History & Culture

Sepia-tinted memories: Tamil Nadu’s enduring links with Burma

M.Sundarraj and S Govindan, seen with Burmese currency notes and sandalwood paste maker respectively, at Navalpattu Burma Colony. Photo: M.Moorthy/THE HINDU  

American journalist Gene Fowler’s sentiment that ‘news is history shot on the wing’ comes true nearly every day across the world. For many families in southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, this has meant watching the declaration of military rule in Myanmar (formerly Burma) this month with more than just a passing interest, because the two regions share a history that goes back several centuries.

Emperor Rajendra Chola (1014-1044 AD), expanded his empire to the Bay of Bengal, including parts of southern Burma. As seen on several steles, Chola campaigns were conducted against territories in modern Burma, for example, Bago (near modern Yangon). By the mid-19th Century, Tamils migrated to Burma which was also a British colony annexed through the three Anglo-Burmese wars. Though Burma was separated from British India in 1937, just 10 years before the subcontinent would gain its own Independence from the Raj, the ties that bind have continued to hold.

There was a mass exodus of Indians from Burma after the Second World War and after the military dictatorship took over in 1963. Despite this, many maintain links with their family members who chose to stay on in Burma.

Explaining this unique relationship in an email interview with MetroPlus, Washington-based foreign policy analyst and writer Akhilesh Pillalamarri says, “In ancient times, Burma’s civilisation was influenced more by seafarers from South India. The Mon, an ancient tribe in the Irrawaddy delta of Lower Burma (coastal Burma), adopted a script based on the Tamil Pallava script and other influences from Southern India by around 200-500 AD. Later on, the Bamar (Burmese) to their North conquered the Mon and adopted these influences. There is also increased genetic evidence showing that some people, maybe Tamils, also emigrated to and assimilated with ancient Southeast Asian people. This occurred during the Kingdom of Pagan (849–1297 CE) which spread from Upper Burma to Lower Burma and assimilated the Mons to the Burmese people.”

Returning home

After the coup d’etat of 1962, which marked the political dominance of the army in Burma, Indian expatriates, were asked to either become citizens or leave the country. About 1,55,000 persons of Indian origin returned to India for good from Burma between 1963 and 1970. They were resettled in ‘Burma Colonies’ set up by the Indian Government in cities like Chennai, Tiruchi and Madurai.

A. Panthanam, who was repatriated from Burma (Myanmar) in the 1960s, seen with a picture from her wedding album, at Navalpattu Burma Colony. Photo. Photo: M.Moorthy / THE HINDU

A. Panthanam, who was repatriated from Burma (Myanmar) in the 1960s, seen with a picture from her wedding album, at Navalpattu Burma Colony. Photo. Photo: M.Moorthy / THE HINDU  

Many of the affluent Chettiar community expatriates (who had made their name in finance and business) in Burma had started offshoring their earnings in India early on, but the bulk of the Tamil population — people working as indentured labourers, farmers, petty traders and professionals — had to leave at short notice.

“In 1965, I came with my younger brother and sister to India. My other relatives are still in Burma. My mother had said we were going for a wedding and would be back in two days, but only later did I realise that she had fooled me,” says M Sundarraj, a former mason who resettled in the Burma Colony in Navalpattu town near Tiruchi.

His neighbour S Govindan, a retired security guard at Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), recounts his return with 15 family members by ship. “We were sent to the camp at Gummidipoondi where we were counselled about our future prospects. The Indian authorities advised us about where we could go, depending on our skills,” says Govindan.

Though originally from Ramanathapuram district, the two men relocated to Navalpattu because of the presence of BHEL and the Ordnance Factory Tiruchi (OFT) nearby. “It was a big culture shock for us. The poverty and climate were unbearable. But somehow, we managed to settle down here,” Govindan says.

One of his many co-passengers was A Panthanam, an 80-year-old homemaker whose mother was a Burmese national. “My father was a farmer [originally from Bhuvanthi near Madurai] and we were a family of 12 children. We hadn’t visited India in a long time. In the 1960s, Indian farmers feared losing their crops and property to Burmese guerrilla fighters, which is why my husband and I decided to return,” she says.

E Jaffersha travelled back voluntarily with his sister to Madurai in 1969, in the hope of studying Medicine. But life had other plans. “The savings sent by my father to my relatives for safekeeping got misused, and I was unable to join the PUC course that would help me get into college. I obtained a diploma in Homoeopathy after being trained by a doctor in Madurai and later got professionally licensed by the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital in Tiruchi,” he says.

Allama Syed Abdul Karim Ghani. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU

Allama Syed Abdul Karim Ghani. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU  

    While his sister was married to their cousin in Madurai, he tied the knot with a Burmese returnee. “The initial days were tough, but I was lucky to meet helpful people along the way. I even stood for local elections,” says Jaffersha, who runs a clinic from his home in Burma Colony, Gundur.

    Indelible links

    Sri Pilikan Muneeswarar Sri Angala Parameswari Thirukovil in Mathur, Pudukottai district, has been frequented by worshippers since 1963. Burma resides in the name of this temple (Pilikan or Pelikha is a village near Kyauktan, Myanmar), and also in the shrine’s foundation.

    “This temple was built with a handful of soil from Burma in 1963. Since then, small amounts of the mud have been shared in Chennai, Thanjavur, Tiruchi Airport and Navalpattu to build temples in areas where Burmese returnees live,” says R Bhagyam, who has been its priest since the beginning.

    The cultural exchange between Burma and southern India was largely nurtured by the Chettiar community, says columnist and Chennai chronicler V Sriram.

    “Chettiars, particularly the Nagarathar Chettiars from Karaikudi, made their fortune in Burma as financiers of agriculture and trade,” he says. He adds that before the Great Depression of 1929, the common interest rate for trading in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka would be decided in the Nagarathar Chatram on Coral Merchant Street in Madras, and communicated via telegram.

    “As there was a large Tamil population in Burma, it ranked very high in terms of the performing career of many Carnatic musicians in the 1940sHarikatha exponent C Saraswati Bai, also known as Lady Bhagavathar, was the first woman to hold a discourse in Burma. Her itinerary was eagerly reported by all the leading Tamil magazines of the day,” says Sriram.

    Chintamani, a returnee from Burma, with mementos like the ‘veththilai petti’ and old flight tickets, seen in Madurai. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU

    Chintamani, a returnee from Burma, with mementos like the ‘veththilai petti’ and old flight tickets, seen in Madurai. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU  

    Tamil popular culture too, tips its hat often to the Burmese connection. Sivaji Ganesan’s 1952 debut film Parasakthi for instance, had him playing the role of a Burmese returnee, while the 2017 Rangoon has a more modern take on Burma-Tamil links.

    Back in India, Burma has lingered not just in settler colonies, ‘Burma Bazaars’ and atho and idiappam eateries, but also in little things like the vetthilai petti (known in Burmese as kun it), a tall bamboo container coated with pitch and lacquer used to store betel leaves, nuts and lime, traditionally gifted to brides.

    As Chintamani, a Madurai homemaker who returned in 1963 with her parents and siblings from Bago, Burma, shows us her vetthilai petti over a video conference call, she pulls out other mementos that she has kept safe over the years. “These are the Union of Burma Airways (UBA) flight tickets that brought us to Calcutta from Rangoon,” she says. “And this is the passport of my paternal grandmother Meenachi, issued in 1916. She was a widowed petty trader who split her time between Burma and her native village near Karaikudi to support her family.”

    In Navalpattu, Tiruchi, Sundarraj brews a pot of Burmese tea that he brought back after a recent visit while Govindan wets a piece of sandalwood and grinds it on a circular stone slab to get a paste that is dabbed on the face. “This used to be a common skin coolant in Burma, and we now use it when we want to remember our days there,” he says.

    Memories, luckily, don’t need visas to travel.

    A view of Sri Peelikan Muneeswarar Sri Angala Parameshwari Temple in Mathur, Pudukottai district, consecrated in 1963. Photo: M.Moorthy/THE HINDU

    A view of Sri Peelikan Muneeswarar Sri Angala Parameshwari Temple in Mathur, Pudukottai district, consecrated in 1963. Photo: M.Moorthy/THE HINDU   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

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