A story of two exiles
Burma, Myanmar. So near, yet so far. That was my first thought as I stepped off the flight at Yangon. Yet, it was not very long in the past that Burma was a magnet for Indians. Its forests and plantations beckoned many from India’s shores; just before war broke out, Rangoon had a majority of Indians living there.
Burma was subjugated by the British when the sun shone high on their empire. In the decisive third Anglo- Burmesewar, the British sailed up the Irrawadi river to Mandalay and with their superior fire power, deploying machine guns for the first time in an armed conflict and Indian sepoys outnumbering British soldiers, they subjugated King Thebaw and took over Burma. They met with little resistance; King Thebaw was weakened by internal conflicts and his army did not provide worthy opposition to the far superior British.
Thebaw was exiled to India, in a mirroring of the exile of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon, following the Indian defeat in the 1857 Mutiny. Mandalay was later to be left defenceless by the British against Japanese bombing in May of 1942, and then burnt to the ground when the Allied forces regained control.
One of my first stops in Yangon was the Dargah in which Bahadur Shah Zafar lies entombed. It is not a remarkable structure; modern repairs have left it with little character. However, it is the recent renovation that unearthed the last Mughal’s real tomb. For decades, the Mazhars that were covered in green silk inside the dargah were believed to be the graves of the deposed king, his queen, Zeenat Mahal and their daughter. However, the British had recorded that when Bahadur Shah died, he was buried deep down, in an unmarked grave. During excavations for a basement, the workers stumbled upon a brick surround for what was clearly a grave. Could it be that of the former king of Hindustan? So, it is believed. One can walk down into the crypt, where the humble brick grave is now shrouded in silk, and incense burns silently.
Burma gained independence in 1948, but its democracy was short lived. In 1962, the military, led by the shadowy Ne Win took control of Burma. Indians were ordered to leave forthwith, with little more than what they wore on their backs. A long period of isolation followed, before the country began to open up again, a little more than a decade back. Though elections have been held the military has not given up its power.
Nay Pi Taw, the spanking new capital of Myanmar, is still a ghost town. Its scale is massive; the cavernous airport is so devoid of activity, that each passenger of our 10 seater plane was personally escorted by an attendant from the aircraft to the empty terminal. Unattended ticket kiosks stretched into infinity, and yet the parking lot had many vehicles, owned, I was told, by airport staff. Vast eight lane roads with no traffic leads to the city centre. The city is occupied mainly by government officials, who were ordered to shift overnight to the new city when it was built. Pristine forest was cleared to build the new city; but some areas are now being reclaimed by forest again. As Myanmar moves slowly from military rule to a semblance of democracy, its new Parliament house, set back from the airport runway-sized avenue that leads to it, might create a new history.
The view from our hotel, up on a hill in the hotel district, is misty and tranquil in the monsoon rain. On the horizon, one can see the Peace Pagoda, Nay Pi Taw’s answer to the resplendent Shwe da gong in Yangon. The former is just a shade smaller, in deference to the latter, Myanmar’s most hallowed shrine. I go to the shrine not only to soak in its calmness, but to see a most unusual sight; four of Myanmar’s ten white elephants are tended here. These albino elephants are Myanmar’s prized possession and guarded day and night. Covered in blonde down and with pink eyes, they would stand very little chance of surviving in the wild, as their skins and eyes, lacking their protective black pigment are sensitive to the sun. Yet, I could not help recalling that Burma’s lucky white elephants could not help King Thebaw when he was defeated and exiled. The British, callous to local sentiment, cared little for Burma’s precious white elephants. Shortly after Thebaw was packed off to India, one of the elephants died and the British, oblivious to the Burmese considering this a terribly bad omen, dragged the poor animal’s body through the streets of Rangoon to dispose of it.
Back in Yangon, I experience the Shwe da gon. The best time to set out for this magnificent temple is while it is still night. In the dark that precedes dawn, monks silently receive their alms from the devout. Four covered flights of stairs lead to the pagoda at the top of the Shwe da gon hill. Each is lined by shops, and my father’s unerring eye leads us to a back room where we watch an artist carve a meditating Buddha. The Burmese follow the Theravada school of Buddhism and its minimalism is in stark contrast to the exuberance of tantric Buddhism of Tibet. As dawn breaks, we sit silently, sheltering from the light rain under one of the intricately carved and painted roofs of a lesser shrine. The tinkle of the bells that top the crest of the Pagoda sounds surprisingly close. We hear nothing more, but the swish of the rain and the barely audible shuffle of the footsteps of those who start their mornings with prayer. People are everywhere, lost in thought, at peace with themselves.
Update : Jan 2014
My Burma pilgrimage is nearing its end, months after I returned from Yangon. I am in the Konkan, south of Mumbai, driving to Rathnagiri, a small and dusty coastal town. This is where King Thebaw was exiled. Like Bahadur Shah Zafar, he never returned home.
Thebaw’s final resting place is an unremarkable abode; calling this his palace is nothing more than a cruel joke. Obscure and unloved, the palace is now frequented by early morning joggers. As I walk through the palace, two stray dogs follow me, noticing that I am not one of the regulars. The museum behind the main building lies closed; it does not seem to have been opened in months. I think of Myanmar, and wonder how King Thebaw might have passed his days here. Disappointed, I pick a balcony that has a view of the sea and sit down, with my canine friends. Amitav Ghosh, in ‘The Glass Palace’, speaks of how Thebaw spending most of his time at a balcony with his binoculars, looking out to sea. Perhaps this might have been the very verandah, I wonder.