Expedition Unknown – The Great Bell of Dhammazedi – S01E12

imageFor this rather unusual investigation, Josh is off to Myanmar to search for a massive gold bell that was stolen and then lost. The bell was cast in 1484 out of gold and silver and is believed to weigh 300 tons and be 18ft tall. No small feat that a Portuguese warlord named Filipe de Brito e Nicote stole the bell, rolled it down the hill and loaded it onto a small ship.

However, the joke was on him as both his ship and his cargo all sank. The bell has been lost ever since. Oddly, the bell has been lost in a river, so why is it so hard to find? The river is insanely muddy where the visibility is zero. Also, the river is quite a bit deeper than many charts say. Add to this the current and the fact the bell could be completely covered in mud or debris and basically the divers have no idea what they may have their hands on. They could literally be touching the bell and not even know it.

It almost seems like a lost cause, but there are plenty of groups out there searching for it and the government is working to support the effort. And enter Josh to offer his hand and shed some light on the story.

As usual, Josh starts off his investigation and his visit with a trip to the market. And it is once again filled all sorts of strange, unusual and exotic goods. Josh even tries his hand, or rather head, at carrying a basket of goods around. His balance needs a bit of work, but many locals try to help him get the hang of it.

Josh starts off in Bagan where he heads to Mount Popa, one of the two thousand temples that pepper the landscape. This is a temple dedicated to the Nat spirits. These spirits are believed to watch over and protect the bell. It is believe the Nat spirits are angry over the stolen bell and prevent people from finding it. The goal is to ask the spirits for permission to search for the bell. It’s not quite what you would expect and there is plenty of drinking and smoking to appease the spirits. The dancers believe they channel the energy of the Nats wherein the can pass along good will and blessings. It’s an odd ritual to be sure, but it’s part of the culture and respected by the local people.

After the blessing it’s off to Yangon, which was formerly known as Rangoon. Bells pepper the city and are used throughout for prayers. Josh heads to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is quite literally covered in gold. This is where the bell was stolen from and ironically, there is a scale replica of the bell that was stolen and lost in the river. However, it was recovered and has been returned. So if it can happen once, it can happen again.

Before going to join the hunt for the bell, an offering and blessing needs to be made. This is taken quite seriously as a Buddhist monk comes down to the docks to bless the boat, the crew and the mission. I have to admit, the research vessel leaves a little something to be desired. It looks like a rotting boat that will most likely come apart before they make it 100 yards away from shore. But it stays afloat and they head to the center of the intersection where the three rivers meet where they believe the bell went overboard.

But if you think the boat is a bit makeshift, wait until you see the diving gear. It’s literally an old gas mask with some handmade straps fed by a tube that’s hooked to an air compressor. To say it’s dangerous is a staggering understatement. And the thing is, the water is like mud and they can’t see a thing down there. All they can do is feel around and see what sort of debris they can discover.

The locals have been putting in the effort to find the bell, but several lives have already been lost. This is no easy task under the best of conditions and it’s pretty obvious, these are not the best of conditions.

There is another group doing their own investigation further upstream, so Josh takes the local train and heads up to join him. Damien Lay is the leader and his team has a bit more technology on their side. However, their boat isn’t a whole lot better and the technology consists of some better scuba gear and sonar. That’s about it. In no way do they have millions of dollars worth of equipment like submersibles and robotic arms.

Damien heads into the incredibly murky water and feels something large and dome shaped. But since he can’t see anything, he really has no idea what he’s found. Josh is encouraged to give it a go and since he will be one of only a handful of Westerners to ever look for the bell, it’s a pretty big honor.

It’s a few tense moments as Josh heads into the water and the current pulls him away from the boat. They also lose radio contact and have to drag him back. He does indeed look a little out of sorts, but manages to pull up a small piece of metal. It’s newer than the wreckage they are looking for, but it just goes to show the type of junk they have to contend with. Even the sonar has a hard time picking up objects so are they in the right place and if it is, how exactly will they know? And if they do find it, how exactly will they get it out?

It’s a pretty wild endeavor to be sure. You would think such a massive bell would be easy to locate in such a shallow river. But everything seems to be against them. The river is deeper than people believe. The current could easily be shifting the bottom of the river not only changing the contour, but completely covering the bell with mud. And the water is so muddy and dark that even if they were in the right spot how would they know?

Hopefully in time technology will help locate the bell and the search teams can put it back in the pagoda where it belongs.

Great Bell of Dhammazedi

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