Divers stand on the edge of a small wooden fishing boat gazing at the murky, choppy waters below. After receiving blessings from Buddhist monks, they lower their masks and plunge one-by-one into the mighty Yangon River.
From the shoreline, thousands of spectators look on, praying the men will find the world’s largest copper bell, believed to have been lying deep beneath the riverbed for more than four centuries. Weighing an estimated 270 tonnes, the mysterious bell is a symbol of pride for many in this country of 60 million that only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule and self-imposed isolation. Search crews are largely relying on spirituality rather than science to try and find it.
It’s a story of myth and mystery: King Dhammazedi, after whom the bell was named, was said to have ordered it cast in the late 15th century, donating it soon after to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred temple which sits on a hilltop in the old capital, Yangon.
The bell remained there for more than 130 years, when it was reportedly stolen by Portuguese mercenary Philip de Brito. With tremendous difficulty, his men transferred it to a rickety vessel, which sank under the weight at the convergence of the Yangon and Bago rivers and the Pazundaung Creek. Most people in Myanmar believe the bell is still lying deep beneath the riverbed, buried under layers of silt. However, numerous efforts to locate it with the help of sonar imaging and other high-tech equipment have failed, and some historians now question whether it even exists.
The latest operation — which is expected to last up to 45 days and cost US$250,000 raised through donations — is being headed by a former naval official, San Lin, who believes the copper treasure is protected by a curse. When he told reporters at a press conference in July that he was one of the reincarnations of the 14 guardians of the bell and could speak to the spirits of those who have blocked past retrieval efforts, many local reporters laughed, ignoring the story altogether.
However, accounts of the extravagant recovery efforts have since captured imaginations. Thanks to social media, unsubstantiated rumors that the bell has been spotted have sent thousands of curious spectators flocking to the banks of the Yangon River.
For small boat owners, shuttling passengers to within a few meters of the divers’ boats has become a brisk business, with dozens of wooden, canoe-like vessels lining the rocky banks. On shore, men and women charge 200 kyat (US$0.20) for photocopied pamphlets describing the bell and its remarkable history.
“We came because, as Buddhist people, we are responsible to pray for the bell to get it back to its original place,” said Tin May, 43, dressed in her finest pagoda-wear: a traditional longyi, or sarong, and a crisp, white blouse.
Chit San Win, a historian who has taken part in several of the searches in the last two decades, wants to believe the story of the bell. Yet as divers plunge into the water, some of them resurfacing within minutes because the currents are so strong, he is starting to have his doubts.
The only record Win has found that mentions the bell was written by an Italian merchant, Gasparo Balbi, who came to Myanmar in the 16th century and wrote that he saw it.
As for the new supernatural search technique, Win has little faith.
“The bell cannot be located with the help of astrology or spirits,” he said. “It is just like consulting an astrologer to find a lost cow who would ask you to look for it in all four directions.”
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