Irrawaddy River, Lifeline of Burma's History, with Caroline Courtauld MBE

Richly illustrated history of Burma's great artery, the Irrawaddy River, Kipling's Road to Mandalay

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Control of the Irrawaddy means control of communications, control of the economy and control of the backdoor to China.

'Huge and ochreous' (Orwell), the Irrawaddy is the lifeline of Burma. From its source in the eastern Himalayas, the great river sweeps down from the heart of Asia to the Bay of Bengal; it is navigable for some 1,200 miles. It has provided political capitals, prosperity and mobility to the Burmese, but also access for foreign invaders from Kublai Khan to the Japanese.

Throughout it's history, the Irrawaddy has been vital to Burma for communication and transportation: still today crowded with ferries, fishing boats, rafts of teak logs, skiffs piled high with earthenware pots, and a marvellous variety of craft of all kinds.

But the river’s vital role of transportation is secondary to its importance in the production of food for much of the country. It is a source of water and irrigation for all the villages and plains along its banks. Evening is the time for collecting water, and although some of the water is now piped, one still sees oxen processing across the sandbanks and into the stream, where their masters ladle water into barrels and the sandbanks are cultivated for summer crops of paddy.

Myanmar is a nation in flux, with one foot in the deep past and one in the future. In the current political landscape, with President Thein Sein’s government at the helm and Aung San Suu Kyi a member of parliament and leader of the main opposition party, life in Myanmar is changing. For those living along the Irrawaddy the pace of change is palpable.

The Irrawaddy's history is a deep one. The river valley - at the crossroads of trade from Assam to Indo-China - was occupied as far back as 5,000 years ago.

On her recent visit to Myanmar, Caroline Courtauld explored and photographed the archaeological sites of Tagaung & Halin. Sections of both cities have been excavated, and both are hoping to acquire World Heritage status. The latter is particularly interesting: thick brick walls, funerary urns, buried skeletons and ornaments in gold suggest a rich culture and add materially to what was already known of Myanmar’s history.

The Irrawaddy has provided mobility and prosperity to Burma and several political capitals. In 1287, the then capital Pagan was sacked by Kublai Khan. Thousands of temples were laid waste by the Burmese king of the time in an attempt to fortify the city against Kublai’s advancing army. In the 14th century the strategic area halfway up the river’s navigable waters — around today’s Mandalay — was settled. Thereafter the capital was located in a number of sites all very close to each other: Sagaing, Ava, Amarapoura and Mandalay.

European traders came in the early 15th century, and left accounts of splendid fleets of boats sailing the river. From 1865, the steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company began service on the river, first transporting British and Indian soldiers north to capture Mandalay and Upper Burma. Becoming the world’s largest river fleet, the Irrawaddy Flotilla had its entire fleet deliberately scuppered to prevent them falling into the hands of the invading Japanese in 1942.

Today's conquests are economic and most originate in China, for example, a major hydro-electric dam financed by Beijing. Profound change is certain. Still, the great river flows on, as serene and unmoved as the many images of Buddha along its banks. Caroline's talk, historic, current and personal, will provide an illustration of the Irrawaddy at a momentous time in its extraordinary history.

This talk was a sell-out at the Royal Asiatic Society and attended by Myanmar's consul.


Caroline Courtauld MBE

Caroline is a writer, photographer, and documentary film producer and researcher. Her publications include books on Burma, Hong Kong and China. From 1992 to 1997 she worked with Jonathan Dimbleby and Francis Gerard on a BBC documentary, The Last Governor -- see video, about Hong Kong in the period up to its transfer of sovereignty to China. For her latest documentary for America's PBS, she was Co- Executive Producer on Building China Modern.

Courtauld’ s involvement in a television documentary on the history of Hong Kong led to another book, The Hong Kong Story, published by Oxford University Press.

The widely acclaimed book The Forbidden City–The Great Within (see video), which Courtauld co-authored with May Holdsworth, was a companion book to a lavish dramatized documentary of the same name, a history of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. This film was premiered on the Discovery Channel and shown worldwide.

A resident of Hong Kong and London, Courtauld is a former chairman of the Keswick Foundation. In 2009 she was the Managing Editor and an author of the history of the Foundation, “Friendship First – the First Thirty Years”. Courtauld has been a leading figure in the hospice care movement in Hong Kong (for which she was awarded an MBE) and now sits on a variety of NGO boards.

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2011 has led to Caroline's return to Burma (Myanmar) and to several projects, including Myanmar: Burma in Style (Odyssey and WW Norton). Myanmar's Ministry for Tourism has ordered 3000 copies.

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Martin Keeley