Cosmopolitan Rangoon and the connective markers of its built heritage

Cast iron posts at the entrance to Yangon's Nattukottai Chettiar temple.Yangon (or Rangoon as it was formerly called), was noted as early as the eighteenth century for its cosmopolitan crowd. Symes remarked in 1795 that the city 'exhibits a motley of assemblage of merchants, such as few towns of much greater magnitude can produce; Malabars, Moguls, Persians, Parsees, Armenians, Portugueze, French, and English, all mingle here and are engaged in various branches of commerce'.[1] This cosmopolitan crowd has struck most visitors to the city ever since. Along with its population, Yangon's cosmopolitanism is also encapsulated in the mix of religious and community buildings such as stupas, mosques, temples, churches, community halls, trusts, and their great concentration in downtown.

To be sure, upon the 1852 British annexation of the city and its development into an administrative center, the city-port very soon exemplified grand European architecture befitting the status of a newly-established center of the British Empire. The dominant architectural language to which the city builders adhered was predominantly European: Greek-style capitals, stucco garlands, wrought iron balustrades, clock towers, or art-deco style awnings were commonly incorporated in the design of downtown buildings. Even religious architecture like mosques occasionally featured elements of Western iconography such as Greek-style capitals or vaulted arcades.

Underneath the veneer of European architectural style, however, Yangon's striking mix of civic and religious architecture remains dotted with built markers that give further insight into the cosmopolitan dimension of the city's built heritage. The vicissitudes of history and time, and the damages caused by the on-going building boom have clearly taken a toll on this heritage. But the markers that are still visible firmly attest to how and by whom buildings located in the downtown were built. Of the many types of markers that could be identified, two types specifically highlight aspects of connective history in the building of the city under British rule.

Falkirk Iron Posts, Yangon Division Court OfficeA first type of marker is the provenance or place of manufacture still visible on many construction materials. A stroll along the streets of downtown or a visit to a teashop can be very instructive in this regard. For instance, the iron foundries of Lanarkshire, Scotland, supplied the steel beams for a building housing a teashop on Sule Pagoda road, located next to the former Du Bern ice factory. The Falkirk Iron Foundries, also in Scotland, supplied the iron posts of the entrance way at the General Accountant's office (now the Yangon Division Court Office) located at the corner of Strand Road and Phayre Street (now Pansodan St.). Cowie Bros. Co, Glasgow, provided the iron posts of the portico of the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank) and also the cast-iron steps of the spiral staircase of the red brick building on Bank Street. Steel beams produced by the company Cargo Fleet, Middleborough, England, were used for building this same red brick building. Economic archives typically document the volumes and types of products exported from Great Britain to British Burma. A quick survey of built structures in downtown, however, offers concrete hints of the widespread use of these products and the variety of their provenance.

For other construction materials, labels mentioning their provenance are more difficult to identify, partly because of restricted access or concealment under the coating of some part of the building. A visit to the Scott Market's eastern section, nevertheless, reveals interesting information about the roof tiles used there. Labels indicating their place of production show that some were imported from Marseilles-Saint André, France. More specifically, it was the 'Guichard-Cauvin' Company that supplied the tiles. Some roof tiles are also labeled 'Basel Mission-The Commonwealth Trust-Patent 1865' in reference to a Baptist mission established in Mangalore, India, that supplied another part of the same roof.

Built markers of the second type encompass signage referring to the place of origin or the identity of the migrant communities who built or used the buildings under consideration. Because the plans undertaken by the British authorities for developing Burma required massive labour, the city experienced a dramatic surge of the population coming from British India. From 15,677 in 1872, the Indian migrant population in the city increased to 66,077 in 1881.[2] These migrant communities shared belief systems distinct from the native population. The city's built environment, dominated by century-old Buddhist stupas, the Sule, Botathaung, and Shwedagon Pagodas, was not one which the new migrants could relate to in practice. At the same time, the few places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches that had been built before the British annexation of the city, could barely meet the needs of this booming population. Through land auctions held by the British administration, the migrant communities contributed much to the emergence of this cosmopolitan townscape.

Markers of  origin and identity: Wall plaques in downtown YangonTraders coming from what is now Gujarat built markets, mansions, mosques, and office buildings. Many of these new buildings bore the label 'Surat' in reference to the city where the traders originated. Built markers refer to this city using various spellings: 'Surati' Bara Bazaar for what is now the Theingyi market; 'Soorty' for the mansions located in front of the Secretariat (the former seat of the British administration); 'Soortee' for an office building located on Bank Street; or 'Surti' for two mosques located in downtown. The 'Rander House', situated in the city's financial and trading hub and named after a city close to Surat, was built by natives from this Gujarati town. If the ubiquity of the 'Surat' label is any indication, the land and property investments made by Gujarati families must have been particularly important in the central part of the city.

Further built markers point to other towns and cities associated with migrant communities. On Mogul Street (now Shwe-bontha Street) Indian migrants from what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh built a mosque named 'Narsapuri' mosque in reference to the port of Narsapur from where they departed for Burma. And the 'Chittagonian' mosque on Sparks street (now Bo Aung Kyaw Street) was built by communities who migrated from this city in present-day Bangladesh.

Marwar Community Hall, YangonFinally, there are also buildings named after the community who built or used these buildings. Buildings bearing these markers mostly encompass places of worship and community halls. Many of them were erected by Indian migrant communities. The Marwari Hindu traders originating from Rajasthan built the 'Marwar Community Hall' on 31st Street. Chettiar money-lenders from the Tamil country built a magnificent 'Nattukkotai Chettiar temple' on Mogul Street (now Shwe-bontha Street). At least two mosques located in downtown and built during British times are named 'Cholia' or 'Chulia' after 'Choliah' Muslim migrants who also originated from what is now Tamil Nadu. Persians who had settled in India and made their way to Burma built a 'Mogul Shiah masjid' and a 'Mogul hall'. The former is located on 30th Street, the latter on Dalhousie Street (now Mahabandoola Street). On Lewis Street (now Seikkhantha Street), Indian Christian migrants who came from what is now Andhra Pradesh built their community church and named it the 'Telugu Methodist Church'. At least another Christian community was also eager to display its sense of identity: the Scottish population built their 'Scots kirk', located close to the Burma Athletic Association Ground (now the Aung San Stadium).

This brief survey has discussed only two types of built markers referring to a sense of place and identity. Other markers include references to: Christian and Muslim saints, Hindu gods, Hindu, Jewish, or Chinese patrons, Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim trusts, etc… Studying them would bring further insight into the connective history that linked Yangon as a cosmopolitan port to British India, Great Britain, Europe, and the Far East.

The built markers identified here are testimonies of how heavily the construction of downtown Yangon during British rule owed to both material and human resources from overseas. They are reminders that construction efforts initiated from the mid-nineteenth century were not simply the preserve of the British authorities and companies, but also, and to a great extent, sustained by Indian migrant communities. Finally, they also attest to two interrelated dimensions of the Indian diaspora: one reflecting the need for the migrant communities to identify themselves as opposed to others; the other the wish to promote and expand the family and community networks far away from home.


François Tainturier
Senior Advisor, Inya Institute, Yangon

Added February 2014

(All photos F. Tainturier, 2013)

1 Cited in Pearn, A History of Rangoon, American Baptist Mission Press, Rangoon, 1939, p.74.

2 Idem,p. 234.