Our young and vivacious Myanmar guide is mystified by my question. Who exactly is this “Indian king” whose grave I want to visit in Yangon? When did he die here — why was he here in the first place? And why has no other visitor she has received ever asked to go to the tomb?
She quickly goes into detective mode and thanks to the internet we discover the burial spot of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, sent into exile in Burma by the British rulers of India. He died here in 1862, a frail and heartbroken man.
The last emperor’s poignant story of pride and betrayal is magnificently told by William Dalrymple. But even before I read the book, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tragic life and times had left an enduring mark.
I am determined to visit his grave. And clearly my enthusiasm and determination are contagious. Not only are my friend and the guide anxious to go to the tomb, our chauffeur is equally curious.
But locating the last Mughal’s final resting place on the internet is one thing; actually finding it in crowded, bustling Yangon is another. The address says it is in the vicinity of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, a sprawling, glittering complex of golden stupas, meditating Buddhas and chanting monks which has long fascinated tourists, believers and non-believers.
The evening before we had walked amid the shiny mirror mosaics and burning candles, along with hundreds of other enchanted visitors and pilgrims. There is much to see and fascinate. Everything looks bright and new. We are told that donations for the pagoda pour in daily, so more and more gold leaf is plastered on to the stupas.
The people of Myanmar are rightfully proud of their Buddhist heritage —and look after it devotedly.
The last Mughal emperor’s surroundings are quieter and more modest. We drive around for a bit before we find the street and then spend several minutes peering behind high walls before we come upon the unassuming yellow mausoleum.
We are both saddened and reassured by what we see: the shrine is certainly small and unimpressive. But it is clean and well-looked after, with dense trees providing much-needed shade in the hot Yangon sun.
We are welcomed with open arms by the friendly caretaker who is clearly thrilled to have such curious visitors to talk to. He takes us to the graves of the emperor, (actually Bahadur Shah Zafar is buried just below his “official” grave on the top floor, he tells us) his wife and granddaughter and reads out the Urdu poems inscribed on the walls, along with their English translation.
There are paintings and some very moving pictures of the frail and dying king and his family. The pain on his gaunt face pierces our hearts. The caretaker tells us that his visitors are usually from South Asia — as are the donations which pay for the maintenance of the mausoleum. There are prayers on Fridays, he says proudly. “Bahadur Shah Zafar may have died a lonely and broken man — but his memory is alive,” he says proudly.
For a few moments, time seems to stand still as we hear the story of the last Mughal and his life in exile. His grave was left unmarked and forgotten until 1903, the caretaker tells us, when after some protests from the Muslim community in Myanmar, the British rulers of Burma constructed a stone slab to mark the site. The spot was “lost again” only to be found in 1991. A mausoleum was constructed and inaugurated in 1994.
And then just as suddenly, we are back in vibrant, modern-day Yangon. Like much of South-East Asia, Myanmar is on a roll. Encouraged by moves towards political reform and opening by the military junta which ruled the country for decades, business and investments are pouring in.
China, Japan, India and neighbouring South-East Asian Nations are vying for contracts and deals while more cautious Europeans and Americans lag behind. Tourists from the four corners of the world are anxious to visit the country before it loses its authenticity.
During our week in the country, the talk is about upcoming elections in November and whether or not there will be a change in the constitution so that Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the nation’s slain founding father, can stand for president.
Myanmar’s constitution forbids anybody with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president. Since Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are their two sons, there is little doubt that the provision was drafted exclusively to prevent her from becoming president.
Like many countries, Myanmar is full of contradictions: newspapers talk of peace treaties between the government and some of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Little notice is paid, however, to the plight of the more than one million Rohingya Muslims (who are not recognised as citizens but referred to as “Bengalis”) who have been herded into squalid camps by the Buddhist majority in western Rakhine state.
Much to the dismay of many observers, Suu Kyi has yet to condemn the violence. But Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia are pushing for more humane treatment for the Rohingyas as are the European Union, the US and international human rights groups.
Dodgy politics coexist with a booming economy, huge SUVs hog the congested roads of Yangon while motorcycles and bicycles are banned from the streets and donations to monasteries and pagodas keep pouring in while schools and hospitals struggle to survive.
As we travel across the country, soaking in the beauty of Bagan and the past glories of Mandalay, I have no doubt that the people of Myanmar are determined to join their South-East Asian counterparts in their march towards progress and democracy. And neither the current government — or for that matter Aung San Suu Kyi — can stand in their way.