One of them brought a replica of the sacred tooth relic from Lanka, the Bamar records tell, sent by a Sinhala King.
This would have been King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110), grateful for King Anwarhta’s (1044-77) assistance in fighting the Chola.
King Anwarhta is said to have waded into the river to receive the sacred object which he carried on his head to the site of stupa. It was then built, encasing the relic, in the Sinhala style in 1059 CE.
The records on both sides tell of monks dispatched, also probably from that same jetty, to restore the upasampada in Sri Lanka where the Sangha had gone into decline because of Chola occupation and incessant wars.
Upper Burma, the kingdom centered on Mandalay, was conquered by the British in 1885 and the last king exiled to India.
Mandalay and Amarapura, where the capital was until 1857, are 10 hours upriver from Bagan using today’s diesel-powered vessels.
In the 18th Century it would have taken days to make the journey, yet Lankans came to Amarapura.
In 1799, a privately funded delegation of Buddhists came from coastal Sri Lanka to Amarapura, across the Bay of Bengal and more than 700 km up the Ayeyarwady, to obtain the upasampada denied them by the caste rules of the Kandy-centered Siam Nikaya. They were welcomed by King Bodawpaya (1782-1819).
Higher ordination was given in 1800, thus laying for the foundation for the present Amarapura Nikaya.
Water, in the form of the Bay of Bengal and the navigable Ayeyarwady, was the means of making the two peoples close, then. A common faith made us good neighbors, for the most part.
But then, the two peoples drifted apart.
Burma, as it was called by outsiders, suffered grievously from the assassination of General Aung Sang, the father of independence and of Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Holding of the centripetal collection of ethnic groups together, by force if needed, became the central preoccupation.
We suffered when the father of our independence fell off a horse and died.
A few years later, we too became preoccupied by holding the country together.
We started our socialist experiment in the late 1950s and ended it in 1977. We talk about squandering the advantages we had at Independence.
The boulevards and stately, if crumbling, buildings of Yangon (again made easier for the English tongue by corruption to Rangoon) bear testimony to how much the rulers of this resource-rich country have squandered.
Burma started expropriating private property before us and made more mistakes, resulting in the once prosperous country being listed as a least developed country by the UN in 1987.
The failed experiment lasted longer, but ended under military rule, resulting in the reforms having gone much further than here.
For example, there are multiple domestic airlines, privately owned. The one I flew on had a “Patron” suggesting that it was a form of crony capitalism, but crony is better than none.
I assumed the boat that brought us down the Ayeyarwady would be owned by the government’s Inland Water Transport (IWT) Agency and was pleasantly surprised by the level of friendly service.
The explanation was that the boat was owned by IWT, which still supplied the Captain and two other crew members. The rest were employed by a private company.
We were passed by the luxury cruise ship “Road to Mandalay,” fully owned and operated by a Singapore investor.
Yangon, like Colombo, is awash in advertising. One difference is that most of the brands are local (Korean and Japanese electronics being the exception).
The other is that the Generals are conspicuous by their absence: no hoardings of Thein Sein, Than Shwe, or any other power-holder.
I saw one Chinese style propaganda banner praising the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) in Mandalay but that seemed atypical.
Not only is the military absent from street-side hoardings, they are absent in person too.
Other than in the airport, I barely saw uniformed personnel.
One place I could see them was on TV, where they seemed ever present in the utterly boring TV channels.
There seems to be great potential for cable TV in Myanmar.
The motor bike is ubiquitous in emerging Asia.
They constitute more than 50 percent of motorized vehicles in Sri Lanka. Forty five percent of households in the North Central Province own motor bikes.
In a recent survey of the bottom of the pyramid in Thailand, it was found that almost 90 percent of these households had motor bikes.
But it is totally absent from the wide streets of Yangon.
There are no three-wheelers either.
In the interests of free-flowing traffic, it appears the government banned these vehicles from the erstwhile capital (and possibly also the new one, Naypitaw).
But in Mandalay, the second city and transportation hub for trade with China, they are on every street and pavement.
The cars that we went in were serviceable but old, with steering wheels on the wrong side.
My travel agent was apologetic, saying the government couldn’t get the duty rates right.
I said I understood.
Food was delicious and extraordinarily cheap. Lunch under a tree in the tourist town of Bagan, Dhaba style, cost at most USD 4 for three people.
You could pay more in three-star places, but the food never tasted better than under the tamarind tree.
But paying was not easy.
The government’s track record of managing the currency has been poor.
Like the late Finance Minister Dr N.M. Perera, Myanmar’s Ne Win also demonetized.
Both were expropriatory acts of the worst kind.
In Myanmar, an entire class of small business people, mostly of Indian origin, were wiped out when the government decreed their money worthless.
Like in the 1960s and 1970s Sri Lanka, the exchange-rate regime is byzantine and people who engage in unauthorized arbitrage get arrested occasionally.
But the IMF was invited to recommend reforms in August, so things may get better.
Oh, and by the way, no credit cards can be used, thanks to American sanctions.
How does this affect the visitor?
I was told I’d need lots of US dollar notes.
I was also told I’d have to declare them at the airport.
But that I didn’t have to exchange them at government banks. So I stood in line and filled up forms.
But no one asked me what I’d done with the notes on the way out. Seemed rather futile, but that seems how things work in Myanmar.
Myanmar has a notes problem.
The largest note is around USD 6. The most commonly used one is worth about USD 1.10 (when I changed money; this is a currency that fluctuates a lot, which must make export business nerve wracking).
So when I changed money, I was given a plastic bag full of cash, all small notes.
I had trouble carrying enough despite having pockets, unlike most Bamar men who wore sarong.
Required accessory for travel in Myanmar, a money belt with lots of capacity.
Another travel tip, find the cleanest possible USD 100 notes.
I found some of my notes being treated with disdain, because the Myanmar government likes its dollar notes large and pristine.
Are to behold.
The majesty of the mighty Ayeyarwady, which dwarfs most vessels that ceaselessly ply it, from enormous freighters to one-person skiffs, never ceased to amaze.
We did not visit the Delta region which grows the most rice, but the vast fields of Mandalay, Sagaing, and even the hilly parts of Shan State that I saw from the air, testify to the fertility of the land.
The fixation on shwe (gold), exemplified by the glittering Shwedagon Paya in Yangon and the practice of indiscriminately applying gold leaf to Buddha statues as in Mahamuni Paya in Mandalay below (now more than 15 cm thick), is one that this rich country can afford, even if one questions whether its poor people should.
To understand Myanmar, I find it useful to think in terms of Lankan history. Imagine continuity between the Polonnaruwa civilization and the 19th Century.
The Bamar contemporaries of Vijayabahu and Parakramabahu built a stupendous, jaw dropping kingdom in Bagan from 1057 to 1287, when Kublai Khan’s troops overran the Kingdom, or it was abandoned.
Just recall the grandeur of Polonnaruwa. Then imagine it bigger: that’s Bagan.Then imagine the productivity of the economy did not decline as it did in Lanka as a result of the drift to the south west and the abandonment of the irrigation-fed, fertile land of the Dry Zone (interestingly the Mandalay-Bagan area is Myanmar’s Dry Zone).
In short, imagine Polonnauwa continuing, with the normal parricide or two and wars every few decades, into the 19th century.
Most of the grand buildings of Myanmar are from this period, for which all we have to show is the Dalada Maligava, Yapahuva and few other pedestrian structures.
Imagine real kings with imagination, ambition and ability, different from the petty feudals of the Kandyan era.
Then you can understand King Bodawpaya who facilitated the Amarapura Nikaya and forcibly brought the Mahamuni statuefrom the Rakhine State and installed it in Mandalay; and his successor King Bagyidaw (1819-37), who, one year after Kandy fell to the British, built Hsinbyume Paya, a spectacular non-gold temple that reminds me of Lankatilaka of the Gampola Period, but bigger and better.
Myanmar is a big country. In seven days, we barely scratched the surface.
It has snow-capped mountains that form a natural barrier to India. It has beaches. It has lakes that attract thousands of tourists.
It’s big enough to hold the entirety of the 2,170 km long Ayeyarwady, and several other rivers as well.
More than that, it holds some of world’s most friendly people.
It’s time we get to know them, again.