The Golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, as we now see it today, originally was a much smaller religious monument. There can be no doubt that that it was built to enshrine eight sacred hair relics of the Indian princely Gautama Buddha during his lifetime just 2,600 years ago. It also enshrines the staff, water filter and bathing robe of three preceding Buddhas, who are fully recognized within the dominant Theravada Buddhism of Myanmar. Just as the pagoda grew from strength to strength, so did the people of the land until they finally emerged as one nation, Myanmar.
Let’s reconstruct the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is a treasure house of Myanmar culture, traditions, arts and crafts to become a symbol of the Myanmar way of life and one of the wonders of the world.
One of many Westerners who visited Myanmar and wrote about it was the Italian merchant of Venice Gasparo Balbi, who arrived at the Shwedagon in early November of 1583. An Englishman Ralph Fitch arrived at about the same time and traveled from the capital city of Bago to the fairest place, as he supposed, that is in the world. Michael Symes, Hiram Cox, and Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor of India, followed. Adolf Bastian from Bremen, Germany visited there in 1861.
When the pagoda was first erected, the height of the stupa was just 66 feet, but due to repeated renovations it is now 326 feet from the base to the diamond bud on top. It stands on the crest of Singuttara Hill, which is 190 feet above sea-level in the north of today’s downtown Yangon. Actually, in ancient times, the site of the Shwedagon Pagoda was part of the MonSuvannabhumi Kingdom.
Early accounts of the founding of the Shwedagon Pagoda mention two merchant brothers Tapussa and Bhallika, who had visited Buddha after his enlightenment in India and offered him alms food of rice cakes and honey. In exchange, Buddha gave them eight hairs from his head to take back with them to their country, where King Okkalapa was informed of the arrival of the sacred hair relics by ship. King Okkalapa was the son of Sakka, king of the gods, while his mother was Mai Lamu, the daughter of a hermit near Singuttara Hill. With the help of the Sule Nat and three others, the relic chamber was excavated measuring 44 cubits in depth and the eight hair relics enshrined.
Mon chronicles record how in the 3rd century B.C., during the time of King Ashoka in India, two Buddhist monks Sona Thera and Utta Thera arrived in Suvannabhumi and told King Sirisoma about the relics in Dagon, which was where the whole area was already overgrown by jungle. Repairs to the pagoda were made at once and a tier roofed pavilion erected on the precincts. Later on, King Duttabaung of Sriksetra visited the pagoda, while in the 11th century King Anawratha from Bagan even came to make devotional offerings to the pagoda.
Today, three stone inscriptions are to be seen on the east side of the pagoda platform. These were erected during the reign of King Dhammazedi in the year 1485 and record in the Pali, Mon and Myanmar languages an account of the founding of the Shwedagon Pagoda and detail the meritorious deeds of the Mon kings from Banya U onwards. Remarkable was the reign of Queen Shin Saw Bu, who ascended the throne of Hanthawady (Bago) in 1453. It is recorded that Shin Saw Bu dedicated 500 pagoda slaves to the service of the pagoda and presented offerings of her own weight in gold, amounting to 90 pounds. She always used to ascend the pagoda platform from the west to worship at the shrine.
In the meantime, the Shwedagon Pagoda reached the height of 300 feet and repairs were needed because of repeated earthquakes. With the change in name of the city from Dagon to Yangon in 1750 by the Myanmar King Alaungpaya, the stage was set for the further enhancement of the glory and splendor of the Shewdagon Pagoda, especially under King Hsinbyushin, who ascended the throne in 1763 and four years later conquered the Thai capital Ayutthaya.
Last not least, the Shwedagon Pagoda and 64 stupas encircling the pagoda were the focal point during the three Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824-26, 1852 and 1885-86. There were earthquakes in 1888 and 1919 as well as a great fire in 1931. Anyway, the entire structure of the pagoda up to the finial is of brickwork, with majesty in its simplicity. But the royal umbrella wrought with cast iron and gold filigree and jewelry gives it the perfect finishing touch.
Thus, Shwedagon is more than a pagoda…it is Myanmar and brilliantly reflects the great generosity of its people with its park nearby, the museum, exhibition halls, libraries and archives, as well as the four covered stairways in all directions. Please don’t miss to visit, but be aware that you really cannot have any footwear. An obligate donation fee is 8USD.
For further information, please consult the book “Shwedagon – Symbol of Strength and Serenity”, which is sprinkled with a myriad of superb photographs and published by the Yangon City Development Committee, Yangon 1997.
Written by : Reinhard Hohler