Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/From Rangoon


Any Englishman, bent on visiting a Buddhist Cathedral, or desirous of seeing, in a small space, a vast mixture of races, and of hearing a vast confusion of tongues, may, with advantage, spend a day or two in Rangoon.

Leaving the comfortable little steamer of the Calcutta and Burmah Company, which has brought you thither from the metropolis of British India, and landed you on the Custom-house wharf, you will not have far to go before you will have been introduced to Burmese, Karens, Chinese, Jews, Mahometans, Hindoos, Madrassees, and Parsees. Seeking further, you will find Europeans of all classes and creeds; English, Scotch, Irish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Swedes, Italians, and many a mixture of one or more of all these. Of Yankees, also, there is a fair sprinkling. Rangoon is not badly situated for attracting these multifarious specimens of humanity. This town is situated on a noble river, itself one of the outlets of the great river of Burmah, about twenty-five miles from its junction with the sea, on whose blue depths the river leaves its muddy impress for many a mile,—not merely discolouring the water, but blocking up its own entrance with the mud which, free of all freight, it deposits there every hour of every day. The wary little skippers of the afore-mentioned steamers love not the entrance to the Rangoon River after sunset, and the pilots have a hard time of it in the south-west Monsoon.

But we suppose you to have passed Elephant Point, and the Hastings Shoal, and to be all safe on terra firma, even “the Strand” of Rangoon, along which you are now starting for a walk. It is not crowded equally with its London namesake, but still it is fairly filled just now with a motley group of pig-tailed Chinese, turbaned Moguls, tatooed Burmese, and chimney-hatted Parsees, to one and all of whom the advent of a steamer is an event, and not to be missed coute qui coute. Open, then, both eyes and ears: though, undoubtedly, you must possess the gift of tongues to understand all you hear. To the unmusical Tamil succeeds the saw-sharpening sound of Chittagong Hindustani. With the vociferations of a Burmese lady, to whose remarkable dress crinoline has not yet imparted elegance, are blended the pitiless rejoinders of her Chinese helpmate. For your Chinese is a citizen of the world, and altogether ignores the Malthusian doctrines on population. He takes up with things as he finds them, and with wives also. He sees his way far more speedily than Mr. Brisket. He comes to Rangoon, and there he settles, in the full spinster acceptation of that word, without keenly regretting the love that his Chinese wife may bear to her own country. The west-end of the Strand, and China-street, are full of Chinese shop-keepers thus settled; some of them, moreover, exceedingly well to do, carrying on a brisk trade with the neighbouring ports of Moulmein, Penang, and Singapore; and most of them industrious, hard-working fellows, who, with especial reference to their intercourse with Englishmen, have invented a sort of China-English language, applying many English words in a way that would astonish the Dean of Westminster, and absolutely scare the ghost of dear old Sam Johnson.

The modern town of Rangoon extends for about two miles on the left bank of the river. It has been regularly laid out, its streets all running north, with one or two main thoroughfares, running east and west, parallel to the river, the principal thoroughfare being named after Lord Dalhousie, the founder of the town, as it at present is. Beyond the precincts of the town, and to the north, lies the Cantonment, which stretches out beyond the celebrated Pagoda to the uncleared and beautifully-wooded country beyond. The Queen’s 68th Regiment, and a native Madras regiment, are now stationed there.

There is as little to be said of the modern town as of that which it succeeds. This was founded in 1753, by Alompra, king of Burmah. When this town was first taken by the British, in 1824, it was little more than a collection of wooden huts, raised on piles, and covered with leaf-thatching. Since the re-conquest of Rangoon, in 1852, and its occupation by the British, the town has been re-built more than once; as, on a fire breaking out—and fires in Rangoon have been the rule—there was positively nothing to prevent its continuance so long as any of the aforesaid wooden huts remained to be burnt. These very substantial edifices are now happily retreating more into the back-ground; the residences of European merchants, and the shops of Chinese and Moguls, are gradually rising; and, by consequence of an order, which, in the chief thoroughfares, prohibits the erection of wooden houses covered with leaf-thatch, fires are now not of weekly recurrence.

Turning from the Strand, in a northerly direction, along China-street, you soon see the Pagoda, and proceeding about a couple of miles, you find yourself at the principal entrance to the Pagoda platform, reached by a long ascent, partly of steps, and partly of well-worn earth.

Of this most curious building, one ought to know something before visiting it, though but very little is really known: the truth, amidst the nonsense, of Burmese legends, being, as in Gratiano’s speech, the two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff. There is no doubt, however, that the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, of Rangoon, is one of the most celebrated objects of worship, or veneration, in all the Indo-Chinese countries. It is simply one enormous mass of masonry, of the form of a conical pyramid, rimmed round, and ascending in a slightly curved line, that adds grace and lightness to the shape, to the height of 320 feet from the platform, on which its enormous base stands. It is supposed to be built, by every Buddhist, over the relics of the last Buddh, Gaudama, amongst which relics are four hairs of that sage’s head. Over these invaluable relics was first erected a small Pagoda, and the date assigned to this first structure is about the year B.C. 588. But unfortunately for the accuracy of this date, one can hear nothing more of this Pagoda for about 2,000 years, as it was not till A.D. 1446, and again in A.D. 1501, that the original structure, if structure there was, appears to have been added to. Nor can we find any authentic account of it, till the reign of Her Most Gracious Majesty Sheng-tsau-boo, who flourished (let us hope) at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII. was thinking what he should do, when he succeeded to the throne. During this queen’s reign the Pagoda was enlarged by, as is probable, the addition of fresh layers, over any former structure there may have been there. But the Pagoda, as it now is, was not completed till the reign of Tshen-phyoo-sheng, the son of Alompra; as in his reign the Htee, or cap, was placed upon the top, A.D. 1768. To every successive stage, or story, in the building, is assigned its own peculiar name; the base, or plinth, is called the Bhe-nat-dau; then come three different pits-tsaya’s; the circular frame is Kyé-waing; the bell-shaped portion, also divided into three parts, is called Khaung-laung; the umbrella-shaped cap, Htee; and the very highest point of the spire is Tsein-phoo, or Diamond bud. From Bhe-nat-dau up to Tsein-phoo, it is gilded; but the ardent sun and heavy rains of Rangoon have considerably dimmed the lustre of the outer coating; and, unfortunately, the cost of re-gilding it is no trifle.

To see this building to advantage, you should first visit it just before sunset, in order to have the full view of the surrounding country from the platform; and then stay on, either alone, or with one or two companions “slow to speak,” till the moon (which had better be at the full) has risen, and lights up the countless images of the Buddhist shrines and the enormous pyramid of the Pagoda. You will not forget the sight, though you live to the age of Old Parr. On first reaching the platform, the setting sun will gild afresh for your special behoof the solid conical mass that towers up before you, at a considerably less cost than it could be done with earthly material. It will also light up the whole view stretching out east and south towards the sea, and make the very pretty Pagoda, about ten miles from where you are standing, glisten again like a diamond. North and west it will gleam over the foliage of myriads of forest trees that no living hand planted, and that no living wight cares for, save the owners of the pine-apple plantations that here and there are spread out under the kindly shade of the trees. Of these pine-apple plantations one may observe, just while the sun is setting, that they cover hundreds of acres in the neighbourhood of Rangoon. In May the fruit is ripe, and the finest pine-apples are sold in the market for about a halfpenny. First rate, too, they are. Not perhaps equal in flavour to a Chatsworth pine; but yet not much inferior, and their extraordinary abundance and cheapness teaches you to eschew all but the finest specimens of the fruit. A plantation once made requires scarcely the slightest attention. Often they are not even enclosed by the commonest bamboo fence. The fruit is too plentiful to be worth the trouble of stealing!

But now the moon gives her full light. Moreover there is a slight sea-breeze. Listen, then, and you will hear the distant sound of bells, coming as it might come over Salisbury Plain from a distant flock of sheep. The sound is now caused by the breeze ringing the little bells that are affixed to the htee of the Pagoda spire. Not unmusical are they either: and if—avoiding all companionship just now—you wander round the base of this singular structure, you may dream away an hour or two very pleasantly. What a wondrous religious system is this of Buddhism, in one of whose most sacred cathedrals you are now strolling. Coming from Ceylon, and spreading itself as it has done over so many millions of human minds: gathering into its toils Chinese, Nepaulese, Thibetans, Burmese, Arracanese: why, its sway extends over nearly one-quarter of the human race—let us say 300,000,000!

And here, in one of its chief seats, the full round moon is lighting up hundreds of images of the type so well known, representing Gaudama, the last Buddh: each image different, yet each with all the unchanging monotony of complete vacuity of expression. The artists appear to have tried to copy, in these images of Gaudama, the expressionless features of Burmese beauty; and, excuse us, ye lords of creation in Burmah, in saying, that your wives and daughters are surely not handsome; and that of all civilised womankind from Cairo to Pekin, we are inclined to reckon your ladies as the most destitute of either beauty of form or loveliness of expression. Your admirers, in endeavouring to impart to the imaged Gaudama all your grace and perfection, have not contrived to make a very attractive idol. To say the truth, it is rather a relief to turn from your prototype to some grotesque and hideous dæmon-Nath, as he stands a kind of guardian at some holy threshold.

Who and what is Gaudama, whose image thus meets you at every step you take round the Dagon Pagoda—each dzedee harbouring scores of his statues, with the soft light of the moon bringing out his most unattractive features? Is he, in Buddhist thought, a god, a demon, or a man? Ah, you may well ask. The answer is, Gaudama is, or rather was, a mere man, who, by the practice of all virtue, attained the highest point of perfection that human being can ever reach. But, if this be all, why this infinity of statues which the Buddhist unquestionably venerates with a deeply religious feeling? Is the honour he pays to them an act, strictly speaking, of worship, or merely the outward symbol of his gratitude that such a man ever lived on earth? Ask the Buddhist, and he will tell you that Gaudama is full of benevolence; wishes to deliver them out of their miseries, and help them to obtain the state of Niban, which, if construed into English, can hardly be more literally translated than by the words “existent annihilation.” Yet, in the same breath, he will tell you he expects no assistance from Gaudama, inasmuch as long since all his interference with this world’s affairs ceased; that he sees no one, hears no prayer, and can afford no help, either here on earth, or in any other state of existence—in short, that he wishes them good, but is powerless to ensure it in the slightest degree whatsoever.

Yes, you may well dream away a moon-lit hour on the Pagoda platform, meditating on so barren and lifeless a creed as this, with the sage’s white statues glimmering at you on all sides; now staring you boldly out of countenance; now peeping at you from under the dark shade of some noble tamarind-tree, with the distant sound of the bells from aloft; and now also, carried on the breeze from the mess-house of Her Majesty’s 68th Regiment, comes the old familiar air of “God save the Queen,” played as few other bands can play it, which, as it finishes their after-dinner performance, reminds you that it is time to seek your hospitium, and dream beneath the musquito curtains of the Pagoda and its saint.

In a few days after your evening visit, you will be morally certain to have a Burmese holy-day; and then, as you have seen the sun set from the Pagoda platform, go and see it rise. You will also see, rising along each thoroughfare that leads to the great centre of attraction, not tens nor hundreds only, but thousands of men, and women, and little children, clad in all hues and shades—a sort of walking tulip-bed it looks, as one watches their approach—the greater number of women and children with their baskets of offerings (offerings to whom, or to what?) composed of rice, cocoa-nut, plantains, flowers, small flags, tawdry streamers of cloth or of paper, small wax candles, incense, and such like. In a short time the enormous terrace, so dreamy and melancholy at night, will be so densely crowded, that you might walk along the heads of the worshippers, if such they may be called. But truly the Burmese appear to spell the word holy-day in the more modern English way, an i and a y instead of two y’s. There is a Babel sound of tongues, many a peal of honest laughter, and very little of the outward forms of worship. Were you uncharitably disposed, you might think those variegated garments, in which the younger ladies disport themselves, were not put on solely in honour of the saint whose images look down upon them. No, indeed; and were that excellent man still living, it is just possible he might not altogether approve of this gay assemblage round the base of this sacred building. For the rules enjoined upon his disciples with respect to the female sex are somewhat stringent. When one of them asked him how the Rahan, or priestly candidate, should conduct himself, when women resorted to their monastery, the sage answered:—

“Let the Rahan keep the door fast, and never so much as look at them.”

“But suppose,” the disciple urged, “they come to bring food to the inmates of the monastery?” (the monastic Buddhist priests being strictly a mendicant order).

The reply is, “Even then receive their food; but not their words. Much better to converse with one who, sword in hand, threatened to cut off your head if you spoke, than to speak to them.”

“But,” pursued the indefatigable disciple, “what if they come for religious instruction, or spiritual counsel, must the Rahan then be silent? Will they not say that Rahan is deaf, or too well fed, and therefore he cannot, or will not, speak?”

The sage, thus driven into a corner, replied:

“When on such special occasions a Rahan must speak, let him consider as his mothers, or his sisters, the elder women, and as his children the younger women.”

It is probably in accordance with these rules that the Phoonghees, or Buddhist priests, in their saffron-coloured garments and with shaven heads, are not generally seen on the Pagoda platform at these holy-day gatherings. If you would see them, you need but to walk along any street of the town in the early morning, as they go on their rounds to collect the voluntary contributions for the day’s meals. Each Phoonghee is fortified with a respectably sized wooden lacquered box; empty when he starts, and well filled before his return. It must be a curious mélange when the box is filled—curds, spice, rice, vegetables, fruit; but the mendicants seem to thrive well on what they get, and look as though their food thoroughly agreed with them. They never vouchsafe one word of thanks when the largest dish of rice is tossed into their box. They honour the giver by their acceptance of his gift; and, what is still more to the point, the giver appreciates the honour thus conferred.

Well-knit, muscular fellows are many of our Burmese subjects; but indolent in the extreme. Never to do to-day what may be done to-morrow is their maxim; and it is a maxim which rarely answers. To the European, however, they are more attractive than the races of Hindustan: far less cringing, more open and more English in their habits. Like the native of India, the Burman, male or female, is an inveterate smoker: and cheroots are the form in which the weed is taken. A Burmese will smoke whilst he works or walks, which no native of Bengal or northern India ever dreams of doing. It does not increase the attractiveness of Burmese women, in European eyes, to see a half-consumed cheroot stuck into their ear-ornament, which is shaped something like a thimble, or a thimble with the end off, and is inserted into the lobe of the ear. Even when not used as a cheroot-holder, and even when made, as is not unfrequently the case, of gold, this remarkable kind of ear-ring, or ear-tube, is singularly unbecoming. Their dress, moreover, is neither ornamental nor useful. It consists of a vest just covering the bosom, which article of clothing is frequently dispensed with. The skirt of the dress is a square piece of fancy-coloured cloth, or variegated silk, carried once round the body and fastened at the hips, where it is folded over so as to be double. Their heads are always bare, with the hair combed completely off the forehead to the back of the head; and all—both front and back hair—gathered into one large knot behind. The poorer classes have their feet bare whilst at work; but, when in holy-day costume, they wear sandals with the thong passing between the great toe, and its next neighbour. The women work harder than the men—a fact of which the latter are fully cognisant, and of which they fully approve.

Except the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, there are no lions at Rangoon.

The place is yet in its infancy, and, under the careful management of its Chief Commissioner, may grow into a thriving part of a province, the resources of which are, as yet, almost wholly unknown. The climate of Rangoon is unquestionably most healthy—superior to that of well nigh any town in India; and if good sanitary regulations are enforced with unswerving strictness, and the drainage of the town, which, from the lowness of the river-bank is a work of considerable difficulty, can but be thoroughly carried out, Rangoon may, at some future date, almost rival in its trade—as it will certainly surpass in its salubrity—any one of the presidency cities.

About two miles from the Custom House wharf, in a small wooden house, under a guard of Her Majesty’s 68th Regiment, the last of the Mogul emperors is ending his weary, useless life. Look in as you pass the house. The old man is completely bed-ridden; but, even yet, if you can quote him a couplet or two from the “Gulistan,” you will confer upon him as much pleasure as he is capable of receiving: for the best that can be said about him is, that he was once a bit of a poet. His favourite Begum shares his easy captivity, and also two of his sons, so-called, in whose features and whose bearing, you will in vain seek the slightest patent of noble birth. Is that old man, you ask, the king that the Mahometans of northern India willed should rule over them?—Are these the recognised descendants of Baber and Akbar, and Aurungzeb?—Surely there must be some mistake? No, not in the least. Here is he who sat on the Peacock throne. Here are they who once walked through marble halls. And a precious set they are! You would not fight for them; nor I, either. Still, incredulous visitor, there are thousands who would, if they had but a chance; who would be delighted with the anarchy that would inevitably follow, could that old man, or one of those precious lads, again mount that Peacock throne. Therefore, O Secretary of the Chief Commissioner, to whose too merciful care those slayers of the white faces are consigned, keep them close, and stand no nonsense.

You, the chance visitor, may well spare a sigh as you think of the strange reverses brought about by the fickle jade, called Fortune. No doubt, as you look at the old man, there will rise up before you visions of the Delhi Palace, where once he lorded it, in a sort of way, and played his part. You see the red battlemented walls, and that vast quadrangle; that glorious Amm-i-khass, so perfect in its proportions, so faultless in its taste; those fairy-like apartments which, if their beautifully inlaid walls could speak, would have dismal tales to tell of every vice that has degraded man, and every misery that has wrung the heart of woman; those pleasant gardens with their summer-houses looking on to the lazy Jumna, and you may fancy seeing this old man, by whose bed-side you are just now moralising, strolling along those pleasant glades, watching the fire-flies as they sparkled by, and discussing with some courtier friend the last Cashmere-imported beauty or his own last Persian sonnet. Yes, they must have been rather different scenes that were spread out before this old man, at twenty years old, to those which you look on now out of his window—the Rangoon parade-ground and the iron church; or, turning towards the north, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda.

The chief attraction Rangoon presents to the families of Europeans residing there, is its beautiful jungle rides, whilst the well-known Burmah ponies—warranted, like Cambridge hacks, though fortunately with more truth, never to cease going—are the means of enjoying these pleasant rides. Think, then, Cornhill inhabitant, whose highest flight is a ride on thy hard-earned hack in Hyde Park or Clapham Common, of the delight of mounting a strong active pony, standing just thirteen and a-half hands high, and a thorough little beauty, at half-past five o’clock, a.m., just three-quarters of an hour before sunrise; and scampering—if it be your will—through ten, twenty, thirty miles of noble forest trees, many of them one vast bouquet of lilac, white, or yellow flowers. But go not alone, for it is not good for man to take the pleasantest ride in total solitude.

There are some good men at Rangoon, brave and honest, and gallant and true, whose companionship is worth your having—nay, if you would have a pleasant ride, and make a day of it, there are not a few fair specimens of your country-women who can ride a half score of miles, and, thanks to the healthy climate, be in no way fatigued. Invite some of them to join your party, and start, having sent forward as your couriers, two or three well-packed hampers. Then, after the ride has sharpened your appetite, investigate—under the spreading shade of some noble banyan-tree, or in some friendly kyoun, where the yellow-robed Phoonghee will greet you with all hospitality—what those hampers may contain. If you spend not a pleasant day you certainly ought never to have come to visit Rangoon.