The Shwedagon Paya is much more than just another temple. It is the cultural and religious heart of Myamar. Built on a small hill in central Yangon (Rangoon) the great golden dome rises almost 100m and dominates the city skyline. Rudyard Kipling was moved to call it "a golden mystery".
By day, the dome glitters like golden fire. Sunset plays a melody of shades with the monument that never fails enchant. At night, the complex is illuminated by thousands of strategically-placed spotlights. All Burmese are rightly proud of their national monument, and try to visit the site at least once in their lives.
Legend has it the main stupa (Buddhist monument in the shape of a dome) is 2,500 years old and is home to eight hairs of Buddha, although archaeological evidence suggests it was built by Mon rulers of the area around 1,000 ? 1,400 years ago. Wars, earthquakes and other calamities have taken their toll on the Shwedagon and most of the present structure dates back to 1769.
The sacred dome is an enduring symbol of the resilience of Burmese ? or Bamah ? culture. After each setback, Shwedagon is rebuilt and restored to its former glory.
Getting there is easy, as the Shwedagon is just north of central Yangon and is easily the most popular tourist attraction in the city. Every taxi and motor rickshaw driver knows the way. The $5 entrance fee includes the use of a lift to the main floor of the complex, but there's nothing to stop you following the footsteps of Buddhist worshippers and climbing the steps up Singuuttara Hill to the summit. You have four covered walkways to choose from in addition to lifts at the northern and southern entrances.
Visitors are allowed from dawn until early evening. English speaking monks often offer themselves as tour guides in return for a $5 donation.
Be advised that all visitors must remove shoes and socks while in the main complex. Marble flooring is very hot around noon and slippery after rainfall, but a mat pathway is provided around the main stupa.
As with all Buddhist monuments, visitors are expected to walk clockwise around the complex. While the golden stupa is the central feature of Shwedagon, it is not the only attraction. In the north-western corner is the 23 tonne Maha Ganda bell which dates back to the 1770s. After the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1825, the bell was seized by the British who intended to ship it to their homeland. The bell was
dropped in the Yangon River and the British were unable to raise it. The Burmese were allowed to try their luck, and they placed logs and bamboo under the bell until it floated to the surface and was restored to its rightful place.
Just beside the Maha Ganda pavilion is a small stupa with a golden spire. Between the eight niches around its base are figures of animals and birds representing the directions of the compass and the associated sign and planet for each day of the week (Wednesday is divided into morning and afternoon.
This theme is also displayed on the main stupa. North is represented by Friday, the planet Venus and a guinea pig or mole. North-west is Wednesday afternoon, Yahu and a tuskless elephant. West is Thursday, Jupiter and a rat. South-west is Saturday, Saturn and a naga (dragon-like serpent). South is Wednesday morning, Mercury and a tusked elephant. South-east is Tuesday, Mars and a lion. East is
Monday, the Moon and a tiger. North-east is Sunday, the Sun and a garuda (mythical winged beast like a dragon). Worshippers are supposed to pray at the site which represents the day on which they were born.
To the North-east is one of the largest bells in the world, King Tharwaddy's Min bell. Cast in 1841, the Maha Titthaganda (three-toned bell) weighs 42 tonnes and is housed in an elegant pavilion with a lacquer ceiling.
The eastern shrine hall is considered by many to be the most beautiful in the complex and is dedicated to Kakusandha, the first Buddha. It was renovated in 1869 but almost totally destroyed by the great fire of 1931 and had to be completely rebuilt. Nearby is the U Nyo pavilion, which houses a series of carved wooden panels depicting the life of Gautama Buddha.
In the south-eastern corner is a banyan tree, reputed to have grown from a branch of the original tree under which Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment.
There is a small museum of curios beside the southern entrance. The south-western corner has a prayer pavilion with 28 images representing the 28 previous incarnations of the Buddha.
By the western entrance is the prayer hall guarded by the figures of Mai Lamu and the King of the Nats. Legend has it this pair were the parents of King Ukkalapa who brought the hairs of the Buddha to Shwedagon.
In all, there are over 50 glittering zedis (stupas) and pavilions in the Shwedagon complex. The main stupa is the world's largest building covered with gold. In 1900, the Shwedagon trustees decided to renovate the main spire, and used 9,272 gold plates measuring one foot square (30.5 cm by 30.5 cm) for a total of 5,004 ounces of gold. King George V (then Prince of Wales) and Queen Mary donated four plates upon their state visit in 1906. A total of 4,350 diamonds were also used in the construction.
There are four sealed entrances to the main stupa, but no one knows what is inside. Legend has it flying swords protect the interior from unwelcome intruders. Others say there are tunnels leading all the way to Pagan and even Thailand.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit Shwedagon, but any time you go, a visit is sure to leave memories which last a lifetime. As English visitor Ralph Fitch wrote in 1586:
"It is called Dogonne, and 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 the world."
Note: Burmese not changed to Myanmar national to keep the original context
BY: David McGarry
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