Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Burmese Days (2): The Shwedagon Paya

*NB: I'm omitting last names of people I met in Myanmar... there's no knowing if things they said to me could get them in trouble with the government.

Unmissable and unmistakable as one taxis around the scuffling low-rise urban sprawl of Yangon: the jewel-encrusted spire rises from a golden bell and a forest of lesser spires. The Shwedagon Paya is Yangon's most ancient symbol, and Myanmar's most holy place. This was the crowning jewel of our second day in Myanmar, but I get ahead of myself.

Our night's sleep plagued by the blackouts that periodically sweep the city (and the country). What better introduction to the criminal lack of public infrastructure (not) developed under the current regime? The problem for sleeping was less that the lights went out, but more that when the lights went out one would reconcile oneself to an early night's sleep... but forget to make sure that all the room's light switches had been turned to the off position, only to be wakened in the middle of the night when the lamps blinked on again.

We awoke fresh, with aspirations to blend--as well as tourists can--into the hubbub of Myanmar's main metropolis. We walked past the Sule Paya, at the center of the city, into the Chinese Quarter. This part of town marks the importance of economic migrants from China and India, when Myanmar was under British rule. The British rulers encouraged Indian civil servants to fill a gap in educated labor and Chinese merchants to bring international commerce into Myanmar. Both minorities were faced with racial pogroms, however, as power was handed back to the Burmese, and thousands of Chinese and Indians fled the country at that time. Quite striking compared to post-colonial Malaysia, wherein harmony is maintained by Malaysian domination of civil service and Indian/Chinese domination of the private professions.

Today's Myanmar, however, sees a resurgence in business-immigration from China and India. I'm told that the boom in Chinese business and investment is much more evident in Mandalay (further up the Irrawaddy river, and thus closer to China) as well as the regions bordering China, but that day in Yangon's Chinatown, we saw much more evidence of Indian investment and business-migrants.  On a side road dotted by electric generators we met a middle-aged Indian businessman from Calcutta. His first name was *Haji Mohamed. Mohamed's import business was thriving--having the right to add 'Haji' to one's name signifies that a Muslim has made his pilgrimage (or Hajj) to Mecca... not a cheap trip to make from India! Mohamed's business was mostly concerned with bathroom fixtures and other necessities for home decoration, but Myanmar's economic isolation meant that even this simple business could be quite profitable. Mohamed's English was basic, "Bush BAD, Bush just knows WAR; I don't know politics, don't know war, just know BUSINESS!" In this fashion (and through his son who was completely fluent and articulate in English) we learned that he didn't like the Myanmar government (whom he referred to as Communists, which at one point they loosely were), disliked the Chinese government for similar reasons, but liked the Chinese people just fine (he sometimes did business with a Chinese furniture/bathroom fixtures company), and liked Obama quite a a lot. As we had this stilted conversation in the cool recesses of his office, his son was on Skype with a business contact located in Bankok, Thailand who overheard our discussion of the current US president. "You like Obama?" It turned out that all of us there, from the US, from China, from India, from Myanmar, and from Thailand could agree on that. No matter what other political discussions may be ongoing in the States these days, anyone who steps beyond the US borders will quickly understand the difference Obama has made on foreign perception of the US.

Outside, mosque cupolas were obscured by the shifting flocks of pigeons; another pigeon perched upon the head of a Hindu god; street sellers of myriad goods called out their wares. A pervasive street good was betel nut: a reddish, mild narcotic quite popular throughout parts of India and SE Asia. This SE Asian equivalent of a cigarette called for elaborate preparations: the nut of the Areca palm is laid upon the leaf of the Betel tree, squirted with a liquid made up of dissolved mineral lime (to catalyze the narcotic chemical), cut with tobacco or flavorings, and wrapped up into a neat little package that can be tucked into the mouth and chewed. The eventual remains of that chewing can be seen streaking the gutters of the city, and a lifetime of chewing Betel leaves one's teeth burnished dark red.

Just north of the famed Aung San Bogyoke Market (named after Aung San Suu Kyi's father, one of Myanmar's liberators from colonial rule), we had lunch. Fried butter fish lived up to their name, melting in our mouths. The Burmese cuisine, we found, was not very spicy at all--quite strange considering that it is surrounded by SW China, Thailand, and India. A centerpiece of the meal is a salad of random fruits and greens (uncooked Thai eggplants were quite common) soaked in fermented fish sauce. Kiera wasn't really a fan, but then she (like most Chinese) doesn't much appreciate the taste of uncooked vegetables.

Given Myanmar's aforementioned economic isolation, imagine my shock to find A&W root beer sold in a department store in the midst of the Chinese quarter!

After our wanderings and meanderings under the hot, tropical sun, we both felt ready to catch a taxi north to the Shwedagon. Feel free to skip the following paragraph which is certain to be a history lesson if you don't have the patience!

This is the story of Buddha's hairs, a subject of much concern as Buddhism spread beyond the confines of the Indian subcontinent, and newly Buddhist (formerly pantheistic or animist) faithful sought pilgrimage sites that were closer to home and more cost-effective than trekking all the way to the Bodhi tree. These particularly Buddha hairs made their way to the site of what is now Yangon, having lost several of their brethren (hair brethren, that is) to the manifold perils that a journey from India held in those days. The total number of hairs had been depleted to just four, but when the King of these parts opened the holy package he discovered the full number of eight Buddha hairs. Then a special sort of chaos ensued involving rays of light, dumb people speaking, blind people perceiving the hairs, etc. The hairs themselves were laid to rest in a golden stupa, then encased in silver, in turn encased in tin, copper, lead, marble, and finally bricks of iron. Despite all the shock and awe produced by these hairs, or the glorious monument raised above them, the site eventually was lost in the jungle, only to be rediscovered by the great Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, and reclaimed from its ruin. Eventually, the Burmese kings of old encased the shrine in gold, adorned its upper spires with saphires, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds... and the rest is (yet more) history.

More recently, the Shwedagon has suffered from Portuguese pirates (who carried off one of its bells), wars with the British, fires, and several earthquakes. And yet it stands today amidst an impoverished and isolated country and has lost none of its gilded luster. The plaza below is a place of peace and quiet (when not used as a gathering place for political dissenters as it has done most recently in the monk's uprising of 2007) where tourists snap pictures, the faithful pray, and monks stroll. A couple young monks beckoned me to join them. As their English was excellent, I had a good conversation with them... only having to pretend I was not conversing when some government minders strolled past. One of the monks was twenty-two years old, possessing an impish grin and an unquenchable thirst for information. He asked me much about American politics (particularly my thoughts on the present president and the recently departed one), noting that he'd read about them both on the internet. He seemed to have a preference for Bush *gasp!*. Perhaps this young fellow approved more of Bush's hard line stance on the Myanmar junta rather than Obama's offer of detente, or perhaps his online readings had been partisan in source. Given that he thought that Bush had fought in Vietnam and wasn't sure if Obama was originally from Africa, I would say that partisan sources were at least part of that puzzle.

 We had a good discussion, nonetheless, of Hurricane Nargis, Hurricane Katrina, life in China and the States, and an earthquake he had experienced as a boy. He told me he was training to be a missionary monk, in explanation of his efforts to learn English. The monk told me he came from a town near the famed ruins of Mrauk U, in the far western province of Arakan that borders Bangladesh. He also joked that the darker-skinned monk who sat on my other flank had come from Africa. If anything, my clearest impression of these young monks was just how normal they were, no different really than any inquisitive young men would be, whether in China or Europe or the US. There was little mysticism or abstraction in their words or actions--they seemed quite grounded in the practicalities of the life they had chosen and the sacrifices or benefits that life path might bring.

In parting, the young monk gave me some advice: go to the back corner of the Shwedagon and search for markings among the marble paving stones. Wait there until the sun falls, and you will see light refracting through the largest diamond at the pagoda's apex. The color of that light changes as you move from position, to position: yellow-gold to bluish-green.

Kiera had waited patiently for my conversation with the monks to finish, and we strolled around the vast base of the pagoda and its many spires as we waited for dusk to fall upon the sacred ensemble. We came upon intricate carvings of teak, Buddhas reclining in the shade, golden Buddhas being bathed in water, vast bells, mythical beasts to represent the eight days of the Buddhist week, and paintings representing events in the life of Buddha or the history of the pagoda. The sun fell, and spotlights enveloped the golden spire in an inferno of ruddy hue. As everything became dark beyond the pagoda, the contrast of its blazing warmth was magnificent. Finally, we sought out the semi-secret markings and hopped from spot to spot to see the light glowed first topaz then teal through the bulk of a 76 carat diamond some 300 feet above us. The other 4351 diamonds surrounding it were blind and dumb against the night sky... perhaps in awe of their brother.

As we descended the hill, one of Buddhism's great landmarks at our back, I wondered how to describe the place to my friends and family. The blog posting I conjured in my mind just couldn't do it justice. Three hundred feet of gold plate, precious gems, and above all the untold hours of artistry and care made this the heart of Myanmar--never mind in the bandit villas and never-dimming lights of the general's new capital upon the barren plains at Nay Pyi Daw--the true heart of Myanmar.