The world-renowned Shwedagon Pagoda is one of Myanmar’s most famous landmarks
To read about my visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, visit the blog here: Photo Journal: Shwedagon Pagoda
For all my High-Resolution images of the Shwedagon Pagoda: Click Here
For all my High-Resolution images of the Shwedagon Pagoda at Night: Click Here
Entrance Fee: Free for locals and 9,000 kyat for foreigners (about $8 USD)
Visiting Hours: The pagoda opens daily from around 6:00 am until around 7:00 pm
Location: The massive pagoda compound is located in Dagon Township in Yangon on Singuttara Hill just west of Kandawgyi Lake (Royal Lake)
The Shwedagon Pagoda (officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw and translated to Great Dagon Pagoda, Golden Pagoda) is perhaps the most famous pagoda in the world. Dominating Yangon’s skyline, the massive pagoda is a symbol of Myanmar a huge tourist attraction for people from all around the world.
Standing at 326-feet tall (99m), the Shwedagon Pagoda is completely covered in gold leaf. The base of the pagoda measures 1,420-feet around and being built on a hill already 168 feet above city level (51m), the pagoda can be seen throughout the city. The base is surrounded by 64 smaller pagodas with four larger pagodas each in the center of each corner. There also are 4 sphinxes, one at each corner, with 6 leogryphs. Projecting beyond the base of the Pagoda on the center of each side are Tazaungs in which are images of the Buddha and where offerings by devoted Buddhists are made.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa (period of time). 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 Buddha.
Historians and archaeologists maintain that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries CE however according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. According to tradition, Taphussa and Bhallika, two merchant brothers from the city of Balkh in what is currently Afghanistan, met the Lord Gautama Buddha during his lifetime and received eight of the Buddha’s hairs. The brothers traveled to Myanmar 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.”
In any case, the base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access (though usually closed to foreigners). 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. You can see the diamond clearly through viewpoint binoculars in the corner of the compound.
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 to Shwedagon Pagoda each leading up a flight of steps to the platform on Singuttara Hill. A pair of giant leogryphs (Chinthes) guard 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, t-shirts, miniature umbrellas, flowers and more!
The stupa fell into disrepair until the 14th century, when King Binnya U (1323–1384) rebuilt it to a height of 18 m (59 ft). A century later, Queen Binnya Thau (1453–1472) raised its height to 40 m (131 ft). 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 considerable 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 99 m (325 ft). 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.
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. To learn more about the mythical creatures of Myanmar, Click Here
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 base of the stupa is octagonal and also surrounded by eight small shrines (one for each planetary post). As an aside, it is customary to circumnavigate Buddhist stupas in a clockwise direction.
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 (pagoda).
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.
In 1920, students from Burma’s only university met at a pavilion on the southwest corner of the Shwedagon pagoda and planned a protest strike against the new University Act which they believed would only benefit the elite and perpetuate colonial rule. This place is now commemorated by a memorial. The result of the ensuing University Boycott was the establishment of “national schools” financed and run by the Burmese people. This day has been commemorated as the Burmese National Day ever since. During the second university students’ strike in history of 1936, the terraces of the Shwedagon were again where the student strikers camped out.
In 1938, oilfield workers on strike hiked all the way from the oilfields of Chauk and Yenangyaung in central Burma to Rangoon (Yangon) to establish a strike camp at the Shwedagon Pagoda. This strike, supported by the public as well as students and came to be known as the ‘1300 Revolution’ after the Burmese calendar year, was broken up by the police who, in their boots whereas Burmese would remove their shoes in pagoda precincts, raided the strike camps on the pagoda.
The “shoe question” on the pagoda has always been a sensitive issue to the Burmese people since colonial times. The Burmese people had always removed shoes at all Buddhist pagodas. Hiram Cox, the British envoy to the Burmese Court in 1796, observed the tradition by not visiting the pagoda rather than take off his shoes. However after the annexation of lower Burma, European visitors as well as troops posted at the pagoda openly flouted the tradition. U Dhammaloka publicly confronted a police officer over wearing shoes at the pagoda in 1902. It was not until 1919 that the British authorities finally issued a regulation prohibiting footwear in the precincts of the pagoda. They put in an exception that employees of the government on official business were allowed footwear. The regulation and its exception clause moved to stir up the people and played a role in the beginnings of the nationalist movement. Today, no footwear or socks are allowed on the pagoda.
In January 1946, General Aung San addressed a mass meeting at the stupa, demanding “independence now” from the British with a thinly-veiled threat of a general strike and uprising. Forty-two years later on August 26, 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa demanding democracy from the military regime and calling the 8888 Uprising the second struggle for independence.
In September 2007, during nationwide demonstrations against the military regime and its recently enacted price increases, protesting monks were denied access to the pagoda for several days before the government finally relented and permitted them in.
On September 24, 2007, 20,000 bhikkhus and thilashins (the largest protest in 20 years) marched at the Shwedagon Pagoda. In the following days, 30,000 people led by 15,000 monks marched from Shwedagon Pagoda and past the offices of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Comedian Zarganar and star Kyaw Thu brought food and water to the monks. On the next Saturday, monks marched to greet Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest. That Sunday about 150 nuns joined the marchers. On September 25, 2007, 2,000 monks and supporters defied threats from Myanmar’s junta. They marched to Yangon streets at Shwedagon Pagoda amid army trucks and the warning of Brigadier-General Myint Maung not to violate Buddhist “rules and regulations.”
On September 26, 2007, clashes between security forces and thousands of protesters led by Buddhist monks left at least five protesters dead by Myanmar security forces according to opposition reports in an anticipated crackdown. Earlier in the day security authorities used tear gas and warning shots along with force to break up a peaceful demonstration by scores of monks gathered around the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Protesting “monks were beaten and bundled into waiting army trucks,” adding about 50 monks were arrested and taken to undisclosed locations. In addition, the opposition said “soldiers with assault rifles have sealed off sacred Buddhist monasteries… as well as other flashpoints of anti-government protests.” It was reported that the violent crackdown came as about 100 monks defied a ban by venturing into a cordoned-off area around the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Nowadays, the Shwedagon plays host to tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. Tour guides are available in almost every language and the immaculate grounds are open to both men and women. Weddings and festivals are held year round at the Pagoda and every day there is something new to see at the holiest site for Buddhists in Myanmar. For tourists, conservative dress is necessary and if you don’t have long pants, traditional longyis (Burmese skirts) are available for purchase for both men and women. Don’t be shy to wear a longyi, I certainly wasn’t!
For all my High-Resolution images of the Shwedagon Pagoda: Click Here
For all my High-Resolution images of the Shwedagon Pagoda at Night: Click Here: