Monday, 27 February 2017

Syriam: from Orwell to Ledi Sayadaw, where the Great Game met the great Dhamma practitioners...




Than Lyin-- across the river from Yangon, and known historically as Syriam-- is a place combining such dynamic figures as Philip de Brito, Mahasi Sayadaw, George Orwell, Ledi Sayadaw, the Burmah Oil Company, Mohnyin Sayadaw, etc. Following tells how these all happen to come together in this unlikely place...

Way back in 1897, George Bird was already recording (in Wanderings in Burma) that “beyond the ruins…nothing now remains of the once flourishing European settlements [of Syriam].” Now, over a century later, there are very few European footprints left in the sand here anymore, either. These include a ruined Portuguese church from 1750, some Armenian tombs, and parts of the old wall of the city. And at nearby Henzada village, a small pagoda bears the inscription of the apparent descendants of the Portuguese (and anti-Buddhist) warlord Philip de Brito, (a somewhat ironic twist of Dhamma that one of the few remaining testaments to the existence of that foreign pagoda-destroyer in Burma would be…a pagoda, and built by his own descendants to boot).

Syriam was certainly not known for its beauty during the Colonial period, during which time the Burmah Oil Company set up a refinery here, although it was later destroyed in World War II. George Orwell was posted here from 1924, where he worked as an Assistant District Superindentent. It was a toss-up as to whether the rough town was better known for its frequent murders or acrid air at that point. It seems that Orwell spent much of his days reading what British literature he could acquire from nearby Rangoon bookstores. According to Keith Ferrell in George Orwell: The Political Pen, Orwell “lived in a house that lacked all the amenities to which Europeans were accustomed: there was no running water, toilets, or electricity.” Today, Than Lyin’s port—Thilawa—is the largest port in the country, building on its status as the port of choice for European ships during the Colonial era.

But on more of a Dhamma note, the area does have some significant Buddhist past. Small Gonnyinsu Village is where the deeply revered Mohnyin Sayadaw was born in 1873, and who went go on to become one of Ledi Sayadaw’s most important disciples. And yogis today can attend a course at the Saya U Than Kammathan Center, which offers teachings in the tradition of Saya Thet Gyi. Mahasi Sayadaw arrived here just one year after Orwell, in 1925, after leaving his hometown of Seikkhun and prior to his intensive study in Mandalay and Moulmein. Finally, Ledi Sayadaw practiced the jhanas here in 1895 following his Indian pilgrimage. 

The photos seen with this text are from a monastic education monastery in Than Lyin today.