“Shwedagon Pagoda”, I had told the taxi driver when I stepped out of the Strand Hotel, the best preserved remnant of the British colonial era in Yangon. The sun was setting behind a thick layer of clouds, and when the driver let me off at the west gate it had already become dark.
This is #2 of twelve articles describing my 2013 visit to Myanmar. In addition there are 7 videos and a large picture album.
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The first astonishment
I walked up the steps to where foreigners usually are let in, paid the ticket, placed my sandals in a shelf, passed two clean-shaven monks in traditional robes, and entered an elevator. I would later realise that this elevator was for the convenience of tourists and other VIPs. Others, more precisely local worshippers, had very different entrances and several flights of stairs to walk.
The elevator brought me and a couple of other strangers two storeys up. I crossed a roof-covered bridge, barely noticing the darkness around me, having my eyes and ears fixed on the scene a few metres ahead. Old and young voices were chanting something in a very rythmic manner, choir-like. The sound was coming from the right, but I could at once not see them for when I had crossed the bridge and turned around a corner my eyes and all senses became fixed on the sight in front of me.
The giant stupa
The stupa rising 98 metres over my bare feet was incredible. It was all gold. Pure gold. The floodlighting at night was so clever that it made the shining gold even more intense. “It is the fairest place, as I suppose, that doe bee in all the worlde“, Ralph Fitch had said. He was a London merchant and came here in 1576. The Burmese have said that for a lot longer. This most sacred place of Myanmar Buddhism has according to legend lasted for 2,600 years.
It is believed there are relics of four Buddhas enshrined in the pagoda, including eight strands of hair from Gautama himself, the founder of Buddhism. I couldn’t tell, nor can I verify that there are actually 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies fixed to the crown on the very top of the stupa and that the largest gem is a 76 carat (15 g) diamond. On the other hand, not all sources seem to agree on the exact number. Standing there, I couldn’t care less.
The first orientation
Relieving myself of the wonderful sight I looked around and noticed that there were a number of very small structures at the square base of the golden stupa. The myriad of mini-stupas had small Buddha figures inside, and some places a water basin in front. There were also some stalls were incense sticks would be left in the sand.
At intervals to my right and left I noticed some larger pavilions fixed to the base of the stupa, like small temples. Outside these ran the ten to twenty metres wide, marble covered space I was standing on. On the outer edges of the open space there was another ring of shrines, or what I would call chapels in a Christian cathedral context.
I now realised where the chanting I had heard was coming from. In a temple building to my right, with only a wall at the back and the roof upheld by columns, there was a number of old and young kneeling worshippers involved in a monotonous chant.
Unfamiliar with the language and almost as blank on the verses of the teachings of the Buddha, I was in no position to understand what they were singing. On the other hand I had a thirty years flashback to the monks of Tibet, chanting in the Sera Monastery, and to the monks of Luang Prabang a few years ago, and even my most recent visit to the reopened monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Buddhist chanting does not seem to vary much from place to place. Traditions are strong in the religious world.
I continued past the chanters, noticing that there were many people pouring water over the Buddha figures, praying on the floor of the shrines, talking to each other with subdued voices or just sitting there. There was no shouting, no running. Everything was quiet except for the chant and the mumbling prayers in front of the figures. It was in the rainy season and the marble floor was wet from the heavy rainfall earlier in the afternoon. It was slippery, forcing us all to walk even slower.
This is no tourist trap
I could not but notice that this was definitely not a tourist trap. Very few foreigners were around. The Shwedagon Pagoda is first of all for the people of Myanmar. And they had arrived; men, women and children, young and old. Rich and poor. In numbers.
In Buddhism everything has a symbolic meaning. I suddenly realised that I had committed a blunder. I had walked right seeking out the choir, and I had continued around the perimeter of the stupa. In Buddhism you walk clockwise, to the left. I stopped in my tracks and looked around me. Had I been spotted?
A sidestep – some basic facts
According to Insight Guides “a pagoda (paya in Burmese) consists of a stupa and its surrounding enclosure. The stupa itself (zedi in Burmese) is a memorial structure containing a relic chamber beneath (or sometimes above) the bell-shaped central portion.” Pagodas vary considerable in size and decorations. Not all are covered with solid gold. The large pagodas, like the Shwedagon are often built on several terraces.
One might distinguish between solid stupas (“zedi”) and the hollow temple or shrine (“pahto”). Therawada buddhists might object to the term of “temple”, as the term temple normally refers to a place of worshipping. They would claim there is no such thing as worshipping in Buddhism; the followers meditate. A “kyaung” is a monastery. There are plenty of them in Myanmar, some built around a cave or dug-holes in the ground. I was going to enter such a hole later, in Bagan.
The Shwedagon pagoda (or paya) was originally 20 metres high, and reached its current height in 1774. Its stands 112 metres above the hill it is situated on, including the spear on the top. The base of the pagoda has a perimeter of 460 metres and has more than 70 sculpture-enriched smaller shrines. There are four entrances, one with a lift (west), one with escalators (east) and the other two have shops and staircases like so many other pagodas in Myanmar.
Back in the ring
I had committed an apparent sin, I had walked anti-clockwise around the large stupa. Noone seemed to notice, and to my relief I even spotted small groups of monks walking the same way I did. They were probably not walking the full circle. Anyway, I slipped back in the shadows, made sure I did not walk continuously around the stupa but made stops on the way to shoot video and take photographs.
The Shwedagon is the highest pagoda and the largest golden monument in the world. I could tell, I takes its toll on your neck to look up.
Instead I fixed my eyes on the Buddha figures glowing in the night. Or more correct, the halos and lights around. The lighting was in the eyes of a Westerner, heartbreaking: Flashing, green neon lights are not compatible with religious activities. “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about“, the poet Kipling observed. Well, the use of neon-lights is not particularly Burmese. They are popular all over Asia.
The Shwedagon in a different perspective – daylight
I returned the next day, at daytime, and there were just as many people around at this hour. The neon lights were not as obtrusive, the gilding not as stunning. On the other hand the shear size of the temple complex revealed itself more than last night.
Arriving by the east gate this time I entered a gilded gate and walked up to the entrance of the pagoda stairs across a large open square. I paid my ticket, left my sandals and passed by a group of students being offered religious teachings inside a large hall. The next thing I realised leaving the entrance was the significance the Burmese Buddhists place on creating elongated entrances.
I would later in Myanmar be walking kilometres under roof-covered walkways lined with stalls selling every kind of handicrafts and artefacts, to tourists and believers alike.
This long hall, the eastern entrance to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda was not that long, it did not have many shops, and it was equipped with a modern amenity, an escalator. Not all locals seemed accustomed to escalators. On my way up I passed a woman descending, fearfully stretched across the shoulders of a man.
As I entered the top platform of the hill, I made sure to walk clockwise. On part of my meditative walk, I used the plastic mat that was laid out to protect feet from getting scorched under the shining sun. Last night the mat had provided a secure place on the wet floor.
This time I spent even longer time doing people-watching. I would sit down on the wooden or cement floors of the shrines, just like the locals. Unlike them I wouldn’t pray in front of the Buddha figures, but I would read in my guidebook, take photos and film even more. There was always another angle, another worshipper, another Buddha figure or something else to catch my attention. The Shwedagon Pagoda is large enough to accommodate hundreds of people simultaneously, and at the same time get a feeling of tranquillity.
Some more reflections
I had read that the big central stupa had a solid interior. Years of possible neglect and several earthquakes had ruined much of it, but the important position of the pagoda was reaffirmed and grew rapidly in the late 1400s. The gold coating became a tradition when Queen Shinsawbu donated her weight in gold. Later queens were not less benevolent, and presumably heavier than Shinsawbu’s modest 40 kilos.
In addition there have been donations by thousands of believers throughout hundreds of years, adding to the estimated 60 tonnes of gold now coating the pagoda. The base of the stupa and the shrines are gold painted, the lower part of the stupa is covered by gold leaf. The upper part has 13,153 gold plates (30 square cm) nailed to the structure.
It is extremely impressive that so much gold leaf had been used on the pagoda. In Amanapura, near Mandalay, I would learn about the traditional process of making gold leaf. The instruction I was given was that it took one man five hours to transform a small lump of gold to a bundle of leaves the size of about 5×5 cm, using a sledge hammer. Someone would have to pay for that job by purchasing the leaves, and ultimately place the leaf onto a pagoda.
Strong beliefs in the population
Considering the poverty of Burmese men and women throughout history, it is a testimony to their strong religious beliefs that so much gold has been placed on the vast number of religious buildings all over the country, for centuries.
Buddhism is the defining factor of the Burmese way of life even today. It is a very traditional country, of which I will explore more in the next articles.
There are many articles, but here is perhaps the most detailed and best in explaining the Shwedagon Pagoda.
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
THIS CHAPTER (2) The Amazing Shwedagon Pagoda