Bob Percival walks the streets of downtown Yangon, discovering Hindu temples, 1950s modernism and traces of art deco.
Sometimes when you are walking the city it is good just to let go and let the streets take you in their own direction. If you head up towards upper 50th Street you can wander north over the railway tracks and end up in the 98th and 99th Streets area. If you then wander further east one street, you will enter into 94th Street.
94th is only two blocks long but like all Yangon streets it holds its treasures and a diversity that always surprises. In the upper block most of the old buildings have been pulled down to accommodate the 1990s multi-story flats that have little grace but provide good and cheap accommodation. Cradled amongst these towers is the Shri Swami Shiv Narayan Santh Samaj Hindu Temple whose principle worship is Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavism. On Sunday afternoons around 4.00pm you will find devotees playing beautiful traditional music here with songs, tablas and harmoniums. The musicians occasionally take rests, with Indian sweet teas and snacks taht are shared with others present. The building was constructed in 1947 and is very simple but full of love and colour.
Another gem in this street is a row of five two-storey terraces [No. 191] built from brick, with wooden veranda railings and time-worn teak wood steps leading to the upper storey. Architectural elements like these place the age of the building somewhere in the 1920s – definitely the oldest residential building in the street. On the left-side of the street is a unique 1957 two-storey house, painted a beautiful purple colour, a rare example of Burmese-style Streamline Moderne architectural design (a late type of Art Deco architecture) that emerged in the 1930s, and arrived in Burma in the late 1950s and 1960s, and elements of which are seen even in the 1980s building in the street. The arrowhead design in some of the metal railings is this street is a locally adapted art deco detail.
In the lower block you will find an old two-storied wooden house, which is under a threat of demolition (that dreaded red sign) plus some rare examples of richly coloured concrete and brick houses built in the late 1980s, when there was not so much pressure on housing and two-story buildings were deemed adequate. The purple, green and blue of these buildings create a beautiful rhythm along the building-scape. At the end of the street you will find the impressive Sri Mariamman Devasthanam Hindu Temple (1903), newly painted and incredibly rich in colour and design. All the Hindu figures here are carved in wet concrete by master workmen brought over especially from the Indian mainland. A special ceremony is held every Friday at 4.00pm.
Keep on walking, and discover the wonders of the streets of Yangon.
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #9, July 2015