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Culture, History binds India-Myanmar Ties


Nizika Sorokhaibam
research intern, Cdps

India and Myanmar (Burma) share a historical relationship bound by religion, culture, ethnicities and shared colonial experience. Myanmar is India’s ‘Gateway to ASEAN,’ being the only ASEAN member state that shares a border with India. The historical past actually binds the ties between the two neighbours and is the guiding principle for the relationship in contemporary times and perhaps the future as well.

Both the countries encompass a similar account of independent warring kingdoms and stream of dynasties and empires that were once strong and inviolable such as the Rajput and Maratha kingdoms, Lodhi and Mughal dynasties in India to name a few and in Myanmar the Mons, Arakanese, Pagan, Toungoo and Konbaung dynasties.

Indian civilization is one of the oldest civilizations and thus there must have been considerable amount of contact between Ancient India and Ancient Burma. However the most prominent and lasting linkage is the religion. Buddhism and Hinduism along with some traits of Brahminical practices entered Myanmar around the same time. This has immensely influenced and moulded the already existing Burmese religious practice of animism and Nat (spirit worship). Theravada Buddhism after being imported Sri Lanka has gained prominence and is the commonly practiced religion today. There are interesting legends about Buddha’s hair relics being enshrined in the Shwedagon Pagoda and Buddha’s visit to the region. The Great Emperor Ashoka made efforts to send missionaries (thera) to preach Buddhist doctrines and built Pagodas in the region. These events are mentioned in detail in Sasanavamsa, a chronicle by Bikkhu Pannasami. Hinduism, practised by a minority in Myanmar today, has merged and has been adapted by the Burmese. An example is that of Yama Zatdaw which is very similar to Ramayana. Hindu Gods and Goddesses have been assimilated and given Burmese names and they even practise the celebration of full moon day. Brahminical customs have been adopted with the exception of caste system. Thus, significance of religion cannot be overlooked and is vital to bring the two nations closer. The aid extended by India in restoring the Ananda Temple in Bagan (2011) is a positive step forward. A similar action was taken by a Mon King is restoring Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya ages ago.

As India is the birth place of Buddhism, many monks and people in Myanmar wish to pay homage to the sacred place as pilgrims just as Muslims all over the world visit Mecca. Arun Jaitley, India’s Finance Minister, in 2014 proposed a development project of the Buddhist Circuit and agreed to put in 500 Crore Rupees. Making Visa process faster and easier would further aid the pilgrims. Infrastructural developments such as the Asian Trilateral Highway can also be a solution to the difficulty of travelling long distances.

Linguistically, India and Myanmar have certain connections. Sanskrit and Pali – ancient Indian Languages – entered the vocabulary and have become the source of many Burmese words. ‘Burma’ is a variation of ‘Bamar’ derived from Sanskrit word ‘Brahmin’. ‘Bagan’, is a pronounciation whose origin can be traced to Pali word ‘Arimaddana-Pura’, the city of temples. Similarly, Khasi, a language spoken by a minority in the north-eastern part of India today, can be traced to Austro-Asiatic language (Mon-Khmer) which may have been originated from the Mon and Khmer Dynasty in the Burmese region. Thus, owing to the similarity of the languages, efforts should be made for research and tracing the similarities and linkages of literature. This could aid in the increased interest in learning Burmese and Indian languages.

There are accounts of Burmese kings waging wars against kings and chieftains in India especially in the eastern region- namely Assam, Cachar and Manipur. During the colonial era, the Burmese became a hindrance to the British in the Bengal region and this led to Anglo-Burmese wars in the 19th century. With the fall of the last Burmese king, Thibaw Min, Burma became a British colonial province. It is interesting to note that the last Mughal ruler of India – Bahadur Shah Zafar – was exiled to Rangoon (Yangon), Myanmar in 1858 and the last Burmese king – Thibaw – was exiled to Ratnagiri, India in 1886 where they both stayed till their deaths in 1862 and 1916 respectively. Therefore, an unusual union of relationship has been sealed. Efforts were taken to reclaim and restore the forgotten tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar and a Dargah (sufi) mausoleum was built in the burial site in 1994. However the tomb of Thibaw Min is in dispute as there are two sites – Ratnagiri, Maharashtra and Behrampore, West Bengal – where he is believed to be buried. It is essential to probe efforts to verify the tomb and reclaim it so that it can be opened to tourists. Another royal linkage is that of the marriage of a Chola princess to King Kyanzittha of Pagan dynasty.

From time immemorial Indians have travelled and settled in the Burmese region owing to fertile, resource-rich land that was scarcely populated at the time. Therefore, many traditions have been carried from India by the migrants and have been infused with Burmese culture. Today, Burmese cuisine have hint of Indian touch. Lungi (wrap-around), popularly worn in Southern India by men, are also worn by men and women alike in Burma. Indians travelling to Myanmar increased during the colonial period when the British took Indians as workers, traders, farmers to work in rice cultivation in Myanmar. Soon Rangoon became a hub for Indians through which they were dispersed to other parts of Burma. This, however, led to some enmity as the natives viewed the Indians negatively for the control the Indian businessmen exerted on the local economy and their jobs being taken away by these migrants. The Indians did suffer hardships under land reform and nationalization bills after Burmese independence. However today, People of Indian Origin accounts to 2% of the population living in Myanmar and they can play a crucial role in building up Indo-Myanmar relations and be the instrument for unification, harmony and people to people relations.

Talking of historical relation, one cannot forget the central role played by Myanmar in India’s Independence Movement. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose relocated his Indian National Army (INA) and headquarters of Provincial Government of free India from Singapore to Rangoon and also set up INA bank. He recruited local Indians to the INA and it was from Myanmar that Bose marched toward British India and hoisted the tricolour for the first time at Moirang, Manipur in 1944. Burmese leaders watched India’s freedom movement very closely and within months of India’s independence on 15th August 1947, Burma got their independence from the colonial rule in 4th January 1948. Burmese revolutionary statesman, Aung San came in contact with many great Indian leaders and felt that India and Burma should be ‘not merely good neighbours but good brothers’. When Aung San was assassinated along with others, Nehru expressed his grief. Aung San and Bose had mutual respect for one another. U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Independent Burma and Jawaharlal Nehru’s personal friendship often avoided
major problems between India and Myanmar. For instance, help rendered by Nehru in the form of weapons to U Nu, during a crisis in April 1949, made it possible to resist the Communist and ethnic Karen guerrillas that marched to Rangoon. As a result of their friendship, U Nu lived with the Nehru family from 1974-1980 when he sought asylum in India after a coup. Mahatma Gandhi visited Myanmar thrice and even advised that ‘Indians and Burmese should approach each other not in spirit of suspicion and distrust but that of amity and goodwill’. Thus, leaders of both the countries have paved way for further friendship and co-operation.

In the recent past, Indian cultural groups have been going to Myanmar for performances since 1997. Likewise, Myanmar cultural groups have also visited India’s North-east. A significant Bilateral Cultural Co-operation Agreement was signed between the two countries in 2001.

A bond bound by cultural relationship is hard to break as it is intricately woven. Historical and cultural links helps us to understand the intensity of the bond. Developing cultural and historical links helps the citizens understand the delicate matter and value of the relationship. People can relate and connect with one another better and it incites in them a curious nature that helps in building people to people relationship thus making the citizens take initiative and accountability of the integration and co-operation of both the countries.