The lost bell of Shwedagon Pagoda

A Portuguese mercenary stole the largest working bell in history from Shwedagon Pagoda, and then lost it in the waters of the Yangon River.

Dhammazedi ruled the Hanthawaddy Kingdom, which today is part of southern Myanmar (Burma), and he really wanted a big bell. In 1484 he had the Great Bell of Dhammazedi cast out of nearly three hundred tonnes of metal: gold, silver, copper, and tin. That’s 300 times the weight of the Liberty Bell, and more than 20 times the weight of the Great Bell in Big Ben. This thing was enormous, larger than any operational bell cast before or since.

Dhammazedi’s astrologer warned him against it. Apparently the stars weren’t right… and history would prove that astrologer right. The Great Bell was installed at the gorgeous Schwedagon Pagoda, that jewel of Theravāda Buddhism. It remained at the pagoda for the next 124 years. Over that time, the First Toungoo Empire absorbed the Hanthawaddy Kingdom, and then itself came under attack by an Arakanese force led by Filipe de Brito e Nicote. Filipe de Brito, a Portuguese mercenary, then betrayed the Arakanese king and declared the area a part of Portuguese India.

By 1608, Filipe de Brito e Nicote really needed to get some cannons to defend his stolen territory. And to make cannons, he really needed to get some metal. And the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was a really big hunk of metal.

De Brito and his men took down the bell, rolled it down a hill, loaded it on a raft, and then lashed the raft to a ship. As the ship was sailing away, though, the raft disintegrated and the largest bell in history sunk to the bottom of the Yangon River. De Brito himself came to a bad end five years later: he was captured by enemy forces and impaled on a large spike. It took him three days to die.

The Great Bell has been lost since 1608. As far as we know, though, it’s still buried in mud at the bottom of the river. There have been multiple attempts to find and recover it – so far, all unsuccessful.

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