on May 21, 2006
This religious site is to the people of Myanmar what Mecca is to the Muslims, or St. Peter’s Basilica to Roman Catholics. Most Burmese Buddhists hope to see this shrine at least once in their lifetime. Its history, and the history of Yangon—and perhaps all of Myanmar—are inextricably intertwined. Yangon’s original name was Dagon.It is also almost impossible to separate myth from fact when looking at the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s been at the same site for over 700 years, perhaps longer. Its own website claims 2,500 years. The somewhat mythical story of its founding involves two Bamar merchants in India whose oxen refused to move any farther for unknown reasons. They decided to rest under the shade of a nearby bo tree where they discovered the Buddha meditating. As they rested, the Buddha shared his wisdom and gave them eight hairs which they put in a golden box and took back to Burma. On their return they repeated what they had learned to the King, who immediately became a Buddhist and decided to build a great pagoda to house the hairs. In a dream Thangya Nin, the King of the Nats (Burmese ancient gods), showed him the hill on which to enshrine the hairs. When the shrine was finished and the hairs transferred to a new box, miracles occurred throughout the kingdom as the box was put in its zedi (bell-shaped shrine), where it remains to this day. Since its beginning, the Shwedagon has been continually enhanced by royalty, the wealthy, pilgrims, and regular visitors, making donations and hoping to earn merit in the process. It is constantly being refurbished. Even the generals running Myanmar don’t dare mess with Shwedagon, and try to appear to be among its most pious adherents and protectors.The site’s statistics are overwhelming: Over nine tons of gold, hundreds of square feet of gold leaf, thousands of diamonds, and other precious gems. The perimeter of the base of the Main Zedi is 1,420 feet, and it rises 326 feet above the platform. The platform is built on a 128 foot hill, which makes the pagoda visible from almost anywhere in the city. The base is surrounded by 64 small pagodas, with four larger ones in the center of each side. Elsewhere in the complex, there are 72 shrines—not all of which honor the Buddha. There are shrines to Nats, to historical and/or mythical people, and even to holy animals. Buddhism is not an exclusive religion, so much as a way to attain nirvana.Pam and I visited in the evening and watched the sunset from the platform. This is a good time to visit because it is not so crowded, and we could watch the place light up as night fell. Believers were praying and making offerings at every shrine. It was a bit overwhelming. In summary: this place should not be missed. I would be very surprised if you are not moved by the experience.
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