Thursday, 20 October 2011

5. Wonder: The Shwedagon Pagoda

For the preview of Shwedagon Pagoda, please go here.

Burma likes its pagodas. Whether in the city or countryside, pagodas scatter the landscape like giant golden droplets. Invariably gold-plated or just gold painted, these dome-like shrines begin wide at the base and taper like a squashed cone to a thin vane at the top, often with a surrounding crown of jewels. Around the actual pagoda and usually within an enclosed area are numerous small niches with statues of Buddha, or of creatures from Buddhist mythology, and sometimes numerous prayer halls. Whether the pagoda is large or small, there are always people in attendance, some praying, some meditating, but most just hanging around to be honest. Buddhist pagodas in Burma do not go in for the hushed piety of Christian cathedrals.

Any sightseer in Burma, unless particularly fixated on gold pagodas, will inevitably become a little pagodad-out. There are so, so many, and all to a similar template. But they were never designed as tourist attractions, and the casual visitor must realise that visiting five large gold domes in a day might get a little samey. So for the discerning pagoda aficionado in Burma, where to start? The answer is pretty easy: Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda ("Shwe" means "gold" and "Dagon" is the ancient name for Yangon) is the biggest and best that Burma has to offer. Enshrining relics of four different Buddhas, it is the most sacred. Sitting in the middle of Burma's capital, Yangon, it is the most conspicuous and famous. And covered in six-and-a-half tonnes tonnes of gold and many thousands of jewels, it is a priceless treasure that can pretty much blind you in the midday sun. It is big. It is gold. It is not subtle. It is packed with hundreds of Buddhas, many of which have flashing coloured lights, and countless ornate prayer halls, shrines, pictures, and other statues. Of the four entrances leading to the hill that hosts the pagoda, two have escalators to the top and another has an elevator; vendors line the passages selling trinkets. This is sacred, Burmese Buddhist style, and no amounts of gold or gaudy colours can be enough.

The first visit Burness and I made to Shwedagon Pagoda was for a mid-morning look around, before our proper tour the following day. As the preceding description might suggest, there's a lot to take in, and in the increasing heat of the day we couldn't take in even half of it. There is so much stuff around the pagoda, all of which has some kind of meaning, that for the casual tourist it just seems like a whole bunch of Buddhas and buildings, painted and lit colourfully. There seems little focus to it all, but perhaps the focus is more on variety, as scattered all around are Buddhist followers praying to their statue of choice. And all of it revolves around the central focus, the huge 98-metre gold-plated stupa, 138 metres at the base, with the spire - or more accurately, the vane - topped with a diamond orb with a 76-carat diamond as well as another 4351 smaller diamonds.

Our guide helped us make sense of the visual assault. A young guy with the worst facial hair in all of Burma - as though a teenager clinging onto whatever fluff he could muster - I feared the worst. But to my relief he was very knowledgeable, and deftly dealt with my questions and didn't feed us nonsense. My litmus test for this was the age of Shwedagon, claimed in Buddhism to be 2500 years old, but the reality being far fresher - the version now was built in 1769 after the previous one was destroyed by an earthquake, and the earliest incarnation for the pagoda for the various enshrined relics dates to the 6th Century, by the most generous of archaeologists. So the Shwedagon we see is about 250 years old, with the site being maybe 1000 years older. And this was precisely what our guide said, and indeed, the age of Shwedagon became an interesting theme of his tour.

And that's because Shwedagon is both old and new. Old, because some of the statues and buildings date back hundreds of years, and the relics, if they exist and truly were from four different Buddhas, would date back in some cases to billions of years ago. But new, because the site undergoes constant renovation, refurbishment, and rebuilding. The main entrance to the south, where we took our shoes off and entered, was being rebuilt at the top, and our guide said that it was rebuilt every ten years, often in different styles. The Buddha statues are continually regilded, relying on gold leaf donations from generous donors - indeed, all around in Shwedagon and all the pagodas I've visited so far were numerous collection boxes for donations. We were shown a Buddha statue in the prayer hall facing the south entrance, filled with numerous huge Buddha statues of indeterminate age, with one in particular being pointed out. Unlike the rest, it was black, as it waited for enough donations to regild it.

Take an ancient European monument and imagine this! Imagine the Colosseum was rebuilt in different styles every handful of years! Or that the Parthenon, after the devastating explosion in 1687 that reduced the 2500-year-old temple to ruins had swiftly been rebuilt in a modern style and painted some nice colours. The concept is very alien to Western sensibilities, which is used to ancient buildings being maintained to avoid their collapse, but kept frozen in time. Restoration of ancient monuments is a delicate matter, because when does a restoration go too far? Borobudur has its missing stones replaced with blank blocks, so no pretense is made to recreate the missing block that would once have been ornately carved. But the Burmese have overcome this without a second thought - Shwedagon, as with all the other pagodas around, is a living and breathing building in daily use and not frozen in time. It is being constantly rebuilt, so although the main stupa dates from 1769 and various other artefacts pre-date it, there is no great concern for historical preservation: the main concern is just to keep it looking nice and fresh. Shwedagon is both ancient and modern. If I visit the site in fifty years, it will have changed.

I find this highly admirable, and was even more surprised to learn from or guide that the main pagoda itself is regilded every five years, a process that takes four months, 45 days of which involve the construction of bamboo scaffolding. The gold plates are now screwed in too, due to the problem of birds tearing off gold plates when looking for food between the gaps. The pagoda was also compromised by Cyclone Nargalis in 2008 that devastated parts of Burma, and although Yangon wasn't hit so hard, many of the diamonds at the top of the pagoda were blown loose and scattered about the city. Remarkably, most were returned, but our guide grinned conspiratorially as he explained that the monks were still waiting for the return of them all.

Burness also raised an intriguing point with our guide - why was there so much riches and gold adorning this religious building? The answer, to paraphrase our guide, was: it's a piggybank. From many years previous, the donations and offerings to the Buddhist temples were translated into gold, not only as a way to make the structure look more shiny and appealing, but as a way to store the money. During times of trouble, or when the temple needed work done, the gold could be taken off and sold to raise money for the repairs. Quite a sensible system back then, but these days the donation system remains in place, but is so plentiful that the pagodas never need to rely upon the actual gold that adorns them. These days the wealth on display is just a display of "merit", that is the plus points given to the donor who hopes to grow ever closer in his life cycles to reaching enlightenment.

Apart from give me an interesting new perspective on how to preserve an ancient building, the guide also allowed us to appreciate some of the many halls and statues scattered around the central pagoda. There are so many as to be overwhelming, but he handpicked a few that were more interesting. Some were quite simple, like the gigantic sitting Buddha that had a large fan attached to a pulley system. Pull the rope and you can fan the Buddha. I assumed this was some kind of symbolic gesture. "No," our guide said, smiling but not joking, "It's to stop the birds landing on his head." Perhaps we need to set this system up for Nelson's Column. Less simple, but just as interesting, and seemingly not much to do with Buddhism and more to do with traditional Burmese astrology are the planetary shrines. There are planetary shrines associated with the weekday of birth, with Wednesday being broken into am and pm to create a total of eight days, and each day has an associated planet, animal, and direction. Being a Sunday baby, my planet is the sun (Burmese astrology obviously doesn't go in for accuracy in naming the heavenly bodies), my direction east, and my animal the garuda, a mythical bird-like creature. Even better, in Burma you can further tell everyone's day of birth by their name, as one part of their name will start with a letter associated with the day of the week. In my case, my letter should have been the Burmese equivalent of "A", so I can only say that in terms of Burmese Buddhist astrology, my parents failed me. But I'm not too upset, because traditional communities still arrange their weddings based on days of the week, as some days appear to get on particularly well with others. It gives a whole new aspect on the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" or U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" - pro-astrology diatribes about arranged marriages.

The upshot of all of this is that Shwedagon, if you know what to look for, is pretty interesting. You can look at your day of the week, or visit one of the wishing places, pray to a Buddha with a neon pattern twinkling round his head (it represents his halo, apparently), or just sit and eat rice as many of the locals seemed to be doing. It's a place to pray in, or relax in, or just wander about in. Shwedagon is the "big one", so lacks the intimate feel of a local pagoda, but makes up for it with sheer grandeur. Lest you forget, it is BIG and GOLD.

 But really, is it the best?

You see, Shwedagon Pagoda suffers from an intractable problem. Namely, it's a gold pagoda that looks almost exactly like thousands of other pagodas around the country. Sure, it's much bigger than most of the others, but it otherwise looks just the same. A squarish base but otherwise circular structure, like a giant dome topped with a spire. There's lots of gold involved, and loads and loads of diamonds, but at its core its just a solid brick structure that isn't particularly original. At 250 years old, it's a relative newcomer - Shwedagon is not the pioneer. It may be hugely iconic for Burma and Yangon, as the Eiffel Tower is to France and Paris, but imagine the Eiffel Tower was just a slightly taller version of fifty other much older iron towers? It wouldn't be as celebrated. This is where the originality card is played, and unfortunately, Shwedagon is not that original. Architecturally, it looks like a lot of older pagodas. The gold gives it a bit of razzle-dazzle, but strip that away and the structure isn't so startling. It's just a big pile of bricks. (In fairness, our guide - with the greatest sincerity -  showed us an entrance to a passage that led underneath the pagoda, to where the relics were once displayed. This has been closed off for decades, ever since a young monk went in and never reappeared, and is reputed to be filled with booby traps, so nobody has since gone in. This is all highly unverified.)

That's not to say that Shwedagon isn't a spectacle. It looks great. At twilight, when the brightness of the sun has gone, the gold sparkles but doesn't blind, the soft light gives the pagoda a sense of majesty rather than bling. At night, the lighting turns Shwedagon into a yellow beacon. Its size and its importance to Burma is the selling point, and its sheer extravaganza of gold the feature that lingers in the mind. It is the focus of Burma and the must-see sight, with much of the country's modern day history revolving around it. Speeches have been made there, monks continue to protest there, although meeting brutal force in retaliation. But importance and glitz do not necessarily make a World Wonder.

Criteria then.

Size: 98 metres in height, 138 metres at its very widest, it's big but not astonishingly so in modern terms.
Engineering: A solid brick object, done to a known template. It is impressive in scale, but not ground-breaking.
Artistry: The pagoda itself is fairly plain, albeit very gold, with little in the way of finery. The halls and buildings surrounding are far more ornate.
Age/Durability: Alleged to be 2500 years old, but certainly at least 250 years and treasured by the nation, this is a big solid object that will be around for many years more, whether rain or shine.
Fame/Iconicity: A symbol of Yangon and Burma, and hugely important to the nation.
Context: On a small hill, and prominently in view for much of the city, Shwedagon stands out. All the halls and statues in its immediate vicinity significantly enhance it, giving what is actually quite a simple, stark structure a wealth of complexity around it. 
Back Story: Whether or not the story dating it to 500BC is factually accurate, it still has hundreds of years of history and tales, ranging from queens donating their weight in gold, to the British occupation for many decades. It continues to make headlines as the focus of Yangon for speeches and protests.
Originality: Not terribly original, and certainly not the first big gold pagoda. You may not see any others quite as big, but go to Burma and you will see many, many similar pagodas, often much older. 
Photogenicity: Unquestionably looks good - bling by day, a beacon by night, it appears in pictures all across Burma.

The Buddhist writer, David N. Snyder, placed Shwedagon Pagoda as one of his "8 Wonders of the Buddhist World" (the eighth was the esoteric "internet and internet forums" but the rest were actual buildings) in a list that included two more of my Wonders, Angkor Wat and The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as well as the recently visited Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay. The inclusion is justified: in the Buddhist world, the Shwedagon Pagoda is sacred and significant, as well as being a massive glittering spectacle. But taken from a less Buddhist perspective and a more dispassionate one, Shwedagon doesn't quite cut the mustard of a World Wonder. It's iconic, it's big, it's quite dazzling in the sun and has a visual bombardment of objects and colours surrounding it, but strip away all this gloss and we have a fairly architecturally uninteresting building. That's not to say it's anything other than splendid - the quality of all my candidate Wonders so far has been pleasingly high - but the structure itself is not hugely compelling, and is too derived from "The Big Textbook of Burmese Pagodas" to be original. It's certainly better than the Marina Bay Sands in my view, but is somewhere below the sheer beauty of the Petronas Towers.

The List So Far

1. Sydney Opera House
2. Borobudur
3. Petronas Towers
4. Shwedagon Pagoda
5. Marina Bay Sands

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