The Road to Mandalay


IT is odd that in ‘The Road to Mandalay’ Kipling should have permitted himself to turn Burma geographically inside out in order to achieve an effect. There is no pagoda in Moulmein that looks eastward to the sea, for not only is Moulmein situated some thirty miles up a tidal river, but also Moulmein lies on the east coast of the Gulf of Martaban. The sea lies to the west. Nor can the dawn come up like thunder out of China across any bay in any part of the world, and certainly not in Burma. There are no bays between Burma and China, only green jungleclad hills and deep ravines where rivers dive underground, tangle themselves up, and reappear a mile away. There are gullies, stopped up at both ends with mountains, which are sheer clefts in the earth in which wide, deep rivers come bubbling out of the rock at one end and go bubbling in again at the other.

Perhaps it is a little too much to ask complete accuracy. It would be a bit pedantic to complain that her name could not have been Supi-yaw-lat, ‘jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,’ or to suggest that a Burmese girl, however badly brought up, would not kiss the ‘idol’s foot,’ and possibly still less allow herself to be kissed, and that flying fishes do not play in Burma nearer than the Bay of Bengal.

Objections of this nature are pedantic indeed. As a whole, the poem is a pleasant enough jingle and, for that matter, accurate enough. Mist on the rice fields, steamer paddles chunkin’, the ‘sludgy, squdgy creek.’ The sunshine, the temple bells tinkling — those give one picture of Burma that one likes to remember. But what of the call of the East? It is a call which is only heard with any insistence by those who have not had to live there for long.


Burma revolves round the pagoda and its attendant monastery. There is no village that has not a pagoda, few that are without a monastery. The commonest sight in all the length and breadth of the land is the daily line of yellow-robed shaven monks filing across the paddy fields to the village to beg in the mist of an early morning. Heads are bent and eyes kept averted; the black lacquer bowls are held clasped round by both hands. The files without a word pass down the street. At the doors of their houses the pious stand with whatever they can offer. As the monks pass, the offerings are ladled into the bowls. Here a handful of boiled rice, there a red plantain, sometimes a little salt pickled ginger, sometimes fried garlic. Whatever it is, it is dropped into the one bowl and the monk passes on without a sign. His eyes are still averted and his head still bent. He is supposed not to know what is going on around him, but it is hard to believe that in the keen morning air the mouth of a man who has not eaten since noon of the previous day is not made to water as the savory smell of a fried onion or curried eggplant reaches the nostrils so close above the bowl. The files wind across the yellow stubble of the paddy fields. The sun is well over the trees; the monks have returned to the brown teakwood monastery with the sevenfold roof, to eat the offerings cold from a common platter.

Almsgiving is a constant drain on the people, as that and personal attendance at the pagoda for prayer are necessary for salvation. In Buddhist Tibet one may calculate the merit to one’s credit by having a prayer wheel turned by wind, water, or if necessary by oxen, but in Burma this is not allowed. Personal attendance is all that counts, and unless devotions are supplemented by almsgiving the prospects for the next existence can only be regarded with concern. Fortunately, the holier the receiver, the more merit. To feed a hundred men is not as holy an act as to feed a junior monk. To feed one full-blown Buddha is worth more than feeding ten million Buddhas of an earlier existence. Thus the number of givers never diminishes.

After noontide the monks may not eat. The Burman has an uncanny knack of guessing the time from the sun and the shadows thrown by it, but during the rainy season the sun is hidden for weeks at a time and other means must be found for telling the time. Here, however, Providence has stepped in. The cocks and hens, the ordinary household fowls, in Burma are not as they are in Western countries, for they have been endowed with peculiar knowledge that enables them to tell the time with accuracy and to crow at stated hours — at sunrise, noon, sundown, and midnight. The story goes that they acquired this gift in a singular fashion. Certain books of the Bedin were burned as containing magic lore. Among these were certain books on astronomy. When the flames had done their work the fowls scratched at and ate the ashes, thus absorbing all the astronomic and chronologic knowledge contained in them.


All young Burma goes to school at the monastery, and it is because of this that one seldom meets a Burman who cannot read and write and that the percentage of literates is far higher than in any other part of India. It is true that some of the education offered is what we should consider somewhat grotesque, but that, on the whole, matters little enough; and it makes no very great difference to anyone that the little boys in a monastery school are taught that Mandalay is not only the intellectual centre but also the exact mathematical centre of the world.

The monastery school strikes the ordinary observer as approaching pandemonium. As soon as a boy has arrived in school he is put to sit on the floor and given a book open at the day’s lesson. He then proceeds to call it over at the top of his voice until he knows it. To Western ears, forty or fifty little boys saying over their lessons is acute noise, but it has a soothing effect on the teacher, who begins to feel that he is really doing some good. If a boy stops shouting he is idling, and is corrected accordingly.

At the monastery school the boy is taught the queer mixture of sound Buddhist theology and spiritology that goes to make up his religion. The spirits are called ‘nats,’ and in whatever he does the nats, good and bad, must be considered. There is no road approaching a village, except in the sophisticated South, that has not its nat houses. These are tiny shelters of doll’s-house size set on posts beside the path, in which the pious leave offerings. The nats refresh themselves from these offerings and their attentions are averted from the village. In some parts of the country, after leaving the nat house the path divides, one path being a dummy to confuse the spirit. In a matter of this kind it is better not to take a chance on whether the nat is good or bad. In many places, too, the villages are surrounded with a bamboo latticework. This also has the effect of keeping out the evil nat, for if he wishes to enter at night he has to pass himself in and out through every hole in the lattice, and the chances are that dawn will catch him before he has completed his task. The following night, if he is persistent, he must start afresh.


There is no regular service at a pagoda, and each man is responsible to himself for his own spiritual welfare. No one else can be of assistance to him, and the monks, who have been described quite wrongly as ‘Buddhist clergy,’ have no concern with the spiritual state of the laity. After devotions at the pagoda one should strike the bell three times to let the nats of the air know that someone has gone through the Buddhist lauds. After striking the bell it is proper to strike the ground to convey the same information to the spirits of the earth. Anyone may strike the bells; indeed, it is considered a kindly action to do so, for the more the bells are struck the more the attention of the nats is called to the devotions in progress.

Around the top of the pagoda are suspended wind bells, and these keep up a continual tinkling the purpose of which is the same as that of the sound of the bigger bells on the ground.

Among the things which annoy a Barman most is the calm assumption that he is an idolater. He himself regards the worshiper of images as the lowest of the low, and although he plants his images of Gautama everywhere, nowhere does he worship them. Indeed, how can he? Gautama is not a god — he is a man who subdued all passion and became perfect, a man who achieved the ultimate existence.

Each individual has to work out his own salvation, and not even the Buddha can assist him in his efforts to find the Way. There is no Almighty, no Supreme Being, no Creator; and the Buddha, even if there were an Almighty, no longer exists to make intercession, and was in his existence no more than perfect man.

The devotions before the placid, contemplative Buddhas so completely at eternal rest cannot be prayers for blessings or help or for mercy in sin. They can only be words in honor of the Lord of Truth himself, praises of the being who through contemplation achieved in himself complete subjection of all passion and ignorance. Through praise and contemplation of the great Lord of Truth one attains to knowledge.

The pagoda, which is a development of the tumulus, a shrine that cannot be entered, is built over sacred relics, and an image of the Buddha is put there to centralize the payment of devotions. The pagoda is a place set apart, a place for localizing feelings and a place for contemplation of the supreme model. In the great religious book of the Burman Buddhist it is written that it is useless to worship the Buddha; nothing is possible but to reverence his memory: ‘The earth and the Buddha are alike — themselves inert.’

Prayers as such do not exist, and the praises that are used are those that have been learned with pain and labor in the monastery schools. Whether one understands them or not — for they are all in Pali, the religious language of Buddhism — is immaterial. The repetition is all that mutters. Any kind of parrotlike repetition is good enough. That this is so is clearly proved by the case of the bats. They lived in a cave, and great numbers of followers of the Buddha would resort to this cave to practise their devotions and to meditate. The bats learned some of the words, which they repeated constantly, although they could not understand them, and as a consequence they were translated on death to the lands of the nats, the spirits of the air. If even animals can achieve such results, how much more the human being.

To the Buddhist eye the Way unfolds itself for eternity. If by his charity, by his contemplation, by his ways of life, the Buddhist can ever see the end of the Way, it is an end that means total and absolute nothingness. This state, the final existence in nothing, is called ‘neban’ — the state to which only Gautama has attained.

These two ideas of eternity and nothingness are abstracts which the Western mind finds it hard to grasp. It quails before the thought of a million existences, a million hells — ending in nothing.

The Burman, however, accepts all this and toilsomely treads the Way. The man in lowly circumstance knows that in a previous existence he has sinned; if he sins again he may come to earth again as some more lowly creature still. If he does not sin he may go up higher, but he knows that certain sins will damn him forever to struggle alone in the dark.

To kill a monk can mean but one thing: only existence after existence, with no possibility of achieving neban — ever. In Buddhism by ‘ever’ is meant ever; there is no middle course.

Among the people who can never attain to neban, the last and ultimate existence, are the hunters, and all those whose business it is to take life. The fishermen are not among these. This is perhaps fortunate, for they exist in large numbers; indeed, every Burman is potentially a fisherman. He is passionately fond of fish in any form, and no meal is complete unless it is sauced with some kind of ngapi, that evil-smelling mash of salted, stinking fish. The fisherman is exempt because he does not kill fish. He takes fish from the water and gives them the advantage of light and air. If the fish die, that is their concern and no fault of the fisherman. It is ingenious, but the logic to the Oriental is faultless.

For the hunter there is no such retreat. He kills and must meet the results — that is, must toilsomely drag out an infinity of existences. He can, it is true, find the Way by existences spent in contemplation and praise of Gautama, but most hunters somehow do not consider it worth the trouble. They prefer to go on being hunters. The certainty of a million or so years in the Buddhist hells and a fresh start in life as a poverty-stricken, humble individual is often forgotten in the excitement of the chase.

To the non-Buddhist mind the hunters assure for themselves constant resurrection and eternal life. To the Buddhist, however, in his search for neban with its subjection of passion and his own eventual reduction to perfect nothingness, the prospect presents nothing but horror. To continue to exist! Impossible, even though the eventual blotting out may be postponed into some indefinite future, æons in time ahead.

Not that the Burman does not eat meat. He does and will on every occasion when he can get it. In every town and village there is a butcher, generally a Mohammedan from India or a Chinaman, to whom the sin is of no account. The Burman will sell his broken-down buffaloes, his ducks, his fowls, or his pigs to the butcher and will buy the flesh from him, but in no way does he become responsible for the commission of sin. That is the butcher’s affair. Just as no person may assist another to the Way, so the sins of another cannot affect one’s own chances.


The kings of Burma were all orthodox Buddhists, but notwithstanding they were able to execute their friends and relatives with freedom without any loss of orthodoxy. The last king — King Thibaw — was able to put quietly away some four hundred of his nearest and dearest when he came to the throne in the late seventies without a breath of scandal attaching to him. Thibaw would suggest that he did not want to see so-and-so again. That was enough, and the courtier would have been tactless indeed who brought the matter up at a later date.

There is to-day an elderly and very charming sawbwa, a rajah of sorts, in the Shan States to the east of Burma proper. He is well educated, and rules his state with a rod of iron. His hobby is drinking champagne and playing Up Jenkins with his wives’ maids of honor. He is more or less orthodox Buddhist in whatever costs him no effort. Should anyone offend him he suggests that the offender should be seen to the border of the state. If he inquires later concerning the man, the escort looks unhappy and at length confesses that the offender fell into the river, that he was killed by a tiger, or that the nats took him. The old sawbwa clicks his tongue. ‘What a terrible thing,’ he says, and goes on playing Up Jenkins with his ladies, who squeal with laughter when he finds a new way of cheating in the concealment of a four-anna bit in the palm of a pudgy hand.

The kings of Burma, like every Burman when he arrives at power and wealth, were oppressive in the extreme. Odd as this may seem to the non-Buddhist, their attitude is not inconsistent with the Buddhist religion. Everyone who attains to wealth and power does so only because he has won these things for himself in a previous existence. In his present life his wealth gives him the opportunity to expiate his sins by gifts and pagoda building, by the feeding of monks and the dedication of images of the Lord Buddha. The man who is poor is so only because some millions of years ago in a previous life he was wicked. The poor man has little opportunity to improve his chances in the future, because his poverty will not permit him to exercise bounty on a liberal scale. Indeed, his poverty may even drive him lower, for in his efforts to escape starvation he may be forced to hunt game or kill for food — acts that ensure him even more millions of years in the Buddhist hells and a fresh start on the same lowly planes of human existence.

To the Western way of thinking, the whole idea of Buddhism is oppressive in the extreme. ‘All is transient, sorrowful, and vain: the Lord, the Law, the Assembly, the Precious Things,’ is the refrain that accompanies meditation on the excellencies of the example of the Lord Buddha and on the greatness of his Law. Somehow, however, the Burman succeeds in triumphing over his religion. Gifted with a sense of humor enjoyed by few Orientals, he cares little for the things that money can bring. He works no more than he has to; some say that he is frankly idle; but he gives freely of what he has. Burma is a happy land in which it is always afternoon and in which to-morrow may always be conveniently forgotten.