In shape and form the magnificent Shwedagon pagoda, one of the most sacred Buddhist shrines in the world, is like any other pagoda. What makes it unique is that its gleaming domed-shaped stupa is covered with a skin of pure gold.
On a hilltop north of Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (Burma), an edifice resembling a giant handbell gleams with pure gold like sunlight that has been frozen and shaped. Myanmar has been called a ‘land of pagodas’, but Shwedagon, its huge central stupa emerging from a forest of spires of smaller pagodas like a great ship, is the most glorious of all. Covering an area of 14 acres (5.6ha), the pagoda is a complex of glittering pinnacles, and strange and familiar creatures – golden leogryphs (half lion, half griffin), sphinxes, dragons, lions, elephants. Shwedagon pagoda towers above the tranquil waters of the Royal Lake, dwarfing the structures that surround it. The present edifice dates from 1768 and the reign of King Hsinbyushin, who authorized the 10 million bricks and 100,000 brass screws that went into its construction. It is also a paradise for the senses.
The imposing structure at the summit of Singuttara Hill is the latest of a series of shrines built on this site, which has been considered sacred by Buddhists for some 2500 years. In the sixth century BC, soon after the fourth Buddha, Gautama, achieved the ‘state of enlightenment’, he met two Burmese merchants to whom he presented eight of his hairs as a memento. These, and relics of the three previous Buddhas – a staff, a water cup and a piece of clothing – were enshrined on Singuttara Hill and a gold slab was placed over the shrine. Finally, a series of pagodas in different materials, one on top of the other, was built over the sacred artefacts. The hill then became a place of pilgrimage. The first notable visitor to pay homage to the relics was King Ashoka of India in 260 BC.
Over the centuries kings and princes undertook the care of the shrine, cutting back the encroaching jungle and rebuilding and restoring when necessary. The present shape and form date from the 15th century and the reign of Queen Shinsawbu, who was also responsible for gilding the stupa for the first time. In accordance with her wishes, it was plated in gold leaf whose weight equaled that of her own bodyweight of 90lb (40kg). her son-in-law and successor King Dhammazedi, was more generous still, donating four times his weight in gold to replate the stupa. Since the region’s tropical seasonal rains constantly damage the fragile layers of gold this process has had to repeated many times. Today, the cost of regilding is borne by public subscription. Pilgrims, too, paste sheets of gold leaf on the pagoda, or on one of the images of Buddha, as devotional offerings.
The base of Shwedagon, approached by covered stairways from each of the four compass points, consists of a series of rectangular and octagonal terraces, supporting the stupa, the shape of which is said to represent Buddha’s inverted begging bowl. (The relics of the four Buddhas are now housed in the stupa). From this a golden spire soars upwards and narrows to the hti (the crown), an elegant ‘umbrella’, from which gold and silver bells hang. From the hti rises a gem-encrusted vane, topped by a golden orb which is studded with more than 1100 diamonds, including one of the 76 carats on the tip, and nearly 1400 other precious stones. From base to apex, the pagoda is 326ft (99m) high.
One of the largest bells in the Far East is housed in a separate pavilion within the Shwedagon complex, to the north-west of the main pagoda platform. Called the Maha Gandha bell, it was cast between 1775 and 1779, weighs 23 tons, measures 14ft (4m) high and is some 15in (38cm) thick.
In the course of the first Anglo-Burmese War, the British occupied Rangoon from 1824 to 1826 and ransacked Shwedagon, removing many of its treasures, including the Maha Gandha bell, which they intended to ship to Calcutta (now Kolkata). But they lost their grip, and the prize plunged into the river. After several attempts by the British to raise the bell had failed, the Burmese offered to retrieve it, on condition that it was returned to its rightful resting place. The British, thinking that Burmese attempts would also end in failure, agreed. Divers attached innumerable bamboo poles underneath the lost treasure, which then floated to the surface.
King Dhammazedi made two further important contributions to the Shwedagon. He had three stone tablets inscribed with the pagoda’s history in Burmese, Pali and Mons, and he donated a massive bell, weighing some 30 tons. In 1608 a Portuguese mercenary stole this gift, intending to melt it down for weaponry, but his boat capsized under the weight of the bell, which was lost in the River Pegu. The present Maha Gandha bronze bell was donated by King Singu in 1779.
The ornate prayer pavilions, or tazoungs, which surround the main pagoda, abound with images of Buddha, many illuminated by flickering candlelight. Shops along the covered entrance walkways sell flowers, small flags nd gold leaf for pilgrims to offer at the feet of the statues.
The Shwedagon is more than a sacred monument or a place for regular, organized worship. It is a focal point for Buddhist pilgrims and monks who wish to meditate and pray in the holiest of surroundings. Lay people are also drawn to the pagoda – to perform the ritual of pressing gold leaf on the stupa to leave an offering of flowers or to pay their respects to their planetary posts. In Burmese astrology there are eight days of the week (Wednesday is divided into two, at noon), each of which is associated with a planet and an animal. The eight planetary posts, one at each of the compass points, are situated around the base of h main pagoda, and, according to the day of the week on which a person is born, he or she leaves flowers, prayer flags and other offerings at the appropriate post. The same symbolism is repeated in the Eight Day pagoda situated within the complex, and likewise a special place of pilgrimage.
The cloud of incense, echoing prayers and, above all, the golden skin of Shwedagon have moved and inspired countless visitors over the centuries. Many, including author Rudyard Kipling, writing in the 1880’s, contented themselves with descriptions of its physical splendor. ‘A beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the Sun.’ others, among them many non-Buddhists such as Somerset Maugham, have touched on its spiritual significance. He recorded that the sight of the pagoda lifted the spirit ‘like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul’.