The Shwedagon Pagoda , officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw (Myanmar Language: ရွှေတိဂုံစေတီတော်,, lit. 'Golden Dagon Pagoda') and also known as the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda, is a gilded stupa located in Yangon, Myanmar.
The Shwedagon is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa. These relics include the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.
The 112m tall pagoda, built on the 51m high Singuttara Hill, stands at least 163m above sea level, dominates the Yangon skyline. The city's zoning regulations cap the maximum height of buildings to 127m above sea level to prevent other structures from overtaking the pagoda.
View of the Great Dagon Pagoda in 1825, from a print after Lieutenant Joseph Moore of Her Majesty's 89th Regiment, published in a portfolio of 18 views in 1825-1826 lithography
Historians and archaeologists maintain that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. However, according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. According to tradition, Tapussa and Bhallika — two merchant brothers from the north of Singuttara Hill what is currently Yangon met the Lord Gautama Buddha during his lifetime and received eight of the Buddha's hairs. The brothers returned to Burma and, with the help of the local ruler, King Okkalapa, found Singuttara Hill, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined. When the king opened the golden casket in which the brothers had carried the hairs, incredible things happened:
There was a tumult among men and spirits ... rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell ... the blind beheld objects ... the deaf heard sounds ... the dumb spoke distinctly ... the earth quaked ... the winds of the ocean blew ... Mount Meru shook ... lightning flashed ... gems rained down until they were knee deep ... all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.
The stupa fell into disrepair until the 14th century, when King Binnya U (1323–1384) rebuilt it to a height of 18m. A century later, Queen Binnya Thau (1453–1472) raised its height to 40m. She terraced the hill on which it stands, paved the top terrace with flagstones, and assigned land and hereditary slaves for its maintenance. Binnya Thau yielded up the throne to her son-in-law Dhammazedi in 1472, retiring to Dagon. During her last illness she had her bed placed so that she could look upon the gilded dome of the stupa. The Mon face of the Shwedagon inscription catalogues a list of repairs beginning in 1436 and finishing during Dhammazedi's reign. By the beginning of the 16th century, Shwedagon Pagoda had become the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma.
A series of earthquakes during the following centuries caused damage. The worst damage was caused by a 1768 earthquake that brought down the top of the stupa, but King Hsinbyushin later raised it to its current height of 99m. A new crown umbrella was donated by King Mindon Min in 1871 after the annexation of Lower Burma by the British. An earthquake of moderate intensity in October 1970 put the shaft of the crown umbrella visibly out of alignment. A scaffold was erected and extensive repairs were made.
From 22 February 2012 to 7 March 2012, devotees celebrated the annual Shwedagon Pagoda Festival for the first time since 1988, when it was banned by the governing State Law and Order Restoration Council. Celebrations began at the Rahu corner of the pagoda's yinbyin platform, at the Maha Pahtan and Aung Myay central platforms, at 9 am. on 22 February. The Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, which is the largest pagoda festival in the country, begins during the new moon of the month of Tabaung in the traditional Burmese calendar and continues until the full moon.
The pagoda is listed on the Yangon City Heritage List.
Diagram showing the various architectural features that comprise the design of the Shwedagon Pagoda
The stupa's plinth is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa. Above that is the turban, then the inverted almsbowl, inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud and then the umbrella crown. The crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Immediately before the diamond bud is a flag-shaped vane. The very top—the diamond bud—is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.
The gold seen on the stupa is made of genuine gold plates, covering the brick structure and attached by traditional rivets. People all over the country, as well as monarchs in its history, have donated gold to the pagoda to maintain it. The practice continues to this day after being started in the 15th century by the Queen Shin Sawbu (Binnya Thau), who gave her weight in gold.
There are four entrances, each leading up a flight of steps to the platform on Singuttara Hill. A pair of giant leogryphs guards each entrance. The eastern and southern approaches have vendors selling books, good luck charms, images of the Buddha, candles, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, streamers, miniature umbrellas and flowers.
It is customary to circumnavigate Buddhist stupas in a clockwise direction. In accordance with this principle, one may begin at the eastern directional shrine, which houses a statue of Kakusandha, the first Buddha of the present kalpa. Next, at the southern directional shrine, is a statue of the second Buddha, Koṇāgamana. Next, at the western directional shrine, is that of the third Buddha, Kassapa. Finally, at the northern directional shrine, is that of the fourth Buddha, Gautama.
US President Barack Obama pours water over the Buddha statue at the Friday planetary post; Obama was born on a Friday.
Most Burmese people are Theravada Buddhists, and many also follow practices which originated in Hindu astrology. Burmese astrology recognizes the seven planets of astrology — the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In addition, it recognizes two other planets, Rahu and Ketu. All the Burmese names of the planets are borrowed from Hindu astrology, but the Burmese Rahu and Ketu are different from the Hindu Rahu and Ketu. The Burmese consider them to be distinct and separate planets, whereas Hindu astrology considers them to be either the Dragon's Head and Tails, or Ascending and Descending Nodes. To the Burmese people, Ketu is the king of all planets. As in many other languages, the Burmese name the seven days of their week after the seven planets, but Burmese astrology recognizes an eight-day week, with Wednesday being divided into two days; until 6 p.m. it is Wednesday, but after 6.pm. until midnight it is Rahu's day.
It is important for Burmese Buddhists to know on which day of the week they were born, as this determines their planetary post. There are eight planetary posts, as Wednesday is split in two (a.m. and p.m.). They are marked by animals that represent the day — garuda for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday afternoon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and nāga for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, and underneath the image is the animal representing that particular day. The plinth of the stupa is octagonal and also surrounded by eight small shrines (one for each planetary post). It is customary to circumnavigate Buddhist stupas in a clockwise direction.
The pilgrim, on his way up the steps of the pagoda, buys flowers, candles, coloured flags and streamers. These are to be placed at the stupa in a symbolic act of giving, which is an important aspect of Buddhist teaching. There are donation boxes located in various places around the pagoda to receive voluntary offerings which may be given to the pagoda for general purposes. As of December 2017 foreigners are charged a 10,000 Kyats (approx. US$7) entrance fee.
Shwedagon in literature
Rudyard Kipling described his 1889 visit to Shwedagon Pagoda ten years later in From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?
'There's the old Shway Dagon' (pronounced Dagone), said my companion. 'Confound it!' But it was not a thing to be sworn at. It explained in the first place why we took Rangoon, and in the second why we pushed on to see what more of rich or rare the land held. Up till that sight my uninstructed eyes could not see that the land differed much in appearance from the Sunderbuns, but the golden dome said: 'This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.' 'It's a famous old shrine o' sorts,' said my companion, 'and now the Tounghoo-Mandalay line is open, pilgrims are flocking down by the thousand to see it. It lost its big gold top—'thing that they call a 'htee—in an earthquake: that's why it's all hidden by bamboo-work for a third of its height. You should see it when it's all uncovered. They're regilding it now.'
War and invasion
British soldiers remove their shoes while visiting Shwedagon Pagoda during World War II
In 1608 the Portuguese adventurer Filipe de Brito e Nicote, known as Nga Zinka to the Burmese, plundered the Shwedagon Pagoda. His men took the 300-ton Great Bell of Dhammazedi, donated in 1485 by King Dhammazedi. De Brito's intention was to melt the bell down to make cannons, but it fell into the Bago River when he was carrying it across. To this date, it has not been recovered.
Two centuries later, the British landed on May 11, 1824 during the First Anglo-Burmese War. They immediately seized and occupied the Shwedagon Pagoda and used it as a fortress until they left two years later. There was pillaging and vandalism, and one officer's excuse for digging a tunnel into the depths of the stupa was to find out if it could be used as a gunpowder magazine. The Maha Gandha (lit. great sweet sound) Bell, a 23-ton bronze bell cast in 1779 and donated by King Singu and popularly known as the Singu Min Bell, was carried off with the intention to ship it to Kolkata. It met the same fate as the Dhammazedi Bell and fell into the river. When the British failed in their attempts to recover it, the people offered to help provided it could be restored to the stupa. The British, thinking it would be in vain, agreed, upon which divers went in to tie hundreds of bamboo poles underneath the bell and floated it to the surface. There has been much confusion over this bell and the 42-ton Tharrawaddy Min Bell donated in 1841 by Tharrawaddy Min along with 20 kg of gold plating; this massive ornate bell hangs in its pavilion in the northeast corner of the stupa. A different but less plausible version of the account of the Singu Min Bell was given by Lt. J.E. Alexander in 1827. This bell can be seen hung in another pavilion in the northwest of the pagoda platform.
The Second Anglo-Burmese War saw the British re-occupation of the Shwedagon in April 1852, only this time the stupa was to remain under their military control for 77 years, until 1929, although the people were given access to the Paya.
During the British occupation and fortification of the Pagoda, Lord Maung Htaw Lay, the most prominent Mon-Burmese in British Burma, successfully prevented the British Army from looting of the treasures; he eventually restored the Pagoda its former glory and status with the financial help from the British rulers. This extract is from the book “A Twentieth Century Burmese Matriarch” written by his great-great-great grand daughter Khin Thida.
After retirement he moved back to Rangoon area still in Burmese hands but very soon destined for the next annexation. He was again caught up in war but this time he had a great fortune of supporting religious ventures and gaining tremendous merit. His good karma and leadership abilities led him to the task of saving the great Shwedagon Pagoda from imminent destruction and sacking of its treasures by British troops in the second Anglo-Burmese War.
The great Buddhist shrine had been fortified by the British troops in the 1824 war and was again used as a fort in 1852. When he heard of the fortification and sacking of the shrine, he sent a letter of appeal directly to the British India Office in London stopping the desecration. He then obtained compensation from the British Commissioner of Burma Mr. Phayre and began the renovations of the Pagoda in 1855 with public support and donations.
He became the founding trustee of the Shwedagon Pagoda Trust and he was awarded the title of KSM by the British Raj for his public service. He died at the age of 95, bequeathing his prestige and high repute to his large family and descendants.
Uppatasanti Pagoda, a replica of Shwedagon Pagoda, in Naypyidaw, Myanmar
Uppatasanti Pagoda—located in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar—is a replica of Shwedagon Pagoda. Completed in 2009, it is similar in many aspects to Shwedagon Pagoda, but its height is 30cm less than that of Shwedagon.
Another replica of Shwedagon Pagoda, 46.8m in height, was constructed at Lumbini Natural Park in Berastagi, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Completed in 2010, the construction materials for this pagoda, were imported from Myanmar.
Global Vipassana Pagoda, 29m high and opened in 2009, located in Mumbai, India