As we are flying to Delhi and are about to set off, I’ll share a few more things about the history of this journey.
One of the reasons it came to be is the broad mix of Indian influences you find in Yangon, which time and again have aroused our delight and curiosity. When I moved to Yangon in March this year I was thrilled to discover not only Buddhist pagodas and meditation halls but also Kali Temples, Ganesh temples and street shrines dedicated to Hanuman and Rama, colorfully blended into Yangon’s busy downtown area. In the same streets, Muslims from the Southern Subcontinent as well as from other parts of the world built a large Mughal Shia mosque, several Sunni mosques and a clutch of ever-busy madrassas. And Yangon’s mix of culture and religion does not stop there. There’s an eighteenth century Armenian Church, a nineteenth century Baptist church next to City Hall, a Jain temple and even a Synagogue that once served a vibrant Jewish community of Baghdadi descent of which now only around 20 remain.
Determined to dive into this mysterious eclectic mix, I decided to focus my apartment search on the middle and lower blocks between Pansodang and the Chinese quarter. Many expatriate friends discouraged me from this fantasy, quoting a range of reasons from buildings being old, decrepit, and lacking all modern amenities to incomprehensible registration processes that effectively prevent an official tenancy agreement. There are also very few brokers who mediate between downtown house owners and foreigners. But after having explored the most common alternative – a modern Chinese-style Condo in the more Northern parts of town – I resolved to simply hit the downtown streets that intrigued me so much and ask the tea stall boys, shopkeepers, and other people lingering around about possible living space.
A couple of great days ensued in which I shared many cups of tea and coffee with the neighborhood’s residents, pointing at wonderful old buildings, trying to explain I was keen to live there. Several times, when I eventually managed to get my point across, I was taken up old creaky stairways, into vast tiled halls or old carved wooden attics with stained glass windows. Most of them were beautiful spaces but totally unsuitable for living. Such as the ornately decorated verandah on the top floor of an old building on lower Konzedan Street, on which the owner offered to place a wooden shack for me to live in. The kitchen and bathroom I could share with the eight families inhabiting the inside he explained, separated from each other by cardboard.
A few days later I was introduced to a sturdy, beetle nut chewing lady of South Indian descent who led me up another ancient stairway into a somewhat dark, very dusty and mouldy, but classic Burmese apartment on the building’s upper floor. And despite the dirt I fell in love with the apartment’s heavy wooden floor, high ceilings, loft-style bedroom, and small balcony overlooking the leafy street it is located on. After several weeks of struggling through the contract, painting, cleaning and collecting the essential bits and pieces of furniture, I became the happy tenant of Shwe Bon Thar Street x.
The old name of Swhe Bon Thar Street is Mughal Street, and it has long been the center of Indian activity in Yangon. Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, also the founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, devotes a few lines to Mughal Street in his book Where China Meets India:
“In the heart of downtown Rangoon, close to the waterfront, is Mughal Street. In 1858, when the Indian Mutiny (or ‘The first War of Indian Independence) was crushed, the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was banished to Rangoon, where he lived in a small house next to the Shwedagon pagoda until his death four years later. His tomb has since become a Sufi shrine, attracting pilgrims as well as a regular stream of dignitaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He brought with him dozens of courtiers and attendants and today many of the shopkeepers and others on Mughal Street claim descent from this exiled court. It’s a broad street, running towards the river, with little girls in veils and boys in snow white skullcaps on their way to a madrassa, several kebab shops and halal restaurants, as well as a surprising and sizeable concentration of optometrists… There is in this part of Rangoon a wonderful mixing of cultures and religions from across the Indian subcontinent. The Indian population is now only a fraction of what it once was, and what is left is like a museum piece, a living remnant of a past connection.”
Many weekend-days since have been spent discovering and tracing back these past connections Thant speaks of; walks on which I was soon accompanied by Andy who shared my fascination.
One Saturday we visited the Hindu temple one street up from mine, on 29th, near Merchant Street, and delighted in a conversation with an old Gujarati man who had returned to Yangon for the first time in 50 years. He had come to Yangon to convince his recently retired sister to return home to India with him. After the tides turned in Burma in the early 60s, his father had promptly decided to return to Gujarat, which they had always continued to consider home. His father was one of a few dozen wealthy Gujerati businessmen who had come to Burma looking for commercial opportunities, and for whom leaving was not so painful. Only the man’s sister had refused to leave. The man fondly remembered the activity on these streets all those years ago, such as his little Indian-run English language school and the festivals they used to celebrate.
The story of a younger Hindu boy we also met that day was very different. His great grandparents had been farmers and they had come to Burma out of necessity. Three struggling generations later, their great grandson was in university studying economics. The boy had never been to India, despite speaking Hind and Indian-accented English, and for him Myanmar was home.
On another early morning also on 29th street, we walked into what was from the outside a quite unremarkable white Jain temple. A very old man immediately approached us, introduced himself as the secretary of the Yangon Jain association, and showed us around the temple’s beautiful interior. As he did so, in his best English, he told us about Yangon’s nearly extinguished Jain community. We understood that only about ten of them are left, and that for the maintenance of the building they depend on donations made by Jain communities in India. Keeping the building and its small community running was a daily task for this 80-something year old, as well as for his brother who was the association’s President. Some photos below to show the treasures he showed us.
Other examples of past and present India-Myanmar connections abound, such as Gandhi hall on Merchant Street, apparently visited by Gandhi thrice in his lifetime and a place of gathering for NLD members in the 1990s; the old turquoise office of the Bombay Burma Press, covered in grime and literally about to collapse yet inhabited by four families, and the lively Indian street processions such as the one that took us by surprise late one June night celebrating Krishna long after others had gone to bed.
It was fascinating discoveries, encounters and stories like these that led us to the dusty corners of Yangon’s bookshops and the Indian Embassy’s little library in search of more, and was ultimately one of the reasons to take this flight and follow the road back to old Mughal Street.