“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”
~ Rudyard Kipling, 1889
Shwedagon Pagoda (Shwedagon Zedi Daw) is possibly even more magnificent now than it was when Kipling first saw it.
Situated west of Kandawgyi Lake, high up on Singuttara Hill, its golden dome, reputedly tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, can be seen from almost anywhere in Yangon. It is so much part of the Burmese psyche that Queen Shinsawbu (1394–1472), who donated her weight in gold to repair and maintain the pagoda, had her bed positioned so she could look at it during her final days. By the early 16th century, Shwedagon was the most important Burmese Buddhist pilgrimage site, and in more recent years it has also become a centre – and a symbol – of nationalist and political protest.
Shwedagon Pagoda is revered by Burmese Buddhists because it is said to contain the relics of the present Gautama Buddha and the three Enlightened Buddhas immediately preceding Him. Legend has it that two Burmese brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika, met the Lord Gautama Buddha in BC 588 and were given eight of His hairs as sacred relics. When they returned to Burma, the presiding King helped them find the site of the older relics enshrined on Singuttara Hill, and the stupa was built – making it over 2600 years old; thus the oldest pagoda in the world.
Historians and archaeologists, however, suggest that the the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries CE.
Either way, the original site is old, and improvements and renovations of the pagoda and the surrounds have continued over the years.
Burmese Buddhist ritual is strongly rooted in astrology which originated from Hindu Brahmanism. According to Myanmar astrology, the week is divided into eight days (Wednesday is split into two parts) and a person’s fate is dependent on the planet ruling over the day of their birth. The base of the pagoda is octagonal, allowing for eight planetary posts, each with a guardian angel or deva, and a small Buddha in a shine. The faithful, who may bring offerings with them, make their devotions or entreaties at the post which corresponds to the day of their birth.
We – the intrepid Karl Grobl and ten photographic enthusiasts – visited Shwedagon Pagoda twice on our brief stay in Yangon: once in the morning and once in the evening. We wanted to witness the life of the pagoda, rather than just its intrinsic beauty, and our guide Mr MM assured us that those were the times that would be busiest with Burmese pilgrims.
I was lucky enough to engage in conversation with locals on both visits. In the morning, I met a man who was there because it was his wife’s birthday, and she wanted to make merit. He had lived in both the USA and Thailand as part of a diplomatic family, and we were able to discuss (albeit cautiously on my part!) the impact of the recent political changes. In the evening, I chatted to a young monk about life, religion, and the cultural importance of Shwedagon, as we took refuge from the rain under an awning.
There were few tourists around, but the locals were out: the same umbrellas that protected visitors from the harsh morning sun now shielded them from the soft evening rains.
“When Myanmar Buddhists go to the pagoda, they know in their hearts that they are treading the noble path to that state where the best of human nature will have a fair chance to manifest itself in deeds of generosity, loving kindness and compassion for one’s fellow beings.”
While there is some argument that the riches in the pagoda could be used for much-needed infrastructure development, it has survived early Portuguese pillaging, two wars with the British and years of colonial occupation, as well as earthquakes of varying severity.
The military government clearly knows the importance of Shwedagon to the people of Myanmar: in 2006 they commenced work on Uppatasanti Pagoda, an almost-exact replica in Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar. In September 2007, they attempted to restrict access to the Shwedagon Pagoda, leading to clashes between security forces and protesters – mostly monks and nuns – which resulted in at least five dead.
It still stands tall, a glittering jewel that seems to symbolise Burmese resilience and hope for the future.