Sunday, 10 July 2011

Preview: Shwedagon Pagoda

Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, two merchant brothers, Taphossa and Bhallika, were having a stroll, when who should they bump into but the Lord Buddha himself, meditating against a tree. Siddhartha Guatama Buddha, the 28th and most recent incarnation of Buddha and the supreme Buddha of our age, was just finishing the end of an epic-49 day meditation session - a meditationathon - and so was presumably a little weary and somewhat peckish. Fortunately, the merchant brothers were on their game, and recognising this peaceful-but-hungry guy sitting cross-legged as being the Enlightened One, they offered him some honey-cakes.

I'm not sure what a honey-cake is exactly, but it sure sounds nice, and Buddha was pretty pleased too. To thank them, he pulled out eight hairs from his head and gave them to the brothers. "Great, thanks..." I'm sure they inwardly thought, but they accepted gratefully, and Buddha then told them to use the hairs to build a kingdom. He gave them a helpful little pointer to go back to their native land of Burma and enshrine the hairs on top of a hill called Singuttara Hill (in modern-day Yangon). On this same hill, relics from the preceding three Buddhas were also enshrined, so it would make quite a collection.

It wasn't an easy journey home for the brothers, and twice they were robbed, with a total loss of four hairs. The jewel-encrusted golden casket they'd bought to hold the hairs was fine - I guess robbers had different priorities back then. Upon arriving home, the king received them and held a large party in their honour, vowing to build a shrine on Singuttara Hill. They opened the casket - and all eight hairs were back again! Taphossa must surely have looked at Bhallika, and whispered, "You didn't... surely..?" but, no, it truly was a miracle, as all eight hairs flew to the height of seven palms trees with rays of light shining from them to the heavens above, there was suddenly a great earthquake, all the trees burst into blossom and jewels fell from the sky. It really was a quite wonderful day.

Such is the story of the founding of Shwedagon Pagoda, the shrine on Yangon's Singuttara Hill, and you may choose whether you want to believe it or not. For archaeologists don't, dating it instead from somewhere between the 6th and 10th Centuries by the Mon people, a major and influential ethnic group still populous in Burma, and contradicting the claims of Buddhist monks who date it to before the death of Buddha in 486BC. Historical records are even less kind to the monks, with the pagoda only first appearing in the 14th Century.

Regardless of the origins of the site, the incarnation of Shwedagon Pagoda we see now dates from 1769. After centuries of rebuilding, refinement and improvement, the older form of the pagoda took a big hit from a 1768 earthquake. The Burmese king, King Hsinbyushin, then stepped in, and on his orders Shwedagon Pagoda was radically rebuilt, to a final height of 98 metres. There have been many subsequent tweaks, but King Hsinbyushin's version is the definitive one, not only substantially enlarging it, but also adorning it in gold and jewels. Lots and lots of gold and jewels.

In 1903, although already pretty damn golden, Shwedagon pagoda was fully regilded to protect against the weather. A total of 8688 gold plates were used, each a square foot and weighing 5 ticals. A tical is an archaic unit of gold weight within south-east Asia, at approximately 15 grams, so the total weight of gold use was around 6500kg. This is about the same weight as an elephant, melted down to coat more-or-less the entire pagoda surface. Gold donations have been a long-running theme of Shwedagon Pagoda, kickstarting with the 15th Century Queen Shinsawbu, who donated her weight in gold for its gilding. At a very petite 40kg, I imagine she must have been on a fairly vigorous diet before making this gesture. Or perhaps she had no legs. Her son-in-law later donated four times his own weight plus his wife's weight in gold, which was just showing off. More too was added, reputedly at least, upon the sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. And it's not just gold. At the very top, on the fancy spire-type thing called a hti, is a solid gold orb with 5468 diamonds, including a 76-carat one, 2317 rubies, and many other precious gems. The Shwedagon Pagoda is quite literally a jewel in the heart of Yangon.

This "golden mystery... a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun”, in Rudyard Kipling's words, takes up a 5 hectare/12 acre site - about 50% more than Edinburgh castle - on top of a 58m levelled-off hill in Yangon. It dominates the city much like Edinburgh castle watches over Edinburgh. But Shwedagon Pagoda is arguably more important to Yangon than Edinburgh castle is to Edinburgh, for it is far more than a historical artefect doing a nice little sideline as a tourist attraction. With relics of four different Buddhas enshrined, it is the most important Buddhist pagoda in Burma, and so is packed out daily with pilgrims, monks and worshippers. Additionally, it has become a symbol of power and nationalism within Burma, and for almost a century has been the focal point for protests, from early 20th Century student protests against the British colonial rulers, to tens of thousands of monks marching in opposition to the military junta's ruling against public congregation (and, alas, getting the hell beaten out of them). Aung San Suu Kyi, the famed Burmese politician and political prisoner made a speech there in 1988, and her father, the independence leader Aung San and considered the father of modern-day Burma, made a speech there in 1946, a year before his assassination. A plaque on the site commemorates him today.

By Western perspectives, Shwedagon Pagoda certainly strikes me as "bling", as the Burmese and south-east Asians in general are not afraid of bold colours. I look forward to seeing whether it strikes me as a dazzling jewel or a gaudy trinket. As I've not heard any descriptions to the latter, I think it might be quite a spectacle.

I intend visiting Shwedagon Pagoda some time in November, and will give a more full account of its history, as well as my own impressions then.

Reviewed 21st October 2011.


  1. How amazing! I must confess to having never heard of/encountered this pagoda, so look forward to living vicariously as you visit this and other sites!

  2. Thanks Claire. I don't think I'd heard of it either before I started looking into world landmarks. But if they ever set a film in Yangon, the pagoda would definitely be an important visual feature, much like Big Ben in London, or the Statue of Liberty in New York.