My Trip to Burma: Yangon Part 3 - The Holiest of All: The Shwedagon Pagoda.

We started with a bang.  Our first full day in Burma saw us spending the afternoon at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Nothing prepares you for the Shwedagon Pagoda.  This is the most sacred shrine in all of Burma.  At 325 feet, the stupa totally dominates Yangon’s skyline.  No site is more revered.  No site is visited in such numbers.  Legend has it that the shrine contains the relics of four Buddhas, including eight hairs of Gautama believed to have been brought here during his actual lifetime. It is also said to enshrine the staff, water filter, and bathing robe of three preceding Buddhas who are recognized within the dominant Theravada Buddhism of Burma. Successive rulers enlarged and embellished the complex, adding countless shrines, halls, and smaller stupas. Earthquake damage (multiple incidents, the worst being in 1768, causing the top of the stupa to collapse) and several acts of vandalism by colonial invaders (the theft of the 300 ton Great Bell of King Dhammazedi in 1608, and the theft of another of the pagoda’s bells two centuries later) have had little effect; it has been lovingly restored every time and remains an incredible site.  As the story goes, just as the pagoda grew from strength to strength, so did the people of the land until they finally emerged as one nation, Myanmar.  It’s not just Burma’s holiest shrine, but a potent symbol of national identity and a major rallying point for the pro-democracy movement since colonial times.  One of many westerners who visited Burma and wrote about it was the Italian merchant of Venice, Gasparo Balbi, who arrived at the Shwedagon in early November of 1583. An Englishman, Ralph Fitch, arrived at about the same time and traveled from the capital city of Bago (which we visited on our last day in Burma) to "the fairest place" in the world, as he was lead to believe.  Michael Symes, Hiram Cox, and Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor of India, followed. Adolf Bastian from Bremen, Germany visited in 1861. Other notable visitors were Rudyard Kipling, who called it a "beautiful winking wonder" after a visit in the late 19th century, and our president, Barack Obama, visited in 2012. General Aung San addressed a mass meeting at the stupa in 1946 demanding independence from Britain, while during the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to another huge gathering at the pagoda, which was also a focal point of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, with huge demonstrations and protest marches featuring as many as 20,000 monks and nuns.   

The pagoda has a much-loved legend behind it, of course.  The foundation of the stupa is attributed to the brothers Pu and Tapaw, (also known as Tapusa and Hpalika) who were sent to India by their father, a rich merchant, to buy rice for famine victims in Bengal.  While traveling along the Ganges, they were taken to meet the Buddha and became his disciples.  On hearing that the brothers were from Okkalapa (west of Yangon), the Buddha asked them to take back eight hairs from his head and bury them with relics of his predecessors under a tree at Singuttara Hill.  The 27 foot tall zedi they build on the hilltop to encase the relics is recorded in ancient inscriptions as dating back to 588 BC.  This makes it the oldest stupa in Myanmar, if not the world.   Whether the hairs and the golden casket holding them, and the original stupa actually lie below the present structure will probably never be known, because there is a strict taboo against excavation on the site.  

Today, three stone inscriptions are to be seen on the east side of the pagoda platform.  These were erected during the reign of King Dhammazedi in the year 1485 and record in the Pali, Mon, and Myanmar languages the events surrounding the founding of the Shwedagon Pagoda and detail the meritorious deeds of the Mon kings from Banya U onwards.  Quite remarkable was the reign of Queen Shin Saw Bu, who ascended the throne of Hanthawady (Bago) in 1453. It is recorded that Shin Saw Bu dedicated 500 pagoda slaves to the service of the pagoda and presented offerings of her own weight in gold, amounting to 90 pounds. She always used to ascend the pagoda platform from the west to worship at the shrine.

Thousands of visitors stream through the Shwedagon Pagoda every day to pray at the numerous shrines clustered around the base.  I was surprised that they make you go through metal detectors.  There's one line for "Lady" and another detector for "Gent".  There are dress rules: no shorts, no "spaghetti blouse" for women; no shoes; no socks.  And then there are the rules listed below, which look like they came directly from Google Translate.

There are several approaches to the pagoda.  Once you go up one of the four principal stairways, most people proceed in a clockwise direction, stopping to make offerings at various landmarks along the way.  It’s great to just savor the spectacle of the great stupa from the shaded comfort of the covered halls that encircle the marble-lined middle terrace.  

We arrived at dusk, when the atmosphere is especially intense. The crowds are at their peak, the red-robed monks encircle the upper tiers of the golden spire, and the air fills with the scent of incense. The gilded zedi glows with ethereal color. For a place of such religious significance, the mood is relaxed and inclusive, which is just how the Burmese people are – relaxed and inclusive.

There are four majestic covered stairways (called zaungdan) leading up from street level to the pagoda above. Each stairway is lined with stalls selling religious paraphernalia, incense, Buddhas, colored flags, and other curios. Each stairway has a different feel to it. Those at the north, south, and west are guarded at the bottom by pairs of enormous chinthe (leogryphs, or lion-like statues). There are lifts on the north and south sides, although it’s much more fun to walk.  The southern stairway, with 104 steps is the most impressive (and the busiest), its roof supported by red columns and lined with shops selling all sorts of religious tchotchkes.  The eastern stairway is also pretty impressive (118 steps), decorated with gilded columns and intricate woodwork. It probably has the most traditional ambience.  The northern stairs (128 steps) look like something out of the interior of a French chateau.  The western stairs are the longest (166 steps) and is the least compelling, with white walls, golden columns, and an escalator down the middle. We entered via the southern stairway. The first thing we encountered before going to the terrace was a Bodhi tree. This is the tree type under which the Buddha received enlightenment. At the base were carvings representing the 8 planetary posts.  This one is for the planet Jupiter, which is represented by a rat.  It is for people born on a Thursday.

Most Burmese temples have four principal shrines attached to the base of the stupa at each of the cardinal points.  The shrines are dedicated to the four Buddhas of the current era. These include the historical Buddha, Gautama, along with his predecessors Kakusandha, Kongamana, and Kassapa.  Also found here (and at other Burmese temples) is the sequence of planetary posts encircling the base of the stupa, each representing a day of the week, along with its associated heavenly body and animal.  (For some reason, in Burmese astrology, Wednesday is divided into two, giving eight “days” in total.)  The Burmese take astrology very seriously, giving great importance to the day of the week on which one is born.  Everyone in Burma knows the day of the week on which they were born.  You need to know what animal is looking out for you, and at which shrine you should be praying.  Locals come here to pray at the relevant planetary shrine, each with its own little Buddha image set on a heavy base, which worshippers wash reverently, pouring cupful after cupful of water onto the statue, during the course of their devotions.  I was born on Wednesday.  People born on Wednesday need to know what time of day they were born, because for Wednesday morning, the animal is an elephant with tusks, and Wednesday afternoon it’s an elephant without tusks.  I was born at 2:12 a.m.  My animal is an elephant with tusks.  

During the period of Queen Shin Saw Bu's rule, the Shwedagon Pagoda was built to a height of 300 feet and repairs were needed because of repeated earthquakes.  With the change of the name of the name from Dagon to Yangon in 1750, by King Alaungpaya, the stage was set for the further enhancement of the glory and splendor of the Shwedagon Pagoda, especially under King Hsinbyushin, who ascended the throne in 1763 and four years later conquered the Thai capital of Ayutthaya.  

The huge stupa, 99 meters high, is gilded using the metal from 22,000 gold bars.  The entire structure sits on a square white base encircled with a mass of colorful statues at ground level, including dragons, chinthe, sphinxes, and figures including gods, kings, loin-clothed ascetics and dancing girls.  There is also a string of planetary posts.  The stupa is believed to be about 2500 years old. 

The planetary posts are: 

            Wednesday a.m. (Mercury; elephant with tusks)
            Saturday (Saturn, a snake)
            Thursday (Jupiter, rat)
            Wednesday p.m. (the moon ascending, elephant without tusks)
            Friday (Venus, guinea pig)
            Sunday (Sun, Garuda, the mythical bird-mount of the Hindu god Vishnu)
            Monday (the moon, tiger)
            Tuesday (Mars, lion)

The terrace around the stupa is incredible. It is ringed with a plethora of shrines and pavilions with spiky golden roofs, like antennae all pointing to heaven. There are 64 pagodas encircling the stupa, eight for each planetary post. I found my planetary post, and did what I was supposed to:  poured cupful after cupful of water on the Buddha. We found Mark's, too. (He's Thursday.)  He, too, drenched the Buddha.

The pagoda and the 64 stupas encircling it proved the focal point during the three Anglo-Burmese wars in 1824-26, 1852, and 1885-56. Threats posed to the structure were provided by serious earthquakes in 1888 and 1919, as well as a great fire in 1931.  Lots of history here, as you can see.

Once you enter at the southern stairs, you come out onto the terrace opposite the devotional hall housing an image of the Konagamana Buddha, one of the four Buddhas of the present age. Here we are, heading there.

Found a few monks sitting out there, chilling and meditating.

Turning left and going clockwise, you hit the Chinese Merited Association pavilion housing a single solid jade Buddha made in 1999 with 324 kg of jade and inlaid with 2.5 kg of gold, 91 rubies, and nine diamonds.

There was really never a dull moment.  Something was going on everywhere you looked.  Not far from where we entered the terrace, we saw the "Child-holding Brahma Image", an Indian god holding an infant.  It is popular with devotees hoping to have children of their own.   Indeed, there was a couple praying to the image.  Our guide pinter out that people who pray to this image on the right side of the little temple are hoping for a boy; on the left side of the curtain, you pray if you want a girl.
I, of course, was keeping my eyes peeled for cats.  I did spot a few.  This little calico was nosing around the temples.

These two were hanging out at the feet of a lion statue.  The little mackerel tabby was pretty darn cute on that rug above.

Everywhere we looked, we saw something interesting.  Like, in the midst of all the hubbub, a monk was quietly sitting and meditating in front of a Buddha statue.

We saw a tour group from Indonesia (according to their t-shirts), praying at one section of the terrace.  Indonesia is mainly muslim, so it was interesting to see them at a Buddhist shrine like this

We saw a sign saying that a lighting festival was on tonight.  Surrounding the main stupa and the smaller stupas in the center of the terrace were hundreds of candles, as you can see in the right photo.  In a few hours, these would be lit, giving the entire terrace a wonderful glow.

Just behind here is the Sun-Moon Buddha, flanked with images of a peacock and a hare (the sun and moon, respectively).

Note in the picture below the gold circle at the top left has the peacock; the one on the right has the hare. Sacred images.

Immediately behind that image is a small square Commemorative column inscribed in Burmese, English, French and Russian honoring the student leaders of the 1920 revolt.  Here are pictures of two of the four sides of the column (the Burmese and Russian side).

Continuing left, you’ll hit the exceptionally florid Rakhine Tazaung (Arakan Pavilion) housing a huge reclining Buddha almost 10 m long.

At the shrine opposite the top of the western stairs you’ll find a Kassapa Buddha image, another one of the four Buddhas of the current era.

Just past the western staircase, find a shiny bright shrine with dazzling glass mosaic pillars. It houses a replica of the Buddha’s tooth (the original is in Sri Lanka). The sign says "Buddha's Tooth Relic Replica", but it's a little hard to read.

Diagonally opposite, on the base of the stupa is a small golden statue of King Okkalapa, the ruler said to have help establish the original Shwedagon Pagoda in 588 BC.

Continuing clockwise, there’s a pavilion on the northwest side holding the superbly decorated Maha Ganda Bell (the Bell of King Singu) commissioned by the King in 1779. It weighs 25 tons. The British tried to steal the bell, but their plan backfired when the boat carrying it sank in the Irrawaddy. It was rescued and restored by the Burmese in 1825.

The large area of open terrace right in front of the bell pavilion is the Auspicious Ground or Wish-fulfilling Place. Devotees kneel and pray facing the great stupa at this star-shaped space in the belief that their wishes will be granted.  The view from the stupa here is probably the best in the whole complex.

Pretty amazing, no?

Behind here is the huge seated Chanthagyi Buddha, the temple's largest.

There is a photo gallery next to the big seated Buddha.  There are some photos of the pagoda including some close-up details of the stupa itself that you would never see with the naked eye.  The photos showed the history of the pagoda over time, including some very old photos which were pretty interesting.  It's amazing how intricately ornate the actual gold spire it, up close.

A very cute sight was a group of little nuns-in-training ("nunlets", as I called them), kneeling in formation, chanting in their cute little voices.  

Further around is an odd-looking green and blue shrine with glass mosaic inlay, the Hsandawtwin or Sacred Hair Relic Washing Well.  It as built in 1879 over she site of the spring in which the Buddha’s eight hairs are said to have been washed before being enshrined in the pagoda.  

Our guide then pointed out something creepy:  a Buddha statue that supposedly has real human eyes (they were donated).  I forget the details of the story he told, but definitely eerie.

That eye on the left (the statue's right eye) definitely looks human.

The terrace on the northern side is much larger than on the other sides.  It’s a totally confusing maze of shrines and pagodas.

At the base of the stupa is the Northern devotional hall, containing an image of the historical Buddha, Gautama.

The Buddha had a cheesy LED halo around his head.  The devotional hall was super-ornate, and there were golden Buddhas everywhere you looked.

Diagonally opposite is the Mahabodhi Pagoda, a replica of its namesake in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment.  It is noticeably bizarre in style and looks very incongruous amid the surrounding Burmese architecture.

As you get further east, you’ll see the Bo Bo Aung shrine, believed to have been created by a wizard with miraculous powers. In a colorfully painted little wooden shrine in front of the Bo Bo Aung Buddha is a small, golden, and rather Chinese looking Pyidawpyan Buddha, given back to the Shwedagon after having been removed to England in colonial times.  Now it’s protected by stout bars.

 Close by is the Maha Tithaddha Gandha Bell (sometimes spelled Maha Tissada, also called King Tharyarwady’s Bell) cast in 1841 and even more massive than King Singhu’s bell. It weighs 42 tons. There were a few worshippers sitting near the bell, praying and meditating.

Near the top of the eastern stairs is the celebrated Dhammazedi Inscription, erected by King Dhammazedi in 1485. It catalogues the history of the Pagoda in three languages – Burmese, Mon, and Pali – on a trio of huge stone slabs.  I didn't see the inscription, but I saw the shrine where the Dhammazedi Buddha was housed.  It was in a quiet area of the pagoda, and it had its small group of devoted worshippers.

Our tour was coming to an end. Occupying the shrine opposite the top of the eastern stairs is an image of the third of the four present-era Buddhas, Kakusandha.

 The last sight to see at the pagoda was a glass case holding a solid gold miniature Replica of the Shwedagon. By this time it was getting late and they had already had it locked up, but I managed to stick my camera up there and snag a photo.

I like how the sky went from light blue to dark blue to black as the sun set.  This is why you get there just before sunset.  It was a full moon, too, which just added to the already wonderful atmosphere.

When it got dark, people started getting ready to take part in the lighting ceremony. Visitors were given lit candles to use for lighting the other candles that encircled the central stupa.  Before long, all of the unlit candles were soon had flickering flames.

Our Shwedagon experience was coming to an end.  The pagoda would soon be closed, and people started filing out.  There is little doubt that Shwedagon is more than a paoda.  It is Burma itself, brilliantly reflecting the great generosity of its people with its park nearby, the museum, exhibition halls, libraries and archives, as well as four covered stairways in all directions.  It's a destination not to be missed, and I'm glad we got to explore it so fully.  Hard to believe how much we encountered in our first full day in Burma.

In the car ride back to our hotel, we were stopped at a red light, and a very cute little boy came up to the window with a tray of battery-operated squeaky toy dogs, hoping to sell one.  We didn't buy one, but it was a nice image to end our day with.

Tomorrow, we get up at (ugh!) 4:00 a.m.  Our driver will be waiting for us downstairs at 4:45 a.m. to take us to the airport for our flight to Bagan.  We'll be traveling much lighter, as our lost luggage is still in Beijing.  Let's see what wonders await us in Bagan.