Kunal Sinha, September 2013.
The port city of Mawlamyine, at the mouth of the Than Lwin river, was the first capital of British Myanmar, between 1826 and 1852. Even though he wrote about the city in his poem ‘Road to Mandalay’, “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea, there’s a Myanmar girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me,” Rudyard Kipling never set foot here. The novelist George Orwell, on the other hand, had a far stronger relationship with the city. His mother’s family came from Moulmein; he himself arrived in 1926 and underwent training with the Myanmar Police Force.
I am writing this from a room at Hotel Cinderella in Mawlamyine. For part of this road trip to what is now the capital of Mon state, we sped along the new six lane highway that goes all the way to Myanmar’s new administrative capital Naypyitaw. Then the road veered off into the lush tropical countryside and hills, past homes on stilts and flooded paddy fields. The 160 kilometre journey took about five hours, including a stop for lunch, and then we crossed the Than Lwin bridge and arrived in a city which is marked by a curious mix of faiths and cultures.
As would be expected, Mawlamyine’s skyline is pierced by spires of golden Buddhist pagodas. The Kyike Than Lan Pagoda, erected in 875 A.D. during the reign of King Mutpi Raja, stands high atop a ridge, a famous pilgrimage centre as well as the best place to get a panoramic view of the hills, harbor, river and the city itself. The Mahamuni Pagoda was built by Seindon Mibaya-gyi, a prominent Queen of King Mindon from Mandalay; and houses a replica of the Mahamuni image at Mandalay. The town centre is dotted by Gopurams – signs of a community that migrated from south India in the early and mid 18th century, as traders and rubber plantation workers. There are at least a dozen churches, representing Jesuit, Anglican and Baptist denominations; and the Holy Family Church is particularly grand. There is a functioning Gurdwara, though I didn’t see any Sikhs; and right opposite our hotel, there was a Rani Sati Temple, built in 1942 by a family from Bikaner. Near the waterfront, I spied the Kaladan Mosque, for Sunni Muslims; not far away, the Surati Sunni Jamae Masjid amidst the marketplace on Lower Main Road.
With all that religious diversity, it was only to be expected that the food would be as much a smorgasbord of tastes and flavors. I had khau swey and grilled fish redolent with fresh spices at the Only Thai restaurant, even though my local travellers warned me that authentic khau swey could only be had in Shan state. The May South Indian Chetty Restaurant on Strand Road served up rice, sambar, rasam and fiery chicken and mutton curries. For two consecutive nights, I dined at a streetside stall, where the keema curry was as reminiscent of Kolkata’s Metiabruz , as the rotis were soft; and the Hindi-speaking owner waited solicitously over us. He also had dosa on the menu. The bill: no more than 3 US dollars. After the meal, I stopped to tuck in gulabjamun and balushahi barely 100 metres from my hotel.
Meanwhile, the locals are in no hurry to give up their traditions. Women and children continue to apply thanaka, the yellowish-white bark paste to their faces: it serves as astringent, mosquito repellent, sunscreen and prevents acne. The longyi remains the preferred attire, even as Giordano has made its appearance on the high street. Mendicants from the monastic school go around collecting rice and fruit just before lunch time: that no child ever goes hungry is a testimony to the charity and kindness of a people who stay proud as they emerge from nearly three decades of military rule.