Minerva Memories – Yangon Day 2


Visible from almost anywhere in Yangon, this is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. The 325ft zedi , adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and thousands of diamonds and other gems, is believed to enshrine eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha as well as relics of three former buddhas.
Four long, graceful entrance stairways lead to the main terrace which, depending on the time of day you visit, can be quiet and contemplative or bustling and raucous. If you prefer the former, visit in the cool of dawn. Otherwise pay your respects when the golden stupa flames crimson and burnt orange in the setting sun.  he following covers the history and layout of Shwedagon Paya. Freelance guides (they’ll locate you before you can find them) can provide more details. Tour agencies can also arrange guides; a good tour, including the surrounding area, is offered by Khiri Travel.

Legend has it that there’s been a stupa on Singuttara Hill for 2600 years, ever since two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Ballika, met the Buddha. He gave them eight of his hairs to take back to Myanmar, a land ruled over by King Okkalapa. Okkalapa enshrined the hairs in a temple of gold, together with relics of three former buddhas, which was then enclosed in a temple of silver, then one of tin, then copper, then lead, then marble and, finally, one of plain iron-brick. Archaeologists suggest that the original stupa was built by the Mon people some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. In common with many other ancient zedi in earthquake-prone Myanmar, it has been rebuilt many times. During the Bagan (Pagan) period of Myanmar’s history (10th to 14th centuries), the story of the stupa emerged from the mists of legend to become hard fact. Near the top of the eastern stairway is a brick inscribed with the date 1485.
In the 15th century, the tradition of gilding the stupa began. Queen Shinsawbu, who was responsible for many improvements to the stupa, provided her own weight (88lb) in gold, which was beaten into gold leaf and used to cover the structure. Her son-in-law, Dhammazedi, went several better, offering four times his own weight and that of his wife in gold.

In 1612 Portuguese renegade adventurer Filipe de Brito e Nicote raided the stupa from his base in Thanlyin and carried away Dhammazedi’s 300-ton bell, with the intention of melting it for cannons. As the British were to do later with another bell, he accidentally dropped it into the river where it remains.
During the 17th century, the monument suffered earthquake damage on eight occasions. Worse was to follow in 1768, when a quake brought down the whole top of the zedi . King Hsinbyushin had it rebuilt to virtually its present height, and its current configuration dates from that renovation.

British troops occupied the compound for two years immediately after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. In 1852, during the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the British again took the paya, the soldiers pillaged it once more and it remained under military control for 77 years, until 1929. Prior to the British takeover of southern Myanmar there had been defensive earthworks around the paya, but these were considerably extended by the British. The emplacements for their cannons can still be seen outside the outer wall.
In 1871 the provision of a new hti (the umbrella-like decorative top of a stupa) by King Mindon Min from Mandalay, caused considerable head-scratching for the British, who were not at all keen for such an association to be made with the still-independent part of Myanmar.

The huge earthquake of 1930, which totally destroyed the Shwemawdaw in Bago, caused only minor damage to Shwedagon. The following year it wasn’t so lucky, when the paya suffered from a serious fire.
After another minor earthquake in 1970, the zedi was clad in bamboo scaffolding, which extended beyond King Mindon’s 100-year-old hti , and was refurbished. The stupa also had to be repaired following 2008’s Cyclone Nargis. During recent centuries, the Shwedagon Paya was the scene for much political activity during the Myanmar independence movement – Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to massive crowds here in 1988 and the temple was also at the centre of the monks’ protests in 2007.

The hill on which the stupa stands is 167ft above sea level with the entire complex covering 46 hectares. As is common with all temples in Myanmar, the main terrace is approached by four zaungdan (covered walkways) each of which is flanked at its entrance by a pair of 9m-tall chinthe . If you don’t want to climb the steps, there are elevators at the southern, eastern and northern entrances, while the western zaungdan has sets of escalators.


All but the western zaungdan are lined with stalls selling flowers – both real and beautifully made paper ones – for offerings, buddha images, ceremonial umbrellas, books, antiques, incense sticks and much more. There are also fortune tellers and money exchange booths. You emerge from the shade of the zaungdan into a visual cacophany of technicoloured glitter at the marble-floored main terrace , littered with pavilions and worship halls containing buddha images and two giant cast-iron bells.


At the centre of the terrace Shwedagon Paya sits on a square plinth, which stands 21ft above the clutter of the main platform and immediately sets the stupa above the lesser structures. Smaller stupas sit on this raised platform level – four large ones mark the four cardinal directions, four medium-sized ones mark the four corners of the plinth and 60 small ones run around the perimeter. From this base, the zedi rises first in three terraces, then in ‘octagonal’ terraces and then in five circular bands. The shoulder of the bell is decorated with 16 ‘flowers’. The bell is topped by the ‘inverted bowl’, another traditional element of stupa architecture, and above this stand the mouldings, then the ‘lotus petals’. These consist of a band of down-turned petals, followed by a band of up-turned petals. The banana bud is the final element of the zedi before the jewel-encrusted hti tops it.


(A local playing a shoot-it-up war game inside the Temple – very strange)

Around the stupa’s base 12 planetary posts conform to the days of the week; locals pray at the station that represents the day they were born. If you want to join them, and don’t know the day of your birth, the fortune tellers at the temple have almanacs that will provide the answer. Note that Wednesday is divided into births in the morning and births in afternoon – for the latter you worship at the Rahu post at the northwest corner of the stupa base.


Chaukhtatgyi Paya – Housed in a large metal-roofed shed, this beautiful 65m-long reclining Buddha is hardly publicised at all even though it’s larger than a similar well-known image in Bago. The statue’s placid face is topped by a crown encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones.

Close to the Buddha’s feet is the small shrine to Ma Thay, a holy man who has the power to stop rain and grant sailors a safe journey.

Attached to the temple complex is the Shweminwon Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre , where large numbers of locals gather to meditate. It’s not hard to find someone to show you around the adjoining monasteries.


Novice Monks waiting for thier one meal of the day.


People shower the Monks with gifts, money and food every day for good luck.


Female Monks collecting donations


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About Basia Zarzycka