A teak tycoon’s lasting bequest

Two imposing Buddhist shrines at a monastery in a quiet Kayin State village are the legacy of a feisty teak tycoon who took on the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and lost.


A SMALL, sleepy village in Kayin State is attracting increasing numbers of visitors keen to admire its Buddhist architecture.

The buildings and shrines in the monastery compound at Kawhnat village, which although located in Hpa-an Township is closer to the Mon State capital Mawlamyine than the Kayin State capital, were built more than a century ago by three Mon tycoons who were famed for their munificence.

Most visitors to the area are foreign tourists and they are rewarded by the splendour and variety of the buildings, which display a mix of traditional and foreign architectural styles. The site contains an ordination hall built in 1895, and three shrines and two pagodas built from 1902 to 1904.

Two of the tycoons, Nai Htaw Ei and Nai Tun Kyaw, chose designs influenced by Indo-European architecture and traditional Chinese elements, respectively, for the monastery buildings; and Nai Nar Auk, another prominent businessman, used traditional Burmese designs for two of the shrines.

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Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Nar Auk, who died in 1913, aged 81, rose from humble beginnings to become a teak baron.

With the help of an abbot who had studied Buddhism in Mandalay – the capture of which by British colonial troops in 1885 marked the end of the third Anglo-Burmese War – Nar Auk invited royal architects to design the shrines.

Each features a many-tiered, spire-like roof and impressive examples of the floral arabesque decorative form known as rinceau. The interior walls are decorated with frescoes and reliefs depicting the lives of the Lord Buddha and of ancestor kings.

Much of the decoration is gilded, making it appear fresh. Layers of brass were used to make floral arches at the shrine entrances and the arabesques along the edge of the roofs.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Glass mosaics embedded in the gilding at the bottom of some pillars are deteriorating and have been replaced. Unfortunately, the replacement mosaic is quite different to the originals and of inferior quality.

The floors, walls, ceilings and doorframes were crafted from the best quality teak and remain in good condition.

One of the shrines houses two standing Buddha images: one is 4.57 metres high (15 feet) and the other 4.27m (14 feet). They were each carved from a single piece of teak.

The use of high-quality teak by Nar Auk is not surprising because the much-coveted timber helped to make the former cattle boy one of the richest men in Burma in his time.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Nar Auk, though ethnic Mon, was born in a mostly Karen village in 1832 to parents who were farmers. After leaving school he was employed by a local tycoon, Htaw Ei, who also had a company in Rangoon.

Htaw Ei liked the young man’s honesty, diligence and leadership skills, and quickly promoted him to manager. When Nar Auk later started his own teak business, he received Htaw Ei’s support. However, the business did not prosper until he expanded his operations to the Karenni States, in what is now Kayah State.

After the fall of Mandalay, the British pacified the ethnic nationality areas on the peripheries of the kingdom, forcing the Shan princely rulers, known as saophas or sawbwas, and leaders of other groups to make peace. In the Karenni States, some princely rulers refused to bow to British pressure.

“A sawbwa in [the Karenni States] sold their forests and plantations to U Nar Auk for very little money while continuing to resist the British,” said U Tun Kalay, a Kawhnat village elder and trustee of the monastery.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

He recounted the legend that Nar Auk was lucky with the weather, because continuous heavy rain made it easier to send the logs down the Thanlwin (Salween) River.

“The teak logs were easily floated down the river to Kawhnat village,” Tun Kalay told Frontier on November 20.

Nar Auk realised an 80 percent profit when he sold the teak logs to the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, he said.

It was the start of Nar Auk’s “golden era”; he later expanded his teak business to the Shan States, Tun Kalay said.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Years later, Nar Auk went into the paddy trading and money lending businesses because he wanted to help poor farmers.

“They were not profitable ventures for him, but he saved many farmers from falling into debt with Chettiars,” Tun Kalay said, referring to a caste of moneylenders who were originally from southern India.

In 1910, Nar Auk formed a company to challenge the monopoly held by the British-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company on passenger and cargo shipping in the inland waterways of Burma.

He sent a nephew to Scotland to buy nine boats from McKie & Baxter, marine engineers in Glasgow, and built a dock near Moulmein, now called Mawlamyine.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

The fierce competition for business between Nar Auk’s fleet and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company on the lower Thanlwin and the Attaran and Gyaing rivers is still discussed among locals, Tun Kalay said.

Each company slashed fares and it was widely known that they even began offering presents to passengers to attract more business, he said.

“What many people don’t know is that the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company paid a commission to jetties so they would prevent Nar Auk’s vessels from docking,” Tun Kalay said.

The dispute eventually went to court. It ruled that both inland waterway lines could operate but stipulated that the first vessel to leave a jetty must be the first to dock at next the port or be liable to be fined.

“U Nar Auk’s boats were better so the boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla were always fined,” Tun Kalay said. “In those days, at the time of a boat’s arrival, the jetty would be crowded with passengers shouting for U Nar Auk.”

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

After about two years of competition against the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, Nar Auk had to give up and sold his fleet of boats.

Tun Kalay said Nar Auk had no children, despite having married five times, and the families of his nephews and nieces who run businesses in Yangon and other places provide the funds needed to preserve the shrines.

Although state government officials have floated the idea of providing support none has so far materialised, he said.

“The financial support is limited,” he said, “so we are repairing the shrines very slowly and very carefully.”

TOP PHOTO: Steve Tickner | Frontier

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