Posts Tagged ‘Mandalay’

Why am I writing a blog on Myanmar (also called Burma)? What has it got to do with Pakistan or the ancient Indus civilization?

Myanmar is a Buddhist country, in a few previous blogs I have already explained that Buddhism represents a resilient nonviolent philosophy which may have originated in Pakistan’s remote past. Some of the earliest evidence, predating the period of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha, is preserved in the 5000 year old archaeological sites around River Indus.  The mountain walls of the Kirthar Range, between the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, depicting images of stupas, lotus flowers and swastikas, were engraved in an era that goes even beyond Indus Civilization. In the historical period, therefore, it was logical for Buddhism, as we know it, to flourish in the Indus and Gandhara region. This is verified by several sources including the accounts of two famous Chinese pilgrims; Faxian (approx.337-422 CE) and Xuanzang (approx.600-64 CE), who visited these regions and listed thousands of Buddhist stupas and monasteries. In fact Sindh had been a stronghold of Buddhism even after the Muslim conquest in early eighth century and the peaceful coexistence between the Muslims and Buddhists lasted throughout the Muslim rule in Sindh.

The debate of the demise of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent is long, suffice it to say here that with its collapse elsewhere in India it finally collapsed in Sindh. Hence, in 1910 when Buddha’s ashes were discovered from a stupa in Peshawar, they were fated to be transferred to Mandalay. Myanmar at that time formed a part of British India and the British rulers trusted the sacred ashes to their Buddhist province.  Overwhelmed by this discovery, Frank Carpenter, who had already traveled through the vast Buddhist World and who covered the  impressive ceremony of Viceroy’s handing over the ashes to the Burmese monks ,  reported that  the “ Buddhist religion is on the eve of a revival.

Buddhism may have been expelled from India but it was flourishing with a greater vigor from Burma in the west to Japan in the east and from Tibet in the north to Sri Lanka in the south.  Many of us know of Myanmar of that period through the writings of Somerset Maugham, Pearl Buck and of course George Orwell. In “Burmese Days” we learn of politics and society at a time when the membership of a native to a British club was one of the highly debated issues.

Over a century now, issues have inflated today’s elections in Myanmar  is not only a contest between democracy and military dictatorship; a fight between Buddhists and Muslims; a show of strength between majority and minorities; but at the core it has become a battle between violent and nonviolent forces. Buddhism is going through a test but this time it is not merely the question of the survival of Buddhism it is more about the survival of it in its true spirit.  Many monks have already joined the hardline Buddhist movement Ma Ba Tha who calls for preservation of Buddhist identity against the threat of Islam and demands stricter measures for the Muslim population. Some hope comes from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the internationally acclaimed hero of Myanmar, who has already declared that “any effort to use religion for political purposes was unconstitutional, and she threatened to lodge complaints with the election commission.”

Pakistan, the ancient home of nonviolence,  where Buddhism, Jainism, Gandhism and Sufism could easily thrive had also seen its religion being used for political purposes since the decade of 1980s when the Soviet Union  occupied its neighbor Afghanistan.  The repercussions of a distorted and militant Islam created to combat communism is now reaching the Arab world and disturbing the global peace. The peaceful citizens of the world are not ready to see the misuse of yet another great religion. In Burma it is just the beginning, if we are to learn a lesson from history we have to stop it now.

The much awaited Parliamentary elections in Myanmar  are over and the polls are closed. . Results will show how fair and free this election has been.  There are fears such as a voters’ list in which ‘dead people have been listed, and many of those alive not included.’ More than that in the elected Parliament un-elected military representatives will take up 25% of the seats and will have a veto over constitutional change. . Amid all these fears it is still hoped that Myanmar continues to remain a land of golden pagodas and peace, images of blood and burnt bodies appear too sharp against the nonviolent background which radiates from the hearts of its people.

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“In Mandalay, the capital of Burma, beneath a wonderful pagoda repose the ashes of the revered prophet of Buddhism. These relics were discovered in 1910…” This note, published in the Bay View magazine caught my attention as it continues the story of  the discovery of Buddha’s ashes from Peshawar. I had already referred to the discovery in one of my blogs ‘Restoring Pakistan’s Buddhist Past.’ The news of the discovery was also reported by the New York Times. What follows is the story of the transportation of the sacred remains to Burma.

At the time of the discovery of the ashes, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the 4th Earl of Minto, was the viceroy of India. He was a man with a sense of religious demographics of the country he ruled. Having realized the strength of Muslim population in the Northwest and East of India he had been one of the major players behind the concept of a separate electorate and the formation of the All-India Muslim League. In the same measure he knew Burma was a stronghold of Buddhists hence he gave the Burmese the gift that they deserved. Minto is often accused of promoting the notorious British policy of divide and rule – but that is another story.

Minto also wanted to turn this opportunity into a big news, hence he personally handed over the ashes to the Burmese Buddhist monks in an impressive ceremony. The ceremony was held in Calcutta at the throne-room of the viceregal palace. The guest list was equally impressive and included British officials, Burmese high priests, Lady Minto, Sir John Marshall and the famous Anne Besant. A report by Frank G. Carpenter describes the ceremony which began with the speech of the viceroy: “The government of India has decided that the relics should remain within the confines of the Indian empire and that Burma, as a Buddhist province, and Mandalay as its capital, should provide for their safe custody. I am sure that the great honor done to Burma will be thoroughly appreciated by its people, and that the relics will be carefully preserved and cherished.” In conclusion the viceroy hoped that “a suitable shrine may be erected at Mandalay over these relics, where in future years devout pilgrims may gather from all parts of the world to do honor to the memory of the great founder of their religion.”  In 1915 when James Bissett Pratt, not a devout pilgrim but a mere traveler, visited Mandalay the work on the pagoda was being done with great zest. He describes the enthusiasm of the Burmese in his book India and its Faiths: “At present a rather unusual wave of pagoda enthusiasm is passing over Burma. Nearly all the great pagodas of the land are being regilded and at Mandalay, the religious center, the entire hill that commands the town is being covered with statues, pagodas and other religious buildings. One of these pagodas is being built for the reception of the ashes of the Buddha recently found by Dr Spooner near Peshawar; and as I have said, the entire hill is being covered with pagodas of various sizes, shaded stairways and passages for the accommodation of pilgrims, rest-halls and mammoth Buddha images.”  Millions have been flocking to the Pagoda ever since its completion, ignoring Buddha’s advice: “Do not hinder yourself by honoring my remains.”

During the ceremony, John Marshall, the director of the Archeology Department, gave the background of the ashes which were discovered from the ruins of a pagoda built by King Kanishka (78-103 CE) in Peshawar. The pagoda, once struck by lightning and thrice caught by fire, continued to survive for centuries and had been recorded by Fahien and Hiuen Tsang, the  two well-known Chinese who traveled through India in two different time periods. When Hiuen Tsang, the later visitor, saw the pagoda, five centuries after Kanishka’s reign, it was still in good condition. Hiuen Tsang was no ordinary traveler; he was a scholarly Buddhist monk who arrived in India in 629 CE and walked through its land for seventeen long years.  Rummaging through monastic complexes and collecting original Buddhist scriptures, it was his vivid description of the 13 stories high pagoda that caught the attention of a French archaeologist, Alfred Foucher, who was visiting India in the early 20th century. Hiuen Tsang had also mentioned that the pagoda stood not too far from the palaces of Kanishka, hence following his footsteps Foucher located its remains at a distance of half a mile East of Peshawer. By that time the structure of the pagoda had turned into a mound and it was not possible for Foucher to dig it out. However, he convinced David B. Spooner of the Archaeological Survey of India to do the job. The mound was dug and a great tower uncovered.  It was ‘larger than any other known pagoda.’ John Marshall evaluated it to be ‘higher than the Washington Monument.’ He also surmised that the tower lasted for three more centuries after the visit of Hiuen Tsang.

Buddha’s ashes, enclosed in a bronze casket that consisted of four charred human bones and some ash, were unearthed from a highly secure chamber beneath the heavy foundation of the tower. “British archaeologists had to sank a shaft down through the stone floor to a depth of twenty feet to reach the chamber…and there in that little stone room, which had been buried from the sight of man for over 2,400 years, they found a bronze casket seven inches high five inches in diameter.” The imagery on its exterior was quite detailed.  A frieze depicting flying geese above the images of Buddha and one image of Kanishka.  The lid had lotus design topped with a Buddha statuette at the center.

The ash and the bones were given to the Burmese monks in a different container whereas the casket is showcased in the Peshawar Museum. Amidst colossal violence and bloodshed going around it day in and day out it is a reminder to the peaceful Buddhist past. Whether it symbolizes the ‘divide and rule’ policy or the Indo-Burmese oneness under the British administrative machinery, it is hard to say. George Orwell, working as an ordinary policeman in that machinery, declared it was “the dirty work of Empire.” Ordinary men and women living in the Empire simply enjoyed the moment, a Bollywood song from those days captures that moment.

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