The crossroads pagoda

 

 

You’ll find Sule Pagoda at the intersection of Maha Bandula and Sule Pagoda Road in downtown Yangon.  Its lower part squats in the middle of the crossroads while its upper part tapers above it, from a distance looking like a giant golden party hat.  I’ve been in taxis approaching the pagoda and seen the taxi-drivers lift both hands off their steering wheels and clasp them in a gesture of prayer.  “Don’t pray,” I’ve felt like shouting at them.  “Just steer!”

 

As well as occupying a geographical crossroads, Sule Pagoda has in the recent past been at a metaphorical crossroads.  It became a rallying place for anti-government protestors during 2007’s Saffron Revolution, named after the colour of the robes of the monks who, alongside students and political activists, led the demonstrations.  Although that episode seemed to end in victory for the ruling military junta and the man in charge at the time, General Than Shwe, was able to remain in power until his retirement four years later, it may have nudged Myanmar down the road to reform that it’s (hopefully) travelling on today.

 

 

The pagoda has four entrances, each facing one of the four stretches of road that form a compass around it.  Apart from those four entrances, the pagoda’s circumference is used for commercial purposes – as you walk along the circular pavement that rings the outside of the structure, you pass dozens of identically-sized, identically-styled shop-fronts, one separated from the next by narrow strips of yellow-tiled wall, and all possessing metal grills that close over their doors in the evenings.

 

 

The businesses in most of those shops seem rather mundane, for instance, selling phones and sim-cards.  There is, though, a music shop with a guitar-shaped sign outside it.  Also, there are a couple of fortune-tellers and astrologers – including one that sports a sign with a hand whose lines are charted and annotated according to the ‘science’ of palmistry: ‘head’, ‘heart’, ‘life’, ‘balance’, ‘intuition’ and so on.

 

 

Another feature of the pagoda’s exterior is the pigeons that seem to permanently cluster on the road in front of one entrance.  At times there’s so many of them they resemble a grey, feathery carpet.  The pedlars operating at that entrance keep them fed and somehow they all manage to survive the wheels of the passing traffic.

 

 

Many of the pedlars are ladies crouching at the entrances with bell-shaped cages that are packed with little birds.  I presume what they’re doing is similar to a practice I’ve seen in other Buddhist countries – they sell you a bird at some holy spot, then you say a prayer and release it for good luck.  Inside the entrances, meanwhile, vendors at counters sell big shiny bouquets of artificial flowers.  You also (foreigners at least) need to pay an entrance fee and remove your shoes.

 

Standing at the top of each flight of entrance-stairs is a huddle of Buddha statues, their heads haloed by psychedelic whirls of coloured lights.  However, while I wandered along the tiled concourse encircling the building’s golden spire, the most interesting feature I saw was this pair of dragons whose criss-crossing bodies form an ‘X’ shape.

 

 

Their two curling tails form frames that contain two pictures.  One shows a green peacock with golden-eyed feathers – according to www.signology.org, “(i)n Buddhism, the ‘eyes’ in the peacock’s tail is a symbol of watchfulness.”  The other shows a big and rather alarmed-looking white hare.  On www.what’s-your-sign.com, I’ve read that “it’s said that the Buddha, disguised as a hare, threw himself in a fire as a sacrifice to the god Indra.  His reward was to live an eternal life as the moon.”  So I wonder if the pale disc against which this hare is depicted represents the moon.

 

 

Something I’ve noticed in this and in other temples in Myanmar is that people come to them, sit down, close their eyes and spend periods of time actually meditating.  They seem to visit with a genuine desire to become attuned with what’s represented by the symbolism and imagery around them.  This is a contrast to similar holy sites I’ve visited in certain other Buddhist countries, where I get the impression that visitors come, make a quick offering, say a quick prayer and hurry off again – presumably in the hope that so long as they’ve shown their faces and gone through a few motions, they’ll be rewarded with happiness and fortune.

 

 

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon

 

 

In the period before World War II, Myanmar was home to 2,500 Jews, most of whose forefathers had arrived in the country from India and the Middle East.  But after that, their numbers shrank.  They left Myanmar because of, firstly, the Japanese occupation; and then because of the military seizing power in the 1960s, which soon led to nearly all the country’s businesses being nationalised.

 

Now very few Jews remain.  According to one estimate I saw, the country has ‘fewer than 20’.

 

There’s still, however, a synagogue in Myanmar.  Located in a back-street in central Yangon, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is a charming monument to the country’s once-thriving Jewish community and it’s now listed as one of the capital city’s ‘Heritage Buildings’.  It was built between 1893 and 1896, to replace a wooden synagogue that’d been erected on the site 40 years previously.  Small, tidy and strangely serene (given the bustle of the street outside), visiting it is a pleasant way to spend a half-hour.  And, as you read the information on display about the community that the building served and that has now all-but-disappeared, it’s a rather moving way to spend the time as well.

 

 

I read on Wikipedia that at one time Myanmar’s Jews possessed 129 Sifrei Torah, i.e. copies of the Torah that are written on scrolls and used during services in Torah-reading rituals.  Now only two of these seem to be left.  They’re kept in a curtained-off section at the back of the synagogue, which is presumably the end of the building that faces Jerusalem.

 

 

As though to underline the sense of decline and loss that the synagogue can’t help but evoke, I read later that Moses Samuels, the man who for 35 years had acted both as the synagogue’s caretaker and as the leader of the tiny remaining Jewish population in Myanmar, had died on May 29th, 2015 – just a week before I made my visit.  Still, on a more positive note, his son Sammy has now taken on the role of synagogue caretaker from his late father.  Let’s hope that this is one family tradition that continues to survive.

 

http://www.jta.org/2015/06/01/news-opinion/world/leader-of-myanmars-jewish-community-dies#

 

 

The National Museum of Myanmar

 

 

My visit to the National Museum in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar, was a game of two halves.

 

The first half was pleasant but not particularly memorable.  Once I’d passed the entrance gate, with its attractively tiered and pagoda-like top, I found myself outside a hulking concrete building – one that in Britain would probably stand on a college campus built in the 1960s and house a clutch of lecture theatres.  The grounds around the museum building are dotted with statues and, because photography is forbidden inside, these were the only exhibits I could take pictures of.

 

In the building itself, the first exhibits are contained in an entrance hall.  The most interesting of these for me was a wooden carving, nearly a metre high, of two ‘gong strikers’: two stripped-to-the-waist guys carrying a stick between them with a large gong hanging from it.  The gong was the only component not made of wood – it was metal and no doubt was a real gong that matched the carving’s scale and had been bought in some music shop – and unfortunately it still had a little price-label stuck on its surface, which reduced the work’s impressiveness.

 

Beyond the hall is a section devoted to Myanmar’s ‘epigraphy and calligraphy’, where there are teak pillars and a huge bronze bell, although I wasn’t sure what these had to do with either epigraphy or calligraphy.

 

The chief exhibit on the ground floor, however, is the Lion Throne – used for “judicial affairs at the supreme court of the Myanansankyew Golden Palace in the Yadanabou Period (AD 19th century)”.  It was taken to India in 1902 but Lord Louis Mountbatten returned it to Myanmar in 1948.  It’s a masterwork of carving, adorned with spine-like pinnacles, lotus-flower scrollwork and many little compartments housing peacock, hare, elephant and lion figurines.  An information panel states that only “the Royal Monarch himself” was allowed to ascend the throne “because it was the symbol of judicial power during the reign of the Myanmar monarchs.”  Though the reign of those monarchs is long over, the rules obviously still apply – a sign underneath warns museum visitors that “(a)scending the Royal Lion Throne is strictly prohibited.”

 

Elsewhere, the ground floor exhibits some ‘state attire’, i.e. ceremonial robes and garments once worn by the country’s royalty.  Though charming, these look slightly fusty now.  Also on display are dolls’ house-sized models of the buildings at Mandalay Palace; and in another location a model of the State House that was designed by the Victorian architect Hoyne Fox, was completed in 1895 and thereafter accommodated Myanmar’s colonial rulers.  Actually, the State House model is splendid – it looks like the best dolls’ house ever.  However, the real thing no longer stands in Yangon, for the State House suffered earthquake damage during the 1970s and was later demolished.

 

From www.wikipedia.org

 

The first floor contains a room devoted to natural history and the ‘Myanmar Prehistoric Period’, of which my lasting impression was of some large toothy jawbones.  I preferred two attractions outside the room, two huge tree-roots that were carved and enamelled over, their surfaces patterned with leaves, petals, flowers and swirls and populated with sculpted rabbits, owls, monkeys, squirrels, birds, elephants and humanoid (possibly supernatural) figures.

 

When I reached the second floor I discovered the entrance to a section dedicated to ‘Myanmar Performing Arts’ and suddenly the museum became interesting for me.  Here I found an array of musical instruments, including indigenous drums, lutes, banjos, violins, flutes, gongs and xylophones; a harp shaped like a boat but with a big curved-back prow, from which the strings extend; and a zither fashioned to look like a crocodile, with the strings stretched across the scaly, knobbly ridge on its back.

 

This section also contains a selection of masks, many of them monkey-like and grotesque – the one purporting to represent the Hindu god Hanuman looks especially monstrous.  And there’s a gallery of puppets hanging inside a glass case that lines a whole wall.  These consist of animal puppets (elephants, tigers, horses, dragons) and human puppets (kings, princesses, clowns, hermits) and a few that worryingly combine both animal and human traits.

 

But while I was feasting my eyes on the riches offered by this part of the museum…  A power cut occurred and the lights went off.  And they stayed off for the rest of my visit.

 

The performing-arts room had windows along one wall and their blinds were pulled down.  As soon as the electricity stopped flowing, only a faint yellowy light managed to percolate through the blinds.  Shadows suddenly filled the room and the exhibits became sinister, the curved frames of the harps looming like serpents, the outlines of the puppets resembling corpses on a gallows.  And so began the second half of my visit to the National Museum – to borrow a title from Stephen King, The Dark Half.

 

 

Another room on the same floor was dedicated to ‘Traditional Folk Art’ and I was able to discern most of the things on display there: carvings, toys, dolls, utensils, tools.  Unfortunately, when I went to the third floor, I found it had a gallery of Burmese art where, without the lights, it was impossible to see anything after I’d walked a few yards past the doorway.  Likewise, there was a display of Buddha images on the fourth floor but it was much too dark now to make them out.

 

The fourth floor was also home to a room called the ’12 National Objectives and Nation-Building Endeavours Showroom’ – an Orwellian title that reminded me I was in a country run by a military dictatorship (though hopefully one that’s in the process of relinquishing its hold on power).  I didn’t feel like venturing inside so I don’t know if the power outage would have prevented me from seeing its contents or not.

 

And that was it.  My visit to the National Museum wasn’t a waste of time, but if I could have that afternoon again, I’d make a beeline to the Lion Throne and then run up to the performing-arts bit.  And after that I’d try to fit in as much of the upper floors as possible before the lights conked out.

 

 

A spooky old Yangon house

 

 

Still on a Halloween theme…

 

The big, crumbling and seemingly empty house in these pictures, which I took during my stay in Yangon, stood at the side of a road a little way after the compound of Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda and a little way before the southern entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda.

 

Sealed off from the road by a line of high, spear-like railings, abandoned, and with nobody to maintain it, the house had gradually deteriorated beneath the relentless Myanmar sun and rain.  Its walls had become blistered and blighted, its panels of corrugated-iron eaten by red rust, and much of its grounds swallowed up by vegetation.

 

 

It reminded me a little of the short story The Shunned House, written in 1924 (though not published until 1937) by H.P. Lovecraft.  The titular house in this story stood ‘leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous’ and, according to the narrator, “(w)hat I had heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers…  It was plainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungus growth in the cellar, the general sickish smell, the draughts of the hallway, or the quality of the well or pump water.” 

 

But I doubt if this spooky old house in Yangon had quite the same nightmarish features as the house in Lovecraft’s story – like, for example, its fungi, which were “detestable parodies of toadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen in any other situation.  They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightly phosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witch-fires burning behind the broken panes of the foetor-spreading windows.”

 

Looking at these pictures now, I realise what gives the house its creepy demeanour.  It’s seeing its decaying façade through a veil of foliage – especially those big, barbed fronds, which make it look like it’s guarded by rows of sinister tendrils and teeth.

 

 

The silver temple

 

 

To local people in Yangon, the Myanmar capital, Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda is known by the nickname of ‘Diamond Reflections.’  But when I first saw it jutting above the city’s rooftops, I thought of it as ‘the Silver Temple’.

 

However you regard it, as silvery or diamond-like, there’s no disputing that the pagoda is a striking piece of architecture.  When the sun’s out and the mirrored scales that cover it are shining brightly, it’s a beautiful thing indeed.

 

 

Slightly too tall and thin to be described as a pyramid, slightly too short and stout to be called a needle, Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda occupies an oddly quiet enclosure off the side of a busy road running north to the much larger Shwedagon Pagoda, about which I blogged a fortnight ago.  Once you get accustomed to the near-hallucinogenic gleam from its external walls, you start to take in the details around it – especially the tiled or mirrored alcoves that run along its side and rear and are home to an array of deities.  Some of these figures are serene and monk-like, others are fierce and warrior-esque, and others again are elegant and feminine.  All share their abodes with vases of fresh flowers and scatterings of spent tapers.

 

 

You also notice what looks like a banyan tree, with a tendrilous trunk that’s been painted gold, rising from a hexagonal dais at the back of the pagoda.  Huddling around its trunk, under its branches, are an assortment of different-sized Buddhas plus a clutter of bric-a-brac such as flowers, tapers, bowls, animal figures and food-and-drink offerings.

 

 

Outside the entrance gates, a statue depicts an elephant and monkey – the latter, appropriately, monkeying about on the latter’s trunk.  I believe there’s a Thai Buddhist story about Buddha living in solitude in a forest for a while.  During his sojourn there, an elephant would shove a huge, sun-heated boulder into a nearby pool every day, to supply him with warm bathwater; and a monkey came to him once and offered him a honeycomb as food.  (Buddha politely declined this second gift, pointing out that squeezing the honey from the comb would kill the bees still inside it.)  I wonder if the statue is a reference to that.

 

 

A Buddhist wonderland

 

 

Every evening since I’d arrived in Yangon, I’d viewed Shwedagon Pagoda from my hotel window.  It was a gorgeous, golden-glowing apparition that dominated the city’s skyline.  So when I went to visit the pagoda one Saturday afternoon, I expected to see it close-up and in detail – but that and nothing more.

 

Well, I found the massive pagoda in all its glory – its architectural features including, as you look up its 99-metre bulk, several terraces, a bell, a turban band, an inverted alms bowl, lotus petals, a banana bud, an umbrella crown, a vane and, right at the top, a diamond bud.  But I wasn’t prepared for the palaver and hurly-burly going on amid a congestion of structures surrounding it.  It was an experience I can liken only to being in a Buddhist wonderland.  A Buddhist Disneyland, even.

 

For, yes, the great pagoda is hemmed in by a veritable forest of smaller but still-striking edifices.  Piercing up around it are countless golden spires and pinnacles, and tapering, tiered and baroquely-ornate roofs.  These belong to several different arrangements of stupas, including four that mark the cardinal directions, four more that mark the corners of the plinth on which Shwedagon Pagoda stands, and another sixty that ring its circumference; and to pavilions that serve as museums, galleries and rest centres, and to others again that serve as places of worship and meditation.

 

 

The pagoda is encircled by a marble-floored thoroughfare.  Countless visitors wander along this, swarming around and in and out of the smaller structures, their bare soles insulated against the heat of the sun-baked tiles by a long green strip of matting.

 

Incidentally, there’s free wifi here courtesy of Redlink Communications.  So the environs of Shwedagon Pagoda must be one of the most cosmic and meditative places in the world to sit and surf the Web.

 

 

While I explored, I heard loud, sonorous clangs as visitors struck the many bells hanging about the site.  I also passed elderly monks, swathed in dark crimson robes.  And I marvelled at the number of Buddha statues on display.  It was as if a giant Buddha statue-making machine had gone into overdrive, and its off-switch had stopped working, and it kept churning out more and more of the things.  I particularly liked the many ‘electro-Buddhas’ whose heads were haloed with swirling multi-coloured lights.

 

 

One building there contains a replica of the ‘sacred tooth’ of Buddha – the real tooth is allegedly contained in a temple in Kandy in Sri Lanka.  However, Shwedagon Pagoda can boast an impressive number of original relics.  Contained within the great gold-plated dome are, for instance, eight hairs said to have belonged to the Gautama Buddha; plus the reputed staff of the Kakusandha Buddha, the reputed water-filter of the Konagamana Buddha and a reputed fragment of the robe of the Kassapa Buddha.

 

 

I loved the seemingly infinite number of details around the pagoda – the human figurines, both serene and jovial; the squatting lions; the coiled snakes; the sphinxes gazing down from rooftop corners; the serpentine dragons descending from those corners to the floor.  But after an hour, mentally, I felt a bit knackered by it all – there was so much to see that I ended up suffering from sensory overload and visual exhaustion.

 

 

Shwedagon Pagda might be one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar but as usual, when it comes to unscrupulous city developers and unscrupulous city development-projects, nothing is really sacred.  Lately there was controversy in Yangon about several proposals for new buildings close to the pagoda that, allegedly, would block views of it and spoil the ambience of its neighbourhood.  A particular outcry was raised about a thing called Dagon City One, a proposed development of luxury apartment buildings involving nine hectares of land belonging to Myanmar’s military and 300 million dollars of American money.

 

After noisy lobbying by indignant Buddhist monks and scholars, and by Yangon’s citizenry, the government announced that the projects would be shelved.  Let’s hope people stay vigilant about future development.  I would hate it if a few years from now the golden nighttime gorgeousness of Shwedagon Pagoda was obscured by a London-style Gherkin, or a London-style Walkie-Talkie, or a London-style Shard.

 

 

A muckle crocodile

 

 

Nearly 100 metres high, the gold-plated and jewel-studded stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda stands on Singuttara Hill and dominates the skyline of Yangon.

 

To reach it from its southern side, you first have to enter a passageway at the junction of Uhtaung Bo Road and Shwedagon Pagoda Road, which is housed in a long, spired pavilion climbing the hillside.  Inside, the alternating staircases and stretches of gently-rising floor are flanked by varnished red columns; and set behind those columns are rows of little shops selling figurines, flowers and religious souvenirs.

 

 

Yes, the passageway is really a tourist-shop drag.  But I have to say that it looks very smart.  There’s barely an ounce of the tattiness that you’ll find among the tourist-stalls crowding the entrances of most popular religious sites in the world.  In fact, you have to remove your shoes and hand them in at a reception desk at the bottom of the passageway, before you enter it.  Here, evidently, even treading between the souvenir shops qualifies as treading on sacred ground.

 

There are other entrances to Shwedagon Pagoda, on its east, north and west, but I don’t know if their approaches are as grand as this one.

 

I tried to take photographs as I ascended the passageway, but my cheap camera was defeated by the subdued but shimmering light that filtered into it through the various openings along its sides.  Here’s the only photograph that achieved anything close to clarity.  (For some reason, someone had left an open umbrella abandoned in the middle of the floor behind me.)

 

 

As I climbed the final flight of stairs leading to the entrance of the pagoda proper, I realised that the low, open walls on either side had, reclining on top of them, two monstrously big and monstrously long crocodile statues; their backs notched and serpentine, their jaws frozen in a bemused rictus, their eyes bulging and sinister.  And immediately I found myself thinking of the children’s poem Crocodile, written in Scots by the late J.K. Annand, which goes thus:

 

“When doukin in the River Nile,

I met a muckle crocodile.

He flicked his tail, he blinked his ee,

Syne bared his ugsome teeth at me.

 

Says I, ‘I never saw the like,

Cleanin your teeth maun be a fike!

What sort a besom do ye hae,

Tae brush a set o teeth like thae?’

 

The crocodile said, ‘Nane ava.

I never brush my teeth at aa!

A wee bird redds them up, ye see,

And saves me monie – a dentist’s fee!’”

 

 

Yangon rain

 

 

A while ago, I did some work in Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar.  I arrived just before the country’s rainy season was due to begin; and I was assured by people living there that this rainy season really was rainy.

 

Having seen a good bit of rain elsewhere – for instance, the thunderstorms that lash Sri Lanka from time to time, or the drizzle that seems to smother Scotland in wet grey gauze for months at a go – I was somewhat blasé about these warnings.  It wasn’t until I was out on Yangon’s streets one Saturday morning and I got caught in an early-rainy-season downpour that suddenly I understood what they meant.

 

When the rain started pounding down, I was walking along Be Aung Kyaw Road, which runs north from the Yangon River.  I took shelter on some steps in the entrance of a shut shop and spent the next two hours there, unable to do anything but watch the deluge in front of me.  Within seconds, the paving slabs at the street-side had vanished under inches of water that pulsed and rippled and even frothed as more rain pelted down on it.  Across the street, the slightly-dilapidated building-fronts faded to near-invisibility behind a thick dark veil of precipitation.  The fronds at the top of the street’s palm trees suffered a terrible pounding and drenching.  And it was unrelenting – during the long, long time that it fell, it never seemed to slacken for a moment.

 

 

After a while, a bedraggled street dog retreated into that entrance too and parked himself at the other end of it from me, sitting in a solemn pose like that of the hound in the old His Master’s Voice logo.  The two of us remained on those shop steps, in mutual silence and immobility, for an hour at least.  Finally, a pair of guys came trudging along the street and through the rain, bearing on their backs two big mysterious sacks.  At the sight of them, the dog was suddenly off like a shot.  I wonder what it was about the men, or about their sacks, that spooked him so.

 

 

Later, when the rain eventually did ease a little, I emerged from the shop-entrance and made my way to a junction with Maria Bandoola Road.  Peering along this second road, I saw how Sule Pagoda – the neighbourhood’s chief landmark, which stands at the centre of a busy traffic intersection – had taken on the appearance of an island because the four streets radiating from it were flooded.  Actually, while the rainwater sluiced down the streets towards it, I thought of another comparison.  It was as if the water was draining into the plughole in a giant bath – the pagoda looking like a plug-stopper that wasn’t big enough to block the hole beneath it.

 

 

Yangon’s pavements were quite a bit higher than the road-surfaces and for the most part that morning they were higher than the floodwater too.  I naively thought that by following the pavements I could make it back to my hotel and not get my feet wet.  Of course, as soon as I’d walked along a pavement for the length of a block, I arrived at a junction.  And then I had to step down into a lake that’d formed over the mouth of the side-street and wade / run / hop across it.  After traversing a few blocks and side-streets like this, my shoes, socks and trouser legs were sodden.

 

It eventually occurred to me that the easiest place to walk was not along the pavements but along the middle of the roads, between the traffic-lanes.  The roads seemed slightly higher in the middle – and as a consequence most of the rainwater had accumulated at their sides, whereas the central strips along the roads were under only a few centimetres of it.  Files of people were now using these strips as unlikely pedestrian walkways.  They trod between the cars, under their big umbrellas.  So I waded out into the middle of the road and joined them.

 

 

There was still a problem, though.  As traffic ploughed through the floods on my immediate left and right, the wheels constantly threw up water and threatened to douse me in it.  Along some roads, the central line between the traffic-lanes was marked by a row of vertical, thigh-high, yellow-painted concrete slabs; and I soon learned that the trick was to take shelter on the far side of one of those slabs whenever a vehicle went by, spraying water.

 

Despite my best efforts, when I got to my hotel I was soaked from the waist down.  The morning’s experience showed me why everyone in Yangon seems to wear sandals or flip-flops.  And no doubt the world’s worst business idea would be to open a shoe-factory or sock-factory there.

 

 

Incidentally, expect more Yangon-related blog entries over the next few weeks.