Mandalay | The Last Royal Capital of Burma
Mandalay – the name alone makes a trip to the city seem inviting and evokes memories of ancient Burma. Mandalay has since evolved into the second largest city in Myanmar, but still looks more like a village. There are no skyscrapers pushing up towards the sky, many roads are unpaved and the air is dry and dusty. The river Ayeyarwady is the lifeline of the country and down by the riverfront, houseboats and barges glide past women in colorful turbans sitting on bamboo rafts washing the laundry. The river borders the city in the west, while in the east, Mandalay is limited by Mandalay Hill, the mound that gave the city its name. Apart from the hill, one of the biggest attractions is Mandalay Palace, which is surrounded by an iconic wall and moat and today houses the military barracks.
Right before the British colonization, Mandalay, then still called the Golden City, was the capital of the Burmese Kingdom. But the Second World War hasn’t left much of the old magic of Mandalay intact, most of the pagodas and palaces were destroyed and the traditional teak wood houses have disappeared. After the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, Mandalay continued to be the main cultural, educational and economic hub of Upper Burma. Until the early 1990s, most students from Upper Burma went to Mandalay for university education. Until 1991, Mandalay University, the University of Medicine, Mandalay and the Defence Services Academy were the only three universities in Upper Burma. Only a few other cities had “Degree Colleges” affiliated with Mandalay University that offered a limited number of subjects. Today, the city attracts a fraction of students as the military government requires students to attend their local universities in order to reduce concentration of students in one place.
In November 1959, Mandalay celebrated its centennial with a festival at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Special commemorative stamps were issued.
During Ne Win’s isolationist rule (1962–1988), the city’s infrastructure deteriorated. By the early 1980s, the second largest city of Burma resembled a town with low-rise buildings and dusty streets filled mostly with bicycles. In the 1980s, the city was hit by two major fires. In May 1981, a fire razed more than 6,000 houses and public buildings, leaving more than 36,000 homeless. On 24 March 1984, another fire destroyed 2,700 buildings and made 23,000 people homeless.
Fires continue to plague the city. A major fire destroyed Mandalay’s second largest market, Yadanabon Market, in February 2008, and another major fire in February 2009 destroyed 320 homes and left over 1600 people homeless.
The 1980s fires augured a significant change in the city’s physical character and ethnic makeup. Huge swaths of land left vacant by the fires were later purchased, mostly by the ethnic Chinese, many of whom were recent immigrants from Yunnan. The Chinese influx accelerated after the current State Peace and Development Council came to power in 1988. With the Burmese government turning a blind eye, many Chinese immigrants from Yunnan (and also from Sichuan) poured into Upper Burma in the 1990s and many openly ended up in Mandalay. In the 1990s alone, about 250,000 to 300,000 Yunnanese are estimated to have migrated to Mandalay. Today, ethnic Chinese people are believed to make up about 30%–40% of the city’s population, and are a major factor in the city’s doubling of population from about 500,000 in 1980 to one million in 2008. Chinese festivals are now firmly embedded in the city’s cultural calendar. It is a common Burmese complaint that Mandalay is becoming little more than a satellite of China and that the romance of old Mandalay is long gone.
The Chinese are largely responsible for the economic revitalization of the city centre, now rebuilt with apartment blocks, hotels and shopping centres, and returning the city to its role as the trading hub connecting Lower Burma, Upper Burma, China and India. The Chinese dominance in the city center has pushed out the rest to the suburbs. The urban sprawl now encompasses Amarapura, the very city King Mindon left some 150 years ago. Mandalay celebrated its 150th birthday on 15 May 2009, at precisely 4:31:36 am.
Now, Mandalay is a city of crafts and many of the families have specialized in creating the gossamer gold leaves, which get glued on to pagodas, stupas and statues around to country by the many Buddhist believers. Washing the metal from the floods of the Ayeyarwady River and hammering the pieces in to leaves so thin, that they float on the air, in a way, makes the old name Golden City true again.