I had not expected to be particularly moved. But walking along the gravestones, carefully laid out in the well manicured garden at Taukkyan War Cemetery I was moved almost to tears. I certainly had a lump in my throat and the pit of my stomach felt as if it was plumbless. It was coming across a grave stone that merely said “Known only to God” that did me in. Then there were the thousands of Africans, not only Nigerians, who were commemorated here but whose families would never ever have been to this site, no mothers or brothers or fathers would ever have been to grieve over their lost sons. Then of course, the sadness that many in the UK are not aware that these Africans died in a foreign land for a war that they knew little about, for a country that in life treated them, often, as less than human. The names: Joseph Effiong, John Awoyemi, Altini Sokoto, Otu Obassi, Garaba Sokoto, Ganiyu Amusa, Gamba Maiduguri, Garba Biu, Albert Soyemi and so many others. Engineers, signal men, medical orderlies, craftsmen, and reconnaissance men. And on the headstones, young men aged in their late teens and early 20s. What a waste! The setting was a rain subdued late afternoon. The storm, half stalling and starting, half heartedly, as the English say ‘fretting ‘. The local young people used the venue as a romantic place, a beauty spot and there were dozens of couples sitting or walking slowly enjoying the ambience and living, and I thought this was a worthy commemoration of death.
It had been an early morning start from Yangon by train to Bago. The train station had a grand 19th century facade, that cleaned up would gleam and hold up the traffic. The train was diesel and punctual. The seats were allocated and the carriage was clean. It was not overcrowded. We travelled as if on horseback for close to two hours, the carriages bumping along the uneven track through the suburbs of Yangon and then through farming country. Here the land was flat, a veritable plain with fields of rice on both sides and incidental trees like in England, breaking up the monotony of the plains. There were so many swamps in Myanmar, and it was a mystery that there’s no malaria. There were stagnant pools of water too, and blocked canals and sometimes canals taken over by lotus plants and occasionally suffused with water hyacinth. Water buffaloes were everywhere visible alongside a lone herdsman.
At Bago we went to see the rebuilt palace of the kings of Hanthawaddy, Kanbawzathadi Palace, the Great Audience Hall, the Bee Throne Room and found out about the atrocities perpetuated by the Portuguese in the 1600s- looting for precious stones and for gold, followed by rampage, rape and finally torching the palace, at least that’s what is said by locals. Thai tourists come in substantial numbers because of the historical link between the kings of Hanthawaddy, originally Mons people and Siam, modern day Thailand. A remarkable life like statue in white marble of the Thai princess who married into the Hanthawaddy royal family was on display.
This site originally consisted of 76 apartments and halls in 70 acres and 20 gates. There were white elephants, sacred Buddha relics from Ceylon, and teak pillars inscribed with the names of the donors and also with Mons texts. Excavation revealed over 200 Buddha images.
The snake monastery was not to my taste: a long story about a disabled or disfigured monk who found a python and kept it because he concluded that it was the reincarnation of his mother. This 35 year old python lived in the monastery, indoors and watched over by dutiful monks. It has become a tourist attraction. And when we were there it was coiled asleep under a bench, a grotesque reptile.
Then to the shrine for Nats. Here transvestites and ladyboys danced to a frenetically paced music to induce possession by a spirit and this acts as an anchor for the spirit to hear the prayers and wishes of benefactors. Even though the music was frenetic the dancing was at most sedentary, a lifting of one foot, a gliding like someone asleep across the floor, the hands in a paper aeroplane upward slant. I couldn’t imagine any spirit being woken by this parody of a dance and I’m certain that the likelihood of spirit possession was paltry. This was a most unusual process of trance music and the impetus was to excite the spirit to arrange monetary gain for a benefactor. The distinction that is drawn between Buddhist teachings and the place of Nats in Burmese culture is difficult to fully grasp. The stories that attempt to explain why a particular person has been canonised as a Nat is difficult to understand. But then religious beliefs are often problematic from the point of view of outsiders.
We packed far too much into this day trip to Bago, the highest pagoda in Myanmar (the Shwemawdaw Paya), the reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha and the back to back Buddhas (the Kyaikpun Pagoda). This reclining Buddha is reputed to have been built in 994 AD, but was lost in 1757 and rediscovered later in 1880. It is 180 feet long and has a height of 52 feet. It was the return trip by motor vehicle from Bago to Yangon that took us to the War Cemetry. There is a story about the back to back pagoda or the four seated Buddha shrine. It depicts the four Buddhas- Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa and Gautama. It was built in the 7th century. But the story eludes me.
We had been staying at The Strand which was built in 1901 by John Darwood but later acquired by Aviet and Tigram Sarkie who also owned Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The Strand is known as the Dame of Rangoon. This is a well deserved appellation. It was a three storey Colonial building on the Strand, that is along the port, not far from the Ports Authority building, the general post office, the British Embassy Chancery and the British Council offices. It is a grand Victorian building and we were staying on the second floor enjoying the refurbished luxury of the early 20th century. We’ve stayed at The Peabody in Memphis, had high tea at Raffles in Singapore and spent a few nights for our honeymoon at The Savoy in London; these experiences have one thing in common, sheer elegance but there is lurking in the background the notion that a mere native like myself would hardly ever have been allowed over their thresholds in the not too distant past. At the Strand, the staff sometimes behaved as if they were more important that their guests, on account of working for such an august establishment but there is genuine opulence and style. It has played host to George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward and Orson Wells either staying or drinking in the famous bar.
After the quiet ambling about in Bagan and lake Inle, Yangon was not as much a change as a wakening from slumber to abrupt lucidity. There were people everywhere and the mix of the traditional and the modern or ultramodern was evident in everything: young women in torn jeans, in the shortest mini pants jostling with monks and nuns and then the men with their longyis and European shirts tucked in and the women in the most ravishingly coloured and cut longyis and ingyis. The traffic was slow and the drivers impatiently sounding their horns driving past stall and after stall of food shacks by the road side. If you looked closely enough there were the homeless and the destitute too.
On our first evening we went to the Sofaer building for dinner. It was a mere 7 minutes from the Strand. Another marvellous colonial building previously owned by a Jewish merchant and now turned restaurant and gallery. The tiles were Victorian and from Manchester, the door, balustrades, of the choicest teak. The waiters were trendy and very young, but of course everyone seems young to me these days. We had what is described as Asian fusion food. Despite the ambience even here the ubiquitous but disgusting monosodium glutamate was added to a perfectly ordinary meal not requiring a metallic after taste to be worthy of our appreciation. The following night we ate at Encore, another delightful restaurant in a refurbished colonial building and on our final night we ate at Monsoon, another restaurant in a special building, all arches and high ceilings.
In Burma everything and I mean everything is festooned first and delivered to you not with but in a story. It must be the Buddhist tradition of parables and storytelling that structures this interaction. The royal barge is made of concrete and cannot float for all the world. It was constructed at the instructions of the the recent general as symbolic of his as close to majesty as possible. Every year he would invite the so called leaders of the minoroty ethnic groups to meet with him and like Trump bask in their adulation.
This propensity to inaugurate the concrete as a spokesperson, to make physical the ineffable and theoretical either to facilitate lies or to strangle truth was everywhere present. One of the generals saw a Nat in his dreams, a strange Nat at that, one that’s represented at the Shwedagon. She told him to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. When he told his wife next morning, she went with security agents to the shrine and handcuffed the sculpture of the Nat and imprisoned it in glass, prohibiting anyone to visit it. There are extraordinary contraindications in these actions, imprisoning a sculpture was hardly going to inhibit dream events! And the idea that a Nat, a spirit, could be held hostage or detained is so far fetched as to be absurd.
The difference between the stories told here in Myanmar about incompetent leaders and the stories told elsewhere, for example Nigeria and Egypt, is that in other countries, leaders are the subject of jokes and humour but here it is the absurd that triumphs in the telling. One leader changed the side of the road that cars drive on, from left to right, at the instruction of his astrologers. Another created currency in absurd values, 15, 25, 45, 75 and 90 and just as suddenly and without accounting cancelled all the other currencies save for 45 and 90 because they both added up to 9 which was his favourite number. Another group of generals went to meet the most revered spiritual monk to inquire into the future. He poured water into a bowl and asked each in turn to look into the bowl and whoever they saw would be the next leader. They all left in silence and it is rumoured that each, instead of seeing his own face reflected in the water saw Aung San Su Kyi’s face.
Our journey to Myanmar was coming to an end. We had started off in Mandalay, a city of stray dogs, feral, unconstrained and untrained dogs. They were everywhere, mangy, emaciated, hungry and solitary. They were hardly in groups, they were unhappy looking, lying on their sides or haunches around lampposts and on pavements. In Mandalay we stayed in a boutique hotel, The Hotel by the Red Canal. We quickly learnt Nin Galar Bar and Jesu Bar, with hands clasped together in prayer fashion and with bowed head. That first day was a Buddhist sabbath day and the whole city was on holiday. Families with children and grandparents thronged all the religious sites.
We drove past the Old Fort and went to the Kuthodaw Paya with its 279 stupas each housing a marble tablet of Buddha’s teaching (the so called Giant Book). Kuthodaw Paya was a complex semiotics of numbers: there are 279 stupas because 2 & 7 add up to 9. There’s a symmetry to that number. There was a bewildering and intricate set of rules governing days of birth, chosen names and selected alphabets, and the representative animals. I was born on a Tuesday and thus my astrological animal is a lion quite in opposition to the fact that my Yoruba family totem is a leopard “ Omo Ekun”.
That first day ended with a visit to the Mandalay hill to look down at the Ayeyarwaddy river in the distance and to see the city sprawling down below in the valley. At the summit we watched our first sunset in Myanmar and were to see many more. The moon was glorious too when it took its place in the firmament. Before leaving a group of young boy monks came over to us to practise their English and from initially being shy and reticent, they grew in confidence and became loquacious in their halting English. They had yet to decide what to do in the future, whether to remain monks forever or not, but uppermost was their sense of responsibility to their parents, to care for them. These were children barely 12 years old.
Mandalay was not the hottest city of our trip, that was Bagan and was yet to come but Mandalay was hot enough. The mildest exertion, such as breathing caused sweat to pour down the brows. But we pressed on nonetheless as if we could take a break from breathing. We drove to the jade market and the words ‘industry’ and ‘market’ took on their full splendour. Thirty thousand people, all crammed into 1/2 kilometre square, grading and trading the same gemstone was a sight to behold. From massive blocks of unpolished lodestone laid out in the front of shops and then being cut to show off the quality of the jade to long rows of men and women sitting lotus position on the floor with their jade ware in slices, squares, circular pieces, ovoids and spheres, and in all manner of green. There were translucent greens, jet black, copper brown and the myriad varieties shown to be true by the act of shining a torch into the centre to show the green interior irrespective of the apparent hue.
In this precinct were Chinese agents, sitting in front of live streaming mobile phones, talking to and taking orders from buyers in China, and local Burmese men approaching with specimen gems either to be welcomed or shunned by the Chinese agents. In other sections, young men, barely out of their adolescence were treading machines and lathes to polish immeasurably miniscuke jade pieces into shiny objects of desire. Next to these youths on trestles, young women preparing betel nuts with caustic soda and tobacco leaves. A dangerous mixture and everywhere buckets and receptacles for the blood red spittle and on the ground blood red splashes of betel juice that I first thought of as evidence of haemoptysis or haematemesis. You couldn’t miss the discoloured teeth, the lipstick red stain incongruous on the lips of men.
Later we went to the Railway Bazaar, an ordinary workaday bazaar of vegetables, fresh and dried fish, meat, clothes, and pans. The wares were laid out on the railway lines and as the approaching train hooted, the women scampered out of the way, leaving some of their ware in between the lines. What is it that draws marketwomen to lay their wares across railway lines? Is it some dicing with death? This behaviour carries on in Lagos and in many Indian cities too. We bought a Burmese cloth suitable for a longyi.
The journey from the bazaar to the Golden Palace Monastery was by rickshaw. I had forgotten to bring my hat along. The midday sun was ferocious, it cooked my forehead and forearms over the 30 minute journey but the spectacular monastery made the pain worthwhile. It was built in the early 1800s starting life as a palace apartment, and was given away at the death of the monarch to a monastery. It is the only example of monarchic splendour in Myanmar and it was splendid. Every nook and cranny, every turn of the sculptors’ hands was covered in gold leaf and when the light shone through the doorway, a serene glow of gold as of a flush just before sunset filled the rooms. The Buddha figure, sat central to the space and oversaw everything and must have thought to himself that it was beautiful and perfect.
The Maha Muni, the heart of Mandalay, is the especial splendour of a resplendent Buddha covered in gold leaf, encrusted is probably a better word. The effulgence was such that my camera’s lens shimmered and could hardly focus on the Buddha. Everywhere you turned was gold and more gold. It is highly veneratedand and central to many people’s life. It is said that it is the exact likeness of the Buddha. Legend says that Buddha visited the city of Dhanyawadi in 554 BC and that an image of him was cast then and when he breathed upon it it became the exact image of him. Many mystical events are associated with this Buddha statue- the water used for washing this statue would not overflow the collecting vessels; six coloured rays appeared when devotees worshipped the image in the evenings; the rays faded in the presence of non-believers; the space in the temple would automatically accommodate any number of devotees; the leaves of trees would tilt in the direction of the statue; and birds would not fly over the temple.
Our final day in Mandalay was spent driving the four hour journey to Pakokku where we caught a boat to Bagan. We stopped briefly to visit a peasant family making a living from farming cow peas, onions, and gourds. They owned four cows, and a new beauty salon. It was a tranquil, indolent sort of life with a mother and her four children, a husband lounging lazily in the shade and other female relatives cutting palm fruit into suitable sizes as feed for the cattle.
Our guide Aye Aye left us at Pakokku. She had a vibrancy about her, a warmth and a laugh like an old Volkswagen Beetle trying to start, spluttering and stalling. On her last day she wore a pink, flowery print material of longyi and ingyi (up & down as the Nigerians would say) with matching pink footwear. Her dark glistening eyes also matching her full glossy black hair now cut short. Her white teeth gleaming. She told us how she had been passed from one relative to another, an uncle to an aunt and back again, from extreme discipline to the love and ease of parents. Stories of travel on lorries without canopies, sitting on benches and squeezed between overweight adults, enduring dust or sitting on bags of produce and jolted without break. These stories reminded me of my own childhood. The same erroneous assumptions of the natural resilience of children and the absence of true concern about the emotional welfare of children. But we all survived somehow.
Photos by Jan Oyebode & Femi Oyebode