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Gem of a City

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Sunday Herald Travel on June 21, 2015

My first thought on my travel plan to Burma, now Myanmar, is of Miss Cardozo, our geography teacher in school. A Goan, pretty little thing, just about in her mid-20s with an endearing lisp and the sweetest voice. Those were the days of free-hand map drawing, mind you, and she could draw the map of the whole world, not missing a single curve, in five minutes flat. Well, the consequence was that almost the whole class was able to get that treacherous line (with the Sunderbans Delta), that shoring on the Bay of Bengal extended onto Myanmar.

I find Yangon (the former capital) as a city frozen in time, longing to stay back so, yet being reluctantly pulled forward, pressurised by the need to keep pace with changing times. The regal old buildings and shaded boulevards contrasting the neighbourhoods of poorer means.

Mini fast food joints

The street food in Yangon is of the most mind-boggling variety, reminiscent of most Asian cities. There is the tosai (dosa) of the plain kind with herbs, the sweet and the masala version (masala dosa); there is the tiny egg fry, bajji and appams; there is the idiyappam, cousin of small, thicker string hoppers to be had with the most delicious sesame seed mix and freshly scraped coconut; there are the soft flour pockets to be filled with the maverick mix of ingredients, starting with thinly shredded cabbage, some greens and a ground peanut mix. This is topped with a sprinkling of tangy sauce that adds to the taste.

There are highly creative and improvised offerings of fish, meat and pork variety. And all these are set up in small single-square-foot spaces owned by busy women vendors. The food costs next to nothing. In a state of uncontrollable curiosity, I try a couple of dishes and find them appealing to our tastes. My guess is that the set-ups run the foundations of the common-man economy, as in most Asian countries. We get off the wonderment and walk along the sidewalk lined with shops selling curios and artefacts of brass, beads, shells and what have you!

The Bogyoke Aung Sang has a deceptively meek facade for a complex that houses the whole of Myanmarese products — handicrafts, clothes, trinkets and streets of gems and jewellery on open display. There are necklaces set in rubies, bangles and earrings set with emeralds, amethysts, sapphires and diamonds, of course.

Burma is the largest producer of precious and semi-precious gems in the world, amounting close to 90 per cent. The Burmese rubies are of the startlingly crimson, pink and rose-red kinds. The most coveted is the Pigeon’s Blood. Their largest consumers are the European countries and the US.

India-Burma connection

Mid-afternoon sees us in the National Museum of Yangon, which has richly carved seats and diwans of gold and plush velvet, and loungers studded with mirror work, semi-precious and precious stones and valuable woodwork of teak. There are betel leaf holders, water canisters, pitchers, spittoons, fruit baskets, intricately crafted and bejewelled filigree — they speak of an era of wealth in Burma that must have attracted the British.

The sun prepares to set on Yangon and I set out to Ziwaka, a road in Dagon, to visit the mausoleum of Mirza Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar, the unfortunate last Mughal emperor of Delhi, also a mystic, reluctant king, poet and Sufi saint. He was exiled to Burma at 82 (his sons were shot dead in Chandni Chowk at a gate, which was then named Khooni Darwaza).

The ruler, who was supportive of the Sepoy Mutiny and the 1857 First War of Indian Independence, was held captive here in frail condition. He was separated from pen and paper so he could not indulge in poetry. However, he scribbled couplets of longing and sorrow for his country on the walls of his cell using burnt twig. He died a broken man whereupon his tomb of earth was kept unmarked and under three feet of ground. It was discovered around 1995, where the current mausoleum stands. We also spot his tomb, the tombs of his family members, photographs of him, his sons, his nikahnamah and an alluring picture of his queen, Zeenath Mahal.

Splendid ‘stupa’

The next stop is the famous tourist place — Shwedagon Pagoda, the most ornate of pagodas. According to a legend, it is 2,500 years old, but going by archaeological calculations, it was first built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries. Written records belonging to 1485, placed at the top of the eastern stairway, hold the story of the structure in three languages — Pali, Mon and Burmese.

The pagoda’s stupa is gold plated entirely. The then queen Shin Sawbu and her son-in-law, Dhammazedi, and his queen, offered their weight in gold for the purpose. The pagoda was subject to several earthquakes and a devastating fire, and was rebuilt. The current structure owes its grandeur to King Hsinbyushin. The pagoda is said to house eight strands of hair belonging to the Buddha. The story goes that two Burmese merchant brothers met Gautama Buddha, who offered them eight hair strands to be enshrined. They chose the Sanguttara Hill for it, where relics of earlier buddhas were enshrined. The strands were preserved in pagodas of gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, marble and brick, one layered upon the other.

The pagoda’s stupa has a great bell covered in gold leaf. It is topped by an inverted bowl capped by downturned lotus petals, followed by a band of upturned petals. Above that is the gold-plated banana bud. Topping the stupa is the seven-tired, gold-plated hti, made of iron. It weighs well over a ton. Atop that is a gold and silver-plated crown studded with 1,100 diamonds that total 278 carats, plus 1,383 other precious stones. At the top of the spire is an orb — comprising 4,351 diamonds, totalling 1,800 carats. On the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond!

The majesty of Shwedagon Pagoda has to be experienced first hand.

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