Nineteenth-century Europeans visit a pagoda with their shoes on - a disrespectful act to Buddhists.

Have you ever wondered why Myanmar is so strict about footwear in pagodas, temples and surrounding compounds, especially when its neighbors Thailand and Laos only require visitors to remove their shoes inside of the shrine itself? Many natural tourist destinations in Myanmar such as caves and mountaintops are in fact holy sites and therefore require the visitor to go barefoot. In my travels I have often found myself squelching through mud and betel spit, walking up a mountain on hot gravel, or slip-sliding down a poorly-lit cave all in my bare feet. But if you accidentally forget to take off your shoes, you are likely to receive a stern warning from a caretaker.

The answer, of course, lies in the country’s complex colonial past, and, specifically, in two separate but equally important events: the growth of Buddhism as a religion and the struggle for national independence from the British.

When British envoys first arrived at the court of the Burmese king in the 18th century, they not only had to take off their shoes, but also to crawl on the ground in the King’s presence. This irked the British because they viewed their monarch as superior to that of Burma, and so they pushed and pushed in order to get the rules revoked. They argued that the King of Siam did not require Europeans to take off their shoes, so why should the King of Burma? The shoe policy became a symbolic sticking point in diplomatic relations between Britain and Burma that would ultimately lead to war.

According to the historian Alicia Turner’s book Saving Buddhism: the Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, when the British Army deposed King Thibaw and annexed Upper Burma in 1886, they brought with them a policy of separation of church and state from India. But in Burma, religion had always gone hand-in-hand with the state, the King patronizing the monks, and the monks supporting the King.

Ba Gale’s Shwedagon Shoe Controversy (1917).

By treating Buddhism as just another religion alongside Islam and Christianity, the British inadvertently sparked a crisis within Burmese Buddhism itself. Without the King, who would feed the sangha – the monks – and who would look after the Buddha’s sasana – the legacy of his teachings? Who would pay for the scriptures to be so painstakingly copied? Turner says that this crisis saw ordinary Burmese citizens leading the charge alongside the monks to revive the Buddha’s teachings and reclaim control over their moral universe. The mounting anxiety about the decline of Buddhism led to an outpouring of donations, a range of ritual and scriptural reforms, and the growth of Buddhist lay associations and schools all across the country – a Buddhist renaissance of sorts.

But in spite of this newfound agency, it was the British, not the Burmese, who would set the terms for what constitutes proper conduct and respect, and they decided that each of Burma’s ethnic groups would show respect in the way that was “traditional” to their culture. What was “traditional,” of course, would again be determined by the British. Therefore, Europeans would remove their hats, but not their shoes before entering a building or pagoda compound; Burmese their shoes, but not their hats. Early photographs of Europeans “on tour” at various holy sites in Myanmar show them wearing shoes – a highly disrespectful act in the eyes of Buddhists – as well as hats, highlighting the degree to which the rules were really just a double-standard in favor of Europeans.

U Dhammaloka.

Oddly enough, the first challenge to this state of affairs actually came from a European. In 1901, the Irish-born itinerant Buddhist monk U Dhammaloka challenged an off-duty Indian police officer on the platform at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, demanding that he remove his shoes. Dhammaloka, no doubt, acted according to the racial hierarchies of the day. He felt that as a Buddhist and a European he could make the Indian officer remove his shoes. Indians traditionally removed their shoes at pagodas, but this man was an employee of the government. The Indian officer filed a complaint with his superior, and Dhammaloka was charged under the Sedition Act. The altercation led to a series of reports and a newspaper controversy over the so-called “Shoe Question.”

In the following years, more and more Buddhist monks began challenging shoe-shod Europeans on pagoda platforms, and in 1917, the Burmese nationalist U Thein Maung, later known as “Shoe” Maung, began removing signs at pagodas saying that Europeans did not need to take off their shoes, and replacing them with signs saying simply “take off your shoes.” In doing so, he was making a direct challenge to the British colonial elite. Soon afterwards, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) met to draft a resolution to remove the exemption for Europeans at pagodas throughout the country. The “Shoe Question” had now become political. Manifestos were written and cartoons drawn, such as the famous one by U Ba Gale depicting what he viewed as the obsequiousness of some Burmese collaborators with the British.

Although it protested, the British colonial government, under growing pressure from nationalists and the press, eventually gave in to the pagoda trustees in 1919. Immediately afterwards the European community went on the defensive and began boycotting the pagodas, but the initial foray had been made, and it would only be a matter of time before the Burmese independence movement gained significant support among the Buddhist population. If the Burmese could change the law regarding footwear in pagodas what else could they change? Perhaps more importantly for Myanmar today, the relationship between Buddhism and Burmese nationalism had been cemented for good. From then on, the fight for Burmese independence would be dominated by Buddhist rhetoric and vice versa. So next time you’re in a pagoda, tread lightly, because it’s likely you are walking in the (bare) footsteps of history.

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