Singapore Firm to Help Raise Sunken Bell

By Hpyo Wai Tha 1 August 2012

RANGOON—After several failed attempts to salvage the world’s largest bell which currently rests at the bottom of a Rangoon river, a new project is likely to be launched at the end of the year with the help of a Singaporean company.

Earlier this month, the Historical Research Department of the Ministry of Culture and SD Mark International LLP Co. of Singapore organized a workshop in the former capital to seek suggestions for rescuing the 520-year-old Dhammazedi Bell.

“We’ve already had agreement at ministerial level. The company is now having further discussions with the government authorities. When completed, we will be able to start locating the bell in December when the rainy season is completely over,” Chit San Win, the official liaison for the salvaging project, told The Irrawaddy.

The bell is believed to have lain at the bottom of the muddy confluence of the Bago and Rangoon rivers for four centuries. A colonial governor of Syriam apparently looted it from the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1612 to be melted down and made into cannons. Historical records say the bell fell from a raft and sank into the water on its way across the city.

From 1987 to 1998, the Burmese government and private individuals, including some foreigner prospectors, tried in vain to retrieve the bell, with poor visibility, silting, nearby shipwrecks and 400 years of shifting currents hampering progress.

Chit San Win, who was also involved in previous salvage attempts and has published three books on the bell, said that former efforts failed due to a lack of financial and technological assistance.

But this time, with US $10 million support from SD Mark International and the participation of a renowned British explorer and marine salvager, he is hopeful that the 18-month operation will prove successful.

“In my experience, to spot the exact location of the bell is the most difficult task,” he said. “If you know where it is, the rest becomes easy. This time we could make it.”

To ensure success, the company will work with Michael Mike Hatcher who is famous for his recovery of large quantities of Chinese porcelain from the Dutch East India Company ship Geldermalsen.

According to the opening address by Culture and Information Minister Kyaw Hsan at the recent workshop, the company offered to return the bell to Burma to be restored at the Shwedagon Pagoda as part of a non-profit project.

“If successful, the company will have to pay $6 million to Michael Mike Hatcher for his efforts,” said Chit San Win. “The only request they made to the government is to allow them to publish the salvaging accounts of the bell. But if the authorities give them some reward, they would be happy to accept it.”

Historical records say that the Dhammazedi Bell is 290-tons of copper, gold, silver and tin alloy. The retrieval would confirm the bell as the largest one ever cast for it would outweigh the 128-ton Moscow Bell otherwise considered to be in first place.

In his 1853 account of a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Venetian gem merchant Gaspero Balbi wrote that the bell was “seven paces and three hand breadths and full of letters from top to bottom.”

Chit San Win said that any engraved writing could provide a window to Burmese history, and the bell itself would be an invaluable artifact of ancient art. “It will surely become a symbol of national pride and a tourist attraction if successfully salvaged for it is the largest bell in the world,” he added.

Apart from the great Dhammazedi, the Shwedagon Pagoda still boasts two other huge bells: the Singu and Thayawaddy each weighing 24 and 42 tons respectively. The Singu Bell met the same fate as the Dhammazedi Bell in 1824 when the British tried to carry it to India, but it was subsequently raised and returned to its rightful place.

Meanwhile, the state-run The Mirror newspaper reported on Monday that ringing the 234-year-old Singu Bell will be prohibited from August in order to aid its preservation.