Home * Rivers of Myanmar The Irrawaddy River
The Irrawaddy River
This great waterway flowing from the northern tip of Myanmar into the southern delta and thence into the sea, a voyage of over 1240 miles, is a lifeline to the people. It played important roles all through the course of history, the river's life forever entwined with events in legends, in victory, in war and in triumphant tours by kings and princes.

 

According to Kachin legends the Great Spirit of the world from his seat on the icy Himalayan peaks poured water from two gold cups, and Mai Kha River flowed from the cup in his right hand and Mali Kha, from the left. The two rivers born together are twins, male and female, and they join at the confluence 43km north of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State to give birth to the Ayeyarwaddy River. Mai Kha River is longer and flows from the East, Mali Kha is short and flows from the West.
They ate children of the Himalayas, born from the melting snows.

 

Another legend of the northern reaches of the river concerns a Naga or Water irrawaddy-riverserpent princess with whom the sun god Suriya fell in love. The princess gave birth to three eggs which were washed downriver, one hatching at Thabeikyin to give birth to a slew of rubies, now found in abundance in Mogok, very near Thabeikyin. The other two floated on and one hatched a tiger in central Myanmar and the last hatched a crocodile in the delta.

 

The First Myanmar Empire had its seat in Bagan and chronicles recorded how the great kings Anawrahta (r. 1044-10770, Kyansit-tha (r. 1084-1112) and Alaung Sithu (r. 1112-1167) fought, loved and lived by the Ayeyarwaddy River and travelled on it by naval fleets. King Alaung Sithu especially was famous in Myanmar lore as travelling far and wide on his golden barge.
The earliest record of a European to sail up the Ayeyarwaddy for some distance was in 1435, of a Venetian merchant named Nicolo di Conti. He was going to the royal capital of Ava (or Inwa as called in Burmese) situated not far from the forested place that over four centuries later would become another capital, Mandalay.

 

He had misheard and perhaps confused the first two syllables of Ayeyarwaddy with the name of the capital, for he called both 'Dava'. He had sailed a month up the Ayeyarwaddy which he said was 'bigger than the Ganges' and had arrived in Ava.

 

It was during the reign of King Monyin Thado (r. 1427-1440) and he saw the king, who "rideth upon a white Elephant, which hath a chayne of golde about his necke, being long unto his feete, set full of many precious stones."
Elizabethan era merchant Ralph Finch came in 1586, stopping in Yangon and sailing up the Ayeyarwaddy to Pegu (Bago) during his travels in India and SE Asia. After his return, he became the director of the Levant Company and was a leading figure in the forming of the East India Company which received its Royal Charter in 1600. The company with its own militia would eventually lead to the British colonisation of India, Burma (Myanmar), Malaya, Hong Kong and the island of Singapore which was actually brought on their behalf by Sir Stamford Raffles from its ruler the Sultan of Johor.

 

The first official British envoy to Myanmar was Captain Michael Symes of His irrawaddy-river1Britannic Majesty's 7th Regiment. Arriving in Rangoon (now reverted to the original Burmese name Yangon) on 21 February of 1795, he saw the town as "the most flourishing seaport in the eastern World' and the Yangon River as "the most favourable river in the world for naval architecture" as he saw several ships of 900 to 1000 tons being constructed, considering the abundance of teak.

 

On the morning of 30th May 1795, his fleet of Burmese barges set sail for the royal capital Amarapura, a journey that took him 47 days. They made many stops on the way, and Symes had the chance to see small towns as well as Bagan's ancient temples, where they docked on 11 July. King Bodaw Paya sent a special barge to Bagan for their transportation on the last keg of the journey, a barge with a sail and 32 rowers. The hull was lacquered red and the rest gilded with pure gold leaf, while silk awnings gave shade.
King Bodaw Paya met him with courtesy if only briefly, as he was a king more interested in outdoor activities such as riding or hunting elephants and less in formal receptions. He was a good king but unfortunately under the ruthless power of his favourite common-born queen Mai Nu. By 1824, the British had control of several sea ports in Lower Myanmar if not Yangon.

 

His younger brother King Tharyarwaddy took over the throne by force in1837, irrawaddy-river3keeping his brother in powerless luxury but executing Mai Nu. Four years into his reign, he came down the Ayeyarwaddy from Inwa on his golden Royal barge with a retinue of fifteen thousand with nine thousand sent before as an honour guard.

 

On his arrival in Yangon, he re-gilded the spire of the Shwedagon and his much-loved queen the Lady Mya Lay donated a new stairway on the western face of the pagoda platform. It was a political move rather than a pilgrimage for his pomp and ceremony and display of naval power was meant to uplift the morale of the people of British-ruled Lower Myanmar.

 

King Tharyarwaddy departed early the next year to return to Amarapura and in February 1843, he sent a 40 tonne bronze bell by the Ayeyarwaddy River to be hung in the north-eastern corner of the Shwedagon, where it still hangs.

 

By 1852 all of lower Myanmar including Yangon was in British hands and when King Mindon. Tharyarwaddy's son, wanted to replace the 'umbrella' tip of the Shwedagon in 1871 he was refused permission by the British to come in person, so his ministers were sent down the Ayeyarwaddy carrying the new umbrella on a fleet of golden barges.

 

In 1855 the British sent another mission to the "Court of Ava" headed by Major Phayre, mistaking the name of the previous capital city as the name for the kingdom. The emissaries travelled on two IFC boats Lord William Bentinck and Nerbudda especially fitted for the important mission. Leaving Rangoon on 1 August 1855 they arrived at a rendezvous point near Taungthaman Lake, Amarapura, on the 27 of August. King Mindon sent 150 golden boats and a retinue of 9000 men to escort the emissaries to his palace but no treaties were signed.

 

From his windows, King Mindon could see the IFC vessels and uneasy that British ships could come so close to his palace, he made up his mind to build a new palace some distance from the river bank. By the following year, construction began and in 1859 he moved to the new capital he named Yadanabon, Mound of Gems, more commonly known as Mandalay.

 

He had Italian artisans working for him at the time and it is said that the straight irrawaddy-river2and wide streets of Mandalay were based on Rome's town plan. In the new palace, delicate glass mosaic work and a pavilion with painted walls and a fountain were also created by his Italian engineers. The ablest among his four ministers Yaw Mingyi Po Hlaing built a two storey brick monastery at the foot of Mandalay Hill in exquisite Italian architecture. It remains just a lovely shell after the bombings of WWII

 

The wealth of Upper Myanmar in its jungles of teak and ruby mines as well as the important trade route to China were too much for the British to ignore, especially as they felt threatened by the rivalling French. In 1885, during the reign of King Mindon's son Thibaw, the British sent an invading fleet headed by General Prendergast to finally annex all of the country.

 

They sailed up the Irrawaddy River from Thayet Myo on the 16th of November on a fleet which included six IFC steamers and ten flats. They met resistance at a few towns along the way but arrived in Mandalay on 28th November and by the next day the king and his family plus a number of retainers were taken on board the Thuriya, another IFC vessel, and early the next morning it sailed to Yangon and onwards to exile in India by another steamer.

 

The mighty river, mother of Myanmar giving sustenance and wealth to the people, has seen many triumphs and many tragedies and finally, a lasting victory.

 

The foreign power ruling her country left in 1948, and independence was celebrated on 4 January of that year. The last British Governor Sir Hubert Rance handed over power to the newly-established Myanmar government led by U Nu, saluted the union Jack as it was lowered for the last time, and sailed away from the Yangon docks on the HMS Birmingham along the Yangon River, child of the Ayeyarwaddy.
 
Built in Scotland on the Clyde
in 1947 by the famous ship-builder
Yarrow & Co with the same design of
the pre-war Quarter Wheller
steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla
Company.

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