The Dhammazedi Bell: an inauspicious tale
July 12 - 18, 2010
According to legend, the Dhammazedi Bell might never have been cast if it weren’t for over-eager census-takers. The story goes that King Dhammazedi, ninth of the Mon kings, ordered a count of all households around the year 1480.
But his court stock-takers went beyond the royal mandate and taxed the people as they counted them, returning with almost 300 tonnes of copper currency.
This apparently displeased his majesty, and so his staff hastened to come up with a use for all the treasure. (Giving it back to the people was apparently not an option.)
It was decided that the vast mound of copper would be melted down, mixed with other metals and turned into a giant, jewel-encrusted bell.
It was a welcome solution, but the bell was unfortunately cast on the woefully inauspicious date of February 5, 1484 – smack in the middle of the Crocodile Constellation – and was said to toll an unpleasant sound as a result.
The Dhammazedi Bell is recorded to have been 12 cubits high – in modern day terms, varying definitions for the cubit put this at anywhere between 5.4 to 8.1 metres – and one 16th century traveler described it as being covered with mysterious writing.
After seeing the bell in 1583, a Venetian named Gasparo Balbi wrote that it “is full of letters from the top to the bottom but there was no Nation that could understand them”.
The bell continued to toll its objectionable sound at Shwedagon Pagoda until the early 17th century, when it was looted by the Portuguese fortune-hunter and mercenary Filipe de Brito y Nicote, who schemed to melt it down and turn it into cannons for his navy.
De Brito was serving as the governor of Syriam (now Thanlyin) after carving out a deal with the King of Arakan (now Rakhine) – but his bid for the Dhammazedi Bell was the beginning of his downfall.
In 1608, de Brito wrenched the bell from its stand, rolled it downhill and had it hauled by elephants to a raft in Pazundaung creek.
But at Monkey Point – where the Bago and Yangon rivers meet – the raft split open and the bell sank to the bottom of the river, where it remains to this day.
As for de Brito, he is believed to have met a grisly end – impaled on a sharpened bamboo in 1613 as retribution for his pillaging ways.