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The Lost Tribe Meets the Last Emperor...Exploring Rangoon's Other Religious Influences

By Philip Coggan

In the wild hills of Chin State, along the border where Myanmar, Bangladesh and India meet, lives the Lost Tribe of Menashe. Until a generation ago they were animists, placating (it would be wrong to say worshipping) the spirits of their ancestors, with whom they remained closely linked through their shamans. The shamans had dreams and visions, and passed on to the people the wishes of the ancestors. Then the shamans started having dreams and visions of a new sort, and from these it emerged that the Kuki Chin were not, despite appearances, a people of Tibeto-Burmese descent with origins somewhere in southern China, but Jews, descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel carried off into captivity some two and a half thousand years ago and unaccounted for ever since. They had the word of the ancestors, and the ancestors should know. This makes them the first of Myanmar’s Jews, and the group about whom least is known, for the hills of Chin State are wild and rugged and definitely out of bounds to visitors. (The other Lost Tribes, save for the Lemba of South Africa, remain lost).

The first recorded Jew in Myanmar was Solomon Gabirol. He became Commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya in the 18th century, and may have been present when his royal master conquered Dagon, down in the delta of the Ayeyarwady, in 1755. Renamed Yangon, meaning End of Strife, it was destined to become the main city of Burma.

The Jewish community proper in Burma dates from the early 19th century, when it attracted Baghdadi, Bene Israel, and Cochinese Jews from Calcutta, capital of the British Empire in the East and one of the great commercial cities of the world at that time. From Calcutta the trade routes stretched westward to Basra, Istanbul, Cairo, the Mediterranean and Europe; to the east the Pax Britannica opened the way to all the ports of the Orient from Singapore to Shanghai. By 1896 the community was large enough to support its first synagogue. The community in the early half of the 20th century number numbered between two and three thousand, with 126 Sifrei Torah, a Talmud Torah, a Zionist group and numerous charitable and communal organisations, as well as its own school and a cemetery on 91st Street.

The Jews occupied a respected position under the British, providing mayors to both Rangoon and to the important city of Bassein. But this very closeness counted against them when the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942. The Japanese regarded the Jews as identical to the English, and most of Burma’s Jews fled to Calcutta. Only a few hundred came back after the war. The reduced community enjoyed a late flowering in the early years of Burmese independence, nurtured by the close personal friendship between Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and the Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu. But in 1962 a military coup brought Burma under the control of the xenophobic, socialist regime of General Ne Win, which was to last until 1988. While there was no persecution of Jews under Ne Win, life for everyone in Burma became increasingly difficult, and their numbers rapidly dwindled.

Today there are but a handful of Jews in Rangoon. The Musmeah Yeshua synagogue still stands on 26th Street, near the city’s main market. I went there one hot and humid morning, asking the Burmese merchants in their stalls if they knew where this place was. “Ah yes,” said a man puffing on a Chinese cigarette as he waited for customers to express interest in his selection of sarongs and shirts. “I know it. It’s the Indian mosque, isn’t it?” His neighbour, an older man offering identical sarongs to an apparently uninterested public, set him right. “No, these people are not looking for the Indian mosque. But, it is near the mosque. Yes. Quite near.”

It was indeed quite near, although easily overlooked in the crowed streets. The gates were closed, but not locked. A boy with a broom was sweeping the steps. He motioned me to wait inside the small yard off the street. After half an hour Mr Moses Samuels, caretaker of the synagogue and leader of today’s Jewish community in Yangon, arrived with the keys and welcomed me inside.

We looked over the beautifully kept place of worship and its fascinating little museum, with its sepia photographs of classes from the Jewish school, street scenes from the time when Rangoon streets featured kosher shops and pukka sahibs in solar topees. Afterwards, we sat and drank tea in Moses Samuels’ office, and he explained to me the problems of the tiny community. It’s simply a question of numbers. A minyan (the quorum required for a religious service) can only be obtained with assistance from the Israeli Embassy and Jewish staff from other embassies, and it has been many years since the last regular Shabbat service was held. The community is so tiny that it is in danger of dying out. Moses Samuels’ son is of marriage age, but whom he should marry is a question which must worry his father, not to mention the young man himself. The synagogue is located in a predominantly Muslim part of the city, with a number of mosques nearby. These Muslims are of Pakistani or Indian descent, and relations between them and the Jews of Yangon are good. The synagogue receives a trickle of foreign visitors, particularly American Jews visiting Myanmar. Their contributions, plus the support of the Israeli Embassy and some Jewish groups abroad, serve to ensure the continued existence of the little building. But I could not help but feel that I just witnessed the last twilight of an age.

Concerning the Lost Tribe of Menashe I can say no more, not having visited them. Like the synagogue on 26th Street they’re in touch with the Embassy and form part of the concern of the Ambassador. But Chin State is difficult to reach, with few roads, much malaria, and a sprinkling of insurgents. And, as I said, definitely out of bounds to visitors.

The Last Emperor

The year 1857 started badly for Bahadur Shah Zafar. Its end would be even worse, but he wasn’t to know this at the time.

As the year began, Bahadur Shah was engaged in his usual uneventful round. First the hours of daylight and duty, which he disliked. Then the evening, when the poets would come and recite their latest works, mostly nostalgic elegies for departed roses, where the rose, of course, was symbolic of love, and loss, and anything else gently evocative of change and decay, and also of God, who reminds us that all is vanity. In turn each poet would stand before the company and, with becoming modesty, declaim the predictable quatrains, and the company would murmur polite approbation, gently at first, more heartfelt as the night and the wine wore on, giving prase to Allah in whose hands rest the fate of each mortal. Bahadur Shah was a man whose life revolved around poetry and piety.

Change and decay all around him did Bahadur Shah see. The cushions, for example: once Akbar and Shah Jehan had reclined upon them. Now they were threadbare and dirty, and reclining upon them, last dry twig of the withered branch of the great Mogul dynasty which had once ruled all of India from the Himalayas to the Coramandel Coast, was himself, descendant of that same Akbar and Shah Jehan, Emperor of India, Commander of the Faithful by the grace of Allah. Not to mention the grace of the British East India Company. As the insolent presence of the Company’s representative at the threadbare Court of the not-so-Grand Mogul reminded him every daylight hour. For the Company's representative had his hands on the Emperor’s purse strings, and the Company held the Emperor’s empire, and that was that.

(In Rangoon they were digging a hole in the shade of a grove of trees).

The British also had no idea how bad a year 1857 was going to be. It was to be the Red Year, the year several hundred million Indians suddenly realised that they outnumbered the English four thousand to one, and no obvious reason why they should be ruled over by loud-voiced pink-faced foreigners. It began with a misunderstanding over some new cartridges. The rumour among the troops, Hindu and Moslem, was that the grease that covered them, and which had to be tasted in order to render the cartridges useable (the soldiers had to bite the tips off prior to firing), was pig fat. Or beef tallow. Or perhaps both. Whatever the case, this was a mortal offence to both Hindus and Moslems, the cow being holy to one, the pig unclean to the other. Pink-faced and loud-voiced English officers would not listen to attempts to explain this difficulty. Damned impertinence! Do as yer told! Mutterings exploded into mutiny, English officers and their wives and children were massacred up and down the Ganges valley, and it seemed that India, which had so surprisingly fallen into English hands over the last hundred years, was about to fall out again.

Through no deed or wish of his own, Bahadur Shah found himself in the midst of it. All over northern India, when the soldiers had finished slaughtering their officers and their officers’ wives and children and had looted the Regimental treasury and the treasury of the civil power, the local potentates, sensing that the time was ripe, declared themselves the loyal friends and servants of Bahadur. The fact that Bahadur wanted none of this, that he was an old man, a poet and a patron of poets, and happiest surrounded by poets, not warriors, was irrelevant. Suddenly his name was on every lip. And the mutineers and their self-appointed leaders thronged into Delhi, and into the Red Fort, where they swore allegiance to Bahadur their Emperor. And Bahadur in his audience chamber looked upon the sweaty faces of his new friends, and he looked out from the palace window upon the dark face of the mob, and he knew the loneliness of kingship. Yes, said Bahadur Shah the Second, I am your Emperor.

(The hole was lined and covered with brick, and a bamboo fence erected, enclosing a large area of ground. Turf was laid over the place, and “…by the time the fence is worn out the grass will have again covered the spot and no vestige will remain…”).

It ended badly of course. Bahadur Shah’s sudden elevation to titular leadership of a movement of national liberation happened in May 1857. By September of the same year the English were back, and they were not in a forgiving mood. Their atrocities easily rivalled those of the mutineers, a fact which later generations of English historians have freely admitted, “an interlude…at which no Englishman of intellectual honesty can look without embarrassment and unhappiness.”

The English were in the streets of Delhi, and Bahadur’s recent friends and loyal servants were suddenly making themselves scarce. Bahadur went into hiding at the Tomb of Humayun, one of his imperial ancestors, a man who’s own career had had its ups and downs. From there, through intermediaries, he negotiated surrender for himself, his wife, and his sons. The Emperor made his surrender in a common bullock cart, in the grounds of the Tomb. And from there he was taken to Rangoon, to be kept under house arrest with his wife, two of his sons, (two other sons and a grandson had been summarily executed following the surrender), and various others of the royal circle.

He gave his jailers little trouble, being sunk, for the most part, in deep lethargy – the English felt that he was weak-minded. His queen, Zinat Mahal, was a different proposition, always demanding things, such as the return of her personal jewels. It was explained to her that her personal property was forfeit to the British Crown, as one convicted of rebellion …but rebellion against whom, or what? - Bahadur Shah and his queen had never been subjects of the British Crown. (The Mogul crown, incidentally, was auctioned off to the victorious British troops, along with the other contents of the Emperor’s rooms. It was purchased by a Captain Tytler, who subsequently sold it to Queen Victoria for 500 pounds Sterling. Victoria now assumed the title of Empress of India, and the crown rests today in the vaults of the British royal family).

On 6 November 1862, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Commander of the Faithful, the last Grand Mogul, descendant of Akbar and the Shah Jehan who built the Taj Mahal, died. He was buried hurriedly, with as much secrecy as possible, his grave a simple brick pit, covered with turf and fenced in with bamboo, so that the place itself would be forgotten when the grass grew back. And it was. Not until 1991 was it rediscovered, by accident. Today it is a minor site of pilgrimage for pious Muslims and the more progressive sort of Indian intellectual journalist, for Bahadur has gained a posthumous reputation as a saint and pioneering nationalist.

(“The two sons of the deceased, Jawan Bakht and Shah Abbas, and male attendant Ahmed Beg, accompanied the coffin; no females were allowed to be present, nor were any titles allowed to be rehearsed. The death of the ex-king may be said to have had no effect on the Mohammedan part of the population of Rangoon.”)

I took a taxi to the tomb. It’s at 8 Zi Wa Ka Road, quite near the Shwedagon. It was as well I knew the address – no one at my hotel did. No one had heard of Bahadur Shah Zafar, last of the Mogul Emperors. The taxi driver was gratified to learn something new – it might come in handy should he ever find another tourist with strange interests. A flock of grey pigeons flew up from the gate, which has Bahadur’s name and dates over it, and a few beggars plied their trade on the steps. The rooms are large and cool and clean. Bahadur Shah’s grave is in one corner of the largest room. It is covered in green satin, embroidered in gold peacock feathers, and bears a scatter of rose petals. It looks like a large double bed. Incense burns, visitors pray, and all is done.

The Cathedral at the End of the World

God is always on the winning side. In 1853 the winners were the British. The first service thanking God for his assistance in the recent conquest of Lower Burma in general and Rangoon in particular was held that year ‘…in a disused hpoongyi-kyaung (Buddhist monastery) in the neighbourhood of the pagoda’, the Rev. T. Vivian Bull presiding. The pagoda was the Shwedagon, and the monastery was disused because the monks, along with most of the population of Rangoon, had fled at the approach of the victorious British. Fear and loathing and sheer incomprehension, on both sides, were to mark the remainder of Britain’s connection with Burma.

It was clear that services could not continue to be held in the monastery. The Bishop of Calcutta, now in charge of the spiritual wellbeing of Rangoon, arrived on a tour of inspection. On Sunday, November 18, 1855, at 11 o’clock in the morning, he preached to a congregation of 500 and made a collection of 400 rupees. Next day the Governor-General (there was no such office as Viceroy of India at this stage) arrived. Lord Dalhousie consulted with the Bishop and promised to erect ‘the Fabric of a Church in the town of Rangoon, the Gentry engaging to finish and complete the same for Public worship.’ He then donated 500 rupees to get the good work on its way, and the Bishop laid a foundation stone.

Meanwhile, back at the pagoda, things were not looking good. Shwedagon had been the central stronghold for the defence of the town during the recent hostilities, (the English naval force being commanded by Rear Admiral Charles Austen, brother of Jane Austen), and consequently was now under British military occupation. It was to remain so until 1929. It hadn’t taken long for the soldiers to discover that the Buddha images held rubies and emeralds and small figurines in gold and silver. One observer at the time wrote of watching ‘…a soldier busy with his pick-axe, excavating a huge golden image with as much coolness as if he were digging a trench.’ A Major Fraser drove a tunnel 30 meters into Shwedagon itself. A pious judge from Mawlamyaing, U Taw Lay, undertook to fill in Major Fraser’s hole and repair the smaller pagodas on the terrace, re-gilding thecentral spire and hanging the hti (the ceremonial umbrella at the very tip) with gold bells. King Mindon, who still ruled Upper Burma, donated a bell, plus two thousand packets of gold leaf for the use of pious Buddhists who wished to aquire merit.

By 1857 there were 371 Christians in Rangoon, not counting the soldiers. They included 169 followers of the Church of England, 94 Baptists, 56 Roman Catholics, 39 Greek and Armenian Orthodox, and.13 Presbyterians. Churches for the various faithful were springing up. The Roman Catholics were well advanced, the Baptists were already in possession of theirs, and the Armenians had been established for many years. But the English, although they had moved out of the Buddhist monastery, were still worshipping in an old barracks. The reason, hinted the clearly unhappy new chaplain, the Rev. G. B. Howard, was the indifference of his parishioners. His congregation had averaged 11over the previous year, and never exceeded 13. On March 15 it fell to just four, and Howard closed his doors.

The church was to have been called the Church of Saint Andrew, commemorating both the Apostle and his namesake, the Marquess of Dalhousie. By 1861 it was still no more than an idea, and the Bishop of Calcutta – a new bishop – was feeling that things needed moving along. Services at this stage were being held in the Customs House down by the river, ‘a most inconvenient place, though I must say that Mr. Poynder does all that he can to make the services decorous and reverential.’ A new site was selected, a new foundation stone laid, and a new name bestowed, Lord Dalhousie having departed some years previously. The chief place of worship of the Church of England in Rangoon was to be consecrated to the Holy Trinity.

This time it got built. Holy Trinity Church was first used for Divine Service on the Second Sunday of Advent, 1865. The Rev. H. W. Crofton gave the sermon, taking as his text Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of God”. The church held no bell, no pulpit, no font, no punkah (!), no lamps, no organ or other musical instrument, but at least it was there. It had cost 72,000 rupees, of which 10,000 had been raised by public subscription. And greater things were in store, for the English population of Rangoon was growing, and quite soon there was talk of the replacing the church with a cathedral.

Upgrading was also going on at the pagoda. King Mindon had donated a new hti, the old one having been found to be unsafe. Its installation was a matter of intense importance to all Burma, and especially to the Rangoonese. The British had given their consent. Then, too late, they discovered that the donation of a hti was a symbolic act of supremacy by the kings of Burma over the area where the pagoda was located. Mindon had never recognised British sovereignty over Lower Burma, and now he was stating this in clear form – clear to the Burmese, but not, alas to the British. It was explained to Mindon that although the donation could go ahead, it would be the British Commissioner who would receive the hti from the Popa Wundauk, the king’s emissary. The Commissioner would then donate it to the pagoda trustees. In this way a proper balance of symbolic actions was maintained. The new hti was of iron plated with over 200 kilos of gold, plus the usual rubies, diamonds, and bells. It weighed well over a tonne. The consecration proceeded to great public jubilation, and all went off without the feared outbreak of nationalistic feeling. The Popa Wundauk was not allocated a carriage to take him to the ceremonies.

Burmese pagodas have a hti, Anglican churches have an altar. In 1894 the alter from Holy Trinity Church was carried through the streets of Rangoon to the new Cathedral of the same name on the shoulders of the young men of the English congregation, ‘lest it should suffer irreverent treatment at non-Christian hands.’ The foundation stone had been laid by the Viceroy himself, and the first service, at 7.30 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, November 18, the 26th Sunday after Trinity, was a choral celebration of Holy Communion. This is the church you see today.

If you seek their monument, look around you. The most curious of Holy Trinity’s is the baptistery window commemorating Miss Grace Darling, a schoolmistress who lost her life in 1898 while trying to save a pupil being attacked ‘by a fish’. It depicts Christ walking on the water, which would have been a useful accomplishment for Miss Darling. Nearby is the Armed Forces Chapel, on the left as you face the altar. Around the walls are the shields (probably the wrong word, but as I don’t know the right one I’ll call them that) of all the regiments that fought in the Burma Campaign. Out at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, on the Bagu road, you can wander along the long lines of immaculately tended graves. Their ages are 17, 18, 19, 20. Many years ago, I accompanied an old digger out there. He turned at last to his companion, who had also been in the campaign, and whispered, “They’re all so young!” “So we all were,” replied his friend.

Immediately after the recapture of Rangoon in 1945 an Australian airman witnessed an execution at Shwedagon. For a brief moment between the departure of the Japanese and the arrival of the English it had seemed that freedom was at last at hand, and the boy had been caught shooting at his liberators. He hadn’t hurt anyone, but he was to be shot for trying. ‘His bare feet shifted nervously on the pebbly road. He was wearing khaki shorts and a red shirt. His hands were roped together behind his back but he was not blindfolded. At first he watched the soldiers busy with their rifles, and then jerked his head away and found my eyes…' And then, in the last seconds, he raised his face to the Burmese sky.

Holy Trinity Cathedral is located at 446 Bogyoke Aung San Street, on the edge of the downtown area, a little past the Aung San Market as you come from the Yangon Station.

Philip Coggan

The Artichoke.org


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