Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
             Come you back to Mandalay,
             Where the old Flotilla lay:
             Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
             On the road to Mandalay,
             Where the flyin'-fishes play,
             An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
             Bloomin' idol made o'mud --
             Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd --
             Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
             On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!"
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin' my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.
             Elephints a-pilin' teak
             In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
             Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
             On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
             No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
             But them spicy garlic smells,
             An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
             On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
             Beefy face an' grubby 'and --
             Law! wot do they understand?
             I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
             On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be --
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
             On the road to Mandalay,
             Where the old Flotilla lay,
             With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
             On the road to Mandalay,
             Where the flyin'-fishes play,
             An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

Notes by Jerry:

1- This poem first appeared in Kipling's book Barrack Room Ballads published in 1892. Most of the poems in that book are written (like this one) as if spoken by a British soldier with a London Cockney accent.

2- The first line is often written “...lookin' eastward to the sea,” but my “Definitive Edition” of Kipling's verse has “...lookin' lazy at the sea,” the same as in the last stanza.

3- Moulmein (present-day Mawlamyine) is on the eastern bank of the Thanlwin River 45 km from the sea. This was British Burma's administrative center from 1827 to 1852. Perhaps the British army transport ships stopped here before the troops were taken up the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River to attack Mandalay in 1885, but it seems unlikely to me. Kipling was inspired by a lovely young woman he saw at a Moulmein pagoda which he visited in 1887.

4- The British troops were taken up the Irrawaddy by paddle steamers, which explains the flotilla's “...paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay.” Rangoon (present-day Yangon) is 695 km south of Mandalay, so it was quite a trip.

5- There are no flying fish in Burma's rivers but “the road to Mandalay” for the British troops started in England and crossed the Indian Ocean which does have flying fish.

6- China is north of Mandalay and I cannot imagine any place in Burma where the sun would seem to rise out of China on the other side of a bay. However, give Kipling “poetic license” for his description of the dawn. His geography is close enough and it is a great line.

7- Thibaw Min was king of the Konbaung Dynasty at the time of the third Anglo-Burmese War which climaxed with his capture when the British overwhelmed his capital, Mandalay. His wife, Supyalat, was notoriously ruthless in propelling him to power and exterminating many of his rivals. The British forced both Thibaw and Supyalat into exile in India, but they are still remembered in the line “An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen.”

8- The Burmese people are mostly Buddhists and “the Great Gawd Budd” is Buddha. Buddhists believe he was a man who achieved enlightenment but was not a god.

9- The Hindi word for “elephant” is “hathi.” Kipling created a bull elephant character named “Hathi” for his Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895). Characters based on that original Hathi have appeared in several later works including Disney films.

10- Many Burmese pagodas have a “hti,” which is an umbrella-like structure near the top. Hanging from the hti are usually little bells with clappers swung by the wind. So when “...the wind is in the palm-trees...” “...the tinkly temple bells...” ring.

11- The Suez Canal opened in 1869 to become a key part of voyages between England and Burma. This was definitely on the road to Mandalay for the British soldier of this poem. Passing through that canal meant entering the exotic East where “civilized” British religion and customs were not the norm. Fond memories of good times would make anyone want to escape a humdrum life and go back “somewheres east of Suez.”