Our first day out and about in Yangon began with a visit to the Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred religious building in Burma / Myanmar. Over the years, we have stood in awe of the majesty of cathedrals in Europe, of Abbeys such as Melk Abbey on the Danube, of mosques like Hassan 11 Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco and the wonderful Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. But this experience was different.
This golden stupa dominates the Yangon skyline as it rises from Singuttara Hill, its brilliantly shining spire thrusting 99m into the air. We had seen its photo in books and on the web but nothing really prepared us for the experience of actually being there. It was awe-inspiring. It’s huge and that’s gold – real gold, up there!
The stupa is not a building that you go inside and marvel at the architecture, the sculptures, the art works, the stain glass windows. It’s a mighty, magnificent structure surrounded by a small city of a myriad golden and painted, carved and sculptured stupas, pagodas and temples. It’s almost overwhelming in its scope – and even more so in trying to understand why it is there at all. I find that when I visit such places it is best to put aside my own belief structures and ‘way of life’ philosophy and allow myself to contemplate another way of looking at life. And for this, our guide Sunshine was an excellent instructor and I have followed up with a good deal of reading.
Let’s begin with why.
The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture. Its basically a solid, bell shaped structure that is built as a tomb for Buddhist relics. And this stupa, the most important in Burma / Myanmar is said to contain some of the Buddha’s hair. In a country whose people have been steeped for centuries in the Buddhist faith, this stupa is a focus for religious contemplation and meditation as well as for bringing offerings, often in the form of flowers or of gold leaf to maintain the beauty of stupa and pagodas.
Everywhere you walk in this huge compound, the central stupa is seen through other gilded and decorated stupas and beautifully carved plaster and wooden pagodas and temples. These have been added over the centuries, often by the old Myanmar royalty and wealthy believers.
The origins of the main stupa, Shwedagon Paya, are lost in ‘the mists of time’, in legend and folk lore. Its age is unknown, but Singuttara Hill, where it is located, has been an ancient sacred site for thousands of years. The Burmese believe that the relics of three previous Buddhas were buried here. Legend has it that the current Buddha gave eight of his hairs to two Burmese merchants who had given him some food as he sat meditating under a tree in Northern India. On their return to Burma, the merchants gave some of the hairs to their king who decided to preserve them in a huge stupa. That stupa is said to have been made of multiple layers of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron and gold, each built one on top of the other, to a height of twenty meters.
Legend meets history only in about the 10th Century. Archeologists believe that the building was begun by the Mon people, the ethnic group who dominated this area at that time. It may well have been built over a former building that housed Buddha’s hairs and that is the belief of the Burmese people to this day.
The stupa fell somewhat into disrepair until the 14th Century when the then Mon king had it rebuilt to a height of 18m (59ft). Earthquakes have caused problems for the stupa over the years and it has had to be rebuilt several times. Over the centuries, kings and queens of Myanmar visited the shrine and many donated their weight in gold to be added to the structure.
Way back in 1586, an English man, Ralph Fitch, visited the great pagoda and wrote:
“….it is called Dogonne, and it is of a wonderful bignesse, and all gilded from the foot to the toppe…it is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in all the world; it standeth very high, and there are foure ways to it, which all along are set with trees of fruits, suchwise that a man may goe in the shade above two miles in length….”
The 17th Century was a particularly bad century for this stupa… it suffered damage on at least eight occasions. Then in 1786 the entire top half came crashing down. It needed a big reconstruction. And that happened in the 18th century when it was rebuilt to the present height. The lower part of the structure we see today is solid brick, over which, it is claimed, the builders used 8,688 ‘plates’ of solid gold. The upper part is said to be clad with another 13,153 smaller plates of solid gold. I’m not sure who counted them, but its a lot of gold.
The top of the stupa is far too high up for the eye to discern any great detail. I’ve magnified the photo to try to give a sense of its beauty. The crown or umbrella is claimed to be studded with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and other precious gems. On the very top is a 76 carat diamond – that’s 15 gm of diamond. And 1,485 golden bells hang from the edges of the umbrella . The whole building is truly stunning; it’s breathtaking in its golden glow. One can only stand in awe of the craftsmen who built it – and those who maintain it. Every four years the stupa is shrouded by bamboo scaffolding as it is checked and maintained with loving care. We were fortunate to see it without scaffolding and in all its majesty.
But there’s so much more to see here than ‘just’ the main golden stupa, although it is always there in every view as you circumnavigate its immense base. There are Pagodas and temples made from wood (teak), from plaster, from brick. Some are covered in gold leaf; some painted with gold coloured paint. There are many shrines containing buddha statues of every size, shape and description, together with smaller shrines housing Buddhists sprits, called Nats. There are ‘miracle working’ images. This is a place of pilgrimage. A place that Burmese Buddhists revere above all others.
I know that many of you will never get to see it for yourselves so let’s walk (via photos) and get some idea of the magnitude of this amazing place. I also hope that our photos might inspire others of you to make the journey. This was only the beginning of our trip and already we knew we were experiencing something very special.
Let’s begin with some of the Pagodas, tiered-towers with multiple eaves with decorated finials, often with a symbolic Buddhist meaning, for example, a lotus. In Burma / Myanmar the term “pagoda”, in general, can be used for any kind of Buddhist edifice without specific difference between architectural appearances. (The word stupa comes from India and defines the bell like solid structures.)
Teak is/was one of the predominant timbers of this country and is used in many pagodas across the country. It has been logged far too extensively mainly for lucrative export and now needs protection. Only the government can permit the logging of a teak tree and gain it’s revenue. More about that later. Here, let’s just admire the beauty of the carvings on these beautifully proportioned buildings.
Perhaps my favourite pagoda was a square one, decorated with colourful bas reliefs. I was so surprised to see such a structure. It’s so different but it’s pictures tell stories to those who come here to meditate.
Throughout the complex, are many prayer and meditation shrine areas where devotees can enter to pray and can observe educational and moral knowledge from paintings and Buddha images placed inside. This one had added modern sparkle with coloured lights flashing on and off. I’m not too sure how that helps meditation! There are no chairs, just mats on very clean polished marble floors. No shoes are worn in the whole compound. The material cloaks worn by some of these Buddha statues are gifts from the faithful.
Each ceiling in the many prayer and meditation areas is different – and all are beautifully decorated.
For the Burmese, the date of your birth is far less important than the day of the week on which you were born. At various points around the base of the stupa, in order, are shrines dedicated to the days of the week – with two for Wednesday, one am and one pm. This one is where Tuesday born people come to pray, burn incense and add offerings. Aung San Suu Kyi is Tuesday born, so this is where she comes to give special thanks for her birth and life. It’s a happy shrine so I’m glad I, too, am a Tuesday born girl.
With this happy snap, we’ll leave the Shwedagon Paya now until next journal because there is so much more to learn here . It’s not just about the buildings and their ancient and religious stories, but also about the modern history of this country for this compound is also particularly redolent of Burmese / Myanmar secular history.
Jennie and David
Photography © Jennie Thomas and David Young of jtdytravels