Echoes of empire on the Irrawaddy

IT’S early morning and we are moored next to Katha’s grand staircases up the steep embankment of the Irrawaddy River in the heart of Burma, near the Chinese border.


A Buddhist temple stands guarded by stylised Burmese lions, their red-rimmed eyes alert and  golden manes neatly combed into three golden tufts.


The steps into the water are already busy with women doing laundry.  Their conical hats  rarely come off,  even when they go in for an impromptu splash to cool down. A ghostly fog envelops the river just as local boat passengers begin to stir and tidy their  belongings, ready to continue their journey. Riverboats (including our own colonial replica steamer, PandawII) don’t travel at night.


In the fog, I see a line of monks with deep-red robes wrapped tightly around them. They are preceded by a young monk with a brass gong and are collecting alms. Negotiating our landing plank, I run to shore, past early bathers soaping themselves under the discreet cover of sarongs. I follow the line of monks in eerie silence, observing housewives spooning steaming rice into begging bowls. Both monks and the faithful are barefoot, complying with the Buddhist rule of shunning luxury.


Monks aren’t the only inhabitants of this town. Katha has an enormous variety of people, a legacy of the British empire that brought workers from all corners of its domain. There is a grand mosque, a large church and a Hindu temple among many Buddhist monasteries. Locals with long beards and wearing white skullcaps do business with reed-thin men in longyis and woven bamboo hats, while teashops teem with customers on low stools and merchandise is piled high on the trays of dilapidated utilities.


Later, on a horse-drawn cart, I tour this once-grand seat of the empire. The bells on the  horses’ harnesses fill the morning air as we pass grand old mansions with lemon-coloured walls, some with Tudor touches, others a mixture of wood and plastered brick. Invariably they are disintegrating in the tropical languor.


These houses are mostly uninhabited but some are still used, like that of  Eric Blair.  Blair was an officer of the Imperial Police Force  in Katha in the 1920s. After returning to Britain, he became a writer, essayist and war correspondent who penned Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Burmese Days – a recollection of the less appealing side of colonialism – under the pseudonym George Orwell.


I amble through his one-time home’s ground floor – now used as a tool shed of sorts – admiring the ornate fireplace and splendid staircase. Nearby, the British Club – featured in Burmese Days – is boarded up but the tennis court is well preserved. To come this close to George Orwell has added the icing to my Katha cake.

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