Sula Mani Guphaya Temple in Bagan

Sula Mani quite literally translates into the Jewel in the Crown. This exquisite temple was one of those that I most wanted to see. It is said that this late-12th century temple combines the best aspects of the Dhammayangyi and the Thatbyinnyu temples. So it was a big disappointment when we arrived there to see that the recent earthquake had so badly damaged it that it was completely off-bounds to anyone. In the featured photo you see a big sign and the plastic wrapping to prevent bricks from falling.

Details on the porch of Sulamani Guphaya temple in BaganWhat we could see from the outside was remarkable. The Family and I inspected the external mouldings such as the one you can see in this photo. The temple was built to the order of Narapati Sithu (king Sithu) at the height of the Bagan period of Burma’s history. These mouldings are a good indication of how beautiful the temple could be.

A  mural in the Sulamani Guphaya temple in BaganWe pushed a little at the instructions posted for tourists. They said that it is unsafe to climb on to the porch: perhaps some of the bricks could fall. We saw that the plastic sheets wrapped around the damaged spire of the temple were quite comprehensive and ventured as close as we could. In the massive eastern entry arch we found this mural: damaged but still impressive. We couldn’t explore more: everything was cordoned off. The Family and I loved Bagan, and realized that one can easily spend a week there. If we go back in a few years this temple will be on the top of our list. The crowning jewel, how can one not visit it again?

The birthplace of modern India

Of course I am exaggerating a little, because nothing as big as a nation has a single origin. But you could make a case that the British Raj took the First War of Independence of 1857 as an excuse to destroy the old India. Today’s nation, in a sense, is a work of restoration, made up by sticking together recoverable bits of the old with serviceable new pieces from elsewhere. When you stand at the tomb of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, random thoughts like this are inevitable.

After the war was lost, the British Raj was established and Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Yangon to live out the last days of his life. This was a mirror of the exile of Burma’s last king, Thibaw, to Ratnagiri. Bahadur Shah was a poet, and perhaps one of the most famous poems attributed to him starts with the line "Lagta nahi hai dil mera, ujre dayaar mein" (I find no pleasure in this derelict city). The problem with this neat story is that city is more likely to be Delhi than the then-little port of Yangon, apart from the fact that there is a recent dispute about the authorship of this ghazal.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar in YangonWhen Bahadur Shah died in 1862, his body was buried in secrecy. Over the years a tradition grew which said his body was buried in the mosque in Yangon named after him. The photo you see here is a modern tomb constructed next to the jamaatkhana (prayer hall) of the mosque. The grave with the neon crown is supposed to be the emperor’s and the other two are supposed to be of two of his wives.

Strangely, an excavation in the late 1980s revealed a hidden grave one level below this, and studies eventually led to the conclusion that the hidden grave genuinely contained the remains of the last Mughal emperor. In 1994 Myanmar and India together constructed the little underground memorial which you see in the featured photo. It stands directly below the traditional spot in the other photo.

Myanmar has a treasure trove of British documents from these last years of Bahadur Shah’s life, stored as pdf files in its national archives. They were first described in William Dalrymple’s book on Bahadur Shah, but I’m sure there is material enough for many historians in Yangon.

Reclining man, reclining Buddha

Several of Yangon’s prominent temples were made during the years of the military regime. They are not very popular with the locals. When we visited the Chauk Htat Gyi temple it was immediately obvious why. Eye of the Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi in Yangon The place looked like a huge hangar, and the enormous, 66 meters long, statue of the reclining Buddha entirely lacked aesthetic sense. The only interesting photo I could think of was to take a reflection of the hangar in the glass eye of the Buddha, as you can see here. Annoyingly, from the photos displayed in the temple, it seems that an older image was demolished because it looked too aggressive, and the new one put in its place. Maybe the new one looks better, but it is more impressive than beautiful.

Old lady upset at the Chauk Htat Gyi temple in Yangon Old lady amused at the Chauk Htat Gyi temple in Yangon

Since the place is cool, people like to hang out. I found it more interesting to do some people watching. There were lovers together, a schoolgirl with her books, an old man at prayer, and a reclining man. Then there was a little vend being minded by an old lady with a younger woman at her side, perhaps her daughter. When I took their photo the younger one smiled and the old lady looked very suspicious. She was probably not very fond of foreigners, because she said something funny about me and burst into peals of laughter. It must not have been nice, because the younger woman refused to meet her eye. This byplay gave me a couple of wonderful photos.

The reclining Buddha is an image of the death of Gautama, the Buddha. In Buddhism this is a happy occasion because the Buddha is then freed from the cycle of life and enters a state of nirvana. The scene is sometimes called the Mahaparinirvana.

A medieval Hindu temple in Bagan

As we walked about the impressive Thatbyinnyu temple a craftsman who spoke a little English recognized us as Indians and told us about a Hindu temple just outside and to the west.Unusual statue of Vishnu with six arms We walked up to the temple and found that it was being restored. We saw the bandages sported by temples damaged in the recent earthquake. Of course, part of the damage is also due to long years of neglect of the Bagan temple complex.

This Vishnu temple was one of the oldest temples in Bagan, perhaps built during the reign of Bagan’s founder: king Anawrahta. Since we could not enter, we walked around outside and saw statues in niches; you can see one of them in the featured image. They were avatars of Vishnu. On the southern wall we saw an exquisite statue of the Varaha avatar (Vishnu as the boar) and a slightly damaged but still quite brilliant Narasimha (the man-lion) avatar in the act of killing the king Hiranyakashipu.

A statue of Vishnu in Nat Hlaung Kyaung temple in BaganThrough open windows we could see in the gloom inside the temple some statues. Since I was carrying a superzoom, I tried to take some photos. The one at the top is a rare image of Vishnu: I’ve never seen him represented with six arms. I assumed it is Vishnu, because in three of them he carries the chakra (wheel), the mace and a lotus. Strangely he also carries a noose, usually associated with the Vedic god Varuna. He does not carry a conch shell. However I also saw a four armed statue, the second photo, which has a trident in one hand instead of the conch shell.

After restoration this would be a very interesting temple to visit for several reasons. For one, it is the only Hindu temple in Bagan. But also because the iconography of Vishnu is different from the one we are used to.

Walking through Yangon

Walking through an unknown city is always a great way to spend time. How else could I know that in Yangon even street-side eateries give you a pot full of tea with your lunch? How else would I begin to suspect that townies hid their faces when a foreign journalist took their photos; a reflex that persists even after democracy is back?

Jumble of building styles in YangonOutside the Colonial centre of Yangon every street is a jumble of architectural styles. Sagging buildings from the first half of last century share a frontage with modern buildings: some are high-rises, others are pre-fab commercial units faced in glass and metal painted concrete. Some of the architecture dates from a few decades ago. We saw these two high-rises next to each other. Decaying high rise in YangonOne was modern, the other was probably thirty to forty years old, and already ripe for demolition. This gave me one answer to my question about why Yangon was such a small city. Most cities in Asia are huge sprawls. In comparison, Yangon is like a town from the 1960s with the traffic of problems of the 1980s. The answer that this building gives to the question is that construction was costly and shoddy during the lifetime of two generations. Yangon never grew, and now it will probably do this at thrice the rate that the rest of Asia manages. How would it cope? To see that I took a walk through the Colonial centre of the city.

The town hall of Yangon

By all accounts the centre of the city is Sule square. Strange that the invading British would plan the centre of Yangon around one of the most revered temples in Myanmar, but that is one of the contradictions of Imperial Britain in India and Burma. Right next to the pagoda is the imposing town hall (photo above). The restoration of this building and the ones next to it are done with loving care. Book store in central YangonThis lovely bookstore reminded me of Kolkata. Outside of Kolkata, Mumbai and Yangon I would be hard put to name a town where there is an almost untouched colonial era district. I say almost, because the building just behind this is modern. It is interesting that the central district still has a large bookstore: banks have not yet taken over. Post office in central Yangon Two blocks down, there was a massive colonial-era building which served as a post-office. It had not yet been restored, but seemed to be in good repair. The colour scheme was no different that what you might see on a similar building in Kolkata.

Used book store on the streets of central YangonThe streets were full of informal commerce, vendors selling food, toys, socks, sun glasses. The sight of a row of pavement stalls selling used books reminded me of Mumbai in the 1980s, when I, and probably a million other people, would buy books mainly from such vendors. That past is now as foreign as Yangon.

Merit vendor in YangonIn direct contrast to such familiar sights was a vendor who brushed past me on the road, carrying cages full of birds on his shoulder. I followed him for a few paces. They were not birds which you might want to eat. Nor did it seem likely that several Burmese every day would impulsively buy a couple of birds as pets. It turned out later that this was a wonderfully cultural con. A devout Buddhist would gain merit by buying a few birds and releasing them. The birds are quite tame, so after release it would be easy for this man to catch them again for merit recycling. I guess the net result is that the vendor gains money and loses merit: something he is willing to risk.

A grand but dilapidated building in central YangonRestoration work had not yet covered all of Yangon. As we approached Strand Road, and the river front, we passed this magnificent but dilapidated building. Some enquiries led to a tiny crumb of information: that it belonged to a famous Jewish merchant from India before independence. It was sold to a local businessman, and was later bought over by a general. The Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai were great merchants in the late nineteenth century, and left their architectural stamp on downtown Mumbai as well as the Bund in Shanghai. None of the names I mentioned made any sense to the people I talked to. I’m sure the urban history of Yangon is documented well enough that one can trace the history of this building.

District court on Strand Road in YangonRight on Strand Road was this vast and crumbling building. The locked doors and the man sitting on the steps smoking reminded me of Kolkata in its worst decades. This was apparently the District Court, locked up for the weekend. I asked why a district court is crumbling away when a post office can be in good repair. There was no real answer to that. Myanmar lost decades, and it is beginning to catch up. If this district is restored and put to use, it may become a major cultural heritage: the only place on earth where the architectural style of the Raj remains untouched.

Little canteen in downtown YangonYou can probably tell by the shadows in my photos that it was now well into the lunch hour. The street food scene was buzzing. I discovered a little canteen which seemed to be full. It looked clean, and the inside was full of purposeful bustle: waiters and waitresses went back and forth, and there was a low rumble of conversation between diners. I didn’t go in, but one of the waiters noticed me and posed for the photo you see here. The place looked like a typical inexpensive eatery from my days as a student in Mumbai. Bakery in downtown YangonJust a little before I’d come to this, I saw a van come to a stop outside a building and two young women get down to unload trays and carry them in. I got a look at one of the trays as it was carried in. It was full of bread. I followed them in, and it turned out to be a cafe. It was busy with customers and uniformed waitresses. I was tempted to sit down there for a quick lunch. But the previous day I’d had lunch at a similar place, and I was planning to try out a Burmese-Chinese place in an hour. I clicked a few photos and said a reluctant goodbye to the cafe.

This had been a successful walk. I saw a slice of Yangon which emphasized the common recent history of the countries along the Bay of Bengal, and found out a little about everyday life in the city.

Marketplace in Mandalay

Fruits in a market in MandalayI love walking through markets when I’m in a different country. It gives you a good feel for what you might get to eat. Our exposure to Myanmar is so small, that I was happy when we got some time to walk through a market in Mandalay. I would find out what the Burmese grow and eat. There were fruit shops at the mouth of the market. Almost all the fruits were exactly what you might see in India. No surprises there except for a pile of dragon fruit. Perhaps we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.

Bananas in a market in MandalayOne of the things that I learnt on a recent visit to Chennai is that fruits and bananas are different things. So I was not surprised to see a banana stall near the stall of fruits. The variety was amazing: Myanmar has quite as many kinds of bananas as one could expect in southern India. We got to eat some of these varieties later on. There was a sweet and buttery tasting variety with mottled yellow skin which was nice and quite different from anything I’d eaten before. I guess one can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.

White fungus being sold in a market in MandalayThe next few shops sold vegetables. I recognized most of them, although I would think of some as mildly exotic. There was eggplant of a slightly different shape than I’ve seen in Mumbai. The chinese cabbage looked large and crisp. Lotus stem and various beans were placed next to the usual staples of potatoes and onions. The only exotica was this white fungus. I recognized it as the main component of a tasty salad I’d had the previous night. I wonder whether it is farmed or collected.

Paan leaves in a market in MandalayThe impression that the food was not very different continued when I passed a stall full of fish. The featured photo shows some of the fish, but really showcases the plates which they are put on. I’ve never seen such beautiful plates for fish in any Indian market. Nearby was this man sorting through a stack of paan. Nothing exotic here for us except for the longyi which the man is seen in. I’m not a fan of paan, but strangely even The Family skipped it. We’ll have to go back to find whether there is a large difference in flavour between the Indian and Burmese variety.


If you think that placing this photo so prominently in the blog is exoticising Myanmar, then you are right. You would also do it if you walked through a market where almost everything was boringly normal, and then suddenly chance on a vendor selling insects. In a thought-provoking article in Science the agricultural scientist M. Premalatha and her colleagues write "The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops by killing a food source [insects] that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein." I find that I can eat and enjoy almost everything that other humans can eat. I did not share a language with the vendor so I could not ask how to prepare these animals for the table. Nor could I figure out what they are called. So, as a tourist without access to a kitchen, I lost this opportunity to taste something really different. Another time.

Meats being sold at a market in MandalayThis lady was very amused by me stopping to take a photo of everything I saw. She was selling meat, and called me to take a photo. Her style of dress was different from that of the others, and she had a short head covering. From this I guessed that she could be Muslim. If so then could it be that Muslims specialize in butchering and selling meat in Myanmar just as they do in India? In India this started and is perpetuated by a remnant reluctance among Hindus to kill land animals. There could not have been such a taboo in Myanmar. Perhaps this is an inconsequential coincidence, and perhaps she is not Muslim after all.Sausages in Mandalay's market Preserved meat also plays a significant role in Burma’s food, if the market is anything to go by. There were several different kinds of sausages and dried fish. I later tasted dried fish in congee one morning at breakfast, but I never got to taste the local sausages. The list of reasons to go back to Myanmar is quite large, as you can see.

Sweets and pickles in the market in MandalayThe last shops I came across before leaving the market had sweets and pickles. The sweets in the front are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, similar to some traditional sweets in eastern India. The pickles were quite different. We got to taste some pickled tea at this shop. Later I searched for and found pickled tea in salads a couple of times for lunch. Unfortunately one could only get the tea in little plastic bags which didn’t seem very leak proof, otherwise it would have been nice to bring some back to add variety to our daily salad.

As always, I’m left with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling after a walk through a market, even if I do not buy any food. We went out and had Burmese style tea with large amounts of condensed milk, and sweets called monbao.

Lotus farming

Life on lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar is different. As you can imagine, living in houses suspended above the water can change the way you live. This lady extracts lotus silk from its stemsOne of the most interesting developments is that silk is extracted from lotus. The lady whose photo you see alongside showed us how. You break the stem and slowly pull apart the broken edges. You see strings of sap joining the ends. These are rolled together to produce the fiber. You can see a tray at her feet which contains these fibers. It is a long and laborious process. She knew little English, so I could not ask her the questions which came to my mind. How long does she work every day? How much fiber does she get each day? In the same workshop I saw an old man at a spinning wheel, spinning the fiber into yarn. There was an amazing look of concentration on his face which you can see in the photo. Another few steps down the corridor the yarn was being woven into cloth. The dyeing of the yarn seemed to take place in an upper floor. The colours were lovely muted browns and greens, a touch of earthy red, and the colour of raw yarn.

Farms of lotus on lake Inle

As our boat made its way through the village to the workshop, we’d passed a lotus farm. I went back there to look at it. A walkway surrounded a fair acreage given over to growing lotus. As I looked at it I wondered about the economics of this process. In other places I’ve seen bees fertilize the flowers. Where would bees hive here? is the ferilization done by hand? Is there enough money in the trade to keep villages occupied in growing lotus, extracting fibre, spinning yarn, dyeing and weaving it?

Some of the answers came indirectly. I learnt that the fabric woven from lotus silk was once reserved for the use of kings. Now you can buy it in a shop adjoining the workshop. The Family looked at a little stole. They were beautiful, but a single stole cost about USD 100. The turnover is small, but the costs are large. There is clearly enough income from it to support families at the same level of income as their neighbours who work at other things. But this way of life could disappear soon as surrounding areas grow more prosperous.

Dhammayangyi temple

Entrance to the Dhammayangyi temple in BaganI really liked the temples of Bagan, so I’ll keep coming back to them. The temple which charmed me most was the Dhammayangyi temple. You see a photo of it from the entrance archway here. It has been damaged in the recent earthquake, but not too badly. One can still explore this temple. The layout of the temple is like a cross, with the main Buddha images facing the cardinal direction, just as the older Ananda temple.Detail on an entryway arch to the Dhammayangyi temple However, the effect is completely different, it feels lighter and more airy. The plaster work over arches is lovely, although not in good repair any more (see the photo here). Most of all, the Buddha images have changed from the distinctly Indian looks in the Ananda temple to the more Burmese faces and bodies shown in the featured image.

Paintings on the walls of the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

There are paintings on all the walls. They are faded and details are hard to see, as you can tell from the photo above. But when I could make out details and colours, they looked wonderful. I hope there is an effort to restore them.A Buddha statue in the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan We noticed paintings on the wall behind several of the statues in the main alcoves, and more around those in niches inside the corridor. The first Buddhas we saw (featured image) are partially gilded. However, I liked the one shown here. The white face and the red robe look more serene. However, gilding statues of the Buddha is so ingrained in the local culture that I’m sure when the temple is restored, these statues will also be gilded. Today, with the temple in its somewhat neglected state, the number of tourists is not large. There is a sense of quiet and peace in the temple. We sat in an airy window looking at the greenery outside for a while before moving on.

Puppets for sale outside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

The lack of tourists translates into a smaller number of shops outside the temple. Although the numbers are small, the handicrafts I saw on display were lovely. I liked some of the wooden masks on display, and even enquired about the price, but forgot to buy any.Zaw Zaw the painter inside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan Inside the outer wall of the temple there were spreading banyan trees. A large number of puppets hung from the lower branches of the tree. It was interesting to walk among these puppets and try to figure out the differences between these traditional characters. Inside the temple there were people who had paintings on display. The first person we came across spoke just enough English to negotiate a price. He could not tell us too much about the paintings. The next person (photo alongside) was called Zaw Zaw, and he could communicate better. He explained that the paintings are made with sand stuck on cloth and then coloured. The paintings were traditional designs, although he would vary the colours.

Song and Dance in Myanmar

The elaborate costumes of a kinnara and kinnari in a dance performance I saw in Myanmar was stunning. The butterfly wings were attached to the arms and back of the dancers, so that they could be opened and closed. The music was a simple percussion instrument. This part of the dance was introduced with a simpler dance where two women seem to be plucking flowers. When they leave, the kinnara and kinnari arrive in the same implied setting: perhaps a forest glade with flowers. The whirling movements are accompanied by opening and closing of the wings, and end in brief poses, for example the one in the featured photo.

Kinnara and kinnari in an embrace in a Burmese dance

The pair dance together across the stage. The male character wears a mask, the female is made up, but without a mask. I wondered whether this is a left over of a time when only women danced. The male falls to the ground: asleep? The female keeps dancing. Eventually the male rises, and the performance ends with them coming together to embrace (photo above).

Puppet show in Myanmar

There was a claim that the movements in the kinnara dance recreate the movements of Burmese puppets. It could be, but to my untrained it seemed like a long shot. The puppets were elaborately dressed, but the stories were simple gags. The puppet in this photo is Zaw Gyi, a magical figure who loves to spend his time alone, but when needed can use his magic to do anything he wishes. Not only is he a powerful figure, the fact that his movements can be very complicated means that the person who manipulates Zaw Gyi is one of the master puppeteers.

Complicated percussion instrument in Myanmar

The puppet show was accompanied by music. The musicians had a separate stage next to the main stage. I walked up there to take a look at the instruments. There were several kinds of percussion instruments and a flute. But the one which looked most elaborate is shown in the photo above. I learnt later that it is called Kyee-naung Waing. Interestingly no stringed instrument was used.

Elephant dance in the streets of Amarapura

A large and diverse country like Myanmar will have many different dance forms of course. The first one that I saw was a dance with two people in an elephant costume, with the music playing out of a boom box. I saw a later version with the two dressed as a takin. The takin dancers were accompanied by a Shan long drum. There was a Pa-O folk dance and a Shan folk dance that I managed to see. They seem to be significantly different from each other. I’m sure that if we had stayed longer we would have come across much more.

Monks of Myanmar

Monk on the U Bein teak bridgeI’d read that Buddhist monks are held with great reverence in Myanmar. Their moral power was enhanced when they involved themselves in protests against the military government. I’d also read that since then some of them have remained embroiled in politics. Unfortunately their politics has, reportedly, become communal; a small number of monks have lent their weight to campaigns against religious minorities in the country. My first sight of a monk in Myanmar was of this gentleman negotiating the crowds at U Bein’s teak bridge. He had the harried air of a middle-level bureaucrat trying to get home after a long and tiresome day in office. I quickly got out of the way of his somewhat aggressive umbrella. He did notice me taking the photo, and didn’t seem to like it any more than he seemed to like the crowd around him.

A serene monk on the U Bein teak bridge

The very next monk I met was altogether more serene. He stood on the bridge over the Irrawaddy river and seemed to enjoy the sunset and the cool breeze. He stood there long enough for me to get his photo with the temple behind him. I told myself that monks are also people, they have different personalities. This man was happy and unmindful of the crowd around him. The great schism in Buddhism is between Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries of South East Asia) and Mahayana (largely confined to the Himalayas). Theravada belief is more austere.

Novice monks in Bagaya monastery convert chores to play

In the Bagaya monastery I saw monks at different stages of their training and life. Monasteries come with their chores. I met a group of novice monks, children, who had converted their job of collecting trash into a game. I learnt later that many children spend a few years in a monastery, learning to read and write, and only a few of them go on to a monk’s life. Among the many others I saw, I was intrigued by one who sat in his upstairs room reading a book (featured image) even as his contemporaries spent time outdoors, chatting in groups or walking alone. Older monks looked at us as we walked around with our cameras, and occasionally asked us where we came from.

Monks' robes drying in the Bagaya monastery

There’s quite a lot of discussion about the colour of the robes that monks wear. When I saw robes drying in the Bagaya monastery (photo above) I realized that there is quite a lot of variety in the colours. Since I’d seen senior monks as well as novices wearing the same maroon robes, it seemed that there is no rule about colours. The drying robes range from maroon to orange, the latter is probably the industrial equivalent of saffron.

Group of monks in the botanical garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

Having settled this question one evening, it was quite unsettling the next afternoon when we came across a group of bhikshu in pink and saffron. We realized later that nuns always wear pink and saffron. This group of nuns walked through the garden in a single file. When the leader stopped to take a photo, the whole file behind her came to a halt. It was funny in a way.

Group of monks begging in Mandalay

It is customary for monks in Myanmar to walk amongst people twice a day and beg for food. In Sanskrit begging and alms are called bhiksha, and the monks who seek alms are called bhikshu. Late in the afternoon we saw a long line of very young girls out seeking alms. The photo above is of part of this file of children. It is considered highly meritorious to give alms of this kind. Although we did not see alms being given, everyone we asked assured us that no child nun would go hungry.

Gracious nun poses for a photo in the market in Mandalay While walking through a market in Mandalay, I saw a nun hurrying through the narrow lanes. As I tried to take a photo, she noticed me, and gracefully stopped for a moment to give me this wonderful shot. There was no communication needed except for that graceful smile. We travel through the world, looking for differences and novelty and meet a common humanity everywhere.