The Indian Diaspora in Myanmar

Although Hindi film songs seem to be popular in Myanmar, Hindi is not a language anyone seems to be familiar with. So when you hear Hindi, Bengali, or Gujarati on the road you know for sure that the speaker has some connection with India. As I rushed through a market in Mandalay, I passed the eatery you can see in the featured photo. I’d just lost track of The Family, and peeped in to see whether she was sitting in this unlikely place. The man at the far counter greeted me in Hindi, letting me know that he was of Indian origin.

A Bihari migrant in Pyin Oo Lwin in MyanmarI’d run into another Hindi speaker in Myanmar before this. A happy young man driving a horse carriage in Pyin Oo Lwin called out to me in Hindi. As I turned, I saw he was wearing a big grin. We introduced ourselves; his name was Mahesh. He said that his grandfather had come to Myanmar as a groom in the British army and never went back to his village. Mahesh knew that a town near his ancestral village was called Arrah. This is in the western part of Bihar. His father succumbed to the charms of a Burmese girl, and now Mahesh is married to one as well. His family speaks Hindi at home, and, of course, they watch movies. He’s never been to India.

I’d also had a similar run in with Abdul, who owns a grocery store in Pyin Oo Lwin. He called out to me in Hindi. He is also a third generation resident of Myanmar.A shopkeeper from Uttar Pradesh in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar He was not very clear about why his grandfather had left India. During the years of British Raj people were uprooted from their villages in India and sent across the world for many different reasons. Abdul’s grandfather may have been one of these victims of imperialism. Abdul knew that his ancestral home was near a town called Faizabad. This is in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. His grandfather and father married other Indian immigrants, as did he. They spoke Hindi at home, and he’s never been to India.

Bengali mosque next to the Sule Pagoda in Yangon in MyanmarI guess there is a concentration of immigrants in the region around Mandalay. I met another pocket of immigrants in Yangon. The mosque which you see in this photo stands right next to the Sule pagoda in the centre of Yangon. Large friendly letters across the front say that it is a Bengali mosque. I suppose that many of the people who come here have ancestral homes in present day Bangladesh. I did not meet any of them, but it is conceivable that there is a small number of Indian Bengali muslims in the same jamaat.

I ran into many Indians at the mosque of Bahadur Shah Zafar. We wanted to see the grave of the last Mughal emperor which is inside this structure. Prayers at the Bahadur Shah mosque in Yangon in Myanmar We arrived when prayers were on, and had to wait for a while. As I waited I noticed a boy wearing a white and gold cap which looked like it could belong to a Bohra of Gujarat. Next to him was a gentleman in a dark shirt who looked Indian. I looked more carefully at the jamaat (congregation) and thought that several of the faces could be from parts of India: some Bengali, some Gujarati and maybe a few from other parts of North India. This kind of guessing is terribly error-prone in Myanmar with its incredible human variety. After the prayers finished I chatted with several of the people. Most were businessmen, and several were of Gujarati origin. They are better off; some have travelled to India, but think of themselves as Myanmarese. While I talked to the Gujaratis I could hear a little Bengali in the background, but they were gone by the time I finished.

Apparently there are many Tamil and Telugu immigrants to Myanmar as well, but I did not run into any. I found later that many Indians were expelled from Myanmar by the military government. They were barred from holding administrative posts or joining the military, and are not considered to be citizens of Myanmar. I understand that the current civilian government has not changed these policies as yet.

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Walking through Kandawgyi gardens

The sprawling 425 acres of the Kandawgyi botanical garden is one of the best places to spend your time in the British era hill station called Pyin Oo Lwin. It was founded by the British Army colonel May and called Maymyo (May’s town). The summer capital of Raj-era Burma remained one of the favourite spots of army generals, so the town has been kept manicured and clean, but renamed. We saw amazing things here: a Hoolock Gibbon in the open (featured photo) and Takins (a Himalayan goat-antelope). Everything we saw here could also be seen in India, but you’ll have to travel to the wilds, and be lucky, to see them.

A walk through a garden is a quiet and peaceful way to spend your time, so look through the photos below at your leisure, without my chatter to break the peace.

A common crow butterfly in Pyin Oo Lwin

A spider resting on a wall in Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

Hornbill in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

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Spider in a web

Takin in Kandawgyi gardens in Pyin Oo Lwin

View over the lake in Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

Orange fungus in the Kandawgyi garden of Pyin Oo Lwin

Venusta spider in Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

An orchid flower in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar

A wild orchid in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

A pheasant in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

A leopard butterfly in kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

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. 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 government official 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.

Burmese Days

Its not hard to whip up a recipe for a quick trip through Myanmar. Take a couple of days in Bagan to see some of the 2000 temples. Add a little cruise down the Irrawady if that’s to your taste. Fold in a dose of Mandalay in order to visit the Mahagandayon monastery, and the few remaining teak houses and bridges in this last imperial town. Perhaps a pinch of Maymyo, once a colonial British hill station, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin; somewhat like Myanmar’s Abbotabad. Cross over the central highlands, perhaps stopping for a quick look at the numerous statues of Buddhas left by visitors at the Pindaya caves, and then on to a day or two of relaxed boating around Lake Inle, looking at the floating gardens, visiting the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, famous for its jumping cats, and the Indein pagoda complex. Before flying out of a Yangon in slow decline from its colonial glory days, like a lesser Kolkata, visit the Shwedagon pagoda and the sleeping Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi. Allow plenty of time for the mixture to settle into your soul. Add a dash of other sights which are accessible, and its food.

That is the easy part. The flavour of the whole is hard to anticipate before you travel. The hard part is to get a feel of what the country is like before leaving home. The military dictatorship which lasted from 1962 has slowly ceded space to an elected government. I looked for books on Burma. There are many books with deal with the events before the recent elections. A graphic travelogue called "Burma Chronicles" by Guy DeLisle was published in 2009. It is about his experiences in Myanmar as an expatriate. "Burma’s Spring" by Rosalyn Russell is almost a companion volume, talking of her time in Myanmar as an expat a little later. Both authors were journalists living in Myanmar with their spouse who worked with an NGO.

Now, in the last year, and half a decade after these books were written, the situation seems to have changed. Myanmar has had high-profile government-to-government meetings with its neighbours. It is looking for ways to defuse the ethnic violence of the last decades [Note added: Alas, hopes]. There is a little a lot more news about Myanmar on TV now, and Burmese newspapers are available on the web (at least Myanmar Times and Mizzima are.

I wanted to know a bit more about Burmese history than the oral history told and retold in the family, histories of the Japanese advance and retreat during the war, and oblique references from the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The book "The River of Lost Footsteps" by Thant Myint-U fills this niche. It is a very readable popular history which takes you from the early years of the Burmese state to modern times.

What remain are the practical things: hotel bookings, choosing travel options, and obtaining visas. Also, one has to take time off to learn more than the simple, all purpose greeting, "Mingalabar".