While Myanmar, also recognized as Burma, has been facing pressure from the U.S this week, the search for a 270-ton bronze bell has begun. The bell is believed to have been sitting at the bottom of a river, just south of the old capital for over 400 years. The search team is composed of 70 people, including 10 divers from the Myiek Archipelago, famous for its exotic beaches and tankless divers.
What is believed to be the world’s largest bell is said to have been cast by Myanmar’s ancient king, Dhammazedi, in 1480 for the monks of the Shwedagon pagoda. Evidence of this bell’s existence lies within the diary of Venetian gem merchant, Gaspero Balbi, who wrote of his visit to the bell 100 years after its casting. In 1608, the bell was stolen by Filipe de Brito, a Portuguese mercenary, who controlled a vast area to the south of the Rangoon river.
While transporting the bell to his base, Brito’s poorly constructed raft broke, causing the it to sink below a river, believed to be near Monkey Point, where three rivers meet. For over 400 years, the lost bell’s sinking location has been an attraction for treasure hunters. Due to heavy silt, perilous currents and murky waters, private and foreign groups over the years have been unable to find it.
With a budget of about $200,000 in donations, Win Myint, the expedition organizer, projects that the search will take up to 45 days to complete. Although the search of Myanmar’s lost bell has begun this week with several dives, the heavy silt at the bottom of the river bed has kept them from finding the bell thus far. The bell is believed to be buried under 25 feet of mud, making it difficult for Myint’s team of free-divers to uncover.
With the use of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the team is able to use this sonar to see through the thick mud and distinguish what is at the bottom of the river. Although most of the attention to this search has been turned towards the free-divers, who are able to dive without tanks, little has been mentioned about the use of their ROV’s. Myint is confident of the technology used to conduct a search that has resulted in failures over the years by many organizations.
The free-divers, native to the Myiek Archipelago, are only using safety straps and goggles to conduct their search under Myint’s management. Known as Moken people, they lead a nomadic, sea-based life within the Archipelago and have adapted to the water over hundreds of years, mastering free-diving. They are known to be able to hold their breath under water longer than the average human.
Jim Blunt, an American diver, searched for the bell in conjunction with the authorities of Myanmar in 1995. He attempted to find the bell with 116 jumps within the two years he spent searching, retelling his experiences in a documentary. He claims he has banged his fist against the bell, hearing a metallic sound in return. Damien Lay, an Australian filmmaker has claimed to know the correct location of the missing bell. “We have exceptional data.” Lay said in an interview last year, adding that he has sent his information over to the Myanmar authorities.
Myint said he has always dreamed of finding the Dhammazedi bell and plans to return it to the Shwedagon Pegoda once it has been lifted out of the river. He is confident his search will end in success, adding that buddhist monks prayed in a separate boat for the divers’ safety, as the search was conducted this week. The search for Myanmar’s lost bell will continue over the next 40 days under Myint’s management.
By Monica de Lartigue