Myanmar’s Sweeping Shwedagon
February 2016: It was only 6:00 am and yet the parking lot of the Shwedagon complex was already crowded. It was my very first trip to Yangon and I was leaving the country in a few hours but I can not bear to leave without seeing this immensely popular and deeply historical landmark. After a few tries, we finally found a parking space, removed our footwear (yes, even socks should be removed while in the compound), took a lift to an upper deck, then voila, everything around us were in shimmering gold, as if I was suddenly transported to a mythical golden city.
There are four entrances to the Shwedagon, each leading up a flight of steps to the platform on Singuttara Hill. A pair of giant lion figures (leogryphs) guards each entrance. The eastern and southern approaches have vendors selling books, good luck charms, images of the Buddha, candles, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, streamers, miniature umbrellas and flowers. Since we came in by car, we had to take a lift from the parking lot to the platform where I had to pay an entrance fee of $8.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw and also known as the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda, is a gilded stupa located near the center of Yangon. The Shwedagon dominates the Yangon skyline at a height of 325 ft on Singuttara Hill, to the west of Kandawgyi Lake. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar and is believed to contain relics of the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.*
Historians and archaeologists maintain that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries, but, according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago by Taphussa and Bhallika — two merchant brothers from the city of Balkh in what is currently Afghanistan — who met the Lord Gautama Buddha and received eight of the Buddha’s hairs. The brothers then traveled to Burma and found Singuttara Hill, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined. With the help of the local ruler, King Okkalapa, they built the stupa that is now known as the Shwedagon Pagoda thus making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.
It is customary to circumnavigate Buddhist stupas in a clockwise direction. At Shwedagon, one may begin at the eastern directional shrine, which houses a statue of Kakusandha, the first Buddha of the present kalpa; then at the southern directional shrine where one finds a statue of the second Buddha, Koṇāgamana; then, at the western directional shrine, where the image of the third Buddha, Kassapa, can be found; and finally, at the northern directional shrine, where the image of the fourth Buddha, Gautama is located. Overwhelmed but not satisfied with the first tour around the main stupa, I did a second round, trying to appreciate every intricate detail applied in each of the structures.
It is said that the gold seen on the stupa is made of genuine gold plates, covering the brick structure and attached by traditional rivets. People all over the country, as well as monarchs in its history, have donated gold to the pagoda to maintain it. Started in the 15th century by the Queen Shin Sawbu (Binnya Thau), who gave her weight in gold; the practice continues to this day. Impeccable lighting made the golden structure glow and magically reflect on the marble floors.
Many references about the Shwedagon also say that the base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa. Above that is the turban, then the inverted almsbowl, inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud and then the umbrella crown. The crown is reportedly tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Immediately before the diamond bud is a flag-shaped vane. The very top—the diamond bud—is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.
Having examined the Shwedagon twice in a matter of minutes, I was somewhat overwhelmed but not tired. If given a chance, I won’t mind spending a full day within the Shwedagon next time to once again relish the fantastic product of the awe-inspiring faith, artistry and devotion of those who lovingly built and generously maintained this magnificent structure. Next time.
*Reference Credits to Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia