Myanmar—The “Golden Land”
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN MYANMAR
NESTLED between the mountain ranges that form a natural border with its Asian neighbors lies the “Golden Land.” To the southwest, the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea wash its nearly 1,500 miles [more than 2,000 km] of coastline. To the west lie Bangladesh and India; to the north, China; and to the east, Laos and Thailand. It is slightly larger than Madagascar and smaller than the North American state of Texas. The name of this land? Myanmar, formerly Burma.
Called the Golden Land by its earliest settlers, Myanmar has many rich resources: oil and gas, copper, tin, silver, tungsten, and other minerals, as well as precious stones, such as sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and jade. Other treasures include tropical rain forests with such rare timbers as teak, rosewood, and padauk. The forests are also home to many wild animals—monkeys, tigers, bears, water buffalo, and elephants, to name a few. But the real treasures of the Golden Land are its people.
The People of Myanmar
Traditionally mild and serene, the people of Myanmar are well-mannered and hospitable. They treat visitors with respect and dignity. Children commonly address older men as uncle and older women as auntie.
Visitors to Myanmar often comment on the smooth complexions of the older people. One reason for this youthful skin, say the women, is a popular, pale-gold facial cosmetic—thanaka—derived from the thanaka tree. By grinding a piece of branch against a hard, flat stone and adding a little water, the women make a fine paste, which they spread on their faces in artistic designs. Besides having an astringent and cooling effect, thanaka shields the skin from the harsh, tropical sun.
The standard dress for both men and women in Myanmar is the lungi, easily made by sewing a piece of material, about two meters long, at its ends to form a circle. After stepping into it, a woman wraps the lungi around her midriff, like a skirt, and tucks the loose end in at her waist. A man, on the other hand, takes both ends and loosely ties them in front at the waist. Modest and free-flowing, the lungi is perfect for the tropics.
A visit to the markets demonstrates that the people of Myanmar are very talented—adept at weaving silk, handcrafting jewelry, and carving wood. Teak, padauk, and other timbers have been transformed into eye-catching figures of humans, tigers, horses, water buffalo, and elephants. Even such everyday things as tabletops, room dividers, and chairs are intricately embellished with carvings. But if you are serious about buying, prepare to bargain!
The people of Myanmar also excel in making beautifully adorned lacquerware—bowls, platters, and lidded boxes. But what make their wares unique are their free-form designs and incised patterns. The basic form begins with a woven mesh of fine bamboo slivers. (Higher-quality articles start with a weave of bamboo and horsehair together.) On this skeleton the craftsman adds up to seven layers of lacquer, made by mixing oil of the thisei, or lacquer tree, with finely ground and burned animal bone.
When the lacquer is dry, the craftsman engraves a design onto the surface of the article with a steel stylus. Then, after a little paint and polish, the result is not only a fine work of art but also something that is useful in the home.
Religion’s Influence Abounds
About 85 percent of the people of Myanmar are Buddhist; the remainder mainly profess to be Muslim and Christian. As in much of Southeast Asia, religion plays a major role in the lives of most people in Myanmar. However, certain religious customs would be unfamiliar to many visitors.
Buddhist monks, for example, vow not to touch a female. So out of respect, women take care not to come too close to the monks. Religious customs even impinge on bus travel. A Westerner might be puzzled by a sign in a bus saying: “Please do not ask the driver what time we are expected to arrive.” Are the drivers weary of impatient commuters? No. Buddhists there believe that the nats (spirits) will be upset by such a question and may delay the bus!
The earliest history of Myanmar is vague, but it seems that several tribal groups migrated there from neighboring lands. The Mon apparently gave the land the name Suvannabhumi—meaning “Golden Land.” The Tibeto-Burmans came from the eastern Himalayas, and the Tai moved in from what is now southwestern China. Myanmar’s rugged terrain kept tribes separated—thus the numerous tribal and language groups.
Early in the 19th century, the British began to arrive from newly colonized India. They settled in the southern region first and eventually occupied the whole country. By 1886, Burma, as Myanmar was then called, had been annexed to British India.
During World War II, this land became the center of bitter fighting, and in a few short months in 1942, Japanese armies drove the British out. Subsequently, the infamous “Death Railroad” was built. This 250-mile [400 km] line ran through inhospitable jungle and mountain terrain to link Thanbyuzayat, in Burma, with Nong Pladuk, in Thailand. Because of a metal shortage, most of the line came from tracks pulled up in central Malaya (now Malaysia). A small part of the project—building a bridge over the River Kwai—later formed the basis for a popular movie.
With the help of 400 elephants, over 300,000 men—prisoners of war and Indian and Burmese civilians—built the railway. Tens of thousands died on the job. Frequently pounded by Allied bombers, the line saw little use and was eventually abandoned. Later, most of the tracks were pulled up and used elsewhere.
Eventually, the British fought their way back, successfully retaking the country from Japan in 1945. But British rule was short-lived, for Burma gained its independence from Britain on January 4, 1948. On June 22, 1989, the United Nations adopted the country’s new name, Myanmar.
A Land of Golden Capitals
Myanmar has had many capital cities over the centuries. For example, in the heart of Myanmar lies Mandalay, popularly called the Golden City. Dotted with hundreds of pagodas of every vintage, this city of 500,000 people was the last capital before British occupation. King Mindon bequeathed royal honors on Mandalay in 1857, when he built a large palace there for himself and his queens. The 1.5 square miles [4 sq km] of the old city rest within 25-foot-high [8 m] walls, 10 feet [3 m] thick at the base. A 200-foot-wide [70 m] moat complements the walls.
In 1885 the British exiled Mindon’s successor, King Thibaw, to India, but they left the palace untouched. World War II did not, however; and it was leveled by fire. Undaunted, the people of Myanmar built an excellent replica of the palace as well as its majestic red-and-gold wooden buildings on its original site. It is open for visitors to see.
One hundred miles [200 km] downstream from Mandalay sits Pagan. Another former capital, it was founded during the first millennium of the Common Era and rose to the heights of splendor in the 11th century; but it was abandoned only 200 years later. Nonetheless, strewn among and around a few small villages are hundreds of dilapidated temples and pagodas—echoes of a former glory.
Today’s capital, Yangon (officially known as Rangoon until 1989), is a lively city of over three million, bustling with tooting cars, buses, and open-sided taxis. Though many old buildings reminiscent of British colonial days line Yangon’s wide, tree-lined avenues, the city skyline now includes modern high-rise hotels and office buildings.
Also set in this skyline, the 320-foot [98 m] gilded spire of the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda advertises the wealth and architectural genius of earlier times. Allegedly, some 7,000 diamonds and other precious stones encircle the spire. Its apex is crowned by a single 76-carat diamond. Like many ancient buildings in Myanmar, the Shwedagon has been wrenched and pounded by earthquakes and wars, and much of it has been rebuilt.
However, some claim that the golden Sule Pagoda is the real centerpiece of Yangon. One hundred fifty feet [46 m] high, the 2,000-year-old Sule Pagoda forms a large, golden traffic island at the junction of four main city streets. The pagoda is surrounded by a necklace of shops.
In 1914, two International Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were known in those days) arrived in Rangoon from India, searching for people who valued a superior gold—spiritual gold. In 1928 and 1930, more missionaries arrived, and by 1939, three congregations totaling 28 Witnesses had been established. The India branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bombay supervised the work there until 1938. From then until 1940, the Australia branch took care of the work. After World War II, in 1947, Myanmar’s first branch office was opened in Rangoon.
In January 1978, the branch office was moved to Inya Road. The three-story headquarters building is called the Myanmar Bethel Home. The Bethel family of 52 works hard caring for the needs of some 3,000 Witnesses active in the country. Myanmar’s many tribal languages make translation a major part of the work done at the branch. The hard work of Jehovah’s Witnesses adds one more ‘nugget of gold’ to the many riches of the Golden Land.
[Map on page 17]
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BAY OF BENGAL
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Pictures on page 17]
From top: Men and women wear lungis; a young Buddhist monk; women wearing “thanaka”
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Preaching in a peanut field
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Wood carvings are sold in local markets
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Cutting a design into the surface of a lacquerware tabletop
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A beautifully adorned lacquerware bowl
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Myanmar branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses
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© Jean Leo Dugast/Panos