Spirits conjured in search for ancient bell beneath Myanmar's Yangon River

Science has failed to locate massive copper prize beneath Yangon River

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 5:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 3:19pm


Divers stood on the edge of a small wooden fishing boat gazing at the murky, choppy waters below. After receiving blessings from Buddhist monks, they lowered their masks and plunged into the Yangon River, clinging to garden hoses that would act as breathing devices during their descent into darkness.

From the shoreline, thousands of spectators looked on, some peering through borrowed binoculars, praying the men would find what other salvage crews had not: the world's largest copper bell, believed to have been lying beneath the riverbed for more than four centuries.

Weighing an estimated 270 tonnes, the mysterious bell is a symbol of pride for many in the country. And for the first time, search crews are largely relying on spirituality rather than science to try to find it.

Myanmar's superstitious leaders have, in years past, been part of a colourful 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, until 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.

His men rolled the massive bell down a hill and transferred it to a vessel, which sank under the weight at the convergence of the Yangon and Bago rivers and the Pazundaung Creek.

Most people in Myanmar believe the bell is still lying deep beneath the riverbed. But numerous efforts to locate it with the help of hi-tech equipment have failed.

The latest operation - which is expected to last up to 45 days and cost US$250,000 raised through donations - is being headed by a former naval official, San Lin, who believes the copper treasure is protected by a curse.

When he said in July that he was one of the reincarnations of the 14 guardians of the bell and could speak to the spirits of those who have blocked past retrieval efforts, many local reporters laughed, ignoring the story.

But accounts of the extravagant recovery efforts have since captured imaginations - the prayers, the offerings to nats, or spirits, the vegetarian diets adopted by the diving team in deference to Buddhist principles. Now, the stories grace the local papers' front pages.

And thanks to social media, unsubstantiated rumours that the bell has been spotted have sent thousands of curious spectators flocking to the river.

Chit San Win, a historian who has taken part in several of the searches in the past two decades, wants to believe the story of the bell, but he has his doubts.

Three major historical records written about that period do not mention the bell, Chit San Win said, and King Dhammazedi did not document donating a bell that would have weighed more than 100 Asian elephants.

The only record Chit San Win has found that mentions the bell was written by an Italian merchant, Gasparo Balbi, who came to Myanmar in the 16th century and wrote that he saw it.

And as for the new supernatural search technique? Chit San Win has little faith.

"It is just like consulting an astrologer to find a lost cow, who would ask you to look for it in all four directions," he said.