YANGON, Myanmar – Divers stand on the edge of a small wooden fishing boat gazing at the murky, choppy waters below. After receiving blessings from Buddhist monks, they lower their masks and plunge one-by-one into the mighty Yangon River, clinging to garden hoses that will act as primitive breathing devices during their dizzying descent into darkness.
From the shoreline, thousands of spectators look on, some peering through borrowed binoculars, praying the men will find what other salvage crews have not: The world's largest copper bell, believed to have been lying deep beneath the riverbed for more than four centuries.
Weighing an estimated 270 tons, the mysterious bell is a symbol of pride for many in this country of 60 million that only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule and self-imposed isolation. And for the first time, search crews are largely relying on spirituality rather than science to try and find it.
Myanmar's superstitious leaders have, in years past, been part of a colorful cast of characters who believe reclaiming the treasure is important if the nation is ever to regain its position of glory as the crown jewel of Asia.
It's a story of myth and mystery: King Dhammazedi, after whom the bell was named, was said to have ordered it cast in the late 15th century, donating it soon after to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most sacred temple which sits on a hilltop in the old capital, Yangon.
The bell remained there for more than 130 years, when it was reportedly stolen by Portuguese mercenary Philip de Brito, who wanted to take it across the river so it could be melted down and turned into cannons for his ships. With tremendous difficulty, his men rolled the massive bell down a hill and transferred it to a rickety vessel, which sank under the weight at the convergence of the Yangon and Bago rivers and the Pazundaung Creek. The bell never reached its destination of Thanlyin, then called Syriam, which was part of Mon Kingdom and subsequently became a port of the Portuguese and French in the 16th century.
Most people in Myanmar believe the bell is still lying deep beneath the riverbed, buried under layers of silt. But numerous efforts to locate it with the help of sonar imaging and other high-tech equipment have failed, and some historians now question whether it even exists.
The latest operation — which is expected to last up to 45 days and cost $250,000 raised through donations — is being headed by a former naval official, San Lin, who believes the copper treasure is protected by a curse.
When he told reporters at a press conference in July that he was one of the reincarnations of the 14 guardians of the bell and could speak to the spirits of those who have blocked past retrieval efforts, many local reporters laughed, ignoring the story altogether.
But accounts of the extravagant recovery efforts have since captured imaginations — the prayers, the offerings to "nats," or spirits, the vegetarian diets adopted by the diving team in deference to Buddhist principles. Now, the stories grace the local papers' front pages. And thanks to social media, unsubstantiated rumors that the bell has been spotted have sent thousands of curious spectators flocking to the banks of the Yangon River.
For small boat owners, shuttling passengers to within a few meters (yards) of the divers' boats has become a brisk business, with dozens of wooden, canoe-like vessels lining the rocky banks.
On shore, men and women charge 200 kyat (20 cents) for photocopied pamphlets describing the bell and its remarkable history. Food and drink stalls have popped up.
"We came because, as Buddhist people, we are responsible to pray for the bell to get it back to its original place," said Tin May, 43, dressed in her finest pagoda-wear: a traditional longyi, or sarong, and a crisp, white blouse. "I don't live far from here. But I keep getting calls from relatives living in the countryside asking for the latest news. Finally, I decided I better get a firsthand look."
Chit San Win, a historian who has taken part in several of the searches in the last two decades, wants to believe the story of the bell.
But as divers plunge into the water, some of them resurfacing within minutes because the currents are so strong, he's starting to have his doubts.
Three major historical records written about that period do not mention the bell, Win said, and King Dhammazedi, who carefully recorded all his donations, did not document gifting a bell that would have weighed more than 100 Asian elephants. The only record Win has found that mentions the bell was written by an Italian merchant, Gasparo Balbi, who came to Myanmar in the 16th century and wrote that he saw it.
And as for the new supernatural search technique? Win has little faith.
"The bell cannot be located with the help of astrology or spirits," he said. "It is just like consulting an astrologer to find a lost cow who would ask you to look for it in all four directions."
Associated Press writer Esther Htusan contributed to this report.