My first view of the 2,000-year-old Sule Pagoda is at night. Its golden dome is spectacularly lit up against a dark sky happily bereft of light pollution. The area around this pagoda, I’ve been told, is the most fascinating in downtown Yangon.
I make a mental note to visit the pagoda in the morning and notice that on my right is a mosque and on my left, a church. Not only this, a short walk away is a Durga Bari temple. I smile at the thought of four of the world’s largest religions thriving under a communist junta. It is perhaps because Myanmar has a ministry of religious affairs that it ensures freedom for all religious beliefs. And, at the fact that three of these have made their way to Myanmar from India.
From Yangon to Rangoon
A chilly January breeze keeps me wide-awake as I stroll back to Traders Hotel. Most of the buildings lining the streets date back to the 19th century. The British made Yangon — they called it Rangoon — their capital after conquering Burma in 1883, and administered it as part of British India. The architecture of downtown Yangon is therefore dominated by 19th-style British buildings, and has often led to Yangon being described as a more compact and less crowded version of Kolkata.
On the way I pass by two sweepers hard at work in the middle of the night. I notice — not for the first time — how clean Yangon is compared to Indian cities, and wryly wonder at the discipline that a totalitarian regime ensures. Just then I see a giant poster featuring Cindy Crawford in an Omega advertisement – so grotesque is the sight in impoverished, sanctions-ridden Myanmar that I can’t help laughing out loud.
Back at the hotel, I am told that the special Indian buffet is over — for which I secretly thank my stars — but that I can order dinner a la carte. The menu amply reflects the amalgamation of Burmese, Indian, Chinese and British influences that comprises Burmese society — and I decide to try stir-fried prawns.
Veritable parallel economy
At a table on my left, I see a greasy middle-aged man with hair dyed too black — Italian? Greek? Spanish? — sitting with a much younger Burmese girl wearing loud makeup and little else. This is a common sight across Yangon, constituting a veritable parallel economy.
The next morning, a surprisingly strong January sun bears down on Yangon as I take a quick walk outside my hotel. The heat is tempered by a mild breeze, which brings with it whiffs of street food from roadside eateries lining the sidewalk. The traffic on the road is flowing smoothly, perhaps because there aren’t many cars around — with an average annual income of $199, most Burmese are too poor to own cars. Sad for a country the ancient Indians called suvarnabhumi (golden land), with immense natural wealth.
All around me are men in lungis and women and children with a yellowish paste on their cheeks. I have to stop several passersby before finding one who speaks English — the paste is thankha, I am told, a natural sunscreen and moisturiser that all Burmese women use.
A child overhearing the conversation quickly runs to fetch his mother, who comes running to offer me a coin-sized blob for a dollar. They’re smiling constantly, anxiously — and their desperation has me transfixed. I manage to take out a dollar and mumble a ‘thank you’, and their smiles tell me I’ve made their day.
“We are a very religious people,” says my Burmese guide while showing me around the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, “We save up all year to be able to donate money to gild the domes of our pagodas,” he says, pointing to the 99-m gilded dome of Shwedagon.
The grandest and the most sacred of all pagodas in Yangon, Shwedagon is milling with devotees bearing offerings of flowers and incense. It is reputed to be 2,500 years old — which means it was built during the Buddha’s lifetime. Legend has it that eight hairs of Gautama Buddha are kept in the pagoda.
Flowers for Buddha
My guide fishes out a book from his pocket to help him figure out what day I was born on. “Saturday,” he announces approvingly, and takes me to one of the golden shrines dedicated to those born on Saturdays. United unexpectedly by a happenstance, some dozen of us make offerings of flowers, incense and water to a little Buddha. “Now your life will be full of peace,” my guide promises me. I try to believe him.
Also on my itinerary is the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the First War of Independence, who was exiled to Rangoon by the British in 1958. The tomb is now a small dargah, although Zafar has by now been elevated to the status of ‘saint’, as the inscription outside states. Inside is a picture of an emaciated, octogenarian Zafar, looking heartbreakingly hopeless – this is, as William Dalrymple suggests, perhaps the only photograph ever taken of a Mughal emperor.
On the walls are some of Zafar’s couplets — reading at the speed of some seven words per minute, I am able to discern the poignant
na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon, na kisi ke dil ka qaraar hoon…
Back at my hotel, I notice a cinema hall close by with posters of Deewar, the 1970s blockbuster. My friends at the Indian embassy tell me they’re hosting a week-long festival of Bollywood films at this theatre, the following week. Will the movies have Pali subtitles, I ask, intrigued because Myanmar still uses the script of this ancient Indian language. No, I’m told, who needs subtitles for song-and-dance.