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Legend of lost bell lures Australian filmmaker

By Nilar Win
July 12 - 18, 2010
Dhammazedi Bell
An undated drawing of the Dhammazedi Bell, cast in 1484. Above: Filipe de Brito y Nicote, a Portuguese mercenary who lost the bell in the Bago river in 1608, seated on an elephant. Bottom: A photo of a sonar image, published in the Pyi Myanmar journal, that is thought to show the bell in the river. Pics: Supplied/internet

A NEW attempt is to be made to salvage the Dhammazedi Bell from the Bago River, where it has rested for almost four centuries.

A documentary filmmaker leading the project has told The Myanmar Times he is confident his team has located the bell and they plan to return later this year to confirm the find.

The Dhammazedi Bell is reputed to be the largest bell in the world, at an estimated 270 tonnes. Cast in 1484, it was housed at Shwedagon Pagoda but was lost in the Bago River near Yangon in 1608, when Portuguese mercenaries tried to take it on a barge to their capital in Than Lyin. There, they planned to melt it down and use the bronze to make cannons.

After several unsuccessful attempts by both local and foreign teams to salvage the bell, an Australian documentary director, Mr Damien Lay, and his colleagues have now set their sights on bringing it up from the murky depths of the Bago River.

Mr Lay said he made the decision to pursue the project in February 2009 and returned in March this year to begin trying to locate it, using a combination of diving operations and sonar data.

“The disappearance of the King Dhammazedi Bell is a fascinating and compelling story and I was instantly attracted to the history and mystery surrounding the bell,” Mr Lay said in an email last month.

After five days of work, the team successfully determined the presence of 12 shipwrecks in the area where the bell is believed to have gone down, off Monkey Point at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers.

They also located an object that is “likely to be” the bell, he said.

“It was apparent that those objects were not sinking into the soft sea bed and were still all partially visible. An object was detected by sonar and is only slightly visible above the river floor that is likely to be the King Dhammazedi Bell. The object corresponds with all previous data. Artefacts, believed to be from a Portuguese vessel and possibly the raft transporting the bell, were recovered in close proximity to the target,” he said.

“We will come back to Myanmar between September and December in the open season to conduct further sonar and diving operations to confirm the discovery of the bell. At this stage we are involved in the search operation. The recovery operation holds many challenges; the Bago River is a difficult environment to work in. However, the recovery of the bell is very possible with the use of modern salvage techniques.”

It is unclear where the funding for the project will come from, but in the past Mr Lay has acquired backing for his project from the private sector.

Mr Lay, of Animax Films, first visited Myanmar six years ago as part of an attempt to locate the wreckage of the Lady Southern Cross and the remains of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot, John Thompson Pethybridge.

The Lady Southern Cross, a Lockheed Altair monoplane, disappeared off the coast of Myanmar on November 8, 1935, on an attempt to break the England-Australia speed record.

Some wreckage was recovered 18 months later in the vicinity of Aye Island, in the Myeik Archipelago, but most of the plane and the remains of Pethybridge and Kingsford Smith, a pioneering aviator, have never been recovered.

Following several dives in the area of Aye Island in February 2009, Mr Lay told Australian media he was “100 percent proof positive” he had found the wreckage of the Lady Southern Cross but others were less than convinced.

It was on this visit that Mr Lay says he decided to focus on salvaging Dhammazedi Bell.

“I proposed it to the people who helped us on our third expedition to Myanmar [to find the Lady Southern Cross] in return for their kind support,” he said.

Mr Lay said he would produce a documentary on the discovery and recovery of the bell if the salvage operation goes ahead.

But the Australian filmmaker-cum-explorer may be tackling more than he realises with this latest quest. Several attempts have been made to salvage the bell, but all have failed because of a lack of technology – or the bell’s guardian spirits, depending on who you believe. The first attempt in modern times took place in February 1987, and the salvage team’s members included Dr Myo Myint, an economist, U Kyaw, a historian, U Ko Ko, an archaeologist and diver U Kyaing began the search.

Then in 1989, U Thein Tun and engineer U Zaw Win Aung teamed up with U Ko Ko and U Kyaing for a second attempt.
Since then several foreign teams have attempted to locate the bell, but none have got as far as a salvaging operation.

Writer Chit San Win is another who has attempted to locate the great bell, and later chronicled it in his book, Seeking King Dhammazedi’s Bell, which was first published in 1996.

He told The Myanmar Times Mr Lay’s team may have to contend with nat spirits, who are thought to be preventing teams from salvaging the bell.

“People believe that the bell is connected to nat spirits and there are rumours that the bell comes up from the river on full moon days. I have heard some old people say that they have seen the bell on the river under the moonlight,” he said.

Although there is no evidence that the Dhammazedi Bell is protected by nat spirits, many people point to the fact that Chit San Win’s son, Nay Oo, died while attempting to salvage the bell.

“Nay Oo was my dearest son. When I lost him, people said that it was because of the curse of the nat spirits who protect the bell. They say spirits are protecting the bell and the treasure with it and because of that no one can salvage the bell. I am not superstitious but I didn’t want to continue the operation after Nay Oo died,” Chit San Win said.

Another rumour is that the Portuguese also took a box of treasure from Shwedagon Pagoda when they looted the bell, and this also sunk to the depths of the Bago River. These treasures, which were donated to the pagoda, are also reputedly protected by spirits, Chit San Win wrote in Seeking King Dhammazedi’s Bell.

Mr Lay said he was aware of the story of the bell’s curse and has the utmost respect for Myanmar culture, religion and beliefs.

“As a foreigner, from a different culture and background, my thoughts may differ from Myanmar people. However, I fully respect the religious significance of the bell, and believe that the curse is a truly wonderful and tremendous facet of this story … if the people of Myanmar believe in the curse, then so do I. But perhaps I am not as frightened or concerned by it,” he said.

“There are so many challenges that you face in undertaking a project of this nature. Sometimes when things go wrong for seemingly no reason, you often wonder why and perhaps attribute those challenges and problems to spirits like these. I think that if respect and prayer is given to the spirits, they will assist in this mission.

“I do believe that things happen for a reason and on many occasions perhaps things have not worked in our favour. I like to attribute these problems to my own failings or the difficulties that are embodied in this type of exploration. I like to think that it is not the spirits working against us, but I truly don’t know.”

He reiterated that he was confident the bell could be recovered and that it should be returned to the people of Myanmar.
Chit San Win agreed the salvaging of the bell would be of great significance to the Myanmar people because of its history, size and status.

“According to the historical texts, the bell weighs about 270 tonnes and if that is correct then it would be the largest bell in the world,” Chit San Win said.