River Lore Magazine

Tracing a lifeline

A golden pagoda.

A golden pagoda.  

The writer sails down the Irrawaddy and falls in love with Myanmar.

The first thing that draws my attention in Myanmar is a substance like sandalwood paste swept in circles across the cheeks of most women and children. “It’s thanaka,” says Phyu, my guide. “It’s like your sunscreen, but also gives you a cool feeling and mental peace.”

Phyu drives a taxi and guides outsiders in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, which was developed by the British in the late 19th century as a replica of neighbouring Calcutta. The red-brick colonial buildings with shuttered windows, ornamented balconies and wooden stairs look like the architectural line-up around Kolkata’s Esplanade and Dalhousie Square areas. The surrounding street scenes — tea stalls, eateries, hawkers, vendors, and hordes of people — are not very different either. I feel even more nostalgic while shopping at the Scott’s Market, now renamed Bogyoke Aung San Market, reminiscent of retail therapy at Kolkata’s New Market.

Phyu takes me sightseeing around Yangon; the most significant sights being the Shwegadon Pagoda and the mausoleum of Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor. He died in 1862 in Yangon in isolation after the British exiled him from Delhi for leading the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. “His ancestors had the wondrous Taj Mahal to rest in; for him it’s this little place only,” lamented Sheikh, the caretaker. Incidentally, after capturing Burma in 1885, the British exiled King Thibaw from Mandalay to Ratnagiri, a remote seafront location in western India.

After exploring Yangon, the fabled Irrawaddy becomes my companion for the next eight days, as I cruise along the nation’s largest waterway up north to Mandalay aboard RV Kalay, a brass and teak-finished luxurious vessel.

As the boat navigates a landscape of rolling hills, green paddy fields and sandy river beds, we watch small villages and towns where men plant seeds in the field, bullocks draw carts piled with hay, cattle graze, women are busy with household work, and the elderly sit in the shade of a large banyan tree, smoking and leisurely waving to us. Television antennas and mobile towers don’t block views of a moving vista of a simple and laidback life where time seems to have stopped. “This river is our lifeline,” says Win, the purser.

Though Myanmar has several domestic airlines and extensive road connections, the river still serves as the main avenue between villages and towns and for transporting goods like timber, bricks and local produces. Daily shore excursions introduce us to the land’s history and culture; we travel across dirt roads in horse-drawn carriages to visit the ancient archaeological site of the Pyu civilisation, forts at Minhla built by the Italians to save the Burmese royals from the invading British, locations of historic Anglo-Burmese Wars, a golf course in the middle of nowhere, and decaying colonial buildings. In one village, we watched clay pots being made in the traditional way; in another, an elephant dance by local youngsters. Piles of hilsha, pabda and katla fish at local markets bring back memories of Kolkata. Win seemed to have noticed my yearning look. He bought a big katla and served it for lunch noting that though Westerners love the taste they complain about its ‘many bones’.

Myanmar is rightly called the Land of Golden Pagodas. In every village or town, we pass through pagodas of different sizes. “We have a very strong connection with religion; Buddhism teaches us good karma, so we do good things,” says a villager.

At Bagan, the nation’s greatest architectural site, the array and diversity of nearly 2,000 pagodas, temples and stupas are simply amazing.

They look alike from a distance, but their distinctive splendour unfolds when we go closer. Our journey ends at Mandalay, the former capital city from where Burmese royals once scripted the history of their land.

I leave Myanmar with the sound of temple bells lingering in my ear, the taste of fresh katla in my mouth and the aroma of frangipani exciting my senses.

Fact file

Getting There: Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) has flights to Yangon and Mandalay from Bangkok, which can be easily reached from India via Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com)

Irrawaddy River Cruise: Pandaw River Cruises (www.pandaw.com)

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 1:17:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/tracing-a-lifeline/article6426477.ece

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