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The road to Mandalay was immortalised by Kipling

Posted in Historical articles, History, Trade, Travel, War, World War 2 on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Burma first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Mandalay Waltz,  picture, image, illustration

The Mandalay Waltz was published after 1885 when the British occupied the fabulous city during the Third Burmese War

It was not just that the road to Mandalay took a long time to build. Several wars had to come and go before people even realised that they hadn’t got one. But then it was easy enough in the early 19th century for the British in India to take things for granted. They knew vaguely that Burma lay to the north east, full of great rivers and ruby mines. That there were hundreds of pagodas in the ancient city of Mandalay. And wasn’t there an age old caravan route from India that wound its way to it through the hills?

In 1823, it became only too clear that there wasn’t any road to the city of pagodas through the hills or by any other way. War had broken out between Burma and the East India Company, and during the course of it the British discovered that the jungle covering much of the country was so dense that it formed a natural barrier against even the toughest troops. The only route into the interior was by way of Rangoon and the great Irrawaddy river, up which the army travelled by boat. Although victorious, many of the soldiers died of malaria, and it was not until the third Burmese War in 1885 that British troops actually succeeded in occupying Mandalay. They would probably not have reached it even then had it not been for the miscalculations of Thibaw, the Burmese king.

King Thibaw had never fully appreciated that any power in the world might be greater than his own. Encouraged by his financial advisers, he tried to confiscate the property of some British firms – with disastrous results.

The British sent soldiers north from Rangoon to show King Thibaw the error of his ways. As they sailed up the Irrawaddy they watched the country’s source of wealth going the other way – great rafts of teak wood floating down towards the sea.

In Burma, it was not only soldiers who used boats for transport. Nobody, unless they could possibly avoid it, used anything else. They were convenient and they were comfortable. Why, people argued, should anyone consider building a road all the way from India when it was so easy just to step aboard a steamer at Mandalay, sail down to Rangoon and then embark on a further, well organised voyage to Calcutta?

It made sense and would have continued to have done so, had it not been for the growing tea industry of Assam. Increasing demand made it necessary to build both a railway and a road from India’s Calcutta to the centre of the tea industry at Dimapur. It was a good half of the road to Mandalay. But unfortunately the little state of Manipur lay between the end of the road and the Burmese border.

At the turn of the century, it took sixteen days to make the 100 mile journey from Assam to the Manipuri capital of Imphal. And although a few Burmese traders made their way there from time to time, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would even bother to link Manipur with the outside world.

“A little heaven on earth,” was how someone described it, “but not particularly useful.” Which was hard, but true. The half forgotten state was the home of the head hunting Naga tribes, of limitless wild fowl, and a happy, easy going people whose women, by tradition, did most of the work. It produced enough rice to feed its people, and that was all. Build a road to link itself with India and Burma? The idea was unthinkable. Nobody in Manipur walked half a mile if he could possibly avoid it, and certainly nobody had the slighest desire to visit distant lands.

In spite of the Manipuris’ lack of interest, the tortuous track that led north to Dimapur did get slightly larger during the 1930s, but not much. It was just passable for a skilled driver and a strong car, but nobody made the trip often. True, on one occasion the Burma Oil Company had got as far as putting down a tarmac surface over a short stretch, but nobody thanked them for it and so they had a hard tennis court for a local official instead. After all, if anyone really wanted to get to Mandalay all that quickly they could always take a plane.

Then came World War II and the relentless, terrifying advance through Burma of the invading Japanese.

By March of 1942, it was only too clear that the hopelessly outnumbered British forces in Burma would have to withdraw to India by way of Manipur. From Tamu on the border to Imphal there was at best a crazy goat track winding its way across the jungle-clad hills. If the army was to bring anything out, even itself, there would have to be a road.

But was there going to be time to build it?

Army engineers decided to find out. Helped by almost everyone who could swing a pick axe, including workers from the Assam tea gardens and convicts from the local gaol, they set to work. Civilian engineers watched in horror as an officer blasted out a track with a recklessly driven bulldozer and a huge, ant-like force of coolies trimmed, drained and rough surfaced it. The whole thing was too steep, the experts said. The bends were impossibly sudden. It was, and they were. But it was the best that could be done in the available time. By May the road was there, and over it trudged not only a retreating army, but thousands of civilian refugees as well. They reached the safety of Manipur before all activity was stopped by the arrival of torrential monsoon rain.

For the time being the road had served its purpose, but the army had done all the retreating it intended to do. Soon it was going to advance. Accordingly, in the months that followed, a metalled road was constructed that ran from distant Dimapur, all the way to the Burma border at Tammu. It was a feat of engineering unequalled by soldiers anywhere in the world, a carving of a ledge out of the living mountain side. When a driver’s attention wandered, he got no second chance. Once the front wheels went over the edge, nothing could save the vehicle from an almost sheer drop of anything up to a thousand feet.

Soon the steamy water courses far below were littered with shattered wrecks, while up above the work went on at undiminished speed. During the next monsoon the hillsides began to slip, carrying parts of the new road away, and whole sections had to be remade. But when the tide of war turned and in 1944 British and Indian troops took the offensive, they drove into Burma over a road that was not to crumble under even the heaviest tank.

Beyond the spearhead of the advance, the engineers slaved on. Once across the Chindwin the land flattened out and progress was easier. Steadily British, Indian and African troops widened and strengthened the road they found there. Through Ye-u it went. Past Shwebo. And eventually to the city of pagodas itself, Mandalay.

It was one of the wonders of the East. At long last it was possible to drive a car all the way from Mandalay to India along a road that was as sound as many in Europe. Yet somehow, very few did. With the end of World War II, Burma reverted once more to her old ways, seeking little from the outside world. The army engineers went home, and each year the monsoon swept soil down the hillsides across the tarmac of the road. In the hot, wet climate of Manipur and Burma, vegetation grows at extraordinary speed. Soon, bamboo, grass and even orchids began to sprout from the road that had once echoed to clanging tank tracks. Today, it may still be travelled here and there, but that is all. For much of the way the jungle has claimed its own.

And the city of pagodas? If you do not wish to fly, you may perhaps travel there by rail. But most likely you will take the river road to Mandalay, as men have always done. Things move slowly in Burma, and as almost anyone will tell you, it is the old ways that are the best.

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