Favourite things?

Raindrops on roses

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
    To talk of many things:

from The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll

Walks in the Sahyadris during the monsoon count high among my favourite things. This is perhaps the most difficult time of the year for climbers and trekkers, since the rocks are wet and slippery. But I am neither a climber nor a trekker. I walk with my camera and catch the seasonal burgeoning of flowers. Some, like the balsam in the photo (Impatiens balsamina), are common enough across the world, others flower only in special microclimates for a few weeks. It’s a different world, and one I’ve grown fond of visiting every year.

Whiskers on kittens

The jungles of the extreme northeast of India, the region caught between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is not one I’ve really explored. In a two week trip to Tripura many years back, I was lucky to find a clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) in a hidden spot below us in a ravine. It woke from a nap, gave us a glance and went back to sleep.

Bright copper kettles

It took much planning to actually cross the border into Myanmar. Of the many things I enjoyed in that unfortunate country, one was the street food. Here is a photo of a street food stall in Yangon with people at lunch. Everyone has a large kettle full of tea on the table in front of them. I think it is refilled for free if you want. The tea habits are similar to those in China, you pay for the leaves, and get endless servings of hot water

Warm woolen mittens

Spring in Bhutan oscillates between warm and cool. In the courtyard of the storied temple of Kyichu Lhakhang in Bhutan a group of older women had gathered for a social prayer in the late morning. They gave us quizzical glances as we walked in. I was warm from a walk, but the women wore warms, and all of them had rosaries in their hands.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

The sight of luggage being loaded on to aircrafts as I wait for my flight is perhaps my most favourite thing of all. The slight annoyance at the long time I will have to sit still in a chair, and the anticipation of what I might see as I step off the plane at the other end, are what drives this blog. And it all starts with the sight of baggage.

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 Myanmar

I’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 cavalry and never returned 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.

A shopkeeper from Uttar Pradesh in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar

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. 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 Myanmar

I 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.

Prayers at the Bahadur Shah mosque in Yangon in Myanmar

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. 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.

The National Museum in Yangon

The highlight of Myanmar’s National Museum in Yangon is the lion throne (simhasana) of the Mindon dynasty. Once carted away by the British as a spoil of war, it has now been brought back and displayed in teakwood-lined room in the museum. Unfortunately one is not allowed to take photos here.

Photography is allowed in all other rooms of this small but interesting museum. There is enough variety here for any interest: from royal dresses and fossils to items of daily use. One of the things that impressed me was from the gallery which showed household instruments. The large orange press in the shape of an elephant’s head, which you see in the featured photo, must have belonged to a pretty extensive family.

Bodhisattva image in the National Museum of Yangon in Myanmar

There were wonderful pieces from many different periods. I had to hurry through the museum and did not have the time to appreciate the changes in styles over the centuries, but the variety of media was interesting. Buddhism arrived early, soon after the Indian emperor Asoka’s time, and stayed. The Indian influence has merged with Chinese to create a very different aesthetic. Here is a photo of a wooden sculpture of a dancer which shows this melding.

Tablet in the National Museum of Yangon in Myanmar

When one has little time to travel across a country, a national museum is often the place to head to. Myanmar is no exception: the museum has a curated display of some of the finest pieces of art I saw in the country. The tablet with a scene from the jatakas which you see here is an example. The pagodas of Bagan and Indein are full of beautiful art, but to see the quality and variety that is easily accessible here, one has to spend much time at those places, and others. Another way to look at a museum is as motivation you to explore. Either way, the National Museum succeeds in showcasing the artistic genius of Myanmar.

Among the other exhibits which I found interesting was the hall which showed the evolution of the modern Burmese script. The exhibits in the natural history section were also interesting; among the fossils was an exhibit of an early anthropoid and cave art and artefacts from the neolithic era.

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 Yangon

When 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.

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.


July’s full moon was supposed to be a supermoon: the moon was almost the closest that it gets to earth. As a result it was 30 percent more luminous than a typical full moon. An outer pagoda in the Shwe Dagon complex at nightIn Thailand this full moon marks the festival called Loy Krathong, when people float decorated baskets on a river. I was in Bangkok that night, but missed out on what must have been a beautiful sight. The previous night we stood near the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon and watched the bright and nearly full moon asserting itself against the bright gold of the stupa. Already it was brighter than a normal full moon.

The night after Loy Krathong I was on a flight back home. A couple of hours into the flight, cabin lights were dimmed and I looked out to see the bright moon paint the horizon a deep blue. The flight was empty, so I moved to a seat over a wing. The light was brighter than a normal full moon. Around local midnight I could take the featured photo without a tripod to steady the camera. I can see that the wing has come out sharp, but the engine is a little blurred from the vibration of the jet. But the spectacular bit is the sky: blue at the horizon at midnight!

Life under the Sule Pagoda

The Sule pagoda is a stupa right in the center of Yangon, apparently by design, since the British city was built long after the stupa was established. The Family elected to go inside, whereas I took a walk around it. Visitors to the stupa climb a set of stairs before they can see anything. At the road level, below where the devout throng, lies an interesting commercial world.

Guitar shop under the Sule pagoda The first interesting shop I spotted contained guitars. The stupa was a futile hiding place for revolutionaries in the uprisings of 1988 and 2007. I heard from survivors of both generations about their experiences under the military dictatorship. None of them talked about the shops below the pagoda. I guess guitars did not play as much of a role as in the mild rebellion which threw up this year’s Nobel laureate in literature. Myanmar’s rebels had an altogether harder time. If you happen to be in Myanmar, you might find it useful to seek out survivors of the revolutions and the bloody pogroms which followed: we who live in democracies could learn a lot by listening to such people.

One young man told me a joke which got three brothers arrested and tortured. A man goes from Myanmar to India to see a dentist. The Indian dentist treats him, and then says that it was a simple procedure, and perhaps the patient could have tried to consult a dentist in Myanmar. The patient says he couldn’t because he is not allowed to open his mouth. The framing of the story was ironical, but it drove home the point.

Camera museum under the Sule pagodaA third of the circle down I came across a photographer who owned a cabinet full of old cameras that he had labelled a camera museum. I had a little chat with him: I’m always happy to talk to photographers. He spoke good English, and told me that digital cameras were extremely expensive in Burma till about five years ago. But now smart phones and digital cameras are coming into the country fairly freely. We did see evidence of this in the form of people glued to their phones at odd places. The museum was interesting to look at: all photographers have this in common.

Then there was a line of three or four astrology shops. They were empty of clients in the middle of a morning. I asked one man whether I could take a photo, and he readily gave me permission. Others were more keen to tell me of my future. I declined; I like my future muddy. At one of the entrances to the pagoda I came across two ladies with baskets of birds. Apparently you can buy a bird and release it to gain merit. Wonderful commercialization of religion: one person racks up demerits in the next world and money in this, whereas more gullible people do the opposite!

Eventually both The Family and I were happy going round the stupa. I got a glare when I suggested that I was more down to earth. No, the right way to say this is that she was closer to heaven.

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda

One story about the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon is too good to be true. According to this story, two brothers from Myanmar were travelling in India 49 days after Gautama became the Buddha. They met him, and offered him moon cakes. In return he gave them eight strands of his hair. The puzzled brothers returned to their country and gave the hair to the king. The king was quite as puzzled, but decided to build a pagoda. This was the first Shwe Dagon pagoda, and, if one is to go by this story, it was the first Buddhist pagoda in the world.

The Shwe Dagon pagoda in YangonThe historical record says that the pagoda probably predates the Bagan kingdom, since one of its kings rebuilt the pagoda in the 14th century. Various datings of the pagoda reach back to the 6th century. I don’t know what these datings are based on, since there has been no systematic digging at the site.

Given the religious status of the pagoda, one doubts that there will be organized archaeology here. The only recorded attempt go dig here was made, for all the possible wrong reasons, by British military officers during the early 19th century, and had to be given up because of the resulting popular anger. What is known is that the current structure dates from the late 18th century, after an earthquake brought down the previous spire. The real history of the pagoda is probably as beautiful as a myth, and more elaborate.

An outer pagoda in the Shwe Dagon complex at nightNaing Naing Tuan, our guide for the day, brought us to the complex just before sunset, knowing how beautiful it looks at that time. As we walked through the place with him, he showed us little details which we might have otherwise missed. The sky turned from blue to gold, and eventually into a deep purple. It was very close to the full moon, so the moon was high in the sky in no time. The masses of cumulus clouds lent an edge to views. About a third of the crowd consisted of tourists like us, and the rest seemed to be made up of devout Buddhists from all across Asia.It is hard for us to imagine a more spectacular visit to the Shwe Dagon pagoda.

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".