Four months after the latest search for the fabled Dhammazedi Bell resulted in claims of discovery, revelations of failure and accusations of fundraising fraud, a new team is having a go at the nation’s favourite treasure-hunt.
A team led by former navy officer U Kyaw Win quietly began searching for the bell on January 12 in the waters near the Thanlyin oil refinery, at the confluence of Yangon River, Bago River and Pazundaung Creek. The search stopped on January 20, but U Kyaw Win has vowed to continue, using his own funds, until the bell is found.
“If I found the bell, I will first inform the government and then I will continue until the end [of the salvage effort] if they instruct me,” U Kyaw Win said.
So far he said the expedition has cost him K40,000 a day for a ship rental and other expenses, plus K800,000 for a machine to measure the depth of the notoriously cloudy waters, as well as K250,000 a day for a dive team.
Cast in the 15th century, the bell is reputed to be the world’s largest, at about 270 tonnes. However, it is thought to have laid at the bottom of the river since a failed attempt by the Portuguese in 1608 to take it from Shwedagon Pagoda to Thanlyin, where it was to be melted down and made into cannons.
No one knows exactly where it rests, however, and several attempts to find and raise it since the late 1980s ended in failure, with the notoriously muddy waters making visibility almost nil.
A 2014 search, organised by U San Linn, U Soe Thein and U Win Myint, raised more than K150 million from corporate and private donations. The undertaking drew large, captivated crowds to the dive sight – even though there was nothing to see from shore – and involved not only local monks but also vegetarianism, a communion with a golden underwater dragon and divers brought in from Kawthoung, Tanintharyi Region.
After “asking permission from all noble persons and saints”, U San Linn claimed on August 26 the team had found the bell and would raise it. But it soon emerged that no other member of the team knew what he was talking about, and the search ended on September 18 with no bell found. At the end of the search, the only thing that had been raised was a number of questions over just what U San Linn did with everyone’s money.
U Win Myint, who contributed to that failed effort, said he has since been developing his own plan to locate the bell, but is willing to join forces with U Kyaw Win if required – or with anyone else with experience of the hunt.
“If he [U Kyaw Win] hasn’t found it after one month has passed, I will apply for approval from the Yangon Region government and keep searching for the bell. I do believe one day we will find it but we need to combine our strength. That’s why I have already contacted U Kyaw Win and all who have been involved in previous searches,” U Win Myint said.
One of those individuals is historian and writer U Chit San Win, who said not only cooperation but also input from experts will be needed if the bell is to be found.
“Actually, he [U Kyaw Win] should first take advice from historians to confirm the point where the bell really is. He should also work together with scientists and explore a wide range of possibilities,” U Chit San Win said.
“As far as we know, the bell could be anywhere within a large area where. Instead of working individually, searchers should work together after historians and scientists have worked to pinpoint a likely location,” U Chit San Win.
He dismissed the prospect of the bell being raised through supernatural assistance – an apparent rebuttal to the 2014 expedition and its otherworldly methods used to divine the bell’s location.
“It is impossible to find the bell individually if their search relies on supernatural powers or spiritual beliefs,” he said.
U Soe Thein, chair of the Mon Literature and Culture Committee, said the group was not getting its hopes up over the current expedition. “We’ve heard that U Kyaw Win hasn’t enough funding and his searching methods look unlikely to find the bell. I would say it’s just a distant hope.”
U Kyaw Lwin Oo, director of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, refused to comment on the search, saying his department had not yet received any notification of the current round of hunting.
Translation by Zar Zar Soe