Spirits, prayers mark hunt for Myanmar's lost bell
By Aye Aye Win, AP
August 24, 2014, 12:01 am TWN
YANGON, Myanmar--Divers stand on the edge of a small wooden fishing boat gazing at the murky, choppy waters below. After receiving blessings from Buddhist monks, they lower their masks and plunge one-by-one into the mighty Yangon River, clinging to garden hoses that will act as primitive breathing devices during their dizzying descent into darkness.
From the shoreline, thousands of spectators look on, some peering through borrowed binoculars, praying the men will find what other salvage crews have not: The world's largest copper bell, believed to have been lying deep beneath the riverbed for more than four centuries.
Weighing an estimated 270 tons, the mysterious bell is a symbol of pride for many in this country of 60 million that only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule and self-imposed isolation. And for the first time, search crews are largely relying on spirituality rather than science to try and find it.
Myanmar's superstitious leaders have, in years past, been part of a colorful cast of characters who believe reclaiming the treasure is important if the nation is ever to regain its position of glory as the crown jewel of Asia.
It's a story of myth and mystery: King Dhammazedi, after whom the bell was named, was said to have ordered it cast in the late 15th century, donating it soon after to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most sacred temple which sits on a hilltop in the old capital, Yangon.
The bell remained there for more than 130 years, when it was reportedly stolen by Portuguese mercenary Philip de Brito, who wanted to take it across the river so it could be melted down and turned into cannons for his ships. With tremendous difficulty, his men rolled the massive bell down a hill and transferred it to a rickety vessel, which sank under the weight at the convergence of the Yangon and Bago rivers and the Pazundaung Creek. The bell never reached its destination of Thanlyin, then called Syriam, which was part of Mon Kingdom and subsequently became a port of the Portuguese and French in the 16th century.
Most people in Myanmar believe the bell is still lying deep beneath the riverbed, buried under layers of silt. But numerous efforts to locate it with the help of sonar imaging and other high-tech equipment have failed, and some historians now question whether it even exists.