Ode to Inle

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

Myanmar Inle Lake by Marc Veraart from Haarlem, Netherlands
Myanmar Inle Lake by Marc Veraart from Haarlem, Netherlands ; This image was originally posted to Flickr by Marc Veraart : Pix Courtesy - Wikipedia

"Mist slowly lifting from emerald water,
Yet it still is mystique,
Distant silhouettes of oriental houses
Gold and golden pagodas, cat pagodas
Lovely water and lovely white birds
Strange boatman rowing with one leg,
Fisherman and fishing bird, side by side
Vegetable gardens afloat and floating houses
Divine yarns, out of the world
Long necked people, smiling people,
Myths of thousands of years
Inle the lake, most charming

A visit to Shan state was in the itinerary of the tour and I have a personal agenda like many other Manipuris, particularly Meiteis. The visit was more enlivened by the presence of many learned people, retired bureaucrats, college teachers etc.

The trip was by road and many of my colleagues and seniors all over the country congratulated me for embarking upon the trip, but the credit should go the K.B. Enterprises and Mr.Shamu (Ta Shamu and I worked in one Department before retirement), the president of the Indo Myanmar Association for organising such an exciting trip.

Today, I shall be accounting only a facet of our trip, trip to Inle Lake of Shan State, which charmed our hearts, we had a lot of discussions about various aspects, beauty and management of the lake. Many people who made the trip to Mandalay earlier were not as fortunate as we and missed Inle. The allure of this lake was so strong, some of them are thinking of making another trip so that they can pay a visit to Shan state and its iconic lake.

Beyond Parkia Landscape: The trip as said above was by road via Tamu, the border township. From Tamu to Mandalay is of five hundred kilometres and takes about 16 hours with stoppage and all and passes through Khampat, Kalewa and Monywa towns. All along the road up to Khampat, on both sides, there were plenty of Parkia Trees in full fruits as mid Marchis right time for maturity of the fruit and the sight was cynosure for the Manipuris particularly the Meiteis. The parkia rows were interrupted by the remnants of Dipterocarps and Teak coppices which are remnants of once luxurious Teak Gurjan Forests.

During my childhood, when I first visited Tamu, on both sides, there were thick forest of Teak and a little inside, very tall trees of Dipterocarps (Khangra and Yangou) were seen. The Teak and Gurjan Forests extended well inside Manipur Territory and Manipur has two recorded forests namely YLWL Sanctuary (earlier Reserved Forests) and Burma Border Teak Bearing Proposed Reserved Forests which extends from Konkhang and Chatrick area to down up to New Somtal area and beyond with similar vegetation.

Hence, Manipur is often regarded as eastern limit of natural Teak in India. The Parkia has a wide distribution in South East Asia and different species are available. The common tree bean, the Yongchak of Manipur is also said to be found in Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia.

However, the Parkia that is found in Tamu to Khampat region is very similar to that of the variety found in Manipur and it is said that in late nineteenth century, it was planted with seeds from Manipur. All along the roadside we saw bunches of the fruit being carried in bicycles, Motor bikes, tempos etc. in terms of hundreds of thousands bunches towards Moreh, the border township towards Manipur for transport next day to Imphal.

A little beyond Khampat area and before Kale, once the Parkia zone is over, the landscape seems to be much drier, and at least viewed from the roadside, there was no sign of thick forests which was once the main resource of Myanmar. Up to a great distance, the roadsides were filled with Prosopis and Leucaena. There were thick groves of fan palms (Borassus species), Myanmaris famous for its palm leaf records including chronicles.

The Getaway: The City of Mandalay is getaway for many people from all over the world.Mandalay is the melange of old and new, set up in mid nineteenth century near its old capital of Amarapura and Inwa. Like any other great old city, Mandalay has a myth which says that during the visit of Buddha to a disciple, he prophesied that in the 2400th year of the religion (Buddhism), a great metropolis of Buddhism shall be founded here and king Mindon Min fulfilled the holy prophesy. The Mandalay Palace is wonderful piece of oriental architecture.

The name Mandalay sounds exotic and is regarded as mystery city to a foreigner with so many pagodas.In fact King Mindon ordered building of 700 pagodas. So, Mandalay is also known as City of Pagodas. With so many pagodas, the city seems to be a city out of dreams. The country was closed to the world for a long time and with cultural barriers, it was regarded as an alien land, but not now. The ancient capital not so far off, (21km), the elements of antiquity are seen in many of its culture and architecture. The city was named after the Mandalay Hills, a centre of Buddhist Monks.

The pair of huge Sinthey at the foot of the hill reminds one of our own Kanglasha. The city is also known as Yadnabon, shortened form from "Ratanapunna" a classical name of the precious city. Though, the city has a mystique look, the Theravada sect of Buddhism do not have the Tantric element, the degree of mysticism is less here than that of Tibet and Ladakh. Not only the urban Mandalay, in the outskirts, the landscapes are of Pagodas, important among them are Mahamuni Pagoda, the Kaunghmodaw Pagoda, Kuthodaw, ShweKyaung etc.

The Yandabo Village, up to which British army is said to have come during first Anglo Burmese War resulting in the Burmese signing the Treaty of Yandabo is also said to be not far off (of course Yandabo was not in our itinerary). The list could be endless as getaway on tour.

The Innwa capital was abandoned after it was struck by the Great Earthquake of 1839 and capital moved to Amrapura in 1841. However, King Mindon of Konbaung Dynasty the founder of Mandalay set up the capital in the present location with the aim of fortifying the capital from British reach as the Burmese have lost two wars with British, the first in 1824-1826 and second in 1852 and the British was in occupation of Tenessarim and Pegu region with their headquarters at Rangoon (present day Yangon).

In fact, King Mindon acquired the throne in a palace revolt after the 2nd Anglo Burmese war from his half brother Pagan Min. King Mindon Min tried his best to protect the country. He was a great king and introduced many reforms. His son Thibaw Min could no longer keep British at bay and country fell in to British hands in 1885. As Innwa and later,Amrapura and Mandalay had been capital of the country and as such the connectivity with other parts is good.

It is also more centrally located, the Irrawady and Chindwin provides for water transport also. Now, the road connectivity is quite good with many developed countries and China making offers of developing it. So, Mandalay can also be a gateway to Myanmar, making it an ideal base in any tour itinerary.

On way to Inle: Inle is at a distance of 260 km from Mandalay, 275 km from Naypyi Taw (the new capital of Myanmar) and 580 km from Yangon. The route from Mandalay is partly hilly and partly plain. The road was by and large good except a few stretches of bad patches. We left Mandalay at around 1 pm and by 5 pm we were in to Shan territory and reached Nyaungshwe at about 9 pm.

The journey was actually not this long, but we were delayed on the way by a long procession of novice ordination, an important Buddhist ritual common in Thailand and Myanmar. It is somewhat similar to that of sacred thread ceremony of Indian Hindus, though the style of celebration and rites are different.

The novice ordination or the novitiation is the most important ceremony to be carried out by a Myanmarese father for a son. The Myanmar people are staunch Buddhist. The initiation as novice has to be done before 20 years of age. The boy on this day is dressed in best of dresses and like a prince (like Rahul, son of Gautam Buddha did before his ordination) and the family members would come in a procession to the pagoda. AsI visited Mahamuni Pagoda in the morning of that day which happened to be an auspicious day, I saw many families coming for first part of novitiation in the pagoda.

Mahamuni Pagoda is a famous pagoda and the gold statue of Buddha is believed to have been imbued with sacred blessings by the Buddha himself. The ceremony of novitiationis called Shinbyu in Myanmar. By the evening all the families joined and together, took out a long procession, the young novices taken on decorated horses, horse chariots, bullock chariots and all with golden umbrella. This was the procession we encountered on the way to Inle. That day we were fortunate to see miles of golden umbrellas along Mandalay Inle Road. Shinbyu is practised by the Shans also.

The Shan State

The Shan state is a plateau, like Manipur. It got its name from its people, theShansthough they actually call themselves Tai or Dai. The word 'Shan' is said to have been derived by the British from Siam. Like many other ethnic peoples, the Shans were driven out of their home in South and central China by the Tartars, and they migrated to South-East Asia. They settled in Myanmar, but later Myanmar kings drove them out of the north to the northern mountains. The Shans also settled in the north of Thailand, the Hanoi region of Vietnam, India's Assam and the Chinese province of Yunnan.

The present Shan state of Myanmar is quite large in extent forming almost a fourth of the country. At one stage in the history, the Shan area extended up to Assam and Thailand, parts of China and Laos. The similarities between Shan people and Manipuris have been matter of study by many experts,the racial, temperamental, food and costumes to name a few. Linguistic similarity is also quite noticeable.

The landscape is highly similar due to similarity in altitude and vegetation. The presence of pines among the vegetation in the higher hills gives the feeling that one is travelling in any of the hilly districts of Manipur, of course the pagodas are reminder of the fact that one is in Myanmar.

In the past due to proximity to the golden triangle and presence of KMT warlords in the nearby areas (driven out from China), Opium cultivation was common but now it seems to be under control, though our guide used to warn us not venture out late at night to be safe from addicts. In Manipur also, opium cultivation has been a problem for the government and this adds to another simialrity.

To be continued.....

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on 29 April, 2018 .

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