Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Old Pictures: Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda has been around for over 2500 years, making it around the same age as the Parthenon. That's if you believe the founding myth, which involves a peculiar story involving merchants bumping into the Buddha and receiving eight of his magic hairs in exchange for some cakes. Things then begin to get strange. Trim away the myth, and it appears the pagoda, in some form, was around from the 13th Century. But the form it's in today doesn't emerge until the 18th Century. An earthquake in 1768 caused heavy damage to the former, 40-metre-high version, so the King of Burma, Hsinbyushin, built it bigger and better and into the 99-metre pagoda we see today.

And that was what Lieutenant Joseph Moore of Her Majesty’s 89th Regiment also saw in 1824, which as far as I can tell is as far back as images of Shwedagon Pagoda go. The British were kind of being dicks back then, and had got all shirty because the Burmese had the temerity to try and take back some of their own land. The first Anglo-Burmese war kicked off, including the 1824 Battle of Rangoon. During this battle, Lieutenant Moore made a series of drawings and paintings that were later to be made into a book, some of which included Shwedagon Pagoda. Here they are:

Although old, Shwedagon Pagoda isn't allowed to look old. It is constantly maintained and updated and added to - kept alive, in other words, rather than merely preserved. It remains today a living, breathing place of pilgrimage, and the Burmese like their pilgrimage spots nice and golden. The pagoda visited by Lieutenant Moore in 1824 and myself in 2011 would have been very similar, although the immediate surroundings appear different. It's more built up now, less natural. This 1852 illustration from the Illustrated London News also show the trees and bushes that once surrounded it.

But remember, these are all pictures. By 1860, we have the first photo that I can find. There's much less shrubbery, although I think that's just the angle it's taken from. This looks identical to the pagoda that I've seen.

I can't get a date for the next picture, but I suspect it's around the same era. A girl sits on what might be a shorter pagoda, with Shwedagon clear in the background. It's surrounded by lots of small stupas, and true enough, lots of trees. I don't know why I've become fixated on trees all of a sudden, I'm not usually.

From this point on, the birth of photography, what we see in pretty much what we have today (with a few less trees, of course). so I'll leave you with a nice piece of art from around 1936, by a Burmese artist called Maung Lar Ban.



  1. I really like those 1824 paintings. I find it odd that in every one there appear to be British soldiers in them, including a whole company marching down the street. Was it really swarming with soldiers or have they been added in to make some kind of point ("This is what Burma is like and now it's ours"), perhaps related to the war you mention above.

    1. There probably were quite a few soldiers floating about as the war was ongoing while they were painted, but I would suspect the real reason is because the painter was in the army and the inclusion of the soldiers brought a British relevance to the paintings. As you say, a point was being made that Burma was now British.

  2. Shwedagon Pagoda was a British military base from 1824-1826 and again from 1852-1929 so it is likely that Lieutenant Moore would never have seen it without the presence of British troops.


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