In the Land of Pagodas

February 12, 2012

Asia, Destinations

In the “land of pagodas,” monks clad in vibrant saffron coloured robes are a common sight and devout Buddhists account for the vast majority of the population.

One of Rangoon’s many pagodas

Burma is home to tens of thousands of pagodas.  From the simplest structures, to the extremely elaborate, they are often the focal point of a city or town. These buildings play an important role in the lives of most Burmese and some, like the Shwedagon Pagoda, are a must-see for visitors.

As the sun was setting at the Shwedagon Pagoda

It came as a bit of a surprise, when on my short trip to the country I found out that the city of Rangoon (also known as Yangon) was also home to a lone synagogue, dating back well over 100 years.

I discovered the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue while doing research online one evening, and it was added to my list of sites to visit in the city. Ironically, power is spotty and rolling brown-outs are common, but if you’re looking to get on Facebook or do some research on the internet – no problem!

Downtown Rangoon

Although I’m not a religious person, I was fascinated by this unique piece of history. In a country that is close to 90% Buddhist, a tiny population (and I mean really tiny) of Burmese Jews has managed to survive.

The synagogue was built in 1893 and is housed on a busy street in downtown Rangoon. When we first set off in search of the building, we almost walked right by it. The area outside the entrance teems with life – people mill about, ramshackle tea stalls can be found everywhere, and there are numerous small shops on the surrounding streets.

Despite the harsh living conditions in this country ruled by a military junta, the Burmese are among the friendliest people that I’ve met anywhere in the world. As we asked for directions along the way, people happily pointed us on the right track. Walking down the streets of Rangoon, we were met with a constant chorus of “hello, how are you?” or “welcome to our country!”

My friends Patty and Zaw Zaw (he’s one of my favourite people in Burma)

Our first attempt to visit this unique Jewish landmark didn’t go as planned. We arrived only to find the synagogue closed for the day. We returned to our guest house, determined to go back and visit during the little time we had left.

Luckily, when we returned a few days later, the doors were open and we were able to explore this historical building. The synagogue trustee is a man by the name of Moses Samuels. Moses also runs Myanmar Shalom Travels and Tours, and he alone has managed to keep this small community alive in Rangoon. This was a role passed down from his father, who had also acted as trustee for many years.

At the time of our visit, Samuels was not at the synagogue, but the building’s caretaker proudly showed us around. Despite the fact that this man spoke no English, you could feel his strong sense of pride in both the community and the building.

If we had not known what we were looking for when we set off in search of the synagogue, it would have been easy to miss it entirely, as it is set a ways back from the street. As you step through the gates and into the tiny hidden courtyard, the word “shalom” (peace) written in blue tiles above, invites one to enter the brightly lit building.

Shalom

Although the synagogue is small in size, light floods in from all angles, making the space feel much larger than it actually is.  The atmosphere inside is warm and inviting, encouraging visitors to stay for a while and enjoy the tranquillity, a welcome change from the hectic streets outside.

There is nothing elaborate here. It is eclectic, yet simple, and I immediately felt welcomed. The hustle and bustle of the outside world is quickly forgotten once you walk inside. As a traveller briefly stopping by, I was pleased to have been able to visit this space that has been so diligently and lovingly maintained over the years.

Synagogue interior

The largest city in Burma, Rangoon is home to four million people.  Out of these millions, eight families are Jewish. There was once a thriving Jewish community here. Before World War II, there were roughly 2,500 Jews in Burma, many of whom were of Iraqi and Indian descent. Sadly, of these 2,500 people, only a few families remain today.

In a country where citizens have lived under political turmoil for many years, these people have made the conscious decision to stay and keep their religion alive in this struggling nation.

Coming from Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, it is hard to imagine what it would feel like to be so isolated in your own country. Yet somehow, despite the obvious barriers, these few people have managed to keep their community alive and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.

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About AdventuressAbroad

adventure seeker.traveling fanatic.food lover.occasional blabbermouth.travel-based PR professional.

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2 Comments on “In the Land of Pagodas”

  1. Tom Stockwell Says:

    Really interesting post, Lindsay, thanks for sharing. The pagodas look amazing, like they’re from another world. Also, only EIGHT families?! Wow, that is a small community, no exaggerating!

    Reply

    • AdventuressAbroad Says:

      Hi Tom! Glad you enjoyed the post – I really appreciate your comment. There is certainly no shortage of beautiful pagodas to visit in Burma (I want to go back and see more of them!).
      It still amazes me that this tiny Jewish community has found a way to keep their traditions alive, despite the difficulties they must constantly be faced with. Thanks for reading!

      Reply

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