Gleaming in gold and decorated with diamonds, the huge Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is a spectacular work of Burmese temple architecture and is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.
The legend of the Schwedagon Pagoda begins with two Burmese merchant brothers who met the Buddha himself. The Buddha gave them eight of his hairs to be enshrined in Burma. With the help of several nat (spirits) and the king of this region, the brothers discovered the hill where relics of previous Buddhas had been enshrined. A chamber to house the relics was built on the sacred spot and when the hairs were taken from their golden casket, amazing 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… Mount Meru shook… lightning flashed… gems rained down until they were knee deep… all trees of the Himalaya, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit. Once the relics were safely placed in the new shrine, a golden slab was laid on the chamber and a golden stupa built over it. Over this was layered a silver stupa, then a tin stupa, a copper stupa, a lead stupa, a marble stupa and an iron-brick stupa.
Later, the legend continues, the Schwedagon stupa fell into ruin until the Indian emperor Asoka, a Buddhist convert, came to Myanmar and searched for it. Finding it only with great difficulty, he then had the jungle cleared and the stupa repaired. It is easy to see why the Schwedagon Pagoda is such a holy place for believers. Built on the site of the relics of previous Buddhas, containing the relics of the most recent Buddha, the site of miracles and of royal patronage, this is an important stupa indeed. Legend says, that the Shwedagon Pagoda is 2,500 years old, but archaeologists estimate it was first built by the Mon sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries (i.e. during the Bagan period). The pagoda emerges from legend into history in 1485, which is the date of an incription near the top of the eastern stairway that tells the story of Shwedagon in three languages (Pali, Mon, and Burmese). It was around this time that the tradition of gilding the stupa began. Queen Shinsawbu provided her own weight in gold (fortunately she was a lightweight at 40kg), which was made into gold leaf and used to cover the surface of the stupa. The queen’s son-in-law, Dhammazedi, offered four times his own weight plus that of his wife’s in gold and provided the abovementioned 1485 inscription.
It has been rebuilt many times since then due to earthquakes (including eight in the 17th century alone); the current structure dates from the rebuild under King Hsinbyushin in 1769. After the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, British troops occupied the Schwedagon Pagoda complex, which stands high over the city like a castle. In 1852, during the second war, the British occupied the pagoda for 77 years and pillaged its treasures. In 1871, King Mindon Min from Mandalay provided a new hti (the decorative top), flustering the occupying British. As a symbol of national identity, the Schwedagon Pagoda was the scene of much political activity during the Myanmar independence movement in the 20th century. Amazingly, the huge earthquake of 1930 (which destroyed the Schwemawdaw in Bagan) caused only minor damage to the Yangon stupa. But the following year, it suffered from a disastrous fire. After a minor earthquake in 1970, the main stupa was fully refurbished.
The great Schwedagon Pagoda stands on a platform covering over 5 hectares on a hill 98m above sea level. It can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city, and the citizens of Yangon literally live out their everyday lives in its shadow. The large platform that supports the great stupa contains a variety of other stupas, prayer halls, sculptures and shrines. A number of these are associated with eight “days” (Wednesday is divided into morning and afternoon), based on one’s day of birth. Each has an associated planet, direction and animal sign. FYI, the Buddha was born on Wednesday morning. One must always walk around (circumambulate) stupas clockwise, so visitors take a left from whichever entrance to the platform they’ve chosen.