Yangon the erstwhile capital town of Myanmar is place with rich history, heritage and cultural. It is where the Indian and Chinese culture meet and influence the native Burmese culture. Being an important port town in 19th century, it attracted traders from all over the world including the East India Company, which ruled it till 1948. During the British rule, Yangon became predominantly a commercial hub and Indians ruled the trade and business and this Indian influence is still visible all over Yangon. Street-29 off Maha Bandoola Road in downtown Yangon is one such stretch, where many buildings and structure tell the story of Indian influence.
It is believed that films and movies are the true reflection of time they are produced. A 1949 Indian bollywood film Patanga had a Song – Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon, which confirms that India and Burma had deep rooted engagement. This popular song captures the jovial emotions of the wife when she gets a telephone call from his husband, who has gone to Ragoon (Yangon). The song and the movie capture the essence of those times when people used to travel freely and frequently while under British Rule cultural exchanges between two countries were at its peak. But then later, much more happened which changed the equations forever.
Mass Indian Exodus From Burma
Ethnic Indians formed a backbone of British Burma and assimilated well with native Burmese since their first emigration in 19th century. However, some unfortunate ultra-nationalistic movements and ethnic purging forced Indians to leave Burma.
The first such exodus happened in 1930s when first anti-Indian riots began leading up to the separation of British Burma from British India. First generation Indians rose to prominence and occupied prime positions during British rule and hence came under the fire from Burmese nationalists. Many other economical reasons further fueled this racial animosity. Anti-Hindu riots forced first chunk of Indians to leave Burma.
The second mass exodus which is known in the annals of history as a forgotten long march of 1942 took place during Japanese invasion. Due to this invasion, Britishers were forced to leave and Indians became easy targets of native populations. Under panic, Indian from Yangon and Mandaley gathered whatever they could and followed a treacherous path on foot to India through upper Burma following the course of Irrawaddy and then crossing over the mountains separating Manipur with Burma. During this exodus around half a million Indians left the country, thousands died en route and remaining took shelter in refugee camps on India sites. unfortunately, some are still there.
After the end of World War II, British declared Burma independent in 1948 and with them many Indians left Yangon but still around a million chose to stay back but under the new constitution were denied citizenship. After 1962 military coup, General Ne Win took an ultra-nationalistic view and ordered expulsion of Indians and their businesses were nationalized, which led to the last large scale exodus of another half a million Indians from Burma, mostly from Yangon.
A Stroll Through 29th Street – A Mini India In Yangon
During my solo travel to Myanmar, I had a short stay of less than 48 hours in Yangon. I, fortunately, met a trickshaw (Burmese Rickshaw) rider who was ethnic Indian and this fortunate happenstance made me to unearth Indian Influence on today’s Yangon.
After seeing all heritage building along Strand Road and Merchant Road, I was dropped at the building of Yangon Stock Exchange. There, I saw few girls in Indian dress that instigated my curiosity and I took the 29th street on foot. Soon, I realized the complete street had Indian connections in abundance. It had Indian dress shop, Indian sweet shops, Hindu temple, Jain temple, an old press building with crumbling facade, office of an Indian trading house, old-styled barber shops, Indian houses with Ganesha placed above the door, Indian jewelry shop, multiple restaurants serving Indian food and much more. Facade of these building was crumbled but still radiated the story of glory days when Indians were rich and wealthy dominating commercial and administrative scene of Yangon.
My visit coincided with an important Hindu Festival – Sharad Poornima and that made the scene little more vibrant and colorful. I entered Shri Satyanarayan Mandir and chatted with head priest and some other Hindu families. They, in fact, invited me to celebrate the festival with them. In this temple, they run a school to teach Indian languages and other cultural aspects to the young generation. I even met some native non- hindu Burmese visiting the temple and while talking to them, I was told that Hindu Gods like Ganesha and Laxmi were revered by all.
For me 29th street is an affirmation and a symbol of cultural assimilation where ethnic Indian and Burmese stand together and live together as it was really hard to differentiate them. On this small stretch, one can find a Hindu temple, one magnificent Jain temple, a Mosque and a Buddhhist temple standing strong symbolizing the human tolerance. This is the heart of the Indian quarter, with Hindu and Muslims communities living peacefully together as both once faced the anguish of native population. The scattering of Burmese Buddhist and Chinese families also make the mix more cosmopolitan.
Yangon Heritage List
29th street houses many buildings with Indian influence which are a part of Yangon Heritage List such as Sri Satyanarayan Temple, Jain Temple and Cholia Mosque. The list also includes nearby buildings such as Mughul Shia Mosque, Bengali Kali temple, India House, Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar etc. that again confirms the important role Indians played during British Burma.
During my visit to Myanmar and specially Yangon, I had many heart warming incidences which touched me to the core. Burmese love Indians, Indian movies and Indian food for they believe their forefather came from India. I met two cab drivers and both of them kept the photographs of Indian Gods in their car as lucky charm to seek regular blessings. I met a young girl, who after knowing my background, showed me movies clips on her mobile to know the name of Indian actors. I met Buddhist monks who embraced me tightly as I was from India – the land of Buddha.
You can force Indians out of Burma but you can oust Indian influence from Burmese culture. Historically, like other countries of Southeast Asia, Myanmar grew under the spell of Indian influences. Thanks to resilient monks, priests, kings, artists, and later traders under British rule, the Indian culture spread into Burma in last many centuries; the spread of Buddhism directly from India was major turning point of Indo-Burmese relationship that profoundly influenced all aspects of Burmese life. As the cradle of Buddhism, India has deep influence on various cultural and traditional rituals of Burmese Budhhists. Many Hindu traditions are performed during ceremonies like wedding, house warming and other festivals. Kings of Burma used to take royal titles after Indian Gods.
While planning to explore Yangon, my prime focus was to visit Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Shwedagon Pagoda. However, Yangon Downtown and specially 29th Street just happened to me and blew me over. Being an India, I felt proud of every moment I spent there with a hope that one day Indo-Burma relation would restore to pre-colonial level.
If you feel motivated, please share this blog post with your loved ones so that they can break the mundane cycle of everyday life and explore the world.