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     Volume 6 Issue 13 | April 6, 2007 |

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Visiting Myanmar
Land of Magnificent Pagodas

Azizul Jalil

'This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.'
Rudyard Kipling

Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon

It is next door to Bangladesh and yet we did not know much about Myanmar (formerly Burma.) We knew that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mogul Emperor of India, was banished to Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1858 after the failed first war of Indian Independence, which the British called the Sepoy Mutiny. In the mid-forties, we read about Aung San, the national hero and fighter for independence from the British colonial rule of the-then Burma, and its first prime minister. Its rice and timber, particularly teak wood, were well known. In addition, somehow Mandalay, the ancient capital of Burma and the Irrawaddy River flowing by it were lodged in my mind since childhood as two of the most sonorous sounding names.

In 1962-63, while serving in Chittagong as a district officer, I had the opportunity to visit Teknaf and see the beautiful Naf River. The Arakan province of Burma with a considerable Muslim population lay to the east just across the river. As District officers, we had to regularly deal with Muslim refugees called the Rohingyas, coming across the border. The Burmese considered them illegal settlers from Chittagong. It was a source of constant irritation in the sixties between the Chittagong and the Burmese district administration on the other side.

Relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar have improved. There are considerable possibilities of transport linkage, trade and commerce and tourism between the two countries. In the last few years, people, mostly from Bangladesh, though in small numbers, are visiting Myanmar as tourists. My wife and I were perhaps the most recent visitors to Myanmar to enjoy its greenery, courteous people, gilded pagodas, stupas of Buddhist teachings and of course the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Bangladesh Biman having stopped its once-a-week flight to Yangon, we had to go via Bangkok by Thai Airways. It made the journey unnecessarily long (though the total flying time was no more than four hours), and expensive. We were booked at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel on the Royal Lake. I have stayed in many good hotels around the world, but this gigantic hotel made of wood (teak, I suppose),situated in the midst of a recreational park and almost floating on a lake in the middle of the city, is indeed one of its kind. We had one of the lake-view rooms, which made waking up every morning a beautiful and refreshing experience.

The Reclining Buddha, Yangon.

The tree-lined Yangon streets, existing since the old British days, were wide, clean and well maintained. Very often, there would be a large green circle, from which a few roads would radiate out in various directions- Paris-style, as in Champs Elysee. The first day, we had three priorities--arranging our visit to Mandalay, seeing the grave of Bahadur Shah and looking at rubies (which Myanmar is well known for) in the jewellery stores. By chance, we got an air-conditioned taxi with an English-speaking driver. We went first to the Aung San market, where the first and the third of our aims were satisfied.

We then went to Bahadur Shah's grave, which the local people call the grave of the 'Indian Badshah'. The road in front of the grave was named after the former Emperor. The Indian government and the local population of Indian origin have contributed to the construction of a respectable memorial consisting of the grave and a mosque beside it. The grave was discovered while digging for a construction site in the thirties of the last century. The British prison commander, while burying the fallen old king, had buried him on level ground and surrounded it with only a wooden fence, making sure that the grave would be undetectable after some time. When the original grave was found, it was moved to a nearby plot, rebuilt with bricks, and raised to a height. Dignitaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have visited the gravesite to pay their respects.


Close by, is the 326 feet high Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the country's largest pagoda, with its tip set with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. It is a magnificent gold leafed edifice, believed to have been laid around 480 BC. Reportedly, sixty tons of gold was used in covering the pagoda and tradition holds that eight strands of Buddha's hair are buried underneath. The pagoda compound, which occupies a few city blocks in Yangon, can be seen from many parts of the city. It is illuminated in the evening and the shining crest of the Pagoda could be seen from our hotel veranda, a truly beautiful and unique sight. One evening, I found a few Scandinavian tourists, spending a lot of time with their cameras with zoom lenses, photographing the unique sight. You have to walk bare feet in all Pagodas, and even in the middle of a February day, my feet were burning, walking the cemented lanes of the Pagoda. There were many small Pagodas within the compound. Each Pagoda had innumerable gilded Buddha statues, all with a sublime and most peaceful look. The devotees of this mostly Buddhist country, by their hundreds, young and old, dutifully saluted and prayed before Buddha. In the few days we were there, I saw many taxi drivers and passersby, doing the same as soon as they saw one of their many Pagodas strewn all over the city and countryside.

Beauty of the Irrawaddy River at Mandalay.

Driving by the Parliament House, which looked derelict and of course unused, we were reminded that the country was governed by the military for many years. We were aware of Aung Sans's daughter, San Suchi, the Nobel Laureate's long imprisonment by the military after she won a majority in the last parliamentary election. We may recall here that Aung San himself was assassinated soon after becoming the prime minister. But outwardly, at least for a tourist, the military's presence was not that evident. While passing through the street in front of the Yangon University, we were sadly reminded that some years ago the students, who demanded democratic rule, were gunned-down and silenced.

Irrespective of the political regime or the lack of it, from a tourist's quick impression it appeared that the economy is slowly growing. Myanmar has the tenth largest gas reserve in the world. It is also rich in agricultural and mineral resources. Despite prolonged sanctions by western countries, foreign investments are coming in-- the largest being from neighbouring Thailand. Construction, particularly large multi-storied shopping and housing complexes were coming up and shops, markets, businesses and hotels were full of activity. People are moving, roads are busy and the airport and the flights were full. We did not see beggars or poorly clad people or children in the streets of Yangon or Mandalay. We did notice that in the shops and markets and elsewhere, there were more women working then men. The Burmese are laid-back people, very gentle, soft spoken and helpful.

Yangon is connected by road with Mandalay to the north-a long eight hour journey. We had only a few days and chose to fly. Three local airlines fly to Mandalay direct and there were a fair number of flights a day. It is a little over an hour's comfortable journey at a reasonable cost. The airport looked new with modern facilities. A taxi took us in about forty-five minutes to the downtown Mandalay City hotel, which was opened a few years ago. Next morning we rented a car and went round to see the sites. Mandalay is a nice city. It was the old capital of Burma and has a fine looking royal palace in the city, surrounded by walls and a moat. We visited the Mandalay Hills, on the top of which is a pagoda. On each side is a giant Buddha statue, looking out to the surrounding countryside. From the verandas all around, we saw a vast area of rural Myanmar. Fortunately, an escalator took us up and there was an elevator to come down. We then visited a large number of identical Stupas, erected in the twelfth century, each covering one of the 729 marble tablets inscribed with the entire Buddhist canon. It is perhaps the world's largest book. A team of 2400 monks worked on these for many years. A royal palace of the 14th century was situated close by. It was in a sprawling compound with many, almost empty buildings, all made of wood. We had to walk barefoot -it was uncomfortable and slightly risky.

Grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Yangon.

Our visit to a restaurant on the banks of the Irrawaddy River was memorable. It was a large two-storied wooden structure. We arrived there at about 3 pm for a late lunch and sat down on the riverside in the huge covered and canopied veranda. The scenery was intoxicating, with boats of various shapes and size plying by with a variety of cargo, mainly agricultural produce, pottery, handicrafts and household articles, passengers and even animals. We watched as people cast large nets widely in the river and slowly drawing the net close and bring in a lot of fish. It was a sight to enjoy and remember. The large crimson coloured winter sun was slowly setting with its reflections on the calm river, which is 1350-mile long. Before the railways and automobiles, it was known as the 'road to Mandalay'. The Irrawaddy bisects the country, north to south, finally emptying in the Indian Ocean. We took many pictures to capture the wonderful experience. In the evening, the place lights up with lanterns, music, dancing and the joys of life but we were too tired to linger that long.

We left Mandalay next evening for Yangon and after spending another day there, left Myanmar, a magical land with magnificent pagodas and timeless landscape.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.

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