Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Cultural Influences of Burma

The more I travel, the smaller the world gets and the interconnections of culture and history from country to country become more apparent.  Whether its the similarities between countries with the same colonial powers, who then share traditions, historical timelines and architectural styles, or migrations of workers and the mixing that happened due to the prominent trade routes throughout Asia, or just that borders were often placed haphazardly so similar cultures live in multiple countries. And then theres religion... it is a huge connector in so many places.

Burma brought all these things together for me. The intersecting cultures were prominent and very visible. Burma shares a border with Thailand, Laos, China, Bangladesh and India and there are influences of them all in the faces, food and traditions. The biggest tug seems to be between the influence of their big neighbors, India and China.

While seeing the Chinese influence didn’t feel unusual, since China is the huge imposing neighbor to all of South East Asia, I was not expecting so much of the Indian feel. Between being a close neighbor, sharing trade routes for centuries and the huge influence the British Empire had in connecting the two countries, at this point India is ever present.

Please forgive the roughness of these observations. I'm not a trained anthropologist, so I'm just throwing out random things I noticed here. Its hard to put to words all the times someone I was with, or I,  just got that feeling that something felt like India.  It was subtle and wonderful. There were little India reminders everywhere. Religious pilgrims piled high in oxcarts dressed brightly for festival days. Overfilled trucks coming home from the market. The traditional dress for men and women is a long skirt, called a longyi, a long sarong type cloth, similar to India, (and even Coastal Kenya), is a tradition adopted during British rule. Food for sale on the streets includes samosas and other familiar Indian delights.  People drink lots of chai. Dinner one night was served one a huge platter with separate compartments just like a thali, a Southern Indian style dish. Some of the Buddhist temples were built in the same style as Hindu temples and there are also were ornate painted Hindu temples in Yangon, the capital. And then the faces... So many of the faces are Indian faces. I recognized a lot of influence of genes from Kerala and Tamil Nadu in Southern India. And other faces had darker Indian skin tones with Asian features. The faces, were so, so, so diverse… It was heaven for a portrait photographer like me.

And last but not least, frankly, there just was a bit more of the chaotic, cultural vibrance I love than in a typical South East or East Asian city.

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