Gem casting

Hugh & Colleen Gantzer The Economic Times – May 13.

THERE is the image and then there is reality. We braved the image to discover a reality that still casts its spell over us. The image of Myanmar is that of a rigid, military ruled state, full of grey, morose, people. The reality is delightfully different.

We flew into the capital Yangon, which most of the world still knows as Rangoon, from Calcutta, which some people now call Kolkota. We breezed through customs and immigration in their international airport, once they had established that we were travel writers and not political journalists.We drove down clean, disciplined streets to our ship-turned-hotel, berthed on the Yangon river.

The river was a cafe au lait flood, thick and heavy with richness. And carried on its swell, a skiff bobbed past, its boatman standing and rowing with two oars: jerk-creak! Jerk creak! Jerk creak! This was the very first time in our traveling careers that we had lived in one, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Interestingly, most of the staff were gracious young women dressed in western clothes. We checked into our cabin with its attached bathroom, and then unwound on the garden deck.We sipped cool, draft beer nibbled at satay, and listened to a guitarist sing sad country and western songs while the flower scented breeze blew cool air over the open deck.

Later, when we drove out of our ship hotel, and into the capital, we were stopped briefly by a policeman. He set a flag car drive out of a gate and then waved us on. In the car was a senior army officer, but there was no yowling sirens, blackcats, or traffic obstructing convoys.

The old parts of Yangon had tiled and wooden houses with balconies and festoons of bright laundry. Then there were the colonial mansions set in bougainvillaea flaring gardens, and business establishments still breathing a certain imperial grace. Also apartment blocks of the 30s; replicas of Churchgate’s A Road in Mumbai. And inevitably, hawker stalls doing brisk delectable business on the pavement. But everything is cantonment clean: no garbage, no grime,no splattered smears though pan is popular.

So are gems. Shopgirls and wiatresses wear rubies and diamonds on their fingers. Most precious stones from jade to emeralds, sapphires and rubies to diamonds, are apparently mined in Myanmar.These treasures of the earth winked and glittered and scintillated around us as we walked through the Gems museum and the three lower floors run by private jewellers and served by fine boned people like the mythical bird guardians of ancient legend. There are bargains to be had, here.

In the heart of Yangon we ascended the four stage escalator to the hillock of the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was heart stopping, breath catching: a great golden bud encircled by four lesser buds, encircled by still smaller golden buds.

Kipling rightly called it: “A beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.” Devotees prostrated in reverence to the eight enshrined hairs of Lord Buddha; prayed and offered flowers to golden Buddhas serene in silver filigree shrines; radiant against the fractured images of mirror mosaic walls. It is customary to walk anti-clockwise around pagodas in Myanmar. There are many other interesting shrines in Yangon but we were particularly impressed by the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda with its gigantic reclining Buddha filing a hall as vast as a railway station. Then there was the Kaba Aye Pagoda with a museum of the Exaulted. One’s life featuring a rainbow bridge with celestials descending to our Himalayas.

India is not only the Holy Land of all Buddhists, it is also of great historical importance to the countries of South and South East Asia. Many of them were ruled from India during the days of the Raj. In 1886, Myanmar was made a province of India; a year earlier, the Burmese King had been exiled to Ratnagire in India; and in 1858, India’s last Mughal Emperor had been exiled to Rangoon. Grey, rock pigeons rose in a fluttering cloud at the entrance of the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, and his empress, in Yangon. The two men in white skull caps rocked in prayer, and lights shimmered on the gold embroidered chaddar covering the tomb. A portrait of the ascetic looking Emperor hazed and cleared as clouds of incense swept across it like transient memories. Yesterday and today blend effortlessly in Yangon. Responding to globalisation, the Myanmarese have been quick to cash in on the tourist dollar even though their market driven economy is fairly new.

Virtually every beautiful view has a toll contractor ready to extract his viewing fee, and that included the one on the banks of the Royal lake. Here, when sunset glided the Royal Barge on the lake, we watched ethnic dancers and dined in the Royal Garden Restaurant. Their fried sea prawns with dry, red chillies, and Royal Roast Chicken, were delectable. Myanmarese food is very acceptable Burmese dish which is pronounced cowsway in India.Its actual name is Ohn No Khort Syea: noodles of two types, egg and other garnishings, and chicken floating in a gravy thickened with the milk of three coconuts.

Inevitably, like good Indians after a good meal, we went in quest of good shopping. Apart from the Gems Museum, our favourite was the British era Scott Market. Its been renamed the Bogyoke Aungsan Market and we browsed through shops offering silver jewellery more delicate than the silver wire work of Bhuj and Cuttack. There were also boxes, trays, vases and bowls in lacquer, glowing with a soft inner fire, delicately understated. Here too, we spotted some unusual glazed pottery in shades of olive green, burnt umber, teak and coffee brown. Many of them were embellished and embossed with cutout designs and they made unusual presents to take back home. And think – home is only a 1 hour 45 min flight away.

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