IRRAWADDY DELTA: TOWNS, BOAT TRAVEL AND THE IMPACT OF CYCLONE NARGIS

IRRAWADDY DELTA

IRRAWADDY DELTA or Ayeyarwady Delta lies in the Irrawaddy Division, the lowest expanse of land in Myanmar. It that fans out from the limit of tidal influence at Myan Aung to the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, 290 kilometers to the south at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River. The delta region is densely populated, and plays a dominant role in the cultivation of rice in rich alluvial soil as low as just three meters above sea level, although it also includes fishing communities in a vast area full of rivers and streams. In May 2008, the delta suffered a major disaster, devastated by Cyclone Nargis, which reportedly killed over at least 77,000 people with over 55,900 missing, and left about 2.5 million homeless. Portions of the low-lying delta—50,400 square kilometers, 19,500 square miles—were destroyed by Cyclone Nargis. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Irrawaddy Delta produces 65 percent of Myanmar’s rice. The region also is home to 80 percent of its aquaculture, 50 percent of its poultry and 40 percent of its pig production, according to the FAO. The area has numerous rivers and channels and much of the transport in and around the area is by boat. There are many creeks and streams. The rich alluvial soil is ideal for rice growing. Many fish are shrimp are available. Dried fish and shrimp from the region are used to make sauces and paste.

The Irrawaddy Delta comprises the main arms of Pathein River, Pyapon River, Bogale River, and Toe River. Mawtin Point, formerly Cape Negrais, is a famous landmark in the Irrawaddy Division, and it also marks the south west end of Myanmar. The highest point of the delta, Waphu Mount 404 meters (1,325 feet) lies between Pathein and Mawtin Zun (point), on the western strip of the delta. A major portion of the area is covered with low lying lands just three meters above sea level. This alluvial plain is bounded to the west by the Rakhine Yoma and to the east by the Bago Yoma. It is dissected into peninsulas and islands by the large southward flowing rivers which are subject to tidal intrusion. The lower seaward third of the delta is completely flat with no local relief and stretches for 130 kilometers from east to west.

The waters of these rivers are very turbid due to a heavy silt load they carry and the sea is very shallow with depths less than 5.5 meters across the coastline and in the east for a distance of up to 28 kilometers offshore. As a result of constant accretion into the sea, the delta is advancing at a rate of 5–6 kilometers per 100 years, equivalent to about 1,000 hectares per year.

Annual rainfall in the delta region is approximately 2,500 milimeters (100 inches), with a mean temperatures of 32 degrees C (90 degrees F). Most of the rain falls during the monsoons between mid-May and mid-November. It is cool and dry from mid-October to mid-February when temperatures begin to rise with premonsoon squalls in April and early May.

Cyclone Nargis

The Irrawaddy Delta was hit hard in early May 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which left over 138,000 dead and tens of thousands injured, and 2.5 million homeless throughout Myanmar. It was the worst natural disaster ever in Myanmar (Burma). Damage was estimated at over $10 billion, which made it the most damaging cyclone ever recorded in this basin. The Myanmar government estimated the storm completely destroyed 450,000 of 800,000 homes hit. Associated Press called it “Asia's answer to Hurricane Katrina”—except it was much more deadly.

Packing winds upwards of 195 kph (120 mph), Cyclone Nargis became one of Asia's deadliest storms by hitting land at one of the lowest points in Myanmar and setting off a storm surge that reached over 40 kilometers (25 miles) inland. Among the worst areas were Labutta, Bogale, Pyapon, Dedaye and Kyaiklat. More than 400,000 hectares of farmland were flooded with seawater and more than 200,000 drafts animals were killed in the Yangon and Irrawaddy areas. Before the storm hit this area produced 3.3 million tons of crops on 900,000 hectares of land in the monsoon season and 1 million tons of crops on 200,000 hectares in the summer. Initially some said that crops could only be raised on 40 percent of the damaged land and loses could clip two percent off Myanmar’s GDP for 2008 but after the disaster journalists reported that crops were raised in many places thought to be unable to produce crops.

Cyclone Nargis was a rare, eastward-moving, low-latitude, strong tropical cyclone. It made landfall in the evening of May 2, 2008 and lashed Myanmar for three days. It sent a storm surges 40 kilometers up the densely-populated Irrawaddy Delta. Nargis advanced eastward along the coastal delta region, over rivers, other waterways and villages surrounded by paddy fields. The cyclone initially hit the land with wind speeds of up to 194 kph, and later accelerated to a top speed of 238 kph. The name "Nargis" is an Urdu word meaning daffodil.

Town and People in the Irrawaddy Delta Area

Major cities include Bogale, Maubin, Myaungmya, Moulmeingyun, Pantanaw, Pathein, Pyapon, Dedaye up to Twante, and Kyauktan. Islands: The principal islands include Haingyi Kyun, Leit Kyun (Turtle Island), Pyin Salu Kyun, and Meinmahla Kyun (Pretty Women Island). There is no extensive system of irrigation or water transport canals except Twante Canal, constructed during the colonial period. It is much beneficial to the delta region for communication and commerce through water transportation with Yangon. Meinmahla Kyun Reservation is a national heritage site as well as a natural habitat to many mangrove forests and diverse sea life.

The delta was historically populated by the Mon. Politically, the Burman kingdoms in farther north the Irrawaddy river had controlled the delta area since mid-11th century for the most part with few exceptions. The control of the fertile area reverted to Bago-based Mon kingdoms in the 13th to 15th centuries (1287–1539) and briefly in 18th century (1747–1757).The delta was also where the British first got toe-hold of Burma. The British seized Haingyi Kyun or Negrais Island in 1753, after the Mon resisted their request to establish a trading post. The Burmese king Alaungpaya ceded the island to the British in 1757 but retook the island in 1759 by force when the king felt he had been betrayed by the British in his war against the Mon. The battle of Danubyu in 1825 in the delta was the last major stand by the Burmese against the advancing British forces in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). The delta was seized by the British in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852 and became part of British Burma.

The British colonial administration drained the marshes and swamps that dominated the area, and built dykes and embankments starting from 1861 for rice cultivation as the Burmans began to migrate south into British Burma in search of greener pastures. There now exist 1,300 kilometers of major embankments in the delta to protect 600,000 hectares of paddyland.

The Irrawaddy Delta is mainly populated by farming and fishing communities. Many villages and market towns are located along the main rivers. At 100 per square kilometer, it is one of the most densely populated regions in the country with a total population of 3.5 million. Current inhabitants include, apart from the Mon and Bamar, a majority Pwo Kayin, and Muslims.

As the region is Myanmar's largest rice producer, its infrastructure of road transportation has been greatly developed during the 1990s and 2000s. Two thirds of the total arable land is under rice cultivation with a yield of about 2,000-2,500 kilograms per hectare. Fishing is carried out from fixed fishing frames as well as from small boats. Prawn fishery and harvesting sea turtle eggs are also major commercial activities both of which are now threatened by the loss of mangrove forests as clearing of land proceeds for agriculture. Since communication throughout the delta is easiest by water, almost every household possesses a boat and major towns such as Bogale, Mawlamyinegyun and Myaungmya are served by steamer.

Irrawaddy Delta Cargo Boats

Irrawaddy Delta Cargo Boats are the backbone of transportation in the Irrawaddy Delta. Boat services are available for Irrawaddy Delta region from the boat dock in Yangon. Tickets are available at Lan Thit Jetty in Seikkan Township. Describing a trip on a river cargo boat after Cyclone Nargis, the Los Angeles Times reported: “The 30-foot boats I hired normally haul sugar cane, bananas or rice. No crew was willing to chance two trips, so after each four-night journey, we returned to Yangon, switched boats and set out again. The boats are not built for comfort. The holds are open to leave room for cargo, which meant my only hiding place was the cramped space beneath the top deck. About 15 feet across and 8 feet deep, with a wooden ceiling and peeling turquoise paint, it was a dark, sweltering cell barely big enough to sit upright in. [Source: Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2008]

The pilots sat on the roof above me. One, to keep his hands free for frequent bottles of cheap cane liquor, pinched a steel pipe between his toes, deftly working the Chinese-made 18-horsepower diesel engine that spun a long-tail propeller sluggishly churning the water. The machine pounded like a jackhammer. And since the four-man crew felt safer staying away from land, it thumped day and night, stopping only when we slipped into storm-ravaged villages.

Their courage braced by the cane liquor, the crewmen felt their way through the night. They poked at shallow channels with a bamboo sounding pole, comparing what they could see of the ruined landscape with foggy memories of trees that once pointed the way. Sunset was also the signal for the boats' full-time occupants to come crawling out of the cracks. Cockroaches the size of mice and spiders with legs as long as crabs' feasted on the crumbs of our food. At times, so many bugs skittered around that it sounded like a gentle rain. A green vine snake dropped in one night from an overhanging branch. The long, thin snakes are agile and only mildly venomous. A bite would be very painful but not fatal. Just the same, it would have blown my cover pretty quickly. A crew member who usually worked the hand pump to clear the constant flow of bilge water beat the serpent to death. Carefully keeping it at arm's length, he tossed it overboard with a stick.

Places in the Irrawaddy Delta

Twante (15 miles away from Yangon) lies in Irrawaddy Delta region outside Yangon. It is famous for its "Oh-Bo pottery". The boat trip there provides a view of life along the canal while Twante itself provides interest as a center of pottery and hand-woven cotton cloth. Twante is also famous for the 21-mile-long canal that runs between the Irrawaddy Delta and the Yangon River. Twante can be reached by land or river from Yangon. The streets of Twante are littered with so many beautiful pots of different sizes & shapes.

In Myanmar, there are four big Pagodas bearing the name “Shwe Sandaw”. They are one at Taungoo, an ancient capital about 180 miles to the north of Yangon, one at Pyay another ancient town about 160 miles to the north of Yangon, one at Pagan another old capital in Central Myanmar and one at Twante. As the name suggests these pagodas are the religious movements in which the sacred hairs of Lord Buddha were enshined.

Shwe Sandaw Pagoda

Shwe Sandaw Pagoda (in Twante) is claimed to have been built during the lifetime of the Lord Buddha. Venerable monk Leidi U Pannavamsa Maha Thera compiled a chronicle of Twante Shwe Sandaw Pagoda, based upon old Myanmar manuscripts such as palm leaves, parabeiks (folding papers) stone and bell inscriptions. U Lu Pe Win, director of the Archaeology Department and U Pan Maung of Thudhammawaddy Press edited and published it. In it is the legend which runs as follows:

In the year 118 of Maha Sakarit, in the 8 th year of his Buddhahood, Gotama Buddha made a journey to Martaban Zingyaik Hill range in the kingdom of Thudhamma-pura. He made a stop on that hill range and facing west gave a smile. When his cousin disciple Maha Thera Ananda who was with Lord Buddha asked Lord Buddha why he smiled, Lord Buddha explained that in two of his previous countless existences he had been an elephant and a deer which lived on a forested ridge called Mayuda where they died and their dead bodies were buried, and that two sacred hairs of his would be enshrined in a pagoda for worship during his lifetime and that more hairs and relics of his would be added to it after his demise.”Not long after this divine prophesy was made by lLrd Buddha, two merchant brothers Tikkha Panna and Sagara Panna with five hundred seamen went out to the sea for trade. On the way they met a galleon the crew of which informed them that Lord Buddha was sojourning on the Martaban Zingyaik Hill range. The brothers went there to worship Lord Buddha and offered him some cakes. Lord Buddha gave them his divine prophesy and on Tuesday the 14th waxing moon of Thadingyut (October) in the year 111 of Maha Sukart he gave them two strands of hair from his head. The two brothers carried the sacred hair relics in a ruby-studded gold casket and set sail. When they landed at the port of Thiho Nge Khabin, the King of Pokkrawaddy named Thamein Htaw Banna Yan and his chief Queen Meinda Devi, hearing the arrival of the Buddha's sacred hairs held a grand celebration to receive the Sacred relics. Then they found the Mayuda Ridge on which a pagoda was built. The two sacred hairs were enshined in it with many jewels and jewelleries dedicated to religion. It took nine years to complete the building from the laying of the foundation in the year 114 to the topping of it with a crown called “hti” in the year 123, on the full moon day of Tazaungmon (November).

One hundred and fifteen years later four more sacred hairs of Lord Buddha were added to the vault of the Pagoda. The story goes that seven Arahats (Saints) brought to the Mayuda Ridge four sacred hairs of Lord Buddha from the shrine at the court of King Thiri Dhamma of Thuwunna-bomi (Thaton). The Mon King Banna Kawde received the relics with delight and reverence. They were placed in a specially made gold receptacle guarded by three hundred warriors as guard of honor at each cardinal direction. Then on Friday the 3rd waning moon of Tubodwe (February) in the year 238 the relics were enshined in the Pagoda on the Mayuda Ridge.”The above is the legend of how Twante Shwe Sandaw was constructed. The chronicle goes on to record how the Pagoda was maintained and renovated throughout historic periods. But there are three long gaps in its record - Buddhist Era 101 to 936 which is a gap of 835 years, A.D. 1284 to 1354 which is a gap of 74 years and A.D. 1661 to 1763 which is a gap of 102 years. Except for these three gaps its chronology is continuous providing us with many historical data. Since the Pagoda is located on an earth fault it has suffered serious damage and destruction caused by seven major earthquakes in the period of 796 years (A.D. 1054 to 1850), - in A.D. 1054, 1394, 1512, 1564, 1596, 1773 and 1783. It was repaired renovated and regilt by 24 Myanmar Kings and reconstructed four times. The present design which is on the model of Shwedagon Pagoda at Yangon was introduced by King Hsinbyushin of Konbaung Period. It was he who raised its height to 136 cubits and built 40 surrounding minor stupas. The chronicle records six events of hoisting the new hti (umbrella or crown) on top of the Pagoda, and lists 24 royal donors, repairers, renovators or reconstructors including such famous Kings as Duttabaung, Anawrahta, Kyanzittha, Banna U, Rajadarit, Queen Shin Saw Pu, Dhamazedi, Tabin Shwehti, Bayint Naung, Anaukpetlun, Thalun, Hsinbyushin, Bodawpaya, Bagyidaw, Thayawaddy and Pagan. Recently the Pagoda was renovated and a new hti hoisted on its top. Thanks to a modern motor road and river crossing bridges constructed as part of infrastructure upgrading and regional development programmes, the Pagoda can be visited from Yangon by a regular bus route in less than an hour.

Zalun

Zalun (80 kilometers from Yangon, only a day’s return journey with a ferry crossing at Nyaungdon on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy) is a small town in the Irrawaddy Region and good place to use as a base to explore Irrawaddy Delta life. For Myanmar Buddhists Zalun is a holy place as its principal Buddha Image, The Noble Mahn Aung Myin Buddha, is believed to be endowed with extraordinary strength and powers. It is enshrined in a large temple with a golden stupa rising from the center of the roof. The grounds are spacious and dotted with many large tamarind trees as well as a large Bo tree. Images of the four Buddhas, of this present world, the Noble Kawkusan, Konagon, Kassapa and Gautama are placed at significant points on the base. Pilgrims from all over the country and a large number from Yangon and nearby towns come to worship and pray there, especially on weekends. Whole families arrive in the morning, spend the day there and leave when the heat of the afternoon sun has abated.

The Maha Mahn Aung Myin Buddha Image was said to have been cast in Rakhine State on the orders of King Sandar Suriya at the same time as four others images. The first to be cast was the famed Maha Muni Buddha now at Mandalay. From the remaining metal the second image to be cast was known as Shin Kyaw, the third as Shwe Bontha and the fourth, the Mahn Aung Myin Image. The name Mahn Aung Myin signifies the Lord Gautama’s victory over the five Maras (evils). After the image was cast it occupied a place of honour on the right flank of the Maha Muni Image. Its total weight was altogether (666.6 viss, a viss being equivalent to 3.6 pounds.).

In the year 1785 A.D. (1146 M.E) after the son of Myanmar King Bodawpaya (King Badon), had put down the rebellion that had erupted in Rakhine, the Crown Prince, appropriated the Maha Muni Buddha Image and the Mahn Aung Myin and Shwebontha Images which were then ordered to be brought to the capital Amarapura. All three images were brought through the Taungup Pass with great difficulty and conveyed by a huge gilded raft from Pandaung river port to Pyay, where it sojourned on west bank of the Irrawaddy. On arrival at Pyay, it is said that the Rakkhine people who had accompanied the Buddha images sought an audience with the Crown Prince and appealing to his magnanimity and graciousness asked for the return of one of the Images to be conveyed back to their native land. The Crown Prince however said that the journey over the towering mountains and jungle had been truly arduous and that to transport even one of the Images back to Rakhine was impractical and well-nigh impossible. But to partly fulfill their desire he told them he would enshrine one of the Images, the left-flanking Shwebontha on the very spot where they had sojourned.

The Image was never returned to Amarapura for the British annexed the entire lower half of Myanmar up to Pyay and Toungoo which meant Zalun also came under British rule. The British occupation forces, as is the wont of all victors, confiscated objects, valuable and not so valuable, and bronze and brass were greatly in demand for the making of small coins. Thus in the Myanmar year of 1217 (A.D. 1856), the Mahn Aung Myin Buddha Image was seized by the British and sent by S.S. Shwe Chein to Bombay, (Mumbai), India. The Zalun town folk were devastated with grief but to no avail. On arrival in Bombay, it was first hoarded willy nilly in a warehouse together with many other Buddha Images and objects. These were melt down to make coins. But when it came to the turn of the Mahn Aung Myin Image, it was found to resist the fire in the forge, no matter how high the fires were stoked. This sacrilegious act was said to have been followed by violent thunder storms. Attempts were also made to fragment the image with hammer blows but not a dent was made. The popular folklore states that these acts of sacrilege had soon to be stopped because the then reigning British monarch Victoria suffered severe inexplicable migraine headaches and dreamt in her sleep that her malady would be cured only if the Zalun Image were sent back to its true abode.It is of course a matter of faith. But no matter what the reasons, the Mahn Aung Myin Buddha Image was restored to Zalun in tact. Since then the Mahn Aung Myin Image came to be popularly known as the "Zalun Pyi Daw Pyan Hpaya" (The Image that Returned To The Royal Home).

Pathein (Bassein)

Pathein (140 kilometers west and 3 hours drive from Yangon and 300 kilometers from Yangon by rail) lies in the southern Irrawaddy delta area. A located on the banks of the Gnawun river, 120 kilometers from sea, it was known in the British colonial era as Bassein. Centuries ago Pathein was known as Cosmin. Ralph Fitch. the first recorded British traveller who visited Myanmar between 1586 and 1588 called it Cosmin. Some authorities argued that this word Cosmin was a corruption of two Mon words kaw and thamein. The word kaw signifies an island and thamein a prince. In the mid-sixteenth century Bassein. like Dagon (later Yangon) was an insignificant port. These two ports could not measure up to Thanlyin (Cirion or Syriam). Dalla, Mottama (Martaban) and Bago (Pegu) were noteworthy ports in those days.

Pathein is ituated at the western edge of the Irrawaddy Delta, it is accessible by large vessels and is one of Myanmar's chief ports. A rice-milling and export center, with 150,000 residents, it used to handle large quantities of teak and bamboo. A fort was established here by the British in 1852. The city was occupied by the Japanese during World War II.

Today Pathein is the capital of the deltaic region. This port of call is reached by road. or by double deckers through the complex Irrawaddy river deltaic region. The landscapes are all full of rice producers with crops such as sesames, peanuts, groundnuts, jute, maize, pulses, tobacco and chilies. Parasol production is synonymous with Pathein is also an important port of call for ferryboats carrying passengers or cargo plying between Yangon and the northern and eastern parts of the Myanmar. So it has a rather busy harbor area, which is fronted by a crescent of shop houses and go-downs. Rice from the delta region continues to be exported through the port of Pathein.

Some 300,000 people live in Pathein. which was established in 1852 as a garrison town by the British. Although the majority are ethnic Bamars (formerly Burmans) and mainly Buddhist, there is a significant number of Kayin (formerly Karen) who are either Catholics or members of the Karen Baptist Church. These are mainly lowland farming Karen who were encouraged by the British to move form Karen state in eastern Myanmar to help settle the delta region. which was in need of rice farmers.

Mawtinson Pagoda is the most famous pagoda in Pathein. If you follow the Pathein River till it empties into the Andaman Sea you’ll reach Cape Mawtin (Mawtinson), site of a well-known festival during the lunar month of Tabodwe (February. March). On the seaside of the Cape is a sandy beach and the revered Pagoda Maw Tin Son. It is very surprising to note that the pagoda is water-logged all the year round except in the days of the annual festival. The seawater is out well beyond the pagoda during the festival and lots of stalls selling local products, seafood, ornaments made of seashells are set up. Lodging houses, built of bamboo for the revelers, mushroom on the beach. Once the festival is over, the water moves up and covers the beach. It seems that the pagoda is located on the sea. From Pathein. there are roads to the popular beaches of Myanmar. Chaung Thar Beach and Ngwe Saung Beach. From Pathein. it will take only about 3 hours drive through the mountains and to the beautiful beaches.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020


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