Divers Probe River’s Depths in Latest Search for Dhammazedi Bell

By The Irrawaddy 12 August 2014

RANGOON — A salvage team is working to retrieve an ancient bell said to have sunk to the bottom of the Rangoon River more than 400 years ago.

Win Myint, a leading member of the team, said the latest effort to find the Great Bell of Dhammazedi, believed to be the world’s largest, began four days ago.

“We believe we will find it. Today, we could dive only once as the current was quite strong. Ten divers are working on it,” he said, adding that among the dive team are ethnic Moken, also known as “sea gypsies” who hail from Burma’s Myeik archipelago and are famous for their deep-sea diving abilities.

“We can’t disclose more information right now,” Win Myint said, without providing a reason for the scant details.

The team received permission from the Rangoon Divisional government to attempt to retrieve the sunken bell last month.

During a press conference on July 25, San Lin, the leader of the salvage team, said the project would last 45 days, and would cost 200 million kyats (US$250,000), with most of the funding coming from donations.

San Lin added that he was involved in seven previous attempts to retrieve the bell, and claimed he had spotted the bell underwater in 1998.

In the area where the bell is believed to have sunk, the team worked with dredgers on Tuesday to remove silt from the bottom of the river.

The bell is believed to lie at the bottom of the muddy confluence of the Bago and Rangoon rivers, where it has remained for more than four centuries. A colonial governor of Syriam, now known as Thanlyin, stole it from Shwedagon Pagoda in 1608 to be melted down and made into cannons. Historical records say the bell fell from a raft and sank on its way across the river.

From 1987 to 1998, the Burmese government and private individuals, including some foreigner prospectors, made several attempts to retrieve the bell in vain, with poor visibility, silting, nearby shipwrecks and 400 years of shifting currents stymying the efforts.

In 2012, a Singaporean firm claimed to have a $10 million budget for the project and hoped to complete the search in about 18 months, but there has been no information about the planned project since.

Last year, Khin Shwe, a well-known businessman and lawmaker from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said he too had plans to salvage the Great Bell of Dhammazedi, even if the costs of the project rose to $10 million.

The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw contributed reporting.