The second biggest city in Myanmar (Burma) after Yangon (old name – Rangoon) is Mandalay. It sits right in the middle of Myanmar by the bank of river Irrawaddy. It was founded by king Mindon Min in 1857, and was the seat of Burmese royal government for nearly 26 years before its annexation by the British Empire. Mandalay is also known as the golden city because of it numerous gold tipped pagodas. It is further believed that in ancient times Lord Buddha visited Mandalay hills, and has prophesied that in the year 1857, a grand city would be established here and it would be an important center of Theravada Buddhism.
Mandalay remains as a nostalgic place located in ”Far East” in popular imagination in the west. Credit for this goes to celebrated Indian born British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936). Mandalay was immortalized by Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’ which appeared in the literary weekly The Scots Observer on 21 June 1890. An excerpt is presented below –
The setting of the poem has been articulated well by Andrew Selth (2015)
” Mandalay, a poem of six stanzas in which a former British soldier, discharged from military service and working in a London bank, reviews his experiences during the recent Burma campaign. He expresses his longing for a young Burmese girl, who is described as waiting in idyllic surroundings for her sweetheart to return. This poem, with its timeless themes of idealised romance, cultural fusion and exotic locales, was in large part a reaction to Kipling’s new life in the UK, which he found in stark contrast to sunlit India. “
Although Kipling forever romanticized Mandalay as an exotic and an overtly beautiful place in the ”Far East”, the actual town was not taken in his stride by others such as George Orwell (1903 – 1950), a famous British Writer and critic. Orwell worked as a policeman in Burma, and he described Mandalay as a town of 5 Ps – Pagodas, Pariahs, Pigs, Priests and Prostitutes.
Despite contrary point of views on Mandalay, it has never failed to conjure up the popular imagination. In her non-fiction book ”Finding George Orwell in Burma” (2011) Emma Larkin retraces George Orwell’s footsteps during the five years he served as a colonial police officer in what was then a province of British India. Emma Larkin writes –
I always find it impossible to say the name ‘Mandalay’ out loud without having at least a small flutter of excitement. For many foreigners the name conjures up irresistible images of lost oriental kingdoms and tropical splendor. The unofficial Poet Laureate of British colonialism, Rudyard Kipling, is partly responsible for this, through his well-loved poem ‘Mandalay’.
Further impetus to this popular romanticized imagination of Mandalay has been given by British singer Robbie Williams through his song , The Road to Mandalay released in July 2001. The lyrics of The Road to Mandalay were written as a tribute to Williams’ close friendship with Geri Halliwell, an ex-member of famous girl band Spice Girls, and was the 20th best selling single of 2001 in the UK.
Even though much water has flowed through river Irrawaddy, but Mandalay still conjures the images of a mystic city in the far east where one falls in love.
Selth, Andrew. Kipling, “Mandalay” and Burma in the Popular Imagination, Working Paper No.161 (Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, 2015)
Larkin, Emma. Finding George Orwell in Burma. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.