system to relieve the situation. A few years ago, the trip from airport to the city centre took half an hour. Now it’s over an hour. Sound familiar!!!

Ceiling of our bus in Yangon (P1010899 © DY of jtdytravels)

Our bus was Chinese made with floral carpet on the ceiling and chandelier like lights. It was air-conditioned – unlike the local buses – and our driver was very good in what looked to us like some rather hair raising situations.

We passed small buses with people jammed in like sardines. Amazingly they smiled at us in welcome as we sat in comfort in our air conditioned comfort! Their buses ae not air-conditioned. They are open windowed and open doored and we could only imagine the smell of bodies absolutely crammed together after a hot humid day. And just how do they get in and out of there? Some young ones even ride on the back board at times… perhaps the air is fresher there though the danger far greater.  Bicycles and motor bikes are now prohibited in Yangon because it’s just too dangerous for them to share the roads. Until fairly recently, most non-government cars were 40 to 50 years old. Now individuals are being encouraged to purchase Japanese and Chinese second hand cars of about about a mere ten years vintage.

Our delightful guide, Sunshine. (P1020243 © DY of jtdytravels)

To keep our minds off the roads, our Burmese guide, Sunshine, began to answer our questions.  It was easy to call this delightful young man Sunshine – he has an infectious smile, a great sense of humour, good idiomatic English and a passion for his country and his people. He became our first Burmese friend. Sunshine prefers his “English’ name to his Burmese name Nay Win – that’s just too close to the name of the infamous General Ne Win!

So what questions did we have?

First question – were we in Burma or Myanmar?  It seems that either name is acceptable with the locals.  We heard them used interchangeably.  But which is politically correct? That depends on a complicated history of the name and on your political point of view. Eventually, my guess is that the country will be called Myanmar and the people, Burmese.

Originally, Myanmar was the ancient name for a Kingdom. But there were many kingdoms and many wars between ethnic groups over hundreds of years as various groups jostled for power. Then outside powers wanted this country rich in teak wood and in gems and for its strategic position between the much larger countries of India and China. In the 19th Century, after three Anglo-Burmese wars in 1824, 1852 and 1885, the British named the country Burma on 1st January 1886. That was when the country was officially incorporated into the British Empire as a province of India, with Rangoon as its capital. The majority ethnic group were Burmans and the major language was, and still is, Burmese. In 1989, the repressive military junta changed the name to the Union of Myanmar. This was in an effort to appease smaller ethnic groups and also to distance the government from the growing popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father had been assassinated after he had made an agreement with the British to transfer power in Burma back to the people. Burma had lost it’s much revered and charismatic leader.  Instead it was one of the army generals, General U Nu, who assumed power at independence on 4th January, 1948. The rest has been a story of repression and isolationism.

There are many architectural legacies of the British time in the country – especially in Yangon which is really quite a nice city… even if it could do with a much needed wash down and expert renovation. The name may have been changed from the British Rangoon to the Burmese Yangon by the junta, but the city retains many colonial buildings (and thankfully for western travellers, British toilets!) and British designed wide tree-lined boulevardes and lakes. (Photos taken from bus.)

Tree lined Boulevarde and gardens. (P1090500 © JT of jtdytravels)

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One of several lakes we drove by ( P1090499 © JT of jtdytravels )

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Hotels are being built/ or renovated (P1090497 © JT of jtdytravels )

The number of hotels is growing to accommodate both tourists and business people bringing in foreign investment.

Shops and apartments line main city streets (P1090501 © JT of jtdytravels )

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Traditional small stalls still fill the narrow side alleyways. (P1090506 © JT of jtdytravels)

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Some lovely old buildings are being restored. (P1090498 © JT of jtdytravels )

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‘The Governor’s Residence” (P1010928 © DY of jtdytravels)

One of those restored original British era houses is ‘The Governor’s Residence’ – where the British Governor lived in colonial times. It’s now a delightful hotel and our home for the next two nights. More of that anon.

Jennie and David

All Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels

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