Yangon (1850-1860)/ Town Planning and Religious Space

Speaking of planning religious space in colonial Rangoon, the records in the national archives show that many subsidies were made to fulfil written applications and requests, and that parties seem to have asked for specific allotments chosen by themselves (Ware, 2016). Consequently the juxtaposition of religious space in the downtown grid reveals the dispersal of ethnic and religious groups in the new city, as allowed and encouraged by the colonial authorities.

Religious buildings in the new city seem to have been chosen, planned and constructed by self-forming local migrant communities with shared ethnic and religious ties, resulting in what Appadurai (1995, p.35) calls the ‘religious production of locality’. In addition, there is no evidence that the colonial authorities would make planned decisions about the location of religious facilities. 

Figure 1: Map of the downtown urban grid area of contemporary Yangon, highlighting the juxtaposition of some of the key religious buildings (Buddhist places of worship shown in bold) Sule Pagoda was one of the few Buddhist architectures that was preserved during the redevelopment period (Ware, 2016).
Figure 2: This plan highlights that Roman catholic church, mosque, pagodas, and Armenian church were scattered into different places in downtown Rangoon from 1852-1862. The colonial authorities have encouraged this multi- religious society (Pearn, 1939).
Figure 3: Mapping showing the allocation of spaces for railway, shipping and industrial area, business area, residential area for ALL RACES, and open spaces. This plan emphasizes on the residenial area for people of different races and ethnicities yet in reality, where various groups of residetns settled in were based on their religious background and races (Laurie,2002).

In 1853, about nine free plots were allocated to immigrant communities including two churches, one convent, two mosques, one Hindu temple, one synagogue and two Chinese temples, all in very close proximity to one another. “This urban situation can be defined as an ideological belief that a multi-religious modernist or cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities was advantageous to stability and economic productivity” (Ware, 2016, p.80). Apart from allowing the Sule Pagoda to continue as a place for worshipping, only a few land grant was given to the local Burmese Buddhists in the decade after the war for the reconstruction of the Theingyi (ordination hall) on Dalhousie Street (Pearn, 1939). 

“The only other grant for revitalised land to Burmese Buddhists noted in the national archives was the Nyaung Gon monastery in Pazundaung on the Eastern edge of the grid area” (Pearn, 1939, p.98). The decreasing number of monasteries and relocation to the periphery has become the driver of the marginalisation of the local Burman-Buddhist population as many migrant workforces were being introduced into the new colonial Rangoon from elsewhere in British India.

“Religion not only contributes built forms such as monuments, sites, and cultural landscapes as tangible heritage, but it also offers intangible heritage in the guise of practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills of communities and groups, and individuals, as well as instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces.”

                                                                                                                                       UNESCO (2003, p.200)

This explains why the displacement of Buddhist churches and the dominance by the Burmans over other ethic minorities would cause subsequent Burman nationalism.

The intense nationalism is one key factor underlying the ethnic conflict plaguing the country since independence. Many felt the need of disconnecting the country’s future from the colonial and distinctly non-Buddhist heritage of that city as a way of defending the large non-Burman community and perceived international threats. 


Ware, Anthony. Religion and Urbanism in Origin of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar/Burma: An urban history of religious space, social integration and marginalisation in colonial Rangoon after 1852. In Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualising sustainable cities for South Asia. (Oxon: Routledge, 2016).

Pearn, Bertie Reginald. History of Rangoon. (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press, 1939)

UNESCO. Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible Cultural Heritage. (Paris: UNESCO, 2003)

Laurie, William F. B. The second Burmese War: a narrative of the operations at Rangoon, in 1852.(Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2002)

Appadurai, A. ‘The Production of Locality’, in Fardon, R. (ed.), Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge. (London: Routledge, 1995)

1 Comment on “Yangon (1850-1860)/ Town Planning and Religious Space

  1. The relationship between the colonial urban planning and the formation of Burmese nationalism was clearly indicated in the passage, showing the significance of Buddhism in Burmese minds at that time. The juxtaposition of diverse religious buildings in Yangon was the evidence of the British degrading Buddhism in the society. However, this act has created certain negative effects including the xenophobic reaction of Burmese, further harming social cohesion.

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