Journalist | Writer | Analyst
|21 January 2005
Relics of the past abound here
By Siddharth Varadarajan
YANGON, JAN. 20. The Burmese capital is where Bahadur Shah Zafar — the last Mughal emperor and titular leader of the First Indian War of Independence — finally got his do gaz zameen, or two yards of (burial) space. He died in 1862 but the precise location of his grave remained a secret until it was discovered by accident in 1991. His mazaar, which was built earlier, is an important destination for any Indian visitor, but also for many Pakistanis. In 1952, the Government of Pakistan wanted to shift the shrine to Lahore but the Burmese authorities did not allow it. Since then, India has paid for the upkeep of Zafar’s last resting place; building an assembly hall and retiling the courtyard, all with the Myanmar Government’s concurrence. India is consulted on major structural changes to the mazaar but its rights to the shrine are by no means absolute: last year, when an Indian documentary maker wished to film the mazaar, the Myanmar authorities refused permission.
In 1998, alarm bells rang in Delhi when the local authorities here okayed a Pakistani proposal to construct an Islamic library and madrassa in the complex. Ultimately, the Indian view that the shrines remain a secular monument — whose historical value was shared by the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — prevailed. In May 2001, Gen. Pervez Musharraf visited the mazaar and announced a donation of $50,000 for the construction of a new building in the complex. A plaque to this effect has been put up but the money has not been spent. The general also reportedly referred to Zafar in the visitors’ book as “the last emperor of Pakistan”.
The downtown area of Rangoon is so full of well-preserved colonial buildings that it probably looks a little like the way Calcutta used to before the teeming masses moved in from the impoverished countryside of Bengal and Bihar. Skyscrapers housing modern hotels have begun to appear here and there, but the architectural integrity of the colonial quarter remains more or less intact. Despite these visible intimations of modernity and prosperity — or perhaps because of them — there are a lot more street vendors now than this writer remembered from an earlier visit in 1995, selling the usual assortment of cheap goods that poor people around the world buy and sell in order to make ends meet.
Second-hand books are a particular favourite, in both Burmese and English. Though the Burmese Communist Party is banned, translations of Lenin are freely sold.
Two blocks from the Sule Pagoda is a particularly handsome street where the city’s gold merchants are concentrated. Shwe Bontha street (shwe is Burmese for gold) was known as Mughal Street earlier because of the large number of ethnic Indians who used to live and work here. Many still do.
At one end of the street is an old whitewashed mosque and at the other, a grand banyan tree with statues and portraits of Hanuman, Rama and Sita.
In between are the gold shops and impromptu roadside tea and food stalls — with men and women lounging comfortably on impossibly tiny plastic stools, taking in the joys of Yangon café society.
Tailpiece: China looms large over Myanmar’s northern frontiers and is the source for most consumer products at the lower end of the price spectrum.
The only trouble is quality. Hence this joke, which apparently originated at a Mandalay market: One man tells another, “I used to be really worried about the SARS epidemic before I heard it came from China.” “So what,” his friend asks. “Well, if it’s made in China, it probably won’t last very long!”
© Copyright 2000 – 2005 The Hindu