Sunday, September 24, 2017

Burmese Days 23: On the Road to Mandalay

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! "
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!
(Rudyard Kipling, first published in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses, the first series, 1892)
Well, the river boats don't do any chunkin' any more; instead of paddlewheels, they are powered by smelly Chinese-made diesel engines connected to propellers. And the waterfront is bustling! Oddly, there are very few real docks. The boats tie up to the mudbanks and set up wooden walkways.
My fellow travelers left on a tour of Mandalay Hill and the palace, but I decided to walk around on my own. My enduring impression is that Mandalay is a busy place! People, bicycles, scooters, and cars are everywhere. The bustle and activity remind me of Guatemala City or San Jose. Hundreds of shops sell just about every type of hand-made craft as well as inexpensive commercial products. It looks like many of the factory products come from China. The second photograph above is a pharmacy (I think).
The mannequins are European ladies. I saw the same trend in Nepal, where fashions were displayed on European rather than local forms.
26th Street at dusk is bustling. The street grid and numbering convention is a remnant of the colonial era, which lasted from 1885-1948.
The movie rental store was active. As of 2014, internet was still spotty, so most people rented movies, similar to our old Block Buster stores in USA.
We saw a few internet stores, which also served as business centers (make copies, etc.). As of 2014, I did not know if Burmese citizens had open access to internet or if it was restricted.
Buddhist art and figures are a big seller, especially in the Mahamuni Paya (stupa). I wrote about the marble-carving street in an earlier post.
Scooters are everywhere, unfortunately, belching acrid exhaust fumes. A local gent told me that three years before (meaning prior to 2011), motorbikes were very expensive for Burmese to afford. But as of 2014, cheap ones were imported in mass from China, and a used one was about $500. In Rangoon, the country's main city, the military government prohibited scooters, but the prohibition did not apply to the rest of the country.
The moat surrounding the former royal palace grounds has promenades and trees. I saw plenty of these exercise machines, in active use.
Photograph of the Mandalay Moat from the British Library, with caption:
Photograph of the west city wall and the moat at Mandalay in Burma, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections: Burma Circle, 1903-07. The photograph was taken in 1903 by an unknown photographer under the direction of Taw Sein Ko, the Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of Burma at the time. Mandalay was Burma’s last great royal capital and was founded in 1857 by Mindon Min (reigned 1853-78), Burma’s penultimate king, in fulfilment of a Buddhist prophecy that a religious centre would be built at the foot of Mandalay Hill. In 1861 the court was transferred there from the previous capital of Amarapura. However the glory of Mandalay was shortlived as it was annexed by the British Empire in 1886 after the Third Anglo-Burmese war, renamed Fort Dufferin and a military cantonment was built inside the walls. The original city was built as a fortress in the form of a perfect square with the Nandaw or Royal Palace at the centre. Its walls faced the cardinal directions and were each nearly two kilometres (1.2 miles) long, surrounded by a 70 metre-wide moat on all four sides. There were twelve city gates, the main gate being the central gate in the east wall, which led to the Great Hall of Audience in the palace, and five bridges spanning the moat. The walls were surmounted at intervals with tiered wooden spires known as pyatthats. This is a view looking along the moat, with lotus plants in the foreground, a bridge in the distance and the city wall at right.
My photographs were taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera, with most frames using the 27mm f/2.8 Fuji lens. This is an excellent choice for street photography because it is small and inconspicuous. I processed some of the files with PhotoNinja software.

Note: for previous articles about Burma, please type "Burma" in the search box.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Burmese Days 22: The World's Largest Pile of Bricks, Mingun

King Bodawpaya was definitely an ambitious chap. He wanted to build the largest stupa the world had ever seen. He chose a site on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, now known as Mingun (Burmese: မင်းကွန်းမြို့; ), about 10 km northwest of the modern city of Mandalay. Bodawpaya began his monumental Mingun Pahtodawgyi in 1790 but never completed it because an astrologer claimed that, once the temple was finished, the king would die. 
Bodawpaya's stupa followed in a tradition practiced by Burmese kings for centuries. The plain of Bagan, south of Mandalay, is covered with literally hundreds of stupas. Each king wanted to outdo his predecessor. These were religious structures, but, as you all know, a monumental temple's real purpose is for the ruler to a. demonstrate his power to his enemies (real or imagined); b. show the political opponents who is on top (this is the real threat); and c. keep the peasants and underlings awed and groveling.
Freshly fried dry-fish cakes.
The ride across the Irrawaddy is very pleasant. Mingun is a popular with both Burmese school groups and foreign visitors. Vendors sell snacks and souvenirs.
To generate the appropriate awe to visitors alighting at the riverbank, Bodawpaya built two grand lions. Unfortunately, the lions collapsed in the big earthquake of 1839. To get an idea of their scale, this marble ball is one of the eyeballs!
Walk to the base of the unfinished stupa and start a circumnavigation, and you realize what a staggering pile of bricks this thing is. The sides are 73 m (240 ft) long, and construction abruptly ended when the pile reached a height of 49 m (160 ft). If completed, it would have reached to 150 m, making this the largest stupa in the world.
The workmanship was spectacular. Bricks were shaped as needed for specific decorative locations.
The drain pipes were crocodile snouts.
As I wrote above, King Bodawpaya never finished his project. He used thousands of slaves and prisoners of war in the effort. Our Burmese guide said the surrounding villages were tithed to supply bricks and laborers every year. The need to fire millions of bricks caused massive deforestation, and the loss of manpower from the villages caused poverty and discontent. Possibly the use of an astrologer was a convenient way to convince Bodawpaya to give up his project. Bodawpaya died in 1819, and on March 23, 1839, a strong earthquake caused huge cracks to open in the structure. The photograph above shows one of the entrances on the west side of the pile.
The walkway to the top may or may not be open. The sign says no, but the railing is shiny and new.
The Mingun bell in 1873 (photographer unknown)
Approx. 1880.
Bodawpaya's excesses did not end with his stupa. He also wanted the largest bell in the world. Casting started in 1808 and ended in 1810. It was cast on the east side of the river and moved using barges. A canal was built for the barges, then dammed off and elevated via levees to float the bell into position.
The bell weighs 90,718 kg (199,999 pounds) and was for two centuries the largest uncracked bell in the world (the Kremlin bell is larger, but has a crack and cannot be rung). The 1839 earthquake knocked the Mingun Bell off its supports. Technicians from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (the British company than ran boats in the Irrawaddy River) hoisted the bell onto a new support frame in March of 1896. If you look at the photograph above, you can see a massive iron pillar with square-head bolts, an example of heavy-duty Victorian construction.

The blog, Burmese Silver,  has a detailed description, including historical photographs, of how the bell was cast (click the link).
Amazing architecture just does not end in this place. This is the Hsinbyume Pagoda (or the Myatheindan Pagoda), built in 1816 to honor Princess Hsinbyume, who died in childbirth. This is very different from the norm in Burmese pagoda architecture. The concentric rows represent the seven mountain ranges going up to Mount Meru.

Photographs taken with Panasonic G3 and Fujifilm X-E1 digital cameras, with some RAW files processed with PhotoNinja software on a Mac computer.

For previous articles on Burma, please type the word "Burma" in the search box.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Mississippi Delta 24: Panther Burn

Panther Burn is an unincorporated community in northwestern Sharkey County, Mississippi. What a fascinating name! The blog Ophelia Explains it All has a detailed comment from an anonymous writer about the unusual name. It was related to burning the brush to prepare the land for cotton agriculture. Panther Burn is a bit out of the way, but my family and I had been birding in Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge and were heading south on US 61 when we decided to stop and look around.

We saw a group on the porch of the old cold-storage building. They were students from Illinois and Wisconsin with their mothers' ashes. Their mothers had been part of the great diaspora in the 1950s, when thousands of African Americans fled Mississippi to escape poverty, brutality, and the seething racial hatred that dominated the social conditions at the time. The midwife's house had formerly been in the lot next to the warehouse, and the students wanted to spread the ashes where their mothers had been born. We were honored to be able to share this time with these visitors from Illinois and Wisconsin. I sent them digital files of these photographs.

There is not too much to see in Panther Burn, just some old sheds, farm houses, and mobile homes. Very few wood frame buildings remain.

I took these photographs with a Mamiya C220 twin-lens camera and the Mamiya 55mm lens. Film was Kodak Tri-X professional, the older ISO 320 emulsion, developed in XTOL developer. The lens had haze and flared, accounting for the loss in contrast.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Small Towns in Mississippi: Return to Coles on MS 33

If you drive south to Baton Rouge, the woodland route on MS 33 and LA 19 is much more interesting than the four-lane US 61. One of the little towns you drive through in the Homochitto National Forest on MS 33 is Coles (don't blink or you will miss it). The little town consists of a few houses and an abandoned store. I have taken digital snapshots here before but wanted to try some fine-grain film with my Rolleiflex.
An old house at 5599 MS 33 has a shaded porch and some of these old-fashioned steel porch chairs. They remind me of Adirondack-style chairs from cabins in northern New York or New England. The house is secure but appears to be unused.
The lady in the photograph is Mrs. Merit Arnold. She is standing in front of the former store, which was also her brother's home. He was murdered by a person who lived across the street. On the day of the funeral, the Houston, Texas, police called to say they had apprehended the suspect. Mrs. Arnold said the house is empty and deteriorating. Her father or uncle built some of the lumbering railroads in the area in the early 20th century.
Former store at corner of MS 33 and McDowell Road, Coles, Mississippi (Tri-X 400 film, Rolleiflex 3.5E Xenotar camera)
A couple of miles to the north in Crosby, heavy pilings testify to the fact that a railroad once crossed Foster Creek.
A few miles further north in Garden City (just south of Knoxville), I saw an old-fashioned cottage or farm house off the road. Very simple and traditional.
Across the street: one of those great Mississippi yards filled with old cars, metal debris, and other photogenic junk. There is plenty of subject matter here: you just need to slow down and look around.

Photographs taken with a Rolleiflex 3.5E twin-lens reflex camera with a 75mm ƒ/3.5 Xenotar lens using Kodak Panatomic-X film, exposed at ISO 20 (all frames tripod-mounted). The photograph of the old store was on Kodak Tri-X 400 film.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lost Victorian House: 1210 Finney Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi

In early July, my wife and I drove on Finney Street and saw the city inspector's paint marking on a handsome old 2-story wood Victorian-era house. That means trouble, that the house is scheduled for demolition unless the owner completes required repairs to bring it up to the city's safety or habitability standards. This house had been used as a rental for years or decades and was in ratty condition.
But there was scaffolding around the porch and some timbers had been replaced. We hoped it could be saved. These old houses can endure decades of neglect, but once the roof begins to fail, water causes rot.
Bad news. On Saturday, September 2, 2017, I bicycled along Drummond Street and saw the trucks on Finney Street. A demolition crew was at work smushing the Victorian house and loading the timbers and debris into trucks. Was it not worth deconstructing it to save 100+-year-old joists and flooring? Well, that is how we lose our architectural heritage along with irreplaceable virgin timber wood beams.

The square photographs are from a Hasselblad film camera with the 50mm Zeiss Distagon lens, using Kodak Panatomix-X film. The last picture is from a Nexus 4 telephone (sorry, no room for the Hasselblad on my bicycle).