Colonial Yangon/ The Relationship between Urban Planning and Religious Context

Buddhism has long been a dominating power in the minds of Burmese. There is a saying that “to be Burman is to be Buddhist” (Steinberg 2010, 32), showing the prominence of Buddhism in Burmese community. During the colonial era in Yangon, the urban planning carried out by the British has greatly affected the religious context of the city, threatening the social status of Buddhism at that time.

In the post-war urban design carried out by Dr. Montgomerie and engineer Fraser in 1852, the Sule Pagoda was kept merely because of its utility value, while many other Buddhist temples which were less significant than Sule Pagoda were demolished (Ware 2016). This large-scale deconstruction of pagodas and monasteries was the stark evidence of British’s disregard for Buddhism in the urban planning of Yangon, which also resulted in a lack of Buddhist buildings for worship in the downtown center.

Apart from that, the juxtaposition of various religious buildings was a palpable evidence of the colonial government planning to immerse the city with diverse religious setting. For instance, the Bengali Sunni Jaime Mosque and Immanuel Baptist Church were placed within 100m proximity to the Sule Pagoda.

Figure 1:this contemporary plan of Rangoon shows the juxtaposition of other religiousbuildings in the proximity of Sule Pagoda.

“This displacement of Buddhist religious spaces is a visible indicator of the displacement of the Burmese Buddhist population to the margins of the new colonial city, to make way for the new Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and even Jewish migrant bureaucrats, traders and labourers.”

(Ware 2016, 30-31)

Both the demolishment of Buddhist temples and the relocation of diversified religious buildings resulted in severe religious tensions formed between the Burmese and people with other religious or ethnic background, creating certain sociopolitical problems in the city including the conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims today.





Steinberg, David I. 2010. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know.Vol. . New York: Oxford University Press

Ware, Anthony.2 2016. “Religion and Urbanism in Origin ofBuddhist 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 forSouth Asia, edited by Yamini Narayanan, p.27-45.

2 Comments on “Colonial Yangon/ The Relationship between Urban Planning and Religious Context

  1. It is quite unique that the British colonial policies promoted the formulation of the nationalism of Burmese but not that of the institution. Behind this phenomenon, there was a tension between the control of colonial power and the resist of local Burmese with religious power. You made a good interpretation of the relationship between the land allocation policies and the identity of population. Perhaps you could make some comparisons with other British colonies.

  2. The intention of the British government to set up a multi-religious condition is suspicious but it is also quite unique since in a lot of british planning principle, neo-classical architecture like the courts and library would be planned first.

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