By Jared Downing
The story of the giant bell at bottom of the Bago River begins with a medieval kingdom. It was called the Hanthawaddy Kingdom, a Mon-speaking power based in present-day Bago and the biggest rival to the Burmese rulers throughout medieval Myanmar. In the 15th century, Hanthawaddy was on top, unrivalled in military might, commerce and culture. It was during this golden age that King Dhammazedi came into his own in 1471. Dhammazedi would become the greatest figure in Mon history, turning his kingdom into a hub of international commerce, culture and, especially, religion.
A devout Buddhist, he constructed the largest metal bell ever cast—if it indeed weighed almost 300 tonnes, as the chronicles say.
It was supposedly a thing of stunning beauty, cast in bronze with gold, silver and other metals, encrusted with jewels and etched on every surface with sacred texts. Dhammazedi donated it to the Shwedagon Pagoda (which was also built by the Mon), for its rings of protection and luck to echo throughout Myanmar’s most sacred site.
Skip ahead 100 years. The Hanthawaddy Kingdom has waned, and the dominant Burmese rulers at Ava (near Mandalay) are getting headaches from the wily king of Arakan (modern day Rakhine), who in the 1590s enlisted Portuguese adventurer Filipe de Brito to conquer the area around modern Yangon.
Filipe de Brito soon eschewed his Arakanese ruler and tried to establish himself as a king in his own right—a venture funded by raiding villages, monasteries and pagodas. Temple bells were a particular treat, their metal good for cannons and musket balls, but when he tried to transport Dhammazedi massive bell across the Bago River to his base at Syriam (modern Thanlyin), the raft carrying it broke apart and the bell vanished in the depths.
Filipe de Brito would eventually be impaled on a wooden spike by the Burmese King Natshinnaung. Yet four centuries later, Dhammazedi’s bell has yet to be recovered, despite decades and millions of dollars worth of recovery efforts by teams of archaeologists and divers armed with sonar and other sophisticated equipment. It was not the first bell to sink. Paintings near King Singu Min’s bell at the Shwedagon Pagoda illustrate how it was captured by the British in 1825, fell into the Yangon River and was later rescued by Myanmar people.
But by now Dhammazedi’s bell (or what’s left of it after four centuries of water corrosion) is likely under around 25 feet of mud. During the last serious recovery effort in 2014, Historian Chit San Win explained to BBC News that the rivers have changed course over the years, and, surveying original sources, there is some doubt over whether or not the bell even existed at all.
Yet to the Myanmar public, the bell search isn’t about technology and geography, but faith. Search efforts often favour the guidance of monks over GPS systems, and the locals whisper about angels, demons and Nat spirits watching over the bell from the depths and vying for its fate.
Thus, until by faith or by science it is finally uncovered, the Great Bell of Dhammazedi shall remain one of Myanmar’s most tantalising mysteries.