One of the rivers of Myanmar, Irrawaddy, flows 2000km and begins and ends within one country, giving it life, witnessing its history bringing together the people of the far north to the southerners living in delta lands. In these times of globalisation, one thing is unchanged about this mighty river: the lives of the river people and those of villages on its banks. Cityscapes may change from old houses to high rises, towns may become fast paced and modern, but life on the river remains the same as it was centuries ago.
The ConfluenceThe Irrawaddy has its birthplace the confluence about 43km north of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State. Mai Kha River from the East and Maa from the West, the two rivers that came down from the snowy Himalayas, join their waters in a spot of spectacular beauty. Kachin legends say that the Great Spirit of the world poured water from a gold cup held in each hand, and Mai Kha which flowed from his right is the male river, wide, shallow, swift flowing and chuckling happily as he passes over river stones. The Mali Kha, poured from the left, is his sister. She has hidden depths shadowed with high cliffs and tall thick jungles. She is silent, mysterious, and dangerous.
Born as they were from gold cups, both rivers give up gold in powder or nugget form. Many gold panners stake out claims o the sandy banks, sleeping in small make shift huts, living off the abundant fish and wild shoots and vegetables from the forests. The waters of these upper reaches from the confluence up to the town of Bhamo are crystal clear and blue, flowing with white crested waves pass the rugged rocks of the First Gorge. During the onset of the monsoon when the melted snows of the Himalayas swell the river to dangerous depths, it is said that the river roars through this First Gorge with the might of a hundred tigers. Bhamo is a trading post that since a thousand years has been a gateway to the overland route to China. Its importance in trade has been the cause of many wars, among them the invasion of the British into Myanmar that ended with total annexing of the country in 1885.
After Bhamo there is the Second Gorge, but here the river is calm and not too narrow.
A high cliff towers over a turn in the river, looming up majestically over the small boats and rafts floating by. On this part of the river, the water is not too deep, and boats are hollowed from whole logs or small rafts made of bamboo. Indeed, rafts made up of less then a dozen bamboo poles are often seen with the one passenger lying back and humming a tune to ease the loneliness of his journey. In these upper reaches of the river, dolphins help the fishermen with their work by driving schools of fish into the nets, and men and dolphin have secured an affectionate relationship through generations.
Irrawaddy River near BaganJust before the Third Gorge, the river passes by Tagaung, a town famous in legends and history as the probable capital of the earliest kingdom in Myanmar. In a country of such deep traditions as Myanmar, folklore holds more sway then scientific historical proof. When legends tell of a Naga, a dragon who could take human form and who was lover to a beautiful queen, and on whose death the queen made a jacket from his skin and a hairpin from his bones, who cares what archaeological proof says? There are many ancient ruined temples in Tagaung and stories of plentiful and harmless snakes, which are smaller cousins of dragons. Soon the thick jungles and isolated huts on high banks are left behind as the river widens and flows pass flat farmland and small villages. As the river widens it creates wide expanses of sandbanks, where farmers eagerly grow crops such as onions. They say that no onion is sweeter then that grown in the silt of the Irrawaddy.
A book written in the1930 by an Irishman Major Raven-Hart, who canoed down the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina right down to the capital Yangon, described the life along the river in words that are still as accurate today as they were seventy years ago:
"Even at the villages where we did not tie up, our passing was an excitement: men and women bathing stood to watch us, boys washing their skirts waved them in salute, naked urchins sliding down the banks yelled and waved and pretended to be scared of our wash, water0buffaloes really were scared and gave their pygmy guardians a chance to show their authority (and to see a child of six dragooning one of these antediluvian monsters weighing a ton or so almost makes one proud to be human). All the life of the riverside village is on the bank of an evening: everyone bathes at least once a day, and skirts are changed and washed at every bathe, and smaller children with no skirts to worry about swim as soon as they can walk or sooner, and still smaller ones are brought down to be gurglingly dipped, astride the hip of a not-much-larger brother or sister."
Gradually the life on the river becomes busier as boats big and small carry goods and travellers and rafts of teak logs and bamboo flow with the current. Huge glazed pots lashed together form a different type of river craft altogether. They all come complete with a hut or two for the rafters to sleep and cook. Sometimes their pet dogs might even join them for the trip.
Glazed ware is used to store oil or pickled fish or bathing water, and Kyaut Myaung, a huge production centre just after the end of the Third Gorge. The glazed ware of the town is famous, sent to all ports downstream during pagoda festival season, which is from October to May of the next year. The glazes are made from by-products of silver mines, added to river silt. The traditional colours are deep dark browns, lustrous greens and creamy yellows.
Clay potsTerracotta wares have a longer history then glazed wares. Fine samples have been unearthed from ancient city sites two thousand years old. Turned on a wheel, these excavated pots once used for cooking, storage and as burial urns have elegant shapes and designs. The type of potter's wheel used remained the same all these years, as did the way that the clay is worked. Silt from the generous Irrawaddy and white or red clay pounded to a fine powder is mix in age-old proportions, and worked with hands and feet to smoothness. The potter's wheel, as seen in the tiny, sleepy little village of Yandabo, is set on a stake driven into the bottom of a shallow pit dug in the ground. The wheel is turned by one hand while the other works on shaping the pot. If two hands are needed, someone will turn the wheel by standing next to it and using a foot to spin it, or else a string tied to the wheel can be pulled by someone sitting at a distance, leisurely smoking a cheroot.
For cooking rice, there is never a more pleasant aroma then when it is cooked in a clay pot. Drinking water in a terracotta pot seeps and mists on the exterior surface, which the breeze catches and chill. This, in turn keeps the water inside cool, with a freshness that villagers prefer to iced water. The villages of Theingon are places neither special nor important, but they are symbolic of all the rural villages in Myanmar. The people are hard working, tending to their fields, plots and small chicken coops all day under the harsh tropical sun.
A villager's life is not easy, but he shares his affection and humour with his neighbours, and his few entertainments in life are the annual pagoda festivals, or, in bigger villages, the weekly movie at the video 'theatre'. Evenings are spent courting girls who walk to and from the river carrying water in pots on their heads. Other evenings the young lads may share a drink of toddy wine with the guys, right under the toddy palms in the village version of the corner pub. If the girls are weaving or spinning by moonlight, that is another chance to go around and sweet-talk them, discreetly chaperoned by her mother sitting at a distance but with eyes and ears wide open.
Living far from big cities, the villagers' one reason to visit these crowded places they cannot stand is to worship at the great pagodas like the Shwedagon of Yangon or the Maha Muni of Mandalay.
Mandalay Palace Wall & FortMandalay is a name that conjures up memories of romance and tragedy of the last monarch King Thibaw, sent into exile in India when the British took over his country in 1885. The primitive weapons of the Myanmar at the time could never have competed against the cannons of the invaders, but the Myanmar court was also fooled into believing that the British brought Prince Nyaung Yan, cousin to Thibaw, from his exile in India to be replaced as king. The court and people, although they loved Thibaw were none too fond of his powerful and aggressive queen Su Paya Lat. They hopefully waited for Prince Nyaung Yan to arrive, whom the spies had spotted sitting at the bow of the ship leading the British troops. Unknown to the population, Prince Nyaung Yan had already passed away of a fever, and only when the British landed unchallenged at Gawein Jetty of Mandalay that they realised the 'prince' was an impostor dressed in royal raiment.
Manipulated into kingship by his cruel mother-in-law and ambitious queen at the costs of the deaths of many of his uncles and cousins, Thibaw, too, may have been relieved that a Myanmar king would take his place, but it was not to be. Myanmar won her independence only in January of 1948, after suffering the destruction of World War II.
Mandalay today is a modern city with many ancient cites, and places where the best craftsmen in the country continue to make things in the way their great grandfathers did. The Maha Muni Pagoda enshrines a cast bronze image of the Buddha brought over the mountain ranges of the west in 1782. The 4m-high image has so often been gilded that the torso has lost all proportions. Only the serene face remains unchanged, polished and washed and even the teeth, actually the lips, brushed every dawn at 4a.m.with great ceremony by the pagoda trustees.
Irrawaddy RiverThe platform of the Maha Muni has a pavilion with two huge celestials cast in bronze holding up a triangle gong, and another with a few Khmer statues. When the Myanmar king invaded the Rakhine Kingdom of the Western coast to bring the Maha Muni Image, they also brought along these Khmer statutes that the Rakhine king had taken from Bago in 1663. Previously, the king of Bago had brought them from Thailand in 1564 after a war. Thailand had won them after they conquered Angkor in 1431, in one of the many battles fought all over SE Asia during those times. The statues had travelled from country to country after each skirmish, and finally came to rest in Mandalay, where now, their bellies are being rubbed to a high shine by people who want to cure their stomachache.
The four corridors that branch out from the image at the four cardinal points are delightful to explore. The main wing has shops selling religious paraphernalia and images, musical instruments, jade, fake gems, beads and flowers. One corridor leads to the marble cutters' quarters where alabaster statues and images of all sizes, from 3cm to 3m high, are being carved by the roadside. Another wing of the pagoda houses the stalls of the Brahmin astrologers, descendents of those who served the kings. They make up palm leaf horoscopes and tell fortunes.
King Mindon, a deeply religious kind monarch who left many pagodas and monasteries, built Mandalay and official began residing there in 1859. He had moved the capital from Amarapura, which is by now another neighbourhood of the fast spreading Mandalay. Amarapura boasts of having the best bronze casters and wood carvers in the country, as well as the best hand-woven silks. The Buddhist Myanmar could not bear to kill the silk worms so silk skeins are imported from China. The fabrics woven by girls of Amarapura are in shimmering colours of all shades, or in the traditional zigzag pattern called 'Acheik.' The most intricate designs are woven in the 'Hundred Shuttle' style, where literally one hundred (or up to three hundred) shuttles with different coloured silks are twined in and out of the weft by three girls sitting at one loom. It is a painstakingly slow job but the rich patterns and colours are cherished by all Myanmar women as the best formal wear.
Amarapura offers other charming sights, such as the 1.2km long wooden footbridge connecting one bank of Taungthaman Lake with the far side. The bridge had been built with discarded timber from an old palace when a king shifted his capital from Inwa to Amarapura. Of the two temples on the lakeside, Pahtotaw Gyi Temple has marble plaques carved with the stories from Buddha's Life, and the Kyauttaw Gyi Temple on the far side has beautiful 19th century wall paintings.
Sagaing BridgeSagaing is the religious sanctuary of Myanmar, thickly wooded and hilly. Hundreds of monasteries and nunneries dwell almost hidden among the trees and in the gullies. Kaung Hmu Daw Pagoda of Sagaing is a whitewashed dome, a replica of the Mahachedi Pagoda of Sri Lanka. U Min Thoneze is a long, curved cave enshrined with Buddha images, the entrances and the roof covered with mythical and legendary creatures. The pagoda on the highest hill is the Soon Pone Nya Shin, from which one can look over the spectacular view of the river, the old Inwa Bridge, and Mandalay and Inwa in the far mists.
Mingun, on the same side of the Irrawaddy as Sagaing and 11km upriver from Mandalay is one of the most peaceful spots on the river, with few villages or towns in the vicinity. A pagoda as famous as the others although left incomplete is the Mingun Pagoda. The 50m high square brick edifice was cracked during an earthquake, and in spite of being only one-third finished, the Mingun Pagoda manages to look both majestic and peaceful. Nearby is the bronze bell that was cast to grace the pagoda platform. At 90 tonnes it is the biggest hanging bell in the world.
Inwa is an old ruined city, five times the seat of the Myanmar kings since the 14th century, during the period of wars, one even lasting 40 years with a southern kingdom. The city gate of Inwa still stands to guard not a city of mighty armies of glorious heroes but fertile paddy fields of contented villagers. Inwa today is so tranquil that without the vestiges of the palace still seen here and there such as the leaning watchtower, one could hardly believe it was once a great city. Bagayar Monastery is an exquisite example of traditional architecture. It is set on a high platform supported with whole teak logs, with brick stairs leading up to the open air space all around the main pavilion where the monks walk in meditation or hang out their washed robes. Tiered roofs soar to the sky over pavilions with carved doors, high-relief figures of Celestials bearing lotus buds. In the main hall, dark and cool, young novices recite the texts they have learnt. Another monastery built in the same tradition but of brick was the merit of one queen, a commoner who rose to the rank of chief consort through the passionate love of her king. The monastery is known not by its official name but by hers: 'Mai Nu Oke Kyaung,' or Miss Nu's Brick Monastery.
The environs of Mandalay offer endless sights, beautiful scenery and enchanting temples. The Irrawaddy, however, flows on its path to Bagan, with its two thousand temples of the 11th and 12th century, left from the original four thousand. The pains of Bagan are dotted with the temples, and in the far distance looms the crest of Mount Popa, abode of the Nat, or Spirits. Since King Anawrahta (1044-1077) of Bagan first gave full support to Buddhism and helped it prosper over the land, there was Spirit worship, which he could not entirely stamp out. Buddhism is a hard philosophy to live by with one entirely responsible for one's actions, good or bad, without any help from any other being. Anawrahta knew that at least for the uneducated or the unwise, he had to let them believe in favours they can get from Spirits. The Nat mediums also take care not to be antagonistic of Buddhism; on the contrary they insist that the Spirits, as all good Buddhists aspire, wish to end their cycle of rebirths, or in their case the state of limbo, and enter Nirvana. Meanwhile, remain in limbo they must, to be 'made happy' with festivals celebrated in their honour with loud music, dance, food and drink.
Down river from Bagan, there are other places of interest such as Salé, a small town with exquisite old monasteries. The all-teak Yoke Sone Monastery is famous for the traditional architecture and carvings. The craftsmen of a hundred years ago had shown their skill to perfection with mythological creatures, celestials and scenes of everyday life carved on walls and balustrades of the monastery. The town also boasts of lovely colonial-style residences.
Next port-of-call is Magwé which is famous for the Mya Thalun Pagoda overlooking the river, its spire of gold shining like a beacon. Magwé is a typically conservative town, with many temples, monasteries and hermitages.
Minhla has a brick fort built by two Italians during the 19th century, in an effort to block the British invasion to Upper Myanmar. However, the heavy artillery of the British was too strong for the weapons of the Myanmar Royal armies. The hill in Gwechaung offers a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
Thayet Myo was once a colonial outpost, and has the first golf course ever to be built in Myanmar. The locals of a hundred years ago must have been amazed to see men with long sticks chasing after a little white ball. The town is small and charming, and seems lost in time.
Irrawaddy RiverThe roots of Myanmar civilisation is to be found very near Pyay or Prome as it was called by the British. The ancient city site Srikhetera was once the seat of the Pyu kingdom, ancestors of the Bama (Burmese) race. The Pyu civilisation flourished from the 2nd century to the 9th, and ended when invaders from Nan Cha'o, (present-day Yunnan) destroyed the city and conscripted thousands into their armies. Those who fled settled up-river and later on merged with another race that came from Kyaukse, just south of present-day Mandalay, and they were the first people of the great Bagan kingdom.
Now, the archaeological site in Hmawza continues to give up remnants of the lost kingdom in the form of religious artefacts, pottery shards, exquisitely crafted precious metal and intricate beads, all to be seen in a small on-site museum. The pagodas and temples there are the oldest in the country.
The Irrawaddy River flows placidly past all these wonders. It has seen it all. It has witnessed the wars of mighty kings striving to build their empires or to build up civil societies. It has seen heartbreak, happiness, life and death. With a grandeur and dignity befitting a river that moves to its own will, the Irrawaddy rushes past the towns of central Myanmar and through the delta in nine rivulets, pouring its endless streams of waters into the Andaman Sea.