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Built over two thousand years ago when Yangon was a humble fishing village called ‘Dagon’, today Shwedagon Pagoda (or Shwedagon Paya) remains one of the most important spiritual sites for Buddhists across Asia, and a trip to Yangon is not complete without a visit to the ‘shwedagon zedi daw’.
The entire complex covers 46 hectares and stands on a hill 53 metres (176 feet) above sea level. The stupa is 99 metres (325 feet) high and adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf. A plethora of shrines and images are set about the central terrace.
Eight 12 metre-high chinthe – gold and white mythological creatures half-dragon, half-lion – guard the four ornate, naga-shaped passageways into the pagoda; their eyes wide and mouths open, pink tongues visible as if panting in the heat. In a country as conservative as Myanmar, it is surprising to notice the well-shaped, pink testicles that hang down between the back legs of the Chinthe.
There are four entrances to Shwedagon with elevators at the Northern, Southern and Eastern entrances, and escalators at the West. Our favourite is the Eastern entrance where stalls either side display trinkets and knick-knacks, some traditional and ornate – jade Buddhas and pyaring beads for example – others less so, such as the plastic horses from China that buck and neigh and trot in smart circles.
As you saunter around the Shwedagon terrace you will come across a variety of curious images and statues of interest, including a laughing necromancer, a double-bodied lion with a man’s face, and an earth goddess. There is a photo gallery as well with pictures of Shwedagon in the colonial era.
Towards the north-western corner of the terrace you will find the planetary post for Yahu, the mythical Hindu planet that causes eclipses. At the north end there is a Chinese prayer hall with figures of Chinese dragons outside. Adjacent from this is situated a pavilion with life-size Indian guards, and another one guarded by stone British lions.
There are eight shrines around the central stupa, one for each day of the week (Wednesday is split into two). Buddhists visiting Shwedagon will almost always go to pray at the station that corresponds with the day of their birth. This day is of particular importance to the people of Myanmar; not only does it determine the letters that their name will begin with, it also plays a part in determining character and destiny.
Along with a Buddha image, at each shrine there is the animal that corresponds with that day. There are chalices and small pools where you can pour water over the images. Do not hold back! Once you have located your shrine, whether with instruction from you guide, or by watching others, join the sloshing bustle about your birthday animal and respectfully pay tribute. Those who share the same day of the week with you will be happy to make room, generally enthused to see a foreigner getting stuck in.
Indeed, in general you are likely to feel very welcome at Shwedagon Pagoda. With good reason, the Burmese are supremely proud of Shwedagon and like to witness the impression it makes on foreigners. Though one must take heed of certain regulations (shoes off, no exposed shoulders or knees, keep your voice down and do not place yourself between a Buddha images and a praying monk) the atmosphere is much more relaxed and less austere than you are likely to find in any European church or cathedral.
You will see that a lot of locals just come here simply to be; to relax and spend time with friends and family. In fact, when rounding a corner you are just as likely to fall upon a group of boys in backward caps Facebooking and elegantly dressed girls taking selfies, as you are praying monks. You will not feel conspicuous or obtrusive wielding your camera or smartphone.
We would recommend visiting Shwedagon Paya either in the morning, when it is cool, quiet, and altogether more tranquil, or after sunset, when the golden stupa shines most brightly against the night sky. On the banks of Kandawgyi Lake one can set up camp at dusk, watching the sunset behind the pagoda until its shimmering reflection burns crimson in the water’s surface.
Here you will be able to fully appreciate the glory of Shwedagon, and may be provoked to remark, as the early traveller Ralph Fitch did, that “it is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world …”
“It is a revelation,” observed Scott over the well-oiled tips of his magnificent moustache. “Majestic, impregnated with the worship of countless centuries, the great golden stupa rises high into the serene and thrilling blue with an infinite grandeur impossible to put into words.”
Andrew Marshall, The Trouser People
It is believed that Shwedagon in its present form was constructed by the Mon people between the 10th and 11th Centuries, quickly becoming an important destination for pilgrims across the region.
It was not until the 15th Century that it began to be gilded with gold-leaf, with Queen Shinsawbu providing her own weight in gold – almost 40kg. Her son-in-law Dhammazedi went further in donating 4 times the weight in gold of himself and his wife and implementing a 30-ton bell.
As the first Europeans began to arrive on the shores of the Orient, so the glittering stupa began to attract the first of many plunderers. In 1612, the Portuguese adventurer Filipe de Brito e Nicole sacked Shwedagon and took away Dhammazedi’s bell with the intention of melting it down for his cannons. This plan was foiled by mischance when the marauder dropped the great Shwedagon Bell into the depths of the Bago River where it remains today.
Almost comically, the same fate awaited the second bell, stolen by the British in 1820 and lost overboard en route to Calcutta. After much effort expended, English engineers failed to retrieve the bell, and with a sneer granted that if the Burmans could retrieve it from the depths themselves, they could keep it. Ascribed by many Burmans to supernatural aid, the Burmese were successful in their attempt, and today this second bell still sits atop the pagoda platform.
This was only one of the ways that the British infuriated the Burmese at Shwedagon. They refused to take off their shoes when entering the pagoda, they placed cannons on the terrace, and committed the ultimate sacrilege by tunneling into the heart of the stupa to see what treasures were hidden within. Alas, they found none …
The pagoda was damaged by earthquakes throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries and occupied by the British forces from the mid 19th Century to 1929. Shwedagon’s trials continued in the 20th Century enduring two more earthquakes, a fire in 1931 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Shwedagon’s history is also peppered with political turbulence. Towards the end of colonial rule, students from Rangoon universities regularly congregated at the pagoda to demonstrate against British rule. In 1988, with her husband and two young sons by her side, Aung San Suu Kyi sent ripples of excitement throughout the country when she addressed crowds on the steps of the paya, rallying against the military regime and declaring a “second struggle for national independence.”
Shwedagon has thus borne witness to a tumultuous and torturous history. It has remained a beacon of hope to residents and pilgrims alike. Or, as Somerset Maugham put it, continued to rise “superb, glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”
City of dreams and gold, Yangon is erupting with the energy to spurn its shackles.
Escape the hullabaloo, lollop through verdant paddy and past waving whippersnappers.