Land of golden sands and grand pagodas
Myanmar upholds Buddhist values and a simple lifestyle
By Upali Salgado
A little more than two decades before the historic Norman conquest of England in 1066, the Burmese King Anawartha, remembered for his courage and foresight, unified his nation. Known as Swarna bhoomi (the land of golden sands), since ancient times his empire was named Myanmar. During British colonial days, this land as big as Britain and France joined together, became known as Burma. The Burma of yesteryear, is once again called Myanmar. Myanmar lies between the crossroads of two great ancient civilisations of the east-China and India and borders India and Bangladesh in the far north and Thailand on the east.

Vistas of Myanmar
Human rights activists of the western world today look down upon this great nation ruled by a military government which respects Buddhist values. The military junta knows that if Myanmar is to preserve its traditional Buddhist lifestyles, democratic liberties which bring in their wake individual freedoms of the wild ass have to be bridled.

The writer recently travelled extensively, deep into the heart of Myanmar to picturesque Inlay Lake, a natural fresh water lake, 14 miles long and four miles wide lying 900 metres above sea level - not far from Mandalay. The lake dwellers engage in vegetable cultivation, transporting the produce by a fleet of 30-ft long motorised canoes, to the big cities. A floating market for handicrafts and domestic requirements operates on two days of theweek. Villagers on the banks of the inland lake engage themselves in the age-old traditional industry, weaving, but now with power looms. Their factory is on stilts on the water. Another group engage in prawn fishing. Inlay Lake has its own ancient Buddhist monastery also on stilts.

One is impressed by this disciplined nation, where people though apparently poor, sport contented smiles. This is a country that has preserved the values of a simple lifestyle, while the monks lead pious lives in keeping with their ordination vows.

While most Third World Asian nations are heavily dependent on aid from the World Bank and its agencies to fund economic development, the military government of Myanmar has its own development agenda based on nationalist policies. The Washington dictated open economic policies have been rejected. Instead, the traditional cultural outlook is still in place, without dilution.

Local riches
The modest lungi and jacket are worn by the women and the traditional checked sarong by the men. American fast foods such as hot dogs, the Italian pizza and the Russian vodka remain unknown to the average person. However, the nation is geared for tourism which is thriving. Domestic air flights between Yangon (formerly Rangoon) the capital city, Bagan and Mandalay bring thousands of tourists from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and Germany to hotels of international standards. A fleet of air-conditioned coaches take them inland to see the sights and experience the country.

In recent times, development has been at a steady pace. A network of broad roads (having six lanes extending up to about 50 kilometres) are well lit. The city roads are washed daily at night by the Municipal Fire Brigade. There are no dirty and torn currency notes in circulation. Garbage is removed at night. Vehicles move in a disciplined manner keeping to their own lanes of traffic, and never did I hear the toot of a horn! It is clear that the military government upholds discipline.

Away from the main cities, there are thousands of Buddhist monks who reside in ancient monasteries all built with heavy teak wood. They lead disciplined lives in keeping with the vinaya, and at dawn a long line of monks, young and old, walk the streets with their begging bowls, inviting the laity to offer dhane (Pindapatha). When these monks go out in search of food, I heard no dogs bark to drive them away! The mongrels are tied in the backyards of cottages, whilst at dawn the people stand at their gates to serve food to the monks.

Great stupas
The Buddha's hair relic has been enshrined in the great stupa or pagoda Swedegon at Yangon. This gold-gilded mighty stupa, tall and much like our own Ruwanweliseya, is perched on a hillock and reached by a quarter-mile long escalator. History records that two merchant brothers, Tapassu and Balluka who lived in the Buddha's time, had brought the Master's hair relic for enshrinement and veneration at Swedegon.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country with 90 percent of people being Buddhists. The balance 10 percent comprise Protestant Christians and Muslims. Churches are seen only in towns. It would interest readers that Emperor Asoka of India had sent Buddhist missionaries to Myanmar, in the same way he sent Arahath Mahinda to Lanka. Bagan in the far north, some 340 Km away from Yangon is today a sea of archaeological ruins of the 11th Century. There are over 1,000 stupas in a square area of two miles. Nat worship had been practised in those days, as is evident at Mount Popa, not far from Bagan. The November Poya Vasana rites are observed with great piety by the whole nation.

Lanka-Myanmar ties
Sri Lanka's historic relationship with Myanmar goes back a long way. During the reign of King Vijayabahu I of Sri Lanka (1055-1100 A.C.), monks of Myanmar were brought to re-establish the Buddha Sangha ordination after the Cholas were overthrown. Later, in 1881 Myanmar sought assistance from Lanka to establish their own Theravada Buddhist Lanka sect, which is now flourishing. Pegu, known as Bago, was the centre of Buddhist activity, and this city was then made the capital city of Burma.

The Anglo-Burmese wars of the 19th century did not badly affect Buddhist activities. About 60 years ago, the sixth World Buddhist Council (Sanghayana) was held in Rangoon between 1953-1956, and that helped to revise the Pali Tripitaka with the assistance of scholar monks sent by several countries, including Sri Lanka. Thirteen years before, on June 17, 1940 on Poson poya the beautiful Chuda-manikkya (a Seinbu crystal) gifted by the Buddhists of Burma was installed at the Ruwanweli Maha Seya, Anuradhapura. On that occasion, the Sanghanayake of Burma with a 50-member delegation of Burmese monks chanted Paritta at the moment of crowning the Maha Seya, with the crystal.

Amerapura, the well-known ancient seat of Theravada Buddhism, is located 11 miles north of Mandalay. There are large monasteries where thousands of novice monks receive their training and also study Pali and ancient scriptures. At Mandalay, there is the great Maha Muni Temple. Mandalay is well known for its marble and jade and the sculpture of marble Buddha images is an ancestral cottage industry.

Theravada Buddhist traditions are ingrained in the lives of the people of Myanmar. The large clay pots with pure drinking water left at street corners for the thirsty wayfarer are just one symbol of the people's kindness.

The thousands of gold-gilded Buddha images, sculptured on limestone rock and seen at the famous Pindaya caves, which are 2,000 years old, and the gold-gilded pagodas across the landscape, make this beautiful Buddhist land a wonderful place to visit.

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