In Buddhism bells have many important meanings. They are often used as a call to prayer as they can be heard even at great distances. The ring of the bell can represent the heavenly enlightened voice of the Buddha teaching the dharma and can also be used as a call for protection and as a way to ward off evil spirits. It is for these reasons and the bells’ significance that the bells of the ancient world are priceless artifacts, especially because so few have survived. In western culture bells also hold significance, like the Liberty Bell or the Tzar Bell (pictured below), they often represent freedom and unity.
In the politics of war and peace bells also have many meanings. Because large bells use so much iron and bronze in times of war they are often melted down to make cannons and other military equipment, and vice versa for times of peace.
The Bell of Good Luck is the largest functional bell in existence at 127 tons, it was cast in 2000 and is at a Buddhist temple in Henan, China. The Tzar Bell, at nearly 216 ton was thought to be the largest bell ever cast, though it cracked and broke in 1737.
In the 1480’s the kingdom of Lower Burma was in its golden age and was being led by King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy. Legend says that the king ordered a census be taken of the citizens of his kingdom. But the census takers were corrupt and took this as an opportunity to tax the people and keep the money for themselves. When the king heard of this he was furious, but his advisors suggested that the coinage be used to cast a giant bell in honor of the Buddha. Thus the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was created and the king gave it as a gift to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in modern day Yangon. As a result the bell was said to contain large amounts of gold and silver, as well as the majority iron and bronze used at the time.
By the early 1600’s the kingdom of lower Burma was in decline and Upper Burma had Portuguese colonialists, one of whom was Filipe de Brito. Brito was an “adventurer” under the protection of a Portuguese garrison whose trading post had gathered power over the surrounding region, including Yangon. In 1608 de Brito took to the pagoda and stole the bell hoping to take it back to his post and melt it down for ship cannons. He rolled it down the hill and had it hauled by elephant to the river where it was put on a special built raft and tied to his boat.
In a twist of fate the bell broke through the raft and sank to the bottom, taking de Brito’s boat with it. It has remained at the bottom of the river ever since. Many team are now using modern day scientific techniques to try and locate the sunken bell which by now should be buried under 25 feet of mud. Extraction would take a full oil rig platform, a crane and a purpose built railway in order to get it back to the pagoda. It is said that if the bell were to be returned to the temple Myanmar would gain luck and would become prosperous.
On another note, many of the world’s largest statues today are of the Buddha.