As I stood in line at Rangoon airport to buy that still rare and expensive thing—a local SIM card—an elderly gent, his fingers glittering with gold rings, asked me what brought me to Burma. “Curiosity,” I said. His eyes twinkled. “Take my number,” he said, scribbling it down on the back of my ticket. “Call me if you need anything. I know everyone.”
There was a time when an Indian arriving in Rangoon might have pursued this acquaintance on the chance that the gentleman was as good as his word. For half a century after the British mendaciously unseated Burma’s King Thibaw and sent him into exile in Ratnagiri on the Maharashtra coast, Indians arrived in Rangoon by the thousands: merchants, civil servants, labourers, and chancers. They came hoping to make a fortune or at least a decent living.
Many did and in doing made Rangoon their own, along with a small number of Scots, Armenians, Malays, Chinese, Arabic-speaking Baghdadi Jews, sundry Europeans and Americans. In the 1930s, less than a third of Rangoon’s population was Burmese, and more than half was of Indian origin.
But fortune is a fickle thing. The Second World War arrived in Burma in the form of a Japanese invasion. The British were forced to retreat and the majority of Burma’s Indians—most of Rangoon’s population—fled in their wake, leaving an empty city. Some returned after the war, only to be turned out again in 1962 when independent Burma’s military overthrew the elected government, nationalised most big businesses, and turned its back on the world.
In the Chennai of my childhood, Burma Bazaar was already a city landmark. The market outside the First Line Beach station had been created in 1969 for Burmese-Indian refugees. Almost everyone knew someone whose family had made a fortune, or lost it in Burma. Closed off from the world, Burma became the stuff of stories—of fabulous wealth, dramatic escapes, tragic loss, and wistful longing. At the centre of this Burma was Rangoon.
So, on a rain-washed morning, I found myself amidst the decaying splendour of downtown Rangoon. For a moment, it seemed, I had stepped into a tattered watercolour of a forgotten cityscape. Grand fin-de-siècle buildings in a profusion of styles and in states of picturesque disrepair, men in longyis with long umbrellas, woman, their faces painted with thanakha, and in the background the burnished gold octagonal stupa of the Sule Pagoda.
Sule Pagoda stands at the centre of the city and seems to anchor the streets, which stretch in all directions around it. Designed on a gridiron plan by colonial military engineers, this small section of the city pushed up against the river is the Rangoon that folk in Chennai and elsewhere remember. But Rangoon today extends for miles beyond this tightly packed grid of streets.
In fact Rangoon is officially not even Rangoon, and Burma is not Burma. The military government renamed the country Myanmar and the capital Yangon. But, the country’s most famous citizen, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, still calls it Rangoon, as do most people I spoke to. Eight years ago, the generals abandoned Rangoon/ Yangon altogether, moving the capital 300 km up-country to a newly built city called Napyidaw.
Always careless with the country’s lived history, they left the stately government buildings to decay or to the developers’ wrecking ball. The splendid secretariat complex, where the leader of the independence movement Gen. Aung San was assassinated, stands almost derelict behind a high fence. Rumours that it may be sold to a hotelier caused an outcry in the city. The high court, with its distinctive tiered clock tower, and the imposing colonnaded Police Commissioner’s office, now home to armies of bats, are threatened with the same fate.
With a map bought at the Myanmar Book Centre on Merchant Road, I made my way through the city where almost nothing is as it was. Yet, the past lingers under the peeling paintwork of buildings, which like the city have changed names and their uses, but survived.
The former Oriental Life Assurance building is now the Indian Embassy. The offices of the famed Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company house the Ministry of Inland Waterways. The crumbling edifice with the dangerously sloping staircase on the corner of Pansodan Street was formerly the Softer Building, a sought-after business address and the crown jewel in the holdings of the Baghdadi Jewish family, one of whom was mayor of Rangoon in the 1930s. Across the street, the Department of Internal Revenue occupies Rander Building, no doubt built by folk with roots in Rander, Surat, whose sea-faring merchants were well known in the ports of lower Burma long before the British came along.
It was monsoon time in Burma. Every so often the sky darkened, the wind rose up from the Rangoon River, and the rain came down in torrents. When this happened, there was nothing to be done but to find shelter in one of the city’s teashops with a steaming bowl of mohinga (fish noodle soup) or in some splendid old building where a conversation could lead who knows where.
As the rain came down, I ducked into the first building with an open door. It was the First Private Bank, an unusually well-maintained art deco structure with clean lines, its entrance set in an elegant corner tower. There were a few men in longyis lost in the pages of what appeared to be sports newspapers and a couple of others with big carrier bags bulging with currency notes. They worked for an international organisation and there were salaries to be paid so they had to convert kyats (pronounced chaets) to dollars and First Private was one of the few places in town to do this.
A consequence of military rule in Burma, compounded by the international sanctions that followed, is an economy that has been run into the ground. The kyat is a little like Monopoly money with a very unstable exchange rate. The US dollar, in crisp, clean bills, is the only hard currency, accepted almost everywhere.
But it is simpler to use kyats to buy a samusa on the street or samusa thoke, an entirely Burmese take on the samosa, sliced up with shredded cabbage, shallots, mint, tomatoes, fried garlic, a gravy or chutney, with or without some mutton kebabs. Along with samusas, dosai, and biryani, the most enduring legacy of the Indian connection is with the longyi (pronounced lon-jee), the Tamil-inspired Burmese version of the lungi, which replaced the dhoti-like paso traditionally worn by Burmese men, and the htamien, the elegant, flowing slit skirt worn by Burmese women.
With a samusa to sustain me, I tried to lose myself in the grid of streets around the Sule Pagoda, where people gamely leaped over broken pavements on streets lined with hawkers and food sellers. At every other corner, a worn draughtboard laid out on a stool or small table awaited players.
In less than a square mile, I saw half a dozen mosques with names that identified them, as Sunni, Shia, Bengali, Surti, Chulia, Ismaili Khoja and Mogul; Hindu and Jain temples; Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches; Chinese temples; Buddhist pagodas; and a synagogue. Most were built at the turn of the last century, when Rangoon with a population of less than 5,00,000 could claim a sort of cosmopolitanism associated with colonial port cities.
The refurbished synagogue, set among hardware and fishing supply stores, was built in the 1890s by Baghdadi Jews who came via India. Moses Samuel, its custodian was sitting out on the porch smoking in a blue checked longyi. A picture of Moses and his children with Aung San Suu Kyi was proudly displayed on a notice board.
He said that on most days the only people who came by were a few tourists. With only a handful of Jewish families remaining, sometimes, they failed to make the quorum of ten for Sabbath prayers. But Rangoon is their home. His son, recently returned from university in the U.S., has set up a tour company, offering package tours of Rangoon and Burma.
Although the streets I’d explored all day were only a short distance from the river, they seemed shut off from it. Warehouses and container yards crowd the riverfront as they have always done and you have to get out on a jetty to get sight of the water. Rangoonites don’t seem bothered by this. They take the air around the lakes in the north of the city. But I made for Botataung Pagoda, a small temple set on the river’s edge, destroyed and rebuilt many times, most recently during the Second World War. It has a hollowed-out stupa that you can walk through, and one of the hairs of the Buddha, which figure prominently in the founding stories of Buddhist pagodas in Burma. Legend has it that the Buddha’s relics, mostly hairs, arrived from India over 2,000 years ago at the site on which the pagoda stands today.
The jetties behind the pagoda are small. The only traffic they handle is sampans, without board motors, which ferry commuters to neighbourhoods across the Rangoon River. In the wide-open space beside the jetties, a game of football was underway. A vendor smilingly offered to sell me birdseed to feed pigeons to gain merit in the afterlife. I opted to watch the commuters and life go by as the sun set over the silt darkened river.
The next day I took one of Rangoon’s wheezing old taxis to Zi Wa Ka Street, to pursue an older connection. I was reminded of it at the Mogul Shah Jami Mosque, which I had seen the day before. Long before Rangoon became the magnet for merchants and traders, the British colonial administrators, considered it distant enough to be a safe place of exile for the last Mughal monarch, Bahadur Shah Zafar, after the 1857 uprising. Zafar died in Rangoon five years later, and was buried in an unmarked grave near the small house he shared with his family in what was the British cantonment.
In 1991, workers digging nearby came upon his brick-lined grave, over which there is now a memorial built in a utilitarian PWD-style with Islamicate touches. Inscribed on the white ceramic tiled wall above Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb is a poem in Urdu attributed to him. Hafiz Kamil, the young caretaker, a third-generation Burmese of Tamil origin, raised one hand dramatically and with considerable feeling recited the entire poem for me.
As I stood listening, I remembered a description in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace, of the moment when King Thibaw, in Rangoon for the first time on his way to exile in India, caught sight of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Perhaps Thibaw saw the Shwedagon, perhaps not, but the Mughal monarch whose fate mirrored his, would have seen that gilded stupa towering above all else around it from the house where he lay dying. What he made of it we can only imagine.
“Before there was Rangoon,” says the historian Thant Myint-U in a book, “there was the Shwedagon.” Rising high above the city, it has stood sentinel over this land for centuries, witness to its changing fortunes. It was at the Shwedagon that protests against the military government began in 1988, and it was standing at the foot of the Shwedagon that Aung San Suu Kyi addressed her first mass rally calling for democracy.
Set on a hillock, the gleaming gold stupa rises 326 feet, its pinnacle topped by a gem encrusted hti or parasol-style finial, the Shwedagon has bewitched most who have seen it. The Irish-English painter Talbot Kelly, who was in Rangoon in the early 1900s, described it as the best place to see in all of Burma.
Having bid adieu to Zafar, I arrived at the Shwedagon in the heat of the day, when everything around blazed white and gold and the gentle sound of tinkling bells filled the air. As I walked around the wide platform, a few people made offerings and said prayers, and in the many small pavilions and temples all around people sat eating lunch out of tiffin boxes or chatting or reading the papers. Not a few napped under the benevolent gaze of some of the zillion Buddhas.
A woman invited me to sit beside her. “You should come at sunset,” she said. “It’s very beautiful then.” She was with her sister, they had come to light candles but the rain in the morning had made impossible. She wanted to know, was I Indian? Which city was I from? What did I do? Did I like Rangoon? She lived just down the road, she said. Her husband had interests in timber, mostly teak, which he exported to India. He had a business partner in Mumbai and they had visited him there. As I got up to leave she gave me her card saying, “Do call me when you are here again, it will be lovely to have a chat”.
I did return at sunset. People arrived with offerings of long-stemmed lotus buds, small groups prayed together, children played catch and turned cartwheels as their parents looked on, old monks meditated and lovers filled the shadows between the stupas. A young monk, a student at the Buddhist University, showed me the spot from which the now flood-lit stupa best showed off the glinting 76-carat diamond set in its hti. He was from Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh, and was pleased that I had been there. He liked Rangoon, he said, it didn’t get as cold. I couldn’t agree with him more.
Full Moon Cheer
Yangon’s biggest cultural event, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival (also known as the Tabaung, or full moon festival) made a welcome return in February 2012, after being outlawed for two decades. The festival, usually in Feb-March, begins a week before the last full moon day of Myanmar’s lunar calendar. Pilgrims from across the country stream into the pagoda from dawn until midnight, paying their respects to the Buddha, while the surrounding streets come alive with traditional dance performances and flea markets.
Anjali Mody is a journalist and researcher, who studied history at Cambridge University. She has lived on four continents and travelled on five. For her, it’s the people who make a place.
Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “Super Stupa”. This article has been edited on September 21, 2015. Updated in March 2016.
Rangoon (Yangon) is the former capital of Myanmar, and the country’s largest city. It is the capital of the Yangon district in southern Myanmar, at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers, about 30 km inland from the Gulf of Martaban.
Direct flights connect Kolkata to Rangoon and Delhi to Rangoon (Air India).
Indian citizens travelling to Myanmar are eligible for an e-visa. A 28-day tourist visa costs around USD50/₹3,320. and is issued to travellers who have pre-booked accommodation and a return ticket. Visit www.evisa.moip.gov.mm.
Rangoon doesn’t have much in the form of public transportation. The Yangon Circular Railway connects downtown to the suburbs. However, there are only around 20 trains a day in either direction, and they aren’t particularly comfortable. Buses are also infrequent and prone to delays. The easiest way to get around the city is by taxi. Registered taxis are identifiable by their red number plates. It’s advisable to negotiate a price before getting in, to avoid an exorbitant quote later. Tourists are not permitted to rent cars and bikes in Rangoon, although the rules are relaxed in other parts of the country.
These are the hottest months in Rangoon. Days are hot and humid. A number of pagoda festivals are celebrated during these months.
The tropical monsoon climate results in cool winds and torrential rainfall during this period. This is generally considered low season for tourists.
Rangoon is most pleasant during this period. The cool, dry weather makes this the peak tourist season.
Motherland Inn 2 is walking distance from Sule Pagoda and Bogyoke Market. It provides free pick-up and drops to the airport and complimentary American or Myanmar breakfast. (+95-1- 291343; www.myanmarmotherlandinn.com; doubles from USD30/₹1,992.)
White House Hotel at Konzaydan St. is an 8 storey backpacker hotel with penthouse dining and free wi-fi. (+95-1-240780; whitehousehotelyangon.blogspot.in; doubles USD3/₹1,992.)
The Clover Hotel has comfortable rooms and a rooftop café with a great view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. (+95-9-73177781; www.cloverhotel.asia; doubles from USD53/₹3,519.)
The Classique Inn is a quaint boutique hotel with 8 rooms and a traditional Burmese ambience. (+95-1-525557; www.classique-inn.com; doubles from USD70/₹4,649.)
The Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake Yangon has rooms and suites at the shore of Royal Lake (Kandawgyi Lake) and Kandawgyi Natural Park. (+95-1-544500; www.chatrium.com; prices vary, check for offers.)
The Governor’s Residence is a teak mansion at Dagon Township serving traditional Burmese green tea and local curries. (+95-1-229860; www.governorsresidence.com; doubles from USD330/₹21,916.)