Shwedagon Pagoda, The Golden Wonder Part 1

The history of the Shwedagon Pagoda can be broken down into two parts. The first one that deals with events that took place in the process of the Shwedagon Pagoda’s coming into being and the second part that is concerned with those things that happened after the Shwedagon Pagoda was completed. The first part is the one that is taking place in the realm of myth and legend without proof that things really happened the way they are portrayed. The second part is the one in which things are taking place in reality with proof that they have happened the way they are described.

To start with the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda I have to go back to the beginning around 585 B.C. the times of the small Mon settlement Okkala (now part of Rangoon/Yangon) and the legendary Mon king Okkalapa. As legend has it king Okkalapa knew two things. Firstly, that the Singuttara hill close to which he had chosen to live was sacred because of the Buddha relics that were hidden somewhere at or on the hill. Secondly, that the hill would soon lose its sacredness unless the new Buddha would appear in due time and add a relic to the ones of his predecessors.

King Okkalapa’s big problems now were that he could not find the existing Buddha relics and that he did not know when the new Buddha would come into existence. As for the existing relics (Kakusanda Buddha’s walking staff, Konagamana Buddha’s water filter and Kassapa Buddha’s bathing robe) he had been looking everywhere (or so he thought) without finding them and what the new Buddha and new relic concerned he could only wait and pray.

Then a miracle happened when unexpectedly Gautama Buddha appeared before king Okkalapa promising him that he would give hin a relic timely enough to ensure that the Singuttara hill would remain a sacred place. And so it happened. After having attained enlightenment Gautama Buddha meditated 49 days under the Bo tree. Then he gave Tapussa and Bhallika, the merchants from Okkala who became his first lay disciples 8 ‘hsandawshin’ (sacred hairs) from his head and received in exchange some pieces of honey cake.

When Tapussa and Bhallika did after a journey full of adventures, finally, arrived back in Okkala they were already eagerly awaited and welcomed in grand style by their king Okkalapa and a multitude of people. However, they had to tell their king that they had received 8 hairs from the Buddha but that they now had only 4 of them left. The other 4 so they admitted were stolen by Nagarajah, the king of the water-dwelling Nagas and the king of Aryavrata. Okkalapa told them not to worry because with the 4 hairs that were left the problem of the missing relics of the new Buddha was solved.

Now they had to tackle the problem that the place where the other Buddha relics were hidden was not yet found. Gautama Buddha had told the merchant brothers that they would have to look for a tree trunk balancing on a peak in such a way that neither end of it touched the ground but this they could not find because the hill was densely wooded. Now good advice proved to be expensive and after many meetings and a long search it was decided that supernatural powers were needed. Thagyamin, the king of the celestials, was asked to join the group. That he did and was helpful in that he cleared in just a few minutes much of the forest and narrowed the search area. However, they still did not find the right spot. The decisive clue was, finally, provided by the oldest of the nats (spirits), Sularata, the Sule nat; and there was great joy amongst the nats, Mon king Okkalapa and his people when the place with the relics of the previous Buddhas was, at long last, discovered.

A big feast took place on the occasion of the enshrinement ceremony and the proper time for the opening of the casket had come. The very moment the casket with Gautama Buddha’s hairs was opened incredible miraculous things happened. Not only were in the casket all of sudden all of the 8 Buddha hairs but they also emitted light rays that lit up the earth. There was a rumble and the ground was shaking, Mount Meru shook, all trees in the Himalayan exploded prematurely into full bloom and bore fruits, while lightning flashed and a downpour of gems started. The deaf could hear, the lame could walk, the dumb could speak and the blind could see.

With great pomp and circumstance Buddha’s hairs were added to the existing relics of the 3 earlier Buddhas and enshrined. Finally, the first 8 metres/ 27 ft high multi-walled Pagoda was built over the shrine. The Dagon had come into existence and, in a manner of speaking, the corner stone for today’s Shwedagon was laid.

Soon after the first Dagon Pagoda (later Shwe Dagon or Shwedagon Pagoda) was built king Okkalapa changed the village name from Okkala to Dagon. Here is why he did this: The word ‘Dagon’ that is used only for a pagoda that is placed over portions of Gautama Buddha’s body such as his flesh, teeth and hair is derived from the Sanskrit terms ‘dhatu-garbha’ or ‘Dhagoba’, meaning ‘relic shrine’; and since the Dagon Pagoda, erected over Gautama Buddha’s hair relics, was part of the village he named not only the pagoda but also the entire village ‘Dagon’.

From that time on nothing I know of was heard about the Shwedagon Pagoda. The pagoda so it seems is at some time after its completion fallen almost into oblivion and was during that period not maintained well. But from 1362 on when Mon King Banya U of Pegu completely renovated and raised the Dagon to a height of 20 metres/66 ft the pagoda does definitely and irrevocably take first place in degree of prominence and importance amongst Burma’s Buddhists and pagodas.

In the time from the completion of the first Dagon in 858 B.C. to 2012 the Shwedagon Pagoda has undergone many major construction work and was re-built, repaired, renovated, expanded, gilded, increased in height, and so on, by many kings and queens both Mon and Burmese.

Now that we have concerned ourselves with the Shwedagon Pagoda’s early history the time has come to take a very close look at the Shwedagon Pagoda itself. The best way to do that is to visit the pagoda.

We are now on the parking space at the south-east corner of the Shwedagon Pagoda. If this is the first time in your life that you see the pagoda in reality I can assure you that you will never forget this moment. The first time Rudyard Kipling saw the Shwedagon Pagoda he described in his ‘Letters of Travel’ with the words: “There’s the old Shway Dagon”, said my companion. Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun,… the golden dome said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”

The Shwedagon Pagoda has 4 covered stairways, zaungdans in Burmese (one from each cardinal point) with ascending flights of stairs. In intervals of some 12 steps there is often a large landing on 3 of these stairways. The 4th (the western stairway) has an escalator.

In front of us is the elevator that goes up to the upper platform. Over there is the stairway we could enter; it’s already some steps up from the foot of the stairs. However, I suggest we leave the parking space go down to the street, walk around the south-east corner of the pagoda compound and enter the Shwedagon through the south gate at street level in order to enjoy the experience of our Shwedagon Pagoda visit to the fullest; by the way, the south gate is located at the former Lake Road (now U Htaung Bo Road) at the upper end of the Shwedagon Pagoda Road.

The southern stairway is with some 720 feet/219 metres lengths the longest of the 4 stairways. The western stairway is some 590 feet/180 metres long.

As you remember I told you that the pagoda is situated on top of the 125 feet /47 metres high Singuttara Hill. But the Singuttara hill is home to more than the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. At the lower level of the Shwedagon Pagoda below the main terrace you can see a number of smaller and larger Buddhist monasteries embedded in trees, palmyra palms and coconut palms. A small way running around the hill side is connecting these monasteries with the Shwedagon and with one another. Vsitors of the pagoda can also use his way in case they want to visit the monasteries.

OK, let us enter the Shwedagon Pagoda compound and immerse ourselves into the magic of this most precious gem in the treasure trove of Burmese pagodas. Please take off your slippers and put them into your plastic bags. We will stay together as a group and you make your photos and videos as you think fit.

One of the very first things catching your eyes are certainly the 2 huge statues placed at the right and left side of the entrance to the Southern Stairway. These statues are lion-like mythical creatures called ‘Chinthes’. These chinthes here are 30 feet/9 metres high. They are here to guard the entrance. You will see chinthes everywhere on pagodas for they are of immense importance to the protection of the pagodas.

We will walk now through the open space between them and start to climb the steps up to the main platform. Let me give you some explanations while we are moving upwards the Southern Stairway. Like this one all stairways are as you have seen from outside covered by multi tired roofs (pyatthats) and are richly embellished with gold coloured and occasional gilded bargeboards. The roofs are supported by massive teak beams resting on huge nicely decorated columns that are placed directly in front of the shops at the outer wall and depending on the height in 2-3 rows above each other. Two more rows of columns are placed some 18 feet/6 metres in front of the shop fronts on each side to support the middle part of the tired roof, which is also the highest part of it. The pedestals and lower parts of the columns are painted red and the upper parts including the capitals are gilded what gives a very attractive contrast. The lower red and upper gilded parts of the columns are separated by decorative relief bands comprising repeated local mosaic ornaments.

However, the columns at the entrances are different in so far as they have a red ground coat and are decorated with relief ornaments and glass inlay from the band upwards to the capital. Some of these columns are decorated with nagas above the capitals.

The stairways are (with exception of the western stairway in which an escalator is installed) from the foot to the top lined with shops offering joss sticks, ceremonial paper umbrellas and other umbrellas with local design of different sizes, Buddha statues of various sizes with and without thrones made of different materials such as marble, alabaster, wood (with and without gilded surface), ivory, terracotta, jade and brass, Buddha pictures, paper flowers, real flowers, antiques, gold leaves, lacquer ware, happy owls, etc.

Please go and buy for us some joss sticks, candles, flowers and white paper umbrellas from the shops over there. I could do that for you but I want you to make this experience yourself. Once we are on the main terrace I will tell you what we need these things for.

Now that you have bought everything we will need we have to go over to that booth and pay our entrance fee.

So, that is also done; please put these stickers on your shirts because they provide proof that we have paid our fee. Let us continue upwards. As you can see the walls of the stairway is above the shops decorated with large pictures of scenes of Gautama Buddha’s entire life (jatakas), related scenes and scenes of the era he lived in. The ceilings are with the exception of the entrance areas decorated with dark brown wood carvings. In the entrance areas the ceilings have a red ground coat and are decorated with golden local Buddhist motives such as Buddhas, nats, chinthes, nagas, lotus flowers, lotus petals, other floral motifs, etc.

After having left the last flight of steps behind us we have finally arrived at the terrace of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The entire terrace is paved with slaps of white marble and they are very hot when the sun is shining on them for longer and extremely slippery after rain. Since you are not allowed to wear slippers, detroit tigers hoodie or socks it can become a bit tricky to walk on the slaps. OK, now we will begin our walk around the main stupa on the main platform.

write by morales