An emotional journey to Myanmar, soaking in its beauty, finding out its history and discovering its strong connection with India
“Mingalabar! Welcome to Myanmar”, greeted our guide, when we came out at Yangon International Airport.
Our visit to Myanmar was just another holiday abroad for my husband and son. But, to me, it held a deeper significance. I wanted to trace the house in Yangon and the area where my father and his family had lived before World War II.
Striking, shining golden spires rose up from everywhere, and I immediately understood why Myanmar is known as the Land of the Golden Pagodas. Even as our flight from Singapore came in to land at Yangon, we could see the strikingly beautiful, golden spires of the Shwedagon Pagoda rise up from the city below.
Viewed from terra firma, the Shwedagon Pagoda is even more breathtaking, as is the huge Chaukhtat Kyi reclining Buddha and the Sule Pagoda.
For Indians, an interesting sight is the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, who was exiled to Burma by the British, and gave up his life there, all the while pining for his country. The caretaker at this tomb is a Tamilian, born and raised in Yangon. He has never been to India, but speaks excellent Tamil and Urdu! He surprised us with his fluent recitation of verses penned by the emperor in memory of his homeland.
We walked across to the Scotts Market, and I was suddenly thrown back in space to Kolkata, or Connaught Place in Delhi, with the same familiar colonial colonnaded passageways with shops to one side. It is the prime market place in Yangon, with jewellery and clothing stores rubbing shoulders with antique shops, and bustling with shoppers.
A student of Buddhist art and architecture, I was filled with a sense of fulfilment at the sight of so many monasteries, temples, stupas and pagodas at Yangon, and later on during our 10-day journey, in Mingun and Mandalay.
The amazing ruins at Bagan were reminiscent of Siem Reap. The architecture, the intricate carvings, and the breathtakingly beautiful ruins were as awe inspiring as the Angkor Vat.
In Yangon, between our visits to the pagodas, I attempted to get to that place I had heard my father and grandmother talk about as “home”. I knew it was somewhere near the intersection of 47th and 52nd streets in the Scotts Market area. The street numbers don’t exist anymore but our guide was an old-timer and he knew exactly where we needed to go. And there it was, bang opposite the market, the street adjoining the Kamakshi Amman Temple, and not far from the Srinivasa Perumal Temple.
Sadly, the house had been taken down, as had been all the other old structures on that street. It was now lined with multi-storeyed buildings, all packed together. The area houses quite a few ‘Indians’ even now. We talked to a few people there, who said that the Reddiar School, where my father studied, had been nationalised, and was now a premises for conducting public functions.
“Those of us who left during the war lost everything,” said Sethuraman, whose father had come to Yangon from Devakottai. Sethuraman is in his 70s, and true to his ethnicity, is a practising astrologer and takes English language tuitions — both associated with the Indian community.
“Some of us stayed back,” he said. “And we are here even now, part of a two-million strong ‘Indian’ community in Myanmar, many of us Tamil.” A new wave of immigration from India also seems to have started, by people wanting to bank on the business opportunities provided by the recent opening up of the Myanmarese economy.
The remarkable thing about the old-time ‘Indians’ in Myanmar is the manner in which they seem to have assimilated themselves into the local population. They too wear the elegant longi (pronounced launji) and shirt with the same degree of comfort as all the other Myanmarese; the women apply ‘Tanaka’ bark paste on their faces as all Myanmarese girls do, probably the secret behind the flawless complexion of the Myanmarese.
I was disappointed that my family trail went no further. I had been hoping to unearth the hidden treasure that my paati used to say she had buried in her backyard, before she started on the long trek to India.
My grandfather and his brothers had gone to Yangon circa 1915, with their paternal uncle and aunt. They subsequently settled there, having found employment with the colonial British government to work in the office of the Accountant and Auditor General of Burma in Yangon. They came back to India only to marry, and returned to Yangon (or Rangoon, as it was called then) with their wives. My father, his siblings and cousins were born in Yangon.
The family fled to India at the time of the Japanese occupation of Burma. My father was 15 years old then. Having missed the last boat to Madras, the family was forced, like thousands of others, to trek to the Indian border. It was a long and arduous trip, which saw them losing the eldest cousin in a whirlpool. My father’s newborn sister also died, unable to withstand the rigours of the journey. They entered India near Imphal, and stayed for a while in refugee camps run by the Ramakrishna Mission, as they tried to make contact with relatives in Tamil Nadu.
The stories came back to me as I stood on that street. My emotional journey to Myanmar was now complete.