Road to Mandalay: The Classic Love Story

Road to Mandalay cover image

Rudyard Kipling is mostly known for his fictional work The Jungle Book which has captivated the imagination and interest of children and their parents as well. But many people who are familiar with the tales of Mowgli are unaware of the poems written by the British-Indian writer. Road to Mandalay or Mandalay is one such beautiful poem that holds some interesting stories behind its meters and rhymes. 

What’s the story behind this poem? Is Kipling referring to a first-hand experience or just musing about the romanticism found in a concoction of love and war, a blooming rose in the bloody fields of war between the oppressors and the oppressed? This article will look into the meaning of the poem and some interesting findings of the origin of it. Take a look at the poem:

Road to Mandalay 

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 Henglish 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!

Everything about Mandalay

Mandalay is a real place in Burma. But the encounter that made Kipling write this poem did not happen there. It happened in Moulmein or modern-day Mawlamyine, another city in Burma. Kipling, a 23-year old writer decided to return to England from India via America. Taking the sea-route, he landed in Rangoon and from there to Moulmein.

In one of the temple steps, he found a Burmese girl sitting and fell in love with the sight of her. To many people’s confusion, no, Kipling did not serve in the Anglo-Burmese war, but he found the setting to be the right place to connect the two countries; A British soldier and a Burmese girl and love born amidst the war. 

Mandalay was written a year after visiting Burma, in 1890. Kipling portrayed himself as this British soldier and the woman he saw as his love, both separated yet still yearning for spending time the way they used to. 

The poem is based on a classic theme of conflict in love and duty, of love and hate, of differences and similarities. There have been a lot of changes in the poem as well. Kipling said he wanted the poem to be “Oh, The Road to Mandalay” but it became “On The Road to Mandalay”. Now let’s look at the meaning of the poem. 

Analysis of The Road to Mandalay

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

The poem starts by establishing the scene where an old Buddhist temple by the sea, the girl whom the soldier loved is sitting and thinking about him. And everything in the setting, from the wind to the bell tolls is asking the soldier to come back. This implies that the girl is thinking about the time when the soldier was there amidst the bell tolls and the wind. And now, the only thing that is missing is him. 

    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!

The next stanza describes the bay, how the ships and boats are all docked. How the sound of paddles fill the place from the boats arriving from Rangoon to Mandalay, the very same route Kipling took. 

Flying fishes are common in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean. Dawn comes from outer China across the bay. The sun rises from the east, first touching China and then spreading all over the Bay of Bengal. 

‘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 . . .

Kipling or the soldier in his Cockney accent describes more about the girl, what she was wearing (which was a yellow petticoat and green cap) and her name was Supayalat. He says it Supi-yaw-lat, but then he says it is the same name as Theebaw’s queen. Theebaw Min or Thibaw Min was the last ruler of Burma. He saw her first smoking a cheroot which is an unrefined, poorly made cigar.

Then we get to know about the religion of this girl, utterly confounding to the British. He says that she worshipped an idol made of mud. The idol is of Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The adjective plucky used to describe her when it concerned the idols shows how deeply religious this girl was. 

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 . . .

Now we get to the point of time which made the sweetest memories for the soldier. He says that during the cold evenings, near the bay, the girl would get her banjo out and sing songs in her language. These qualities are all of an exotic girl. Both of them would sit intimately and watch the world around them. 

The boats, the elephant-shaped pillars (hathis means elephants), the ill-shaped, tarry, and the slimy creek that was filled with residues from the resting streamers. And there was silence, so much that one would be almost afraid to speak and break it.

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 . . .

Now we come to the current phase of the soldier. Clearly, he remembers those days and now things have changed. He is back in the West, living in London trying to put the whole ordeal behind him, running far from it just as far the girl is from him. 

He says that there are no busses from London to Mandalay, in a way telling himself that going back would not be a wise thing to do, it would be illogical. He then consoles himself by saying that there is everything he needs.

But deep down he is aware of all the exotic things he misses, from the spices to the sunshine, the palm trees, and the temple bells. But what can he do? After all, there are no buses from London to Mandalay. 

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,

An’ the blasted Henglish 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 . . .

The state of consoling and convincing himself that there is nothing he needs breaks very quickly. He says how terrible his life is in the West. Instead of trees and mud, he’s walking in leather boots on paved streets. Annoyed by the rain that comes unannounced, unasked.

He says that there are so many women with him but none is as sweet, neater, and lovelier as the one he saw in Mandalay. The girls here don’t understand love and nothing is arousing about them. 

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!

Finally, the soldier asks to be sent back to the East, where life is livelier, greener, sunnier, and free. He does not want to live a life ruled by the Ten Commandments, he wants to live freely. In the final lines, he just repeats where he wants to be and what he wants to do. He wants to be in Mandalay. This concludes the article.

How about reading some more articles and spending more time with us? Here are some other poems by Rudyard Kipling that are as interesting as this one;

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