RANGOON — Just weeks after a Burmese tycoon-cum-lawmaker declared that he plans to salvage the Great Bell of Dhammazedi from the bottom of the Rangoon River, ethnic Mon community leaders have claimed ownership of the bell and demanded to be included in the project.
The massive bell, which was ordered cast by the Mon King Dhammazedi in 1484, is thought to still lie where it sunk in the river more than 400 years ago. Last month, it emerged Union Solidarity and Development Party Member of Parliament Khin Shwe was planning the latest attempt to raise the bell.
During a press conference last week, members of the Mon Literature and Culture Committee said the Mon are the rightful owners of the bell, and demanded that the government and all ethnic groups respect their cultural heritage.
One committee member, Nai Ye Zaw, said the salvaging of the Great Bell of Dhammazedi should be a cooperative effort involving several parties, rather than being monopolized by one person. He said he was afraid a unilateral rescue effort would lead to an obscuring of the true ethnic and historical significance of the Great Bell.
“We Mon also want to cooperate in this restoration. It should be an inclusive project rather than being run by only one person,” Nai Ye Zaw said, without specifically naming Khin Shwe, a powerful ethnic Burman businessman who runs the Zay Kabar Company.
Nai Ye Zaw claimed that Mon people have been ignored as the rightful owners of the bell, since there is rarely a mention of the Mon when the bell is described in Burmese. “We want people to call it ‘the Great Mon Bell of Dhammazedi’ as it is cast and donated by a Mon King Dhammazedi,” he said.
The copper, gold, silver and tin alloy bell is documented as weighing 290-tons—which would make it the biggest bell in the world. King Dhammazedi gifted it to Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, where it resided until Portuguese warlord Filipe de Brito e Nicote (known as Nga Zinka in Burmese) in 1608 tried to transport it on a raft to have it melted down. The raft sank at the confluence of the Pegu and Rangoon rivers, a site known as Monkey Point, where it presumably still sits.
Nai Za Naing, another member of the Mon committee, clarified that the ethnic leaders would not insist that the bell be taken out of Rangoon. “We just want people to recognize that the bell is part of Mon ancient cultural heritage. We’re not asking to take it back home to Mon State,” said Nai Za Nain.
Dr. Banya Aung Moe, a lawmaker from Mon Sate, said that several attempts to discuss about the salvaging of the bell at Burma’s Parliament were met with no concrete answers from the relevant authorities.
“The Ministry of Culture once had a meeting about it, but nothing happened,” the MP said.
Since the late 1980s, the Burma government and local and foreign private individuals have launched various plans to salvage the bell, but the its precise location has not yet been confirmed. Singaporean firm SD Mark International in 2012 said it would salvage the bell, giving an 18 month timescale for the project and estimating the cost of retrieving it at US$10 million. The project was later canceled by the Ministry of Culture, apparently due to funding difficulties.
The Shwedagon Pagoda still boasts two other huge bells: the Singu and Thayawaddy, weighing 24 and 42 tons respectively. The Singu Bell almost met the same fate as the Dhammazedi Bell in 1824 when the British tried to carry it to India and it was also sunk, but it was subsequently raised and returned to its rightful place.
The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report.