BY RAJIV MALIK, YANGON
YANMAR REMAINS A COUNTRY with strong control of the press. I was able to enter on an official journalist’s visa only because Hinduism Today was unexpectedly invited to attend the International Press Institute World Congress in Yangon. As the theme of the March 27-29, 2015, government-endorsed conference was “On the Path to a Free Media,” our request for a journalist visa to cover Hinduism in the country following the congress was graciously granted—with strategic help from congress organizers. The event brought together publishers, editors and senior journalists from more than 65 countries to discuss press freedom at this crucial point in history as Myanmar transitions from military rule to democracy.
THOMAS L KELLY
Temple styles: Girls selling jasmine garlands for the Deity at Shri Muneeshwaran Siva temple
After the informative meeting, I was joined by Nepal-based photographer Thomas L. Kelly, who was especially interested in the large community of Nepalese now living in Myanmar. Together we spent nearly two weeks traveling through the country, visiting areas with concentrated Hindu populations.
Inquiries through the offices of India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh led us to an affiliated organization, the Sanatan Dharma Swayamsewak Sangh, Myanmar’s most prominent national Hindu body. Their chief coordinator, Professor Ram Niwas, helped to arrange meetings with key Hindus across the nation. He also provided one of the SDSS youth leaders, Shekhar, to serve as translator, because most Hindus here are more fluent in Burmese than their ancestral language—an issue of great concern to the elders, we learned.
Map of Myanmar and surrounding countries
While our head office in Hawaii sought out contacts and sources for Myanmar, we were struck by how little is known about Myanmar by Hindus in India. The RSS seemed to be the only major Hindu organization with any interest at all in the country. After the Ramakrishna Mission was ejected in the 1960s and its temple and hospital seized by the government, it decided not to return. In the entire country, there is not a single Hindu sadhu or swami, either Myanmar-born or sent from India.
Hinduism Today correspondent Rajiv Malik, far right, at the International Press Institute meeting on freedom of the press in Yangon
In stark contrast, the country has 800,000 Buddhist monks vigorously promoting their religion through temples, pagodas, vihars and public preaching sessions. Yangon’s walls are filled with posters and banners of the popular Buddhist monks announcing their talks. Hindus here live immersed in an ocean of Buddhism.
We saw hundreds of young Burmese boys, and some girls, dressed as monks and bhikshunis and accompanied by their families in traditional outfits on their way to the various spectacular Buddhist temples. The children were about to commence a period of monastic life lasting ten days to several months during their school summer vacation. Every family is keen for their children to have this experience, and delighted if one or another becomes a full-time monk as an adult.
Myanmar abounds with huge and majestic golden pagodas and stupas that dominate the skyline of every city and town. In downtown Yangon the Burmese throng to a large Buddhist temple with a stupa and huge statues of Buddha. It is surrounded by a busy marketplace and prestigious government offices. Every surface of these Buddhist temples, stupas and statues is gold leafed. Asked why so much gold is used, the Burmese told me the offerings of gold please the Buddha and bless them with health, wealth and prosperity, not only in this life but in their future births as well. Such is their passion and love for their religion and their beloved Lord Buddha.
Thaung Su Nyein, managing director of the Information Matrix company, told me at the IPC conference that Buddhists and Hindus get along well, though he felt few Buddhists really know much about Hinduism except that they share some practices, such as celebration of the full moon day. Some likely think the faiths are interchangeable. He said the Burmese are Theravada Buddhists, as are the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, and that they consider themselves pure Buddhists. The Mahayana Buddhism of neighboring Thailand incorporates both Hindu and Chinese influences.
THOMAS L KELLY
The temple, patronized by the Tamil Chettiar business community, is located on Shwe Bon Tha Street in Yangon. Krishna, priest of Shri Murugapperuman temple, performs arati.
THOMAS L KELLY
Horse guardians: Devotee outside the Durga temple with its horse guardians. The paste on her face looks like sandalwood but is thanaka, a fragrant wood paste used for its cooling effect.
In contrast to the overwhelming presence of Buddhism, most Hindu temples are inconspicuously hidden in the jungles of concrete that are Myanmar’s cities. Exceptions include the two Tamil temples to Lord Siva and Goddess Durga located in one large compound on the outskirts of Yangon city.
The Hindu temples are popular with the Buddhists as well, as they say our Gods more quickly respond to their prayers. This shared worship fosters good relations between Buddhists and Hindus and avoids the kind of clash seen with, for example, the Rohingya Muslims here, who are also descended from 19th-century Indian settlers.
Myanmar’s Hindus are concentrated in and around Yangon, Mandalay and several of the rural areas. For our visit between March 30 and April 13, we spent the first days in Yangon, then stopped at the rural areas on the way to Mandalay in the north.
Compound of the Siva and Durga Temples outside Yangon.
Our first objective was to encounter the Tamil community in the city center, and the old Sri Murugapperuman Temple—one of about 1,000 Hindu temples in the city. It’s a legacy of the 1930s, when Indians were 55 percent of the city’s population, most of them Tamils. On the aptly named Moghul Street we found dozens of Tamil Hindus engaged in trading diamonds and gold out of tiny shops and small showrooms decorated with pictures of Hindu Deities. The shops’ small size gave no indication of the value of the precious items for sale therein, and we were told they enjoyed quite a high turnover both in sales and as brokers and commission agents. It was difficult to assess how well they were doing, but every Hindu business person interviewed looked happy and contented. Despite the lack of a visible police presence, the traders said the area was completely secure, with bags of money and gems moving in and out daily with little concern. In general, the crime rate is low in Yangon—one of the possible pluses of decades of harsh military rule. The area has wide roads between its high-rise buildings, but it reminded me of old Delhi: substantial portions of each street are occupied by hawkers selling street food, vegetables and other items day and night.
Busy worship: Burmese Buddhist mother and daughter worship at the popular Durga temple; Indian Hindu worshippers at the Shiva temple prepare their offering
Brother and sister at the Durga temple; This neighborhood Indian merchant sells curd and kheer drink from his small shop
Society of worshipers: The spectacular gold-leafed Swedagon Buddhist Temple, one of the most famous of Yangon’s landmarks
The Murugapperuman Murugan Temple is located on Shwe Bon Tha street on the first floor of an old building. It was built by the Tamil Chettiar business community, some say 120 years ago and others 400 years. The main structure of the wooden temple, housing the chief Deity, is painted in various colors and lit by rows of multi-colored bulbs. While we were there, Tamil bhajans played continuously through a loudspeaker system, making the atmosphere extremely devotional. Krishnan, a bachelor aged 50, was filling in for the regular priest who was helping at the rededication of another temple. Krishnan told us his forefathers came from Tamil Nadu but he was born and brought up in Myanmar. His father was a farmer and he himself used to run a business until one day Lord Murugan appeared to him in a dream and told him to become a priest. He studied with Archaka Shanmugam Shekhar, also born in Myanmar, to learn enough basic mantras to do the puja. He told us, “I am not very educated, but my level of devotion to the God is very high and that is the reason I have chosen to become a priest.” We met many such priests who were managing the worship with a minimum of training.
Next we set out for the Shri Satyanarayan Temple in Yangon’s Pabedan Township, passing along the way many beautifully lit altars of Lord Buddha by the sidewalks. At the temple we were welcomed by Banwari, its caretaker, who came from Uttar Pradesh, the state where I was born and spent my youth. Our chemistry was instant; together we sang some of the old popular Hindi bhajans and songs, which made us dance. We bonded like two brothers from the same village, meeting after ages. Similarly, Thomas bonded instantly with one of the temple priests, Prem Sharma, whose family came from Nepal three generations ago. They chatted in chaste Nepalese, to the delight of all. Prem Sharma was previously priest at the Mormin Satyanarayana Temple for 18 years, and has been here for 11.
Massive statue of Buddha inside the temple (the boys in front have taken up Buddhist monastic life for at least five days, a custom of the Burmese families); A thriving marketplace
The temple itself belongs to the Marwari community. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi, but has murtis of all the main Gods and Goddess—as well as a beautiful statue of Buddha. It has a large hall for satsang and katha, which is also used during major festivals. Some 50 to 100 devotees come to the temple each day, and many more on festival days. The Marwari community meets all the temple expenses, neither soliciting nor expecting donations from anyone else.
In addition to the temple, they run summer classes in Hindi for the children. In fact, across the country we encountered major efforts to educate the children in their ancestral language, be it Hindi, Tamil or Nepalese, to counter the fact all are using Burmese in normal day-to-day life and schooling.
The chief priest, Vishwanath, told us his parents were born in Churu, Rajasthan, as was the temple’s founder, Bhagwan Das Bagla. The story is that Bagla was on a ship in a typhoon and took a vow that, if saved, he would build a temple to Lord Vishnu. In fulfillment of that vow, he built not only this temple but also one in Mandalay and another in Mormin.
The area around the temple had been densely populated with Hindus, with some 2,000 Mewari families, but many fled to Nepal in the 1960s when the government seized their property. Only 70 Mewari families live in Myanmar now. Businessman Sanjay Kedia told us it is difficult to find suitable matches for their children within such a small group, and they have to look to India and Nepal. The Mewaris are pure vegetarians, Kedia explained, and nearly all other communities in Myanmar are non-vegetarian.
Thomas and I encountered this issue ourselves, as there exist no pure vegetarian restaurants in Yangon. The best we could do for food was Titu’s Indian Banana Leaf Restaurant, which offers a wide variety of North and South Indian delicacies, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The owner is a Sikh, Sardar Ranjit Singh Narula, who hails from Singapore. He told us there are just a handful of Sikhs and a single gurudwara in Yangon, with perhaps 100,000 Sikhs nationwide.
The Ganesha temple at the corner of Bandool and Pansodan roads in Yangon
Priest Tek Narayan Khatiwada stands before the temple’s large Ganesha Deity
Farming communities: Sri Laxmi Kumari teaches a class at the Arya Gurkul in Jiwabari
About 30 kilometers outside Yangon, in a compound spread over several acres, sit two of the most popular Tamil temples: Shri Muneeshwaran, dedicated to Lord Siva, and Shri Ankaala Parmeshwari for Goddess Durga. Their worship began in 1861 in small shrines at the base of a banyan tree. Today the two large temples are overflowing with devotees—not only Tamils, who are the largest single group of Hindus in Myanmar, but large numbers of Burmese and Chinese as well. Devotees also gathered with families and friends in huge covered areas outside the temples. Most of the Tamil women wore traditional saris, and others wore Burmese dress.
The temples are well maintained. Entire floor areas in several sections were covered with rangoli designs made by devotees. Worshipers were standing in long queues at both temples to offer fruits and other traditional items, which are available for sale within the temple compound itself.
Several priests and their assistants at each temple manage the worship in a systematic way. After the ritual bathing and worship of the Deity, a priest brought out the lighted arati lamp, whose flame is considered especially auspicious and powerful. The lamp is not only offered to the devotees present but taken around all the areas of the temple.
To be at the temple was to be in Tamil Nadu, a feeling greatly enhanced by the musicians playing the tavil drum and nadaswaram, just as you’d find in any temple in South India. Hundreds of devotees were following these musicians as they did circumambulation around the temple. We asked one of the nadaswaram players, Ganapati, how he had come to play the instrument. He said he learned it from his father, but finds it a very exhausting job, and does not want his children to take it up. He is mainly a rice farmer, but performs at the temple two days a week and at private functions from time to time.
The temple’s president, Ulaganathan, welcomed us warmly. It turned out they have been receiving HINDUISM TODAY on a regular basis for some years. He took us personally around the entire temple and introduced us to the priests. His family has been in Myanmar for four generations and are farmers. The four main priests here follow Sama Veda tradition and are trained by Indian priests who come periodically. In 2011 the temple brought 120 priests from India, who stayed two months for the kumbhabhishekam rededication ceremony.
The temples remain in close contact with Tamil Nadu, Ulaganathan explained, regularly bringing artisans from Mahabalipuram to provide the murtis and decoration. He said, “This temple is considered to be very powerful and is visited not just by Hindus but people of other faiths, including Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.” According to one devotee, Guruswami, a retired banker, 30 percent of the Burmese people come to Hindu temples like these to pray.
PHOTOS THIS PAGE: THOMAS L KELLY
A farmer with ox cart and hay shed in the background; Elephants are still used for work here
The temple’s annual firewalking festival, expected to draw tens of thousands of devotees, was to be held in a few days. We returned to Yangon in the evening for an appointment with Lal Bahadur Subedi, president of All Myanmar Gorkha Hindu Dharmik Sangh. As we walked to his shop, we again observed the all-pervasive nature of Buddhism here. One finds Buddhist monks, bhikshunis and child monks almost everywhere in public places. We remembered the large numbers of Burmese families we had seen earlier in the day, dressed in their best clothes, taking their children to the temple for their week or so of living as a monk.
Lal Bahadur Subedi runs a shop that deals in ghee, dry fruits and traditional Indian sweets. He attends SDSS shakha meetings every Sunday and also visits the Ram Janaki Temple on weekends with his family. The Nepalese community built this temple 21 years ago, and it is popular with all Hindus. It observes the major festivals and has a good facility for hosting traditional weddings.
Subedi estimates the Nepalese population in Myanmar to be about 250,000. Most in the rural areas are farmers, those in the cities are traders, and some work in the ruby mines.
He shared, “Nepalese are loved, respected and trusted here because many of our ancestors were in the army, the Gorkha Battalion, which defended Myanmar from the Japanese. In fact, all Nepalese here are called Gorkhas. About 80 percent have citizenship, and those that do not have themselves to blame for being of two minds when it was easy to acquire.
“The SDSS is a binding force that brings all the Hindu communities under one umbrella. We are concerned about our children, as they no longer have time for any religious activities—it is all consumed with study. We are providing special classes for them in Nepalese language. Another big change here is marriages taking place across different jatis and communities, which previously was considered taboo. In part, this is due to the financial success of individual families.”
Manochan Vidya Bhawan in Phyu, most of the students are Indian, the rest Nepali
We next visited the centrally located and popular Shri Kali Temple, originally set up in 1871 by seven Hindu communities including the Gujaratis, Bengalis, Marwaris, Chettiars, Tamils and Hindustani or North Indians. It is the only temple in Myanmar established in this cooperative manner. Shri Bahadurg Bagla, who founded the Satyanarayan temples, was instrumental in getting this temple completed as well, according to Sadanananda Singh, one of the temple trustees.
Singh recounted that his father came to Myanmar at the age of 14 from his home area of Gorakhpur, first by land and then by ship, and started a dairy business. Now Singh runs companies engaged in transport and construction.
The immaculate temple, located in a posh area of Yangon, receives a large number of devotees each day, including Burmese and Chinese, some of whom have donated large sums for the temple’s maintenance and expansion. One devotee we met was a woman having puja done to ward off the “evil eye,” which she felt was the cause for her son’s ill health. We had previously seen puja done for the same purpose at other temples, and learned that it was one reason Burmese come to our temples.
Ancient capitol: This ancient Hindu temple of Bagan enshrines Lord Vishnu
Trustee Ram Kishore said that sometimes the Burmese outnumber the Hindus in the temple. “The wishes the Burmese ask of our Gods and Goddesses in this temple are fulfilled, and that strengthens their faith in our Gods,” he explained. He says the temple is one of the richest in Yangon; besides conducting Hindi and Tamil classes, they promote language study all over the country.
Every tourist to Myanmar visits the Swedagon Temple, Yangon’s most famous Buddhist shrine, and here we experienced a vibrant Buddhist religion. Everything—from the towering temple stupas to the small statues—is made of gold or covered in gold leaf. In my entire life I have never see anything so rich and glittery as this temple. Devotees thronged the compound, some to worship at the many shrines and statues, others to meditate in the large halls with huge gold statues of Buddha. I was surprised to see abhishekam, bathing with water, done to statues of Buddha, just as you see in Hindu temples. There is also a place where people can pray to the nine planets, something I also thought was only a Hindu practice. Here, too, we saw child monks with their families, many engaged in photo sessions to capture the moment. At one point, the grandly attired little ones were taken in procession for their initiation.
We spoke with Srinivasan, age 65, a Tamil man living here with his Burmese wife. Learning of our purpose in Myanmar, he told us their story. They were classmates in school. When his parents tried to arrange a marriage with a Tamil girl, Srinivasan insisted he would only marry his classmate. He did so, converted to Buddhism at the request of his wife’s father, married in both the Tamil Hindu and Buddhist way and then followed both religions. “Our two children also pray to Lord Siva and Lord Buddha and follow Hindu and Buddhist cultures,” he shared, “and we see no conflict in this.”
Bagan in Mandalay region was the region’s capital from the 9th to 13th century
In the afternoon we went to downtown Yangon to visit the office of S.S. Selvam, a prominent businessman and president of the All Myanmar Tamil Hindu Foundation. Selvam’s family came from Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu six generations ago. He estimates that there are a total of one million Tamil Hindus in Myanmar, mostly living in the states of Yangon, Mawlamyine, Thaton and Pha An, and that 95 percent of the Tamils came from Ramanathapuram. As there has been no proper census by religion in Myanmaar recently, such estimates are at best educated guesses. But Tamils are, no doubt, the majority Hindu community.
According to Selvam, about 20 percent of Tamils are businessmen, 30 percent farmers and the rest employed in other occupations. There are Siva, Murugan, Mariamman and Vishnu temples wherever the community is found. These are managed jointly by his foundation and the Hindu Central Council. Their two major festivals are Deepavali and Pongal. “The biggest change that is happening today,” Selvam emphasized, “is that our Tamil youth are marrying outside our community”—a trend that obviously started in earlier generations, given the above example of Srinivasan and his Burmese wife.
In the evening we visited the home of Krishna Padhi, a retired gold trader and leader of the Oriya community (from Orissa), which numbers just 500 nationwide. The community’s biggest festival for the year is a grand Jaganath Yatra procession. In addition they celebrate Holi and Kartik Purnima.
A large number of Oriya came to Myanmar in British times, mainly to work on the roads. There are four Jagannath temples in Yangon alone, clearly showing how many Oriya must have been there in the past. Many were forced to return to Orissa between 1962 and 1970. Like others returning to India, they settled in the “Burmese Colonies” that sprang up across India at the time. Now, in the second generation, they have mostly been absorbed into the surrounding communities. “Those who went to India never came back,” Padhi stated. “Right now the situation is that if we Hindus of Myanmar face problems, we get no support from India.”
Later we visited the famous Ganesha Temple of Yangon, located in the main downtown area. Here again we saw a Burmese businessman getting puja done by the temple’s Nepalese priest, Tek Narayan, to ward off an evil eye—he believed a jealous competitor was creating problems for him. The priest assured us the puja was only to negate the evil eye, and not to cause harm to anyone in return.
The temple has not only the Hindu Gods and saints but also Lord Buddha and a Chinese Deity. According to Tin Oo Lin, whose great grandfather, a Tamil, founded the temple and married a Burmese lady, the temple is popular with Hindus, Burmese and Chinese alike. Tin himself has a Chinese wife.
The last temple of this day is Shri Shri Durga Bari, founded 127 years ago by the Bengali community. The temple’s senior patron, Minal Kanti Bhattacharjee, age 80, estimates there are 10,000 Hindu Bengalis in Myanmar, half of them living in Yangon. He explained that during major festivals, such as the ten-day Durga puja, Bengalis from all over Myanmar converge here. The ample facilities are also used by other communities for weddings and social functions. As with all other temples we have visited, a substantial number of Burmese worship here.
On our fourth morning in Yangon we met with Ram Niwas, head of the SDSS and the most prominent leader of Myanmar’s Hindu community. A fifth-generation Burmese, he is a professor of Pali language and literature in the State Pariyatti Sasana University, Yangon. The SDSS, he explained, was founded in 1950, and is inspired by and molded after the RSS of India, though legally an independent and locally run organization. It has some 2,000 active members and volunteers. Niwas himself is a pracharak, a life-long bachelor and fully dedicated worker for the organization. India’s present prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was himself a full-time RSS pracharak for many decades, was briefed by Niwas on the issues of Hindus when the PM visited Myanmar in 2014. Niwas was instrumental in our visit, helping arrange appointments with key Hindus and providing guides from one end of our journey to the other.
In two lengthy interviews he recounted to us the history of Myanmar and the presence of Buddhism and Hinduism here, dating from ancient times. He estimates that of the country’s 2.9 million Hindus today, seven to eight hundred thousand are Tamils, four to five hundred thousand are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, four hundred thousand are from Nepal and the rest are Bengalis, Oriya, Marwaris, Gujaratis, Punyas (brahmins from Manipuri) and a few others. Each community tended to settle in an area similar in climate to that of their places in India. Some maintain contact with their ancestral homes; others have lost track.
Reclining Vishnu in the Bagan Vishnu Temple; This young girl is having her ears pierced in a Buddhist ceremony at the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay
Today, he says, there is no discrimination against Hindus; in fact, the government gives him free passes to travel by ship or train to any part of the country for promoting the religion. But, he added, those who did not take citizenship when it was offered now face limits on what they can do, such as going on for higher education.
He lamented the complete absence of any Hindu sannyasins in the country: there is no one trained, as are the Buddhist monks, to influence the people and connect them to their religion. Hindus here suffered, he explained, due to lack of contact with India over a long period of time. SDSS is now running a campaign to make people more knowledgeable in the religion, the Gods and Goddess, the great Hindu saints and the traditions and festivals. They have established four Sanskrit schools for priest training and try to work with all the temples in the country.
They initiated the Hindu Dharma Shiksha Samiti to teach the children and produced school books in Hindi, with the goal that Hindi be spoken in the homes where it is the ancestral language. The language effort is being aided by the easy availability of Hindi TV channels from India, though to some extent the religious goal is mitigated by the worldly content of those same channels. A more recent addition, with help from the Indian Embassy, is instruction in classical Indian dance and music.
Retaining culture: Early morning yoga class by yoga teacher Kashi Tunda Nath in Mandalay
But, he shared, there is resistance from parents who want the children to focus solely on their school education. Many would prefer their children learn Chinese instead of Hindi. In contrast, he spoke admirably about the Buddhist novice monks system in which children of both rich and poor families participated on an equal level and received good exposure to their religion.
Our last interview in Yangon was with L. Subramaniam of the Telugu community. He estimates there are 100,000 Telugu people in Myanmar, of which 10,000 live in Yangon. There is one major Telugu temple in Yangon, the Shri Ramalyam Mandir. Ugadi, the Telugu New Year, is a major festival, as is Makar Sankranti. They share the same problems as the other communities with regard to language, intermarriage, etc. He recounted that at one point in time, some Buddhist preachers starting speaking against Hinduism. He worked with the offices of the SDSS and through the government to put an end to the harassment.
Subramaniam explained something that puzzled me: the tan paste worn by men, women and children alike on their face. Initially I thought it was sandalwood paste, but learned it is thanaka, made from the bark of one of several scented woods. Its use here dates back at least 2,000 years. He explained, “Thanaka is very good for the body. Our sandalwood is a bit hot, but thanaka is very cool. I apply thanaka on my whole body during night time before I go to sleep for its cooling affect. Most of the men use thanaka only at home, as they feel shy wearing it during the daytime when they are working in their offices or moving around publically.”
Shri Satya Narayan Temple main sanctum with worshipers
Our last visit in Yangon was to the city’s unusual 100-acre, all-religions cremation ground and cemetery, which caters to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, and also has areas for Chinese, Japanese and Bahai funerals.
After five days in Yangon, we drove north 150 kms to Kyauktaga and Zeyawadi, where Hindus with their roots in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar settled. The Kyauktaga SDSS branch is headed by another full-time unmarried pracharak, Subhash Chandra Ahuja, who is based here at Manochan Vidya Bhawan school. In a detailed interview Subhash Ahuja described the school they are running for the children of the Hindu community, stressing the teaching of culture, traditions and language.
As soldiers: Historic photo of a Gurkha who fought in the British army against the Japanese in World War II in Burma
We were taken around the huge complex in which Manocha Vidya Bhawan, an SDSS office, and a Saraswati temple are situated. Here we met with other prominent Hindu leaders of the area. One fascinating story told to us by Kanti Lal Verma of the SDSS was that when the people first came here from India around 1885 it was a dense jungle. To keep at bay the ghosts believed to haunt the jungle, they would regularly recite Hanuman Chalisa. That tradition of invoking Hanuman continues to this day.
He said the British only wanted to bring illiterate workers to Burma, on the theory that they would blindly follow orders. But as the educated people caught on to this policy, they posed as illiterates in order to seek potential new opportunities.
From the Manochan Vidya Bhawan we drove to the complex of the Ram Janaki Temple to see its school for children, and then on to Phyu to two Siva temples. Now I felt I was back in India, and could easily spot many Indians on the roads or in the shopping complexes by their typical features and dress. In Yangon we rarely saw an Indian unless going to a specific shop owned by Hindus. But here Hindus were all around.
Next we drove into the Zeyawadi area to visit the home of Prakash Chandra, a local leader, and then the small temple of Sagoon Basti village. There are easily 120 villages in this area, Chandra told us, each with at least one temple. Sagoon Basti and neighboring villages are nearly 100 percent Indian; the only non-Indians you see here are Burmese laborers hired to work in the fields, which are mostly owned by Indians. In part, these Burmese workers replace educated Indian youth who have gone to neighboring countries, such as Thailand, for better employment.
We enjoyed the breathtaking views of the agricultural fields as we drove to a large gurukul set up by a local businessman in a nearby village. Its approximately 50 students recited Sanskrit slokas for us upon our arrival. Next we went to the Arya Samaj in Zeyawadi, where Hindi was being taught in an intensive manner at its Valmiki Ashram and Gurukul under the guidance of Siya Ram, a retired professor of engineering.
Pandit Dharam Raj Shama of India initially taught here, Ram explained, and along with a few other priests from India, was quite popular. Eventually they all returned to India, after training some of the educated people as purohits. These now tend to the needs of the community in a self-sustaining manner. Recently they conducted a sacred thread ceremony for 44 children.
Bhajan group at the Sikh Temple, Thayeze, in Mandalay; Girls in Hindi class at the Neelkantha temple school in Pyin Oo Lwin
Hill country: Shri Rameshwar Vidya Peeth Parahith Dham in Lokhu
That evening we set off for the ancient city of Bagan, a major tourist destination. Bagan is a must-see place for anyone visiting Myanmar, though for us it did not have much to do with Hinduism in the country.
In the early morning at Bagan we joined hundreds of others from around the world determined to view the area’s famous sunrise, best done from a multi-story tower with a warning posted at the bottom that it is ancient and possibly unsafe. This did not prevent hundreds of tourists and photographers from ascending. Nor was sunrise a disappointment; as far as one could see there were thousands and thousands of small and large Buddhist temples and pagodas bathed in golden light. They were all built between the 9th and 13th centuries; a few thousand remain in good shape or have been restored, but most lie in ruins. In the midst of all this we came across two Hindu temples. One is for Vishnu, and fairly well known. Another is to Siva; with no sign board on display, it was only from the imagery on the walls we could deduce what it was.
After a day photographing Bagan, we took a short flight to Mandalay, a major center of commerce with a large Hindu population mostly engaged in business. We visited the Shri Sanatan Hindu Dharma Temple and Shri Ganesh Temple, two of the most popular of the city’s 17 Hindu temples, the local Arya Samaj center, which caters to about 80 families, and met K. Sunder Gopal Sharma, a prominent Manipuri Brahmin of Mandalay and vice president of the Upper Myanmar India Business Association, at his residence.
The Manipuri Brahmins, we learn, were brought from India 500 years ago by the king of Myanmar to perform rituals at the palace and give advice on astrology, medicine and scriptures. Numbering about 5,000, they and the Mewari community are perhaps the only Hindus in the country with a significant percentage maintaining a vegetarian diet. The Manipuri Brahmins are Vaishnavites in the tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Their temples are private, only open to members of their own community.
ALL PHOTOS: THOMAS L KELLY
Dr. Vishnu Dutt with students of the Shri Rameshwar Vidya Peeth Parahith Dham; Depending on the day of the week you were born, you do abishekam to a certain statue of Buddha—here Tuesday
The day after our arrival, we set out in early morning to join a yoga class conducted by Kashi Nath on the rooftop of a nearby commercial building. Nath, of Manipuri origin, learned yoga from the SDSS expert Subhash Changra Ahuja, whom we had met in Kyauktaga. We were surprised that the majority of those in the class were Burmese and Chinese. Later we visited Nath’s spacious home and learned his grandfather, Asin Charaj Dev Sharma, was priest to King Thi Mo Ming in the early 1900s. Their home was a royal gift to the family.
We were next taken to a Sikh gurudwara that serves some 400 Sikhs in the area. As with the Hindus, the Sikh children are adopting Burmese language and culture. Consequently the community is making major efforts to teach Punjabi language and Sikh religion, bringing granthis (teachers) here for every summer vacation. The children we met could expertly recite stanzas from the Guru Granth Sahib accompanied by music.
Our last destination in Mandalay was the Nepalese Dharmashala guest house and temple. More than one hundred Nepalese children were being taught Nepalese language and Hinduism under the charge of retired army captain Bahadur, 82. He said there are about 1,000 Gorkhas (as the Nepalese are called) in Mandalay itself, with possibly 100,000 in Mogok, 200 km to the north of Mandalay, where many ruby mines are located.
When they first came from Nepal, most Gorkhas chose to stay in the hilly areas; but now that they have become more educated, they are opting for opening their own businesses in the cities, Bahadur explained. Many Gorkhas go to neighboring countries for work. The Dharmashala itself, which accommodates about 100 persons, is only open to the Nepalese Hindus and not others. Most guests have come to Mandalay for medical treatment which the dharmashala helps them with.
These young girls at the Gorkha Theravada Triratana Buddha Vihara in Pyin Oo Lwin are spending a few weeks as bhikshunis, Buddhist nuns.; Student at the Nepali language school in Mandalay
We next drove three hours to Pyin Oo Lwin where we visited the home of a prominent Nepalese community leader, Mani Lal Poudyal. He is president of All Myanmar Gorkha Hindu Religious Association, which has 36 branches in the country. Overall, he told us, he is satisfied with the progress the Nepalese community is making in Myanmar, noting that he finds the Nepalese of Myanmar more religious than those of Nepal itself these days.
While they are well connected with the other Hindus in the country, they differ in their celebration of festivals, with the Nepalese observing Dussehra and Teej in a grand manner, while the Indian Hindus do so for Raskha Bandhan and Diwali. The community has some 360 temples in Myanmar, mostly dedicated to Ram, Pashupati (Siva) and Durga.
Portraits of life: Gem merchant shows off his favorite emerald and diamond ring
Mani Lal Poudyal told us, “Out of the total Nepalese population in Myanmar, around twenty percent are Buddhists. They converted because initially they stopped using Nepalese language. They would only use Burmese language and therefore gradually became Buddhists.” Most marriages are arranged within the community, according to him, but love marriages are also taking place with Indian Hindus and others.
There is also a substantial Tamil community in Pyin Oo Lwin. With the help of our guide, Vijay Gupta, a businessman and Hindu community leader here, we visited the Tamil Vishnu Temple located in the Jheel Basti Village. The priest here, Arumugam, is Nepalese in origin and learned puja in South Indian style from his father. For major festivals, he said, five hundred Tamils may attend, while on a daily basis it is mostly the nearby Nepalese who come to worship. He reported that a lot of Nepalese have converted in the past decades, mainly to Buddhism but also to Christianity, because “the Hindu community did not take care of their problems and aspirations.” He gave the example of a low-caste Hindu family who wanted havan performed for the ailing mother, but no priest would go to the house. The Christians came to know of this, aided the family and ultimately converted them to Christianity.
Just a few kilometers from the Vishnu temple we came upon Tri Ratna Buddha Vihar, where a Vipassana meditation camp was being attended by 500 Burmese. This ancient Buddhist practice has been recently popularized by, among others, S.N. Goenka, a Burmese of Indian descent. I was impressed with the large number of people taking ten days out of their lives for this camp. This was no social affair, and we observed men and women deep in meditation in pin-drop silence.
Later we visited the Shri Neelkantheshwar Shiv Mandir, also located in the Jheel Basti area. There we found a dedicated team of teachers instructing Hindu and Nepalese children in those languages. In the evening we visited the Ganesha Temple managed by the Tamil community; here, too, the temple premises were being used to teach Tamil and even English to the Hindu children.
After visiting Durga Mandir and Pashupati Nath Dham, two temples of the Nepalese community which are located in one complex, we went on to Shri Krishna Kali Bari Temple, located right in the heart of Pyin Oo Lwin. Here the devotees came mainly from the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. Moti Lal Gupta, the temple’s former president, offered this blunt assessment of their youth: “It is wrong to say that our youth are too busy. They fail to come to the temples due to lack of interest in the religious activities. In contrast, the Buddhist youth are much more involved in their religion.”
ALL PHOTOS THIS PAGE; THOMAS L KELLY
Tavil drummers and nagaswaram players lead devotees through the Siva and Durga Temples outside Yangon; Laksmi temple worship in Yangon
In planning our two weeks in Myanmar, we had unwittingly saved one of the most impressive institutions in the country for last. The Shri Rameshwar Vidya Peeth Dham in Lakhu is known all over Myanmar for the teaching of Sanskrit and training of temple priests. It was founded 50 years ago on 80 acres of land. Its present head, Dr. Vishnu Dutt Mandavya, age 48, has greatly increased the school’s popularity and impact in recent years.
Born and raised in Myanmar, Dutt studied Sanskrit for 18 years in India, including Varanasi. He is an initiate in the Nirvani Akhara under his guru, Swami Satyaprakashananda, who was also the guru of the school’s previous head, Swami Devananda Saraswati. Long before he passed away in 2009, Devananda, insisted Dutt go for higher studies in India, as otherwise the school would be unable to carry forward the traditions of Vedas and Sanatana Dharma in Myanmar. Dutt explained that he has not taken formal sannyas, but is a brahmachari.
The school has over 100 students learning Sanskrit, Nepali and Hindi in a full-time course of study. It accepts students from all castes. Even Burmese Buddhist monks have come to study Sanskrit, which helps with their reading of their Pali-language scriptures. There is also a strong emphasis on music, which is taught four hours a day.
On a parting note, our team left Yangon at the commencement of the annual Buddhist “water festival,” which is like a liquid Holi celebration where no one is immune from dosing—including our cameraman, Thomas Kelly, who prepared his camera for just this possibility
The curriculum includes Sanskrit grammar, the writings of great saints such as Kalidas, plus geography, social science, English, computers and other topics of modern education. The students live at the institution, and their room, board and education is free of charge. Dutt estimates that in the past few decades they have trained around 700 priests who are now serving in temples around the country. Considering that is about 35% of all the priests in Myanmar, one gets a sense of the importance of this institution. The priest of the Nepalese Dharmasala in Mandalay, for example, Harish Chandra Ghimre, 30, learned his profession at this school in Lakhu in a four-year course.
They plan to gradually expand to 300 students. “Our vision is to propagate and promote our own religion and Vedic culture among our people and thereby socially and religiously uplift the community,” summarized Dutt. His plan is to build a team of a dozen brilliant, dynamic, knowledgeable and totally dedicated graduates who will then work for the betterment of Hindu dharma all over Myanmar. He also hopes that with the improving political situation it will be possible to bring Hindu saints and scholars from India to teach in Myanmar.
Though I have done my best to present all the facts and information collected by me, still I feel I have not done justice to the immense story of the Hindus of Myanmar.
On the one hand, I was touched and impressed by the Hindu community living so harmoniously with the majority Buddhist population. On the other hand, the trauma of the expulsions of the 1960s was just below the surface. To a great extent, the newly minted citizenship for Indians has created a much greater sense of security, but in other ways this is still a volatile country.
THOMAS L KELLY
Ram Niwas, center, with the Hindu Youth Society at the headquarters of the Sanatan Dharma Swayam Sewak Sanga in Yangon, the nation’s most important Hindu organization; The back of the youth shirts reads, “We are proud to be a Hindu;”
The elders are concerned about the youth, but such are the times; one can hear the same complaint from the elders of every religion and culture in the world. With the dynamic leadership of the SDSS, the success of institutions such as Shri Rameshwar Vidya Peeth Dham under Dr. Vishnu Dutt Mandavya, and the work of temples and community leaders, Hinduism in Myanmar has as good a chance of being transmitted to the next generation as anywhere else in the world.