Jewels from the East

by Dennis Starks
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burmatempleI'm just back from Myanmar and it is a jeweled kaleidoscope. Aung San Suu Kyi has finally been released from house arrest to accept her Nobel peace prize. The repressive Myanmar government has begun to open the doors and this corner of the wiggly third world is trying to hoist itself into the twenty first century.

I had timed my arrival for a full moon Buddha night and as soon as I had settled into the hotel I headed straight to the mother of all temples, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. I'm sure someone said it first, but its true that some metaphors just can't be improved upon. Time really IS like a river, and life is like a dream.

On this particular night the moon was a golden orange in the sky. I had a gentle rain to set the mood as I climbed the staircase to the temple with the monks in saffron robes. I got that familiar little rush of anticipation as I entered the magical world of spirits and wishes and prayers. There were candles and chanting and bells to ring and the aroma of incense perfumed the air.

It’s funny that a kid from the suburbs should feel most at home in the temples of Asia, but it’s true for me. The rain washed my sins away and left me feeling immaculate. I lingered a long time in the temple and all its little golden niches, savoring the heady atmosphere. I descended the stairway behind a group of monks in the amber light and stopped at the bottom for a coconut on my way home.


burma7Yangon is chaotic. The infrastructure is creaking and the streets are pockmarked, but flowers crop up everywhere that isn't paved so it feels like the jungle is winning a battle to take back the city. There are many wide boulevards and colonial mansions falling into disrepair with the patina of years of neglect.

The Burmese people have been sequestered away for forty years in self imposed isolation and it is almost like stepping back in time to see everyone wearing the traditional lunghi instead of trousers. They all wear a paste of ground tree bark called thanaka on their faces to protect their skin from the sun. They apply it daily in exotic squiggles and swirls. I found the Burmese to be beautiful and polite and hopeful for the future.

Every morning I started the day at the huge city market buying gemstones and chatting up the craftsmen who transformed my sketches into jewelry. Then in the afternoons I explored the city and followed my nose into gardens and temples. It rained pretty much all day every day, but luckily I love rainy days and it didn't slow me down.

burma8When the time came to escape the metropolis I chose Kyaiktiyo the golden rock temple for my journey. It is one of the most sacred sites in Burma. My journey began at dawn with a very long bus ride through the countryside. At the bus stops the villagers would crowd the windows selling fried sparrows and fruits. Inevitably, the bus broke down, but I had already relaxed into travel mode and wasn't really bothered by the delay. I settled down on the side of the road and watched the young monks make their rounds with alms bowls. It was a pleasant surprise that I would have missed if the bus had been a Mercedes.

Finally five hours later we arrived at the foothills and I found out that getting to the actual temple was an arduous trek by motorbike then four wheel drive truck and finally a long walk up the mountain. By the time I made the summit, the air was shrouded in mist and I could hardly see the prize until I was almost upon the massive boulder completely covered in gold leaf with the pagoda at the top. It is in such a precarious location that it seems to be holding on by a miracle to the side of the mountain.  I marveled at the idea that supplicants applied all that gold leaf in tiny pieces as they prayed. There is so much gold in Burma! I take it as proof that those monks have gods ear, because the temples are so gaudy, only god could get away with it.

On the descent the sun peeked through the clouds and the boys were out playing their peculiar game of soccer with a rattan ball. No hands are allowed in the Burmese version and so the game is a lively melee of kicks and shouts and acrobatics as they pass the ball with only their heads and amazing back kicks. Their muscled up thighs of steel rippled from playing on steep mountain paths. One of the boys talked me into trading my reef flip flops for his sandals and even though I knew he got the best of the trade, I felt lucky to have left a part of me on the mountain as I slid the rest of the way down the hill. I sipped a tea in a cafe (cafe!) on the square in a shop with dozens of burmese cats circling my feet. I raced back to the village in the rain on the back of a motorbike as the sun went down.

burma10Back at the workshop in Rangoon I collected my rings and the guys had done such a beautiful job that I channeled my inner Bulgari and designed a few more dramatic pieces of boars tusks and emeralds and golden Burmese pearls.  Yes, in the Golden land, even the pearls shimmer with a golden hue. The pendant was inspired by a Tony Duquette design and would be difficult since time was running out, so at first they refused. But I pleaded and finally they relented and dropped everything to start the model. I spent the next few days watching the progress and plying them with encouragement and cigarettes. I arrived the last morning with a gift of pomelo and was surprised when they took the carefully manicured citrus and placed it on the alter in the tiny shop.

The head jeweler was perfectly four feet tall, and I thrilled watching him coax the model from the lump of wax. That serpent pendant was an ambitious departure from their usual jewelry but they quickly got on board and I could see they were excited by the challenge. I had visions of ruby eyes for those snakes, but since it was a rush job, and I already had 6 jewelers working on my designs, I didn't dare push my luck by asking. I didn't have to! As the pendant emerged, the boss took out two tiny rubies from his drawer and held them up to the piece and looked at me with enquiring eyes. "You like?" I was overjoyed when he smiled and said "a gift for you". It seems those snakes were destined to have ruby eyes and he was the only one who could rise to the occasion and give them sight. It’s a beautiful pendant and those vipers are fated to look out from around my neck with sanguine eyes forever. My gee-gaws are only gold plated, but then beauty is only skin deep, and it never fails to turn my head. It’s gold enough for me!

I'm such a lucky boy. I will always remember how Burma and its lovely people made me appreciate that in a whole new way.

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