By Arash Khazeni, author of The City and the Wilderness: Indo-Persian Encounters in Southeast Asia
The fading traces of a different time of cross-cultural exchanges between the Indo-Persian Mughal world and the Burmese Empire linger like ghosts in the urban debris and landscape of Myanmar. The architecture of a world that fell apart. The ruins of weathered stone mosques, the tombs of Sufi saints recall this hidden past, but they are bound to soon disappear, lost to natural disasters, destroyed by human violence, and ravaged by the passing of time. My new book The City and the Wilderness: Indo-Persian Encounters in Southeast Asia explores this lost world of Indo-Persian connections with the Burmese Kingdom during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In our times, this shared past is nearly forgotten, endangered by the hardening divide between Buddhists and Muslims and the inter-communal violence which has displaced longstanding Indo-Persian Muslim societies in Myanmar over the last decade.
The traces of Indo-Persian societies and spaces in Myanmar can be seen in the heart of its largest city, Yangon. It is there on “Mogul Street,” now called Shwe Bon Thar Street in downtown Yangon, in the core of the colonial district, that most of the city’s Indo-Persian Muslim communities are settled and their architectural traces found. Located in the western sector of Strand Road, near the banks of the Rangoon River, Mogul Street is in the center of the city’s economic district. From its intersection with Merchant Street and all the way up to the bazaar of Bogyoke Aung San Market, Mogul Street is lined with the shops of Indian merchants.
This Indo-Persian Muslim quarter of Yangon was settled mostly by merchants from India, but it was also created by Iranian, Armenian, and Parsi traders that arrived beginning in the late eighteenth and through the nineteenth centuries. All along Mogul Street and its surroundings, are found the landmarks of this Indo-Persian presence. At the corner of Mogul Street and Mahabandula Road, in the shadow of the gilded Sule Pagoda, stands the grand Surti Sunni Jama Masjid, built circa 1860 by merchants from the port of Surat on the northwestern coast of India. The iconic white mosque with its dome and grand minarets was prominently pictured in an old colonial painted postcard titled “The Mosque Rangoon,” shown looming over a dirt road. But even now, repainted in the ubiquitous blue-green color of Burmese mosques and crowded by the concrete of the city, the mosque still casts its presence. Its daily call to prayer echoes through surrounding streets.
The Surti Sunni Jama Masjid is part of a complex of mosques built by Muslim communities in the old colonial quarter of Yangon. Just two blocks away on 30th Street, steps from Sule Pagoda, stands the Hyderabad styled Mogul Shia Masjid. The grand white mosque dates back to a wooden house of worship established in 1854 for the Shia community in the city. Inscriptions on the mosque name it the “Mogul Shia Masjid” and bear the names of migrants from the Iranian and Afghan cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, and Kabul, among other cities, who established the mosque. During the holy month of Muharram, the members of the mosque go into the streets bearing ornamental, gilded tabernacles of the grave of the martyr, silver banners of the Hand of Fatimah, and other religious relics in ta’ziya commemorations that reenact the martyrdom of the Shia saint Husayn ibn Ali .
The Indo-Persian presence around Mogul Street in Yangon was not limited to Muslims only. Nearby on Bank Street, once known as Shafraz Road, just steps from the river jetty, stands the Balthazar Building. It once housed the offices of the Khwaja Balthazar family, a prominent Armenian merchant firm, whose members had migrated to Yangon from the city of Isfahan in Iran in the 1860s. Because of their ties to Iran and India, Armenians and Parsis in nineteenth-century Burma were also identified as ‘Mogul.’ The neglected fin de siècle structure still possesses a sense of its lost history despite its ruinous state. Inside, its once immaculate marble floors, open staircase, and elevator are broken and rotting, while outside around the entrance of the building makeshift tarpaulins mark food stalls, a teahouse, and itinerant vendors of cigarettes and betel.
A few blocks away on a shady lot on the corner of Merchant Road and Bo Aung Kyaw Street stands the white steepled Armenian Orthodox Church of Saint John the Baptist, built and endowed by Armenian merchants in 1862.
This trail of Indo-Persian spaces winds northward from Mogul Street through the city, in the direction of the Dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the tomb of the exiled last king of the Mughal Empire located just downhill from the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist shrine. These “Mogul’ spaces in Yangon, like the strands of Persianate travel writing, descriptions, and translations on which The City and the Wilderness is based, hold the histories of a faded age of inter-Asian contacts and exchanges between Myanmar and the Indo-Persian world.