The Shwedagon Pagoda

Myanmar has been called The Land of Gold, and that is not surprising at all when you consider just how beautifully the capital city sparkles. Giant, golden and glittering pagodas will take your breath away in this friendly city. Also, Myanmar is well known for its lovely jewels. In the heart of capital city Yangon, the Bogyoke Aung San Market offers travelers a stunning array of jewel choices. Here they will find gold, rubies, sapphires, jade and other precious stones sold by the thousands. All other manners of hand-crafted goods are available, too, to delight any shopper. Myanmar is a densely populated land with a population of approximately 48 million people. The capital city of Yangon itself boasts a population of 5 million. The people of the land are predominantly Buddhist, though there are many other ethnic groups represented.

All in all, there are 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, each possessing their own proud culture and language. In the green, tree-lined streets of Yangon you will find all these hospitable people and places, and you will find other things as well. You will find food that has been described as some of the best in the world. And you will find the glittering and vast Shwedagon Pagoda, full of history, spirituality and lore.

The Shwedagon Pagoda

If you are lucky enough to be planning a trip to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, then you are very lucky indeed. This is a country rich in culture, history, sacred sights, scenic wonders and personality. You will surely enjoy your travels to this region. No matter how many enjoyable people you meet, or how many lovely places you visit, though, your trip will not be complete until you view the Shwedagon Pagoda. Sitting high atop the sacred shrine of Singuttara Hill, housing relics of The Buddha and three Buddhas that preceded him, encased in gold and in jewels, the Shwedagon pagoda is a wonder to see. The beauty if the architecture and design will take your breath away, as will the sparkling, light catching jewels. This wondrous holy place, filled with history and legend, is not to be missed on your journey.

History of Shwedagon Pagoda

In the capital city of Yangon, you will find the beautifully majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda sits upon holy Singuttara Hill. To understand the reason why this hill is considered so holy, and to grasp the significance of the Shwedagon to Buddhists and to the people of Myanmar, it is important to know both the history and the legends of how it all came to be.
Over 2,500 years ago, there lived a king by the name of Okkalapa. He was ruler of Suvannabhumi and ruled over the Talaings. At this time, Siddharta Guatama was living in northern India. He was still a young man and was not yet recognized as the Buddha.

It was and is believed that a new Buddha, or “Enlightened One”, will come into being once every 5,000 years.

At the time of Okkalapa, it had been approximately 5,000 years since the last Buddha, and it was considered time once again.

Singuttara Hill is important because it was the holy resting spot of the relics of three Buddhas. Their relics were enshrined within Singuttara Hill, thus making it a holy place. To keep it holy, it was believed that gifts given by the new Buddha, which would become relics, had to be enshrined every 5,000 years in the hill.

But Okkalapa was concerned, as a new Buddha had not come to be known yet, and if it took too long he feared the hill could lose its holiness. He went to the hill to pray and to meditate, unaware of Siddharta Guatama’s coming into enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in northern India at the same time.

According to area legend, he appeared to Okkalapa and told him to be patient, that his wish for the hill would soon be granted.

As Guatama was reaching the end of his 49 days of meditation, he was visited by two brothers. Their names were Tapussa and Bhallika, and they happened to be from Myanmar and were subjects of Okkalapa. These two merchant brothers present Guatama Buddha with a gift of some honey cake, as they recognized him as The Enlightened One.

To express his thanks to them, he pulled out 8 of his hairs off of his head, and gave the hairs to Tapussa and Bhallika. They took the hairs and headed back home. However, during their journey they were twice robbed, and 4 of the sacred hairs were taken from them. By the time they reached Myanmar, they had only 4 of The Buddha’s hairs left.

However, their return was still a celebrated one by King Okkalapa and his people, and a large party was thrown in honor of the brothers. It was decided that a shrine place should be built on Singuttara Hill to house these newest relics. At the party in their honor, the brothers presented a casket containing the Buddha’s hairs to their king, and he opened it.

there were great tremors upon the earth, a great rocking earthquake. It is also said that all of the trees then burst into blossom and lovely jewels fell from the sky.

A shrine was created on Singuttara Hill to house these 8 miraculous hairs, and the area was deemed sacred. An enormous pagoda was then created atop the hill to house the shrine, and it is considered one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar. The pagoda itself is a wondrous architectural achievement. The top soars well over 300 ft into the air (approximately 100 meters or more) above the hilltop and can be seen from quite far away. The Shwedagon, which means, loosely translated, “golden hills” is magnificently made out of gold and jewels all over.

The details as to exactly when and how the construction of the pagoda began are somewhat sketchy, but writings document that it was well-known and visible by the 11th century. Over the years, various kings and queens took part in renovating it, and enlarging the structure, making it even taller and grander than before.

Some interesting stories of the Shwedagon Pagoda deal with its enormous bells. In 1608, a Portuguese invader by the name of Philip de Brito y Nicote stole a bell that weighed in at around 6,0000 lbs, or 30 tons. However, as he was attempting to return home with the bell, it fell into the Bago River and was lost.

The bell was replaced in 1779. That was after a massive earthquake in 1768 toppled the highest part of the pagoda. Once that part, the stupa, was rebuilt, King Hsinbyushin’s son Singu had a 23 ton bronze

bell cast. It was called the Maha Gandha bell. In the 1820’s, however, British soldiers plundered the pagoda, and stole this bell.

En route to Calcutta, the bell fell overboard and sank into the sea. It was later recovered and now sits atop the pagoda platform, on the northwest side. Finally, in 1841 another bell was created, this one weighing approximately 8,000 pounds (40 tons) and covered with 45 lbs (20kg) of gold plating. This bell, called the Maha Tissada bell, still resides in the pagoda, on the northeast side of the enclosure.

The years of 1852 through 1929 mark a time of British military occupation in Myanmar, with colonial rulers controlling the areas. However, the people of Myanmar were still able to have full access to the Shwedagon. In 1871 a new diamond-studded piece for the pagoda’s structure was donated by King Mindon of Mandalay. The people of Myanmar were thrilled at this tribute and well over 100, 00 of them gathered at Shwedagon to celebrate. And although this made the British military somewhat uncomfortable, they had to allow it as the people were honoring their faith.

It is evident that, over the centuries, the Shwedagon Pagoda has survived difficult times. It has withstood earthquakes, invasions, pillaging, foreign occupation and an internal stairwell fire in 1931 that destroyed many ancient monuments. Another earthquake in 1970, which was the 9th that the area had sustained since the 1500’s, led the government to begin a renovation project on the crown of the main pagoda.

Each disaster brought damage to the pagoda, but it has always withstood the onslaughts and endured the renovations. The fact that Shwedagon has survived these times of hardship and damage and still stood firm adds to its sense of majesty. It also adds to the sense of pride within the people of Myanmar, that nothing can truly leave lasting damage upon this beloved site. And people have always pitched in to make sure that any needed renovations took place to strengthen and secure it. Thus, to this day it sits, strong and steady, mystical and sacred, high upon a sacred hill.

Reasons to Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda

The history alone might be enough to lure you to the gorgeous pagoda. It surely has a rich and vivid, exciting history, and would be fascinating to see on that basis.

But if you require more reasons to visit, you may be interested in the treasures. The relics are enclosed within, to be sure, and those relics are sacred riches themselves. In addition to that, just the stupa alone of the pagoda is covered with 8,688 solid gold blocks. The top of the stupa holds 5,448 diamonds and a combination of 2,317 sapphires, rubies and topaz. There is an emerald placed in the middle. It is there to capture the sun’s rays, and does that best at sunrise and sunset. Below the golden stupa are 7 more gold blocks, which are attached to 1,485 bells. Of those bells, 420 are made of pure silver, and 1, 065 are made out of gold.

It is rumored that even more riches lay hidden deep within, offerings made long ago to the relics of the Buddhas. This has never been proven, but it adds to the mystery and lore of this sacred site.

Architectural interest would be another reason to visit the Shwedagon. Constructed a massive scale, bejeweled and elaborate, the Shwedagon is a triumph of design. The main attraction, or stupa, where the primary gold and jewels adorn is in itself an enormous building. It measures 1,421 ft around (433 meters),and that is describing only the main pagoda. There are 8 sides to the Shwedagon, 64 stupas, 4 main stairwells, a giant central terrace measuring 902 ft (275 meters) from north to south and 705 ft (215) meters from east to west, and many surrounding pagodas lined all along the interi
or courtyard of the Shwedagon.

This fascinating, massive construction must be seen to be believed. Within its vast enclosures and walls lie sphinxes, Buddha statues, Bodhi trees, planetary posts, an area for wishing, a courtyard in which to feed pigeons, and many temples.

And that does not even begin to cover all of the wonders contained within. That is just a sampling of all the beauty and grandeur that awaits when you choose to visit this sacred and special place. If you are traveling to Myanmar, there are so many reasons to see this holy place, to let it amaze you, and to pay your honors to it.

Sightseeing at the Shwedagon Pagoda

It is recommended to travelers that the best times to view the Shwedagon are at sunrise or at sunset. This is because of the large, reflective emerald that sits in the center of the golden stupa. That emerald catches the changing light and reflects it out beautifully. The Shwedagon Pagoda is open every day from 4AM to 9PM. It is important to note that, though the Shwedagon opens at 4AM, tickets for entrance are not sold to foreign visitors until 6AM.

There are a few options one can take for entering the Shwedagon. Some choose to walk up the stairways, which are at the north, south, east and west points of the building. Most commonly used is the south entrance, because that stairway comes in off of the city’s center. This stairway has 104 steps. The west entrance was closed for many decades, as this is the one that suffered fire destruction in 1931. It is now reopened, and is the longest of all the staircases, with 166 steps. At the north entrance, the stairway was constructed in 1460 and has 128 steps. Finally, the eastern entrance comes in off of the street bazaars below. There are 118 steps here, and the area suffered much damage during the British attacks in 1852. This staircase is still open, however, and is the one closest to all of the vendors and shop carts below. There are even teahouses on the stairway along this entrance.

If one chooses not to walk up, there are elevators that take you straight to the pagoda itself, and to the area where tickets are sold to foreign visitors. It can depend on the size of the crowds waiting for the elevator, and one’s own physical fitness, whether it is more or less preferable to choose an elevator over the stairs. However, if you do avoid the stairs, you will also miss out on some valuable history that can be located along the way on the 4 great staircases.

There is much to see and experience at the Shwedagon Pagoda, and it is an unforgettable sightseeing opportunity that should not be missed during any trip to Myanmar.

Respect for Culture While Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda

There are rituals and cultural sensitivities that must be understood and respected during a tour of the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is important to keep in mind at all times that this is a sacred and holy place and as such should always be approached with the highest respect.
Of course, it goes without saying that any visitor would always want to keep their voice lowered and at a respectful tone while within the walls. There are temples here, and there are monks, and the sanctity of their prayers and meditation should be honored.

Also, no matter how much one might feel that any small piece or trinket from around the building might not be missed, please do not remove anything. There will always be places that are designated for the purchasing of gifts, souvenirs, mementos, etc. It is correct to utilize those options, but it is never alright to remove any piece of the pagoda, from the ground or from any other location.

There are other behaviors of respect to observe as well. Dress should always be modest. One may dress comfortably, but avoid revealing or skimpy clothing, as it can come across as disrespectful and immodest. Footwear should be removed before stepping onto any sacred ground. This includes shoes, socks, and even sandals. None are permitted on sacred ground. Keep this in mind, as you will need to walk over uneven or perhaps even uncomfortable terrain barefoot during your entire visit to Shwedagon. It is important to know that ahead of time so you will not be surprised when you arrive. There are one or two locations at Shwedagon that are off-limits to women, but only those. The main location where women cannot go is to the eastern upper platform of the pagoda, where a Buddha statue stands who is believed to be able to grant wishes. However, there is one wishing Buddha that women can go to in the eastern prayer hall. He is noted by his palms in an upturned position, suggesting he is able to give something away.

A woman should not touch a monk in any way, even to hand him something. Monks may not touch women, nor take anything from their hand. If visitors want to photograph any people of Myanmar, they need to ask that person’s/those persons’ permission first.

It is considered an insult to point one’s feet at anyone or at any holy place or object. When kneeling in prayer or sitting, the feet should be tucked under, or turned inward. And, of course, any visitor should always be respectful of the hours in which they are permitted to visit the Shwedagon, and should not try to break that rule. A visitor should always remember that this is a holy place, and one should always conduct oneself peacefully, quietly and respectfully.

Wildlife in the area of the Shwedagon Pagoda

As the Shwedagon Pagoda is located within the city of Yangon, it is not a location heavy in wildlife. To view wildlife, one would wish to be further removed from the city, into more rustic or forest areas.

As for wildlife in Myanmar itself, there are many species of animals living there. Among them are monkeys, mountain goats, wild buffalo, red deer, wild boar, civet cats, leopards, tigers and elephants. Also, there are many flying squirrels, porcupines, insects, reptiles, birds, snakes, black bear and rhinoceri, among others. They are all there in Myanmar; however, you’ll likely not find them in the city anywhere.

Where to Stay around the Shwedagon Pagoda

As the Shwedagon is located in the capital city of Yangon, there will be a number of options as to where you can stay. It is more than likely that, especially if you have flown in, you have arrived in Yangon to begin your trip.

In and around Yangon are many places to stay, and the prices can vary greatly. At the high end there are luxury hotels where a room will run the equivalent of $200 US and above. These hotels will include greater amenities and more facilities, to be sure. Rooms there will be spacious and will include private baths. For the traveler’s comfort, they may also include restaurants, on-site internet access, room-service, gift shops, a concierge to assist in travel planning, and even spas and beauty salons.

At the next level are hotels considered expensive by Myanmar standards at approximately $80 US and above. These hotels are noted for being comfortable, clean, spacious and welcoming, but the offered amenities are not as elaborate as at the luxury hotels.

Following these are mid-priced, or mid-range hotels where the cost is $20 US and up.
Many of these are converted homes with rooms available. Finally, there are the budget accommodations, for less than $20 US per night. In these, you will likely find an available bed and a place to store your belongings. In both of these types of accommodations, a shared bathroom is to be expected.

In Conclusion

To conclude, an experience taken to visit the majestic Shwedagon pagoda will be one you will never forget. The chance to see such beauty and to experience a place so rich in history should not be passed up. The Shwedagon will dazzle you and perhaps even humble you against it massive backdrop and loveliness. If you are going to be traveling to Myanmar, you will not want to let that opportunity pass by without taking the time to go and see the Shwedagon Pagoda with your own eyes.

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