The golden Shwezigon Paya in Bagan is one of the most significant religious buildings in Myanmar, for it served as a prototype for later stupas built throughout the country and marked an important development in the relationship between traditional Burmese religion and Theravada Buddhism.
History of Shwezigon Paya
The Shwezigon Paya was built in the 11th century by King Anawrahta (r. 1044-77), a recent convert to Theravada Buddhism. Anawrahta was Theravada Buddhism's first major advocate in Myanmar and the first of the great builders of Bagan. The king had completed three terraces of the Paya when he was killed by a wild buffalo in 1077.
The king built Shwezigon to be a massive reliquary to enshrine a collection of relics, including the Buddha's frontal and collar bones, a copy of the tooth relic at Kandy, Sri Lanka, and an emerald Buddha image from China. Legend has it that the site of Shwezigon was chosen by a white elephant.
Probably the most significant aspect of Shwezigon's history is that it marked the first royal endorsement of the 37 nat (spirits), a central focus of Burmese religion before the arrival of Buddhism.
King Anawrahta placed 37 figures representig the nat on the lower terraces. Eventually the nats were moved from the terraces to a small hall southeast of the platform called "37 Nats." This can still be visited (when it's unlocked) and is an important shrine for Burmese pilgrims, but the sculptures are unfortunately not the originals. These were swiped by a collector and are rumored to be somewhere in Italy.
The Shwezigon shrine was completed between 1086 and 1090 by King Kyanzittha (r. 1084-1113), Anawrahta’s successor. Kyanzittha was arguably Bagan’s greatest king and certainly one of its greatest builders: it was under him that Bagan became known as the "city of four million pagodas." The Shwezigon Paya has retained to this day the essential shape it assumed on completion in 1090, which became the architectural prototype for many other stupas across Myanmar.
Like all Bagan monuments, this great pagoda has been damaged by earthquakes and other factors over the centuries. It has often been repaired, most notably by King Bayinnaung (r. 1551-1581), and the devastating earthquake of 1975 caused extensive damage that necessitated repairs to the top of the dome and the spire.
One prominent feature that is not original is the more than 30,000 copper plates that cover the pagoda, donated by local, national and international visitors to Shwezigon. And the entire structure was gilded in 1983-84 and more recently. But the lower part of the stupa and terraces remain largely as originally constructed in the 11th century.
What to See at Shwezigon Paya
Shwezigon Paya is enclosed by an outer wall, about 750 feet on each side, which is pierced by four gates. There are many other shrines, stupas and structures within the wall, some of which have been recently added.
Among the most notable of these outer monuments are two inscribed pillars placed by King Kyanzittha, which recount the pagoda’s history in the Mon language — but interestingly do not mention the pagoda's founder, King Anawrahta. The pillars are on the eastern side of the complex.
The Shwezigon Pagoda itself is oriented to the east and is built of solid sandstone blocks. Its graceful golden "bell" reaches a height of 160 feet, supported on a square base 160 feet on a side, an octagonal intermediate base, and three square terraces.
The golden bell is decorated with various designs, encircled by several thick moldings, and is topped with the traditional jeweled hti (umbrella spire) to symbolize sovereignty. It is lit up impressively at night.
Each of the three square terraces is accessible from the cardinal points and contains Jataka tablets depicting the lives of the Buddha. The corner of each terrace has a small stupa that mirrors the main one. In front of each of the stairways leading to the terraces are square satellite temples with central shrines.
Each shrine (Kyg-gu Taik) contains an 11-foot, Gupta-style standing bronze Buddha dating from 1102. The largest original statues in Bagan, these represent the four Buddhas who attained enlightenment in this world (Gautama being the last of the four). All display the same symbolic hand gestures: the vitarka mudra (exposition) with the left and abhaya mudra (no fear) with the right.
Southeast of the platform is the hall of the 37 Nats, with figures of the 37 traditional spirits revered by the Burmese since before Buddhism. The figures are not the originals, but the large stone figure of Thagyamin is. Thagyamin is the king of the nat and an appropriation of the Hindu god Indra.
Festivals and Events
Because of the pagoda's great religious significance for Burmese Buddhism, the Shwezigon Festival in November/December attracts pilgrims from throughout Myanmar.
Quick Facts on Shwezigon Paya
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|21.195456° N, 94.895439° E
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- Bagan Tourism - TripAdvisor (written by travelers)
- Pierre Pichard, Inventory of Monuments at Pagan, vol. 6: Monuments 1440-1736 (Paris: UNESCO, 1995).
- Paul Strachan, Imperial Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma, 2nd ed. (Scotland: Kiscadale Publications, 1996).
- Photos of Shwezigon Paya - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Shwezigon Paya, Bagan
Below is a location map and aerial view of Shwezigon Paya. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.