Gleaming in gold and decorated with diamonds, the huge Shwedagon Pagoda (also Shwe Dagon Pagoda or Shwedagon Paya) in Yangon is a spectacular work of Burmese temple architecture and is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.
Myth & Mystery
The legend of the Schwedagon Pagoda begins with two Burmese merchant brothers who met the Buddha himself. The Buddha gave them eight of his hairs to be enshrined in Burma. With the help of several nat (spirits) and the king of this region of, the brothers discovered the hill where relics of previous Buddhas had been enshrined.
A chamber to house the relics was built on the sacred spot and when the hairs were taken from their golden casket, amazing things happened:
there was a tumult among men and spirits... rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell... the blind beheld objects... the deaf heard sounds...the dumb spoke distinctly... the earth quaked... Mount Meru shook... lightning flashed... gems rained down until they were knee deep... all trees of the Himalaya, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.
Once the relics were safely placed in the new shrine, a golden slab was laid on the chamber and a golden stupa built over it. Over this was layered a silver stupa, then a tin stupa, a copper stupa, a lead stupa, a marble stupa and an iron-brick stupa.
Later, the legend continues, the Schwedagon stupa fell into ruin until the Indian emperor Asoka, a Buddhist convert, came to Myanmar and searched for it. Finding it only with great difficulty, he then had the jungle cleared and the stupa repaired.
It is easy to see why the Schwedagon Pagoda is such a holy place for believers. Built on the site of the relics of previous Buddhas, containing the relics of the most recent Buddha, the site of miracles and of royal patronage, this is an important stupa indeed.
Legend has it that the Shwedagon Pagoda is 2,500 years old, but archaeologists estimate it was first built by the Mon sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries (i.e. during the Bagan period). The pagoda emerges from legend into history in 1485, which is the date of an incription near the top of the eastern stairway that tells the story of Shwedagon in three languages (Pali, Mon, and Burmese).
It was around this time that the tradition of gilding the stupa began. Queen Shinsawbu provided her own weight in gold (fortunately she was a lightweight at 40kg), which was made into gold leaf and used to cover the surface of the stupa.
The queen's son-in-law, Dhammazedi, offered four times his own weight plus that of his wife's in gold and provided the abovementioned 1485 inscription. It has been rebuilt many times since then due to earthquakes (including eight in the 17th century alone); the current structure dates from the rebuild under King Hsinbyushin in 1769.
After the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, British troops occupied the Schwedagon Pagoda complex, which stands high over the city like a castle. In 1852, during the second war, the British occupied the pagoda for 77 years and pillaged its treasures. In 1871, King Mindon Min from Mandalay provided a new hti (the decorative top), flustering the occupying British.
As a symbol of national identity, the Schwedagon Pagoda was the scene of much political activity during the Myanmar independence movement in the 20th century. Amazingly, the huge earthquake of 1930 (which destroyed the Schwemawdaw in Bagan) caused only minor damage to the Yangon stupa. But the following year, it suffered from a disastrous fire. After a minor earthquake in 1970, the main stupa was fully refurbished.
What to See
The great Schwedagon Pagoda stands on a platform covering over 5 hectares on a hill 58m above sea level. It can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city, and the citizens of Yangon literally live out their everyday lives in its shadow.
There are four covered walkways that lead up to the pagoda's platform. Both the southern and northern entrances have the choice of an elevator or stairs; the western entrance has escalators instead of stairs and is the only entrance without vendors. The eastern stairway has the most authentic ambience, as it passes monasteries and vendors selling monastic necessities.
The southern entrance, from Schwedagon Paya Road, is the closest thing to the main entrance and is guarded by two 18-foot-high chinthe (mythical lion-dragons). You must remove your shoes and socks before you climb the stairs.
The steps are lined with shops selling flowers (both real and paper) for offerings, as well as Buddha images, incense, antiques and other items. Despite the vendors, the walkway is cool and quiet, which only increases the impact of bright sun and overwhelming color as you step onto the platform at the top.
The platform is full of glittering, colorful stupas, but the huge main stupa is the center of attention for most pilgrims. A mat pathway has been laid around it to protect visitors' bare feet from burning on the hot marble platform. The stupa is completely solid, every inch is covered in gold, and the upper parts are studded with diamonds totaling over 2,000 carats.
The main stupa is supported on a square plinth that stands 6.4m (20 feet) above the platform, setting it apart from the other stupas. On this raised platform are smaller stupas: large ones on the four cardinal directions, medium ones at the four corners, and 60 small ones around the perimeter. With the permission of the pagoda trustees, men may climb up onto the plinth terrace, which is about 6m wide, to meditate.
Rising from the base are three terraces, then octagonal sections, then five circular bands. Together these parts add up to 30 m (90 feet) in height and make the transition from the square base to the round elements above. The stupa's great bell is covered in gold leaf which is regilded every year. The shoulder of the bell is decorated with 16 "flower" shapes.
The bell is topped by an "inverted bowl" and above this are the moldings and "lotus petals" - a band of down-turned petals followed by a band of up-turned petals. The final element of the stupa itself is the "banana bud," which is covered with 13,153 plates of gold (as opposed to the gold leaf of the lower sections), each measuring 30 sq cm.
Topping the stupa is the spectacular hti (spire decoration), which has seven tiers. Made of iron and covered in gold plates, the hti weighs well over a ton. To this is added gold bells, silver bells and various jewelry. The highest tier carries a flag and turns with the wind. It gold-plated and silver-plated and studded with 1100 diamonds that total 278 carats, plus 1383 other precious stones.
At the very top of the spire is the diamond orb - a hollow gold sphere studded with 4351 diamonds totalling 1800 carats. On the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond.