The latest in the series of snippets from the blog of my travelling companion, Burness, as well as a short interview, on his views on a World Wonder. This time: Shwedagon Pagoda.
The main sight to see in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a glittering gold Buddhist temple at the heart of city. We saw it briefly when we arrived passing it on our minibus, you couldn’t really miss it, it’s built on a hill standing nearly 100m tall from its base. It’s the Eiffel tower or Statue of Liberty of Burma and has a great deal of historical significance with claims that it’s 2500 years old, although archaeologists suggest the original stupa was built somewhere between the 6th and 10th centuries.
We visited it briefly on our second day in Burma and got a guide to take us round the next day. The whole site is rather large with the Stupa in the centre and lots of other modern temples around it. It’s not apparent by looking at it how old the structure actually is, this is due to the fact that it is continually refurbished. Every five years all the gold is removed, smelted, cleaned and put back on again. Hanging at the very top there’s an array of expensive jewellery including a huge diamond, rubies and sapphires. To me it seems like a bit of a waste of money having millions of pounds worth of gold and jewels on a building, you can’t even see the jewels without binoculars and you could paint the stupa gold and get a similar effect. Our guide told us that back in the day, if the monks were short of cash they would take some of the gold off the stupa and spend it. They used the pagoda as a giant piggy bank. These days this doesn’t happen and it seems more people than ever are donating gold. If you have enough money, you can donate enough cash for a Buddha covered in gold leaf to be built. This Buddha would then be displayed in one of the modern temples with a plate noting your name. Burmese Buddhists believe that if you do this you will reap the rewards in your next life.
The Shwedagon pagoda is impressive in its size, but it’s certainly not unique. There are thousands, possibly tens of thousands of similar pagodas in Burma with the characteristic dome shape, which is meant to symbolise the leaf of the bodhi tree, the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. The surrounding temples are interesting but seem fairly modern, there are plenty of golden Buddhas but none are remarkable, no giant ones. It’s a massive draw for the Burmese with many coming on long pilgrimages. It’s very interesting watching the rituals, people washing little Buddhas, people fanning big Buddhas with overhead fans with a pull cord attached. This was, as I found out later, to scare off the birds and keep the Buddhas free from bird droppings. There was also a whole lot of praying, bell chiming, and monks kicking around. We got talking to a few and they were all very friendly. People in Burma aren’t used to tourists and on our visits we were met with many an inquisitive look, especially from children.
Had you heard of the Shwedagon Pagoda before travelling?
No. But I've heard quite a lot about it since. [What have you heard?] Since I visited it, Burma has been in the news quite a lot with the reforms, Hilary Clinton's photo taken outside, stuff like that.
What were your expectations?
Pretty low. I didn't think it was going to be big enough... I don't know, I had heard from the Lonely Planet that it was Burma's equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, or Statue of Liberty, so in that respect, I don't know, not low, maybe medium to high expectation.
What was your first impression?
Was it sunny? [Yes] It was big, it was glittering, golden in the sunshine. It was nice.,
What did you like most about the Shwedagon Pagoda?
It was big and the historical and religious significance, and the people come in pilgrimages, the rituals, that was interesting.
What didn't you like about the Shwedagon Pagoda?
To me it seems like a fancy jewellery piece as opposed to a grand design of a building. It's not unique, there are thousand or tens of thousands of the same design in Burma. It's just the biggest one.
Would you regard the Shwedagon Pagoda as a World Wonder?
No. It's low down the list for me,