Meeting Ma Durga in Mandalay, Burma

Durga Puja in Mandalay. In an Indian basti. A surreal experience.

It started with a visit to one of the Buddhist temples, Mahamuni Pagoda, in Mandalay when we ran into some astrologers of Indian origin. While we were initially not eager to engage in a conversation with them, we were requested to come in and have a chat. This was after we clearly proclaimed that we had no belief in astrology or palmistry. We went in and found out that all the astrologers were brahmin-bengalis who had been in Myanmar for a long time. The oldest man, extremely sweet and soft-spoken, promptly invited us to their basti for their annual Durga Puja celebration. We happily accepted the invite, eager to connect with the Indian “expat” community.

With a hand-written card bearing the address of the “Har-Parvati” temple where the Puja Pandal was, we reached the Basti that evening, well in advance of the 6 pm arati timing. As we walked into the basti street, we passed by several houses with people of Indian origin , dressed in Burmese clothes, but speaking a smattering of Hindi. Each calling out – are you from India? Are you a Hindu? Please join us for the arati at the temple…Such open-hearted hospitality and such searing pride in one’s culture.

We entered the temple and were stunned to see a full-sized pandal. Beautifully decorated with 9 durga murtis representing various forms of the goddess. We were warmly welcomed by one of the astrologers who we had met the previous day and were soon introduced to everyone. Haven’t felt so welcome in a long time. That too, with no reciprocal expectations!

As we chatted with everyone, we enquired about their history. Between 3 bastis, there were over 1000 people of Indian origin staying here. They were largely from Bengal, though 1 group was from Manipur. Their forefathers had come to Burma on the invitation of King Mindon, who had a strong belief in astrology and appointed them as his advisors. In fact, during the rule of King Mindon as well as King Thibaw, heavy Indian influences on the court life led to a replication of the caste system in Myanmar too with a separate category called “Ponnas” carved out specifically for these Brahmins from India. The Ponnas were highly respected  and ranked just below the royal family in pecking order. Soon, the Burmese people at large took to astrology and now no auspicious day is planned without the counsel of these jyothishes.

This particular group of Bengalis stayed on in Burma and never returned to India. The people we met had been in Burma for over 7 generations. Yet, they taught themselves Bengali and Sanskrit, they learnt the scriptures and the Gita, they spoke some hindi, cooked Bengali dishes and continued to practise their religion with great shraddha. They wore longyis and spoke Burmese, but in their hearts, were strongly Indian. Many haven’t even been to India. A visit to India is seen as a badge of pride, an essential rite of passage. Multiple visits meant even more pride. Some of them had seen more of India than even I. Some went there on char-dham yatras, while some went to learn the scriptures or other Vedic rituals. Kept the Indian culture alive in their hearts. What a steadfast resolve to hold on to their roots and identity!

As we waited for the Puja to begin, I was surrounded by a group of little girls – radhika, mohima, lalitha who were big fans of SRK, Salman and Tiger Shroff respectively and were impatient to know if I had ever seen these heroes! The eldest, Lalitha, had learnt Hindi from watching Hindi serials and was proudly wearing bindis and bangles that her grandmom had got for her from Delhi.  She asked me how diwali was celebrated in india so that she could verify that she celebrated it the right way. Was relieved when our versions matched, except for fireworks since her dad didn’t like that.

The Puja presently begins. A Puja that looks like its straight out of Bengal. The technicolour lights and bright buntings decorating the pandal. The colourful nava-durga murtis each with its own pujari. Men dressed in silk dhotis, bare-chested, proudly displaying their janehus. Multiple rounds of aratis, the sweet smell of dhoop and the incense smoke creating an intoxicating haze. The thundering sounds of drums brought to life by strong-armed priests. The clink-clank of cymbals rhythmically beaten by young boys under the watchful eyes of their fathers. The prasad of gur and muri laddoos that reminded me of my childhood days in North Bengal. The men performed the Puja, while the women and children sat on the lower levels and prayed. We sat with them and swung to the beats of the drums. Mesmerised by the devotion of a people so far away from the country of their forefathers. While I had looked at dussehra as a time to take a holiday away from home, these people sought a bit of India so far away from it.

Sort of like a “mata ka bulava” moment for me. Nothing else explains getting to celebrate Durga Puja in Mandalay!

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