Burma Tries Again To Salvage its Great Bell

In 1606, an audacious Portuguese explorer and mercenary named Filipe De Brito e Nicote, who established temporary Portuguese rule in Burma, stole the biggest bell on earth from the fabled Shwedagon Pagoda in what was then Rangoon.

The bell, known as the Great Bell of Dhammazedi , a behemoth cast of 295 tonnes of copper, gold, silver and tin alloy, unfortunately got no further than about half a mile down the hill to the Bago River, where it was lashed to de Brito’s flagship for a journey across the river to be melted down for cannons. However, the raft broke up and sank, taking De Brito’s galleon down with it.

The Great Bell, described by a Venetian gem merchant who saw it to be “seven paces and three handbreadths in diameter,” apparently sits to this day at the confluence of the Bago and Irrawaddy Rivers, buried in 25 feet of mud.

While dozens of attempts have been made to find the bell and bring it up, to no avail, a Burmese businessman and ruling party lawmaker, Khin Shwe, says he plans another expedition to salvage the bell and has vowed to spend as much as US$10 million to do it.

It well could cost that much. Over the past 400 years many attempts have been made to recover the giant bell, including by a professional sea diver named James Blunt, who made 115 unsuccessful dives to attempt to find it amid the mud, the murk of the river and the wreckage of a flock of ships. In 2000, a Singapore-based treasure hunter and adventurer named Mike Hatcher agreed to try to bring up the bell and restore it to the Shwedagon Pagoda, with funds from Japanese, Australian and American companies. A Time Magazine correspondent was primed to go with Hatcher to document the rescue, but it never came off.

The attempt was said to have been opposed by Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi because of concerns that the operation might be misconstrued as an endorsement by the international community of the junta then in charge of the government. Hatcher, however, may have simply found more lucrative pursuits.

In 2010, an Australian documentary filmmaker and explorer named Damien Lay conducted extensive side scan sonar surveys and diving operations and reportedly found the bell among 14 shipwrecks in the area. Both the bell and De Brito’s galleon targets were said to be visible to sonar and resting on the sea floor.

Bringing it up would be a massive job, requiring the construction of some sort of major platform on which to mount a crane to pull up the enormous bell, then a railway would have to be built to transport it the half mile back up to the Pagoda.

Zay Thiha, Khin Shwe’s son, told The Irrawaddy his father was working with the abbot of the Kyaik Htee Saung Pagoda, located near Mon State’s Golden Rock shrine, to organize a salvaging operation for the long-lost bell. “Our family will cover 100 percent of the costs of this project,” he said.

“We’ve already hired big ships to salvage the bell," Kin Shwe told local media. "After that—if we can salvage the bell—we will put it on display at Shwedagon Pagoda.”

“One foreign expert predicted that salvaging the bell will cost between $5 million and $10 million. Whatever the cost, I’m ready to spend any amount,” said Khin Shwe, who is the chairman of Zay Kabar Company and a member of parliament with the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the party which was originally designed as the vehicle through which the military would continue to control the parliament.

Zay Kabar Company is one of the largest property developers in Burma and was a favorite of the former military rulers. Khin Shwe is an in-law of Shwe Mann, the USDP chairman and the Union Parliament Speaker.

The businessman told a local publication, Snapshot, that his project would succeed due to the mystical powers of the abbot of Kyaik Htee Saung Pagoda. “King Dhammazedi [who gave the bell to the pagoda] was born on a Tuesday and so is the abbot of Kyaik Htee Saung [Pagoda]. So, I’m 100 percent confident that this project will be a success,” he was quoted as saying.

The article provided no details about the salvaging project and Khin Shwe could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Chit San Win, who wrote several books about the history of the bell, was the first to organize a salvage attempt in 1987 and has made several attempts since, including an effort carried out in 1996 with the support of then-Military Intelligence chief Khin Nyunt. He told The Irrawaddy that unless Khin Shwe’s project involves state-of-the-art salvaging technology operated by overseas experts it was doomed to fail, adding that the bell had never been located.

“I don’t believe the bell can be recovered without the use of the latest technology, because according to my experience, using local technology won’t work,” Chit San Win said, adding that he supported Khin Shwe’s project.

In July 2012, Chit San Win, the Historical Research Department of the Ministry of Culture and SD Mark International LLP Co. of Singapore organized a workshop in Rangoon to seek suggestions for recovering the bell.

The Singaporean firm claimed to have a $10 million budget for the project and hoped to complete it in about 18 months, but there has been no information about the planned project since. According to a source familiar with the project, the ministry cancelled the plan after officials became concerned over a lack of funds.

(With reporting from The Irrawaddy)