September 23, 2023

Pagodas, Pythons, and Promise

A mission story from back-in-the-day

Eric B. Hare

In the early days of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, mission stories were highly circulated and valued. Eric B. Hare, born in Australia, served as a missionary to Burma (now Myanmar). He became well known as a storyteller of his missionary experiences between 1915 and 1934. He passed away in 1982 after 47 years of dedicated service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His stories still continue to thrill people of all ages. The story below was featured in January 1921.* We’ve edited it for today’s publication. Another one of his stories appears on page 60 of this issue.—Editors.

Many years ago, so the story goes, when our grandmothers and our grandfathers were little boys and girls, there were hostile feelings between the Talaings and the Shans in the Salween district of Burma. The Talaings built a flourishing village on the west bank of the river on several small hills, and raised 33 white pagodas to give glory and excellence to their kingdom. The Shans settled on the east bank in a beautiful flat area, which they made even more lovely by planting coconut palms. Before long, one village was called the “Village of the 33 Pagodas” and the other the “Village of the Cluster of Coconut Palms.”

The bad feeling grew and grew between these two villages until, it was said, if the people of either village crossed over to the other side of the river, they would be instantly killed.

Then the people of the palm village thought to also build a pagoda for themselves, thinking the pagoda would protect their people from their rivals across the river. They called together their best workers, masons, and brickmakers and set to work with a will.

By and by, the beautiful glistening white pagoda was done, except the top piece. They called a great festival for this occasion and proclaimed a feast, but the evening before their work was to be crowned, a terrible storm came, and half the pagoda was broken down. The festival was put off until the damage had been repaired. Then the same disaster overtook them—the lightning flashed, the thunder roared, and some say the earth quaked, and the pagoda was badly damaged again. Undaunted, they repaired it a third time, fully expecting their work to stand. But when they finally completed the pagoda, it was again destroyed by a storm more furious and destructive than before, and the work was abandoned.

Overgrown Village

Then British occupation came to the city of Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) and lower Burma. Gradually the two tribes faded away, leaving the once-popular villages deserted. The story was told that the jungle grew up and covered their shrines. The houses fell and rotted away. The roads and streets were overgrown and lost. The tiger, barking deer, and sambar deer flourished in the valleys and cozy nooks in the Village of the 33 Pagodas, while snakes and mythical dragons inhabited the Village of the Cluster of Coconut Palms.

Because of the custom of burying treasure at the bottom of pagodas, robbers and thieves came to break them down and steal the treasure. From one of the 33 pagodas a man took away seven elephant loads of silver bricks. But the people believed that the spirits, fearing that the treasure of the unfinished pagoda in the palm village would be taken, cursed anyone who tried to reclaim the treasure, saying, “Let him die in the hole he digs.” It was said that the spirits placed two big pythons—as big as houses—to guard the place. Although he knew of the curse and pythons, a man came and dug until he had dug quite a hole in the base of the pagoda. All of a sudden a big stone fell in on him and hurt him so badly that he could only crawl home in time to die. Then another man tried with exactly the same result, just able to reach home in time to gasp his last. So the place was forsaken and shunned, and remained “haunted” and desolate.

On a Mission for a Mission

One hot day in 1914 Pastor G. A. Hamilton sat in a canoe slowly creeping up the edge of the river. He was anxious and weary. He had already traveled from east to west and from north to south, for he had been looking for a location for a mission station among the Karen people. While he had found several places, he was sure there was something better, and now he was two days’ journey above Moulmein, the first day by river steamer and second by canoe.

The district he found himself on this day had a Karen population of 33,000, only 200 who were Christians. This was surely a needy district, but where could he find a suitable place that would be central enough? As the sun neared the horizon, the trees on the bank stood out in contrast and reflection. As he looked ahead he saw a lovely cluster of coconut palms. How peaceful they looked, slowly nodding in the gentle breeze. Were they beckoning him to look further?

The canoe crawled until it was in the shadow of the palms. Brother Hamilton got out to look. It was a lovely spot, commanding a view of about eight miles of river, with mountains in the background. This was the place! Further observation revealed one or two solitary houses. Part of the ground belonged to them, and they were quite eager to sell. The rest of the land belonged to the government, which gladly gave a grant. So in 1915 Brother Hamilton established an Adventist mission on the site of the ancient Village of the Cluster of Coconut Palms that included the trees and the broken-down pagoda. That same year a clinic was opened, and hundreds of people came from the surrounding villages for healing.

Water and Light

In 1918 the mission established a school. The superstition of the people in the district was a great drawback, but with the Lord’s help students came—one from a village, two from a family—until there were 38 attending the school.

Later we dug a well and found beautiful living water, but we didn’t know where to find bricks to keep the well from caving in. Then we thought of the ancient pagoda and found bricks among the ruins to shore up the well. We neither saw nor feared the enormous pythons or the curse, although we did discover a big hole in the base of the ruins where someone had dug for treasure, and large cracks in the rocks where the pythons were supposed to live. While the Village of the Cluster of Coconut Palms sat for a long time in darkness, it became a great light. Those bricks from the pagoda—the symbol of false religion that was never completed—became the walls of a well of living water. I think when Jesus comes there’ll be some to meet Him who met Him in the Village of the Cluster of Coconut Palms.

*This story originally appeared in The Missionary Leader, January 1921, a publication now out of print but was printed monthly for the Australasian Union Conference by the Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.