Gleaming in gold and decorated with diamonds, the huge Shwedagon Pagoda (also Shwe Dagon Pagoda or Shwedagon Paya) in Yangon is a spectacular work of Burmese temple architecture and is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.
History of Shwedagon Pagoda
Legend has it 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.
Myth and Mystery
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 of, 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:
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.
What to See at Shwedagon Pagoda
The great Schwedagon Pagoda stands on a platform covering over 5 hectares on a hill 58m 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.
There are four covered walkways that lead up to the pagoda's platform. Both the southern and northern entrances have the choice of an elevator or stairs; the western entrance has escalators instead of stairs and is the only entrance without vendors. The eastern stairway has the most authentic ambience, as it passes monasteries and vendors selling monastic necessities.
The southern entrance, from Schwedagon Paya Road, is the closest thing to the main entrance and is guarded by two 18-foot-high chinthe (mythical lion-dragons). You must remove your shoes and socks before you climb the stairs.
The steps are lined with shops selling flowers (both real and paper) for offerings, as well as Buddha images, incense, antiques and other items. Despite the vendors, the walkway is cool and quiet, which only increases the impact of bright sun and overwhelming color as you step onto the platform at the top.
The platform is full of glittering, colorful stupas, but the huge main stupa is the center of attention for most pilgrims. A mat pathway has been laid around it to protect visitors' bare feet from burning on the hot marble platform. The stupa is completely solid, every inch is covered in gold, and the upper parts are studded with diamonds totaling over 2,000 carats.
The main stupa is supported on a square plinth that stands 6.4m (20 feet) above the platform, setting it apart from the other stupas. On this raised platform are smaller stupas: large ones on the four cardinal directions, medium ones at the four corners, and 60 small ones around the perimeter. With the permission of the pagoda trustees, men may climb up onto the plinth terrace, which is about 6m wide, to meditate.
Rising from the base are three terraces, then octagonal sections, then five circular bands. Together these parts add up to 30 m (90 feet) in height and make the transition from the square base to the round elements above. The stupa's great bell is covered in gold leaf which is regilded every year. The shoulder of the bell is decorated with 16 "flower" shapes.
The bell is topped by an "inverted bowl" and above this are the moldings and "lotus petals" - a band of down-turned petals followed by a band of up-turned petals. The final element of the stupa itself is the "banana bud," which is covered with 13,153 plates of gold (as opposed to the gold leaf of the lower sections), each measuring 30 sq cm.
Topping the stupa is the spectacular hti (spire decoration), which has seven tiers. Made of iron and covered in gold plates, the hti weighs well over a ton. To this is added gold bells, silver bells and various jewelry. The highest tier carries a flag and turns with the wind. It gold-plated and silver-plated and studded with 1100 diamonds that total 278 carats, plus 1383 other precious stones.
At the very top of the spire is the diamond orb - a hollow gold sphere studded with 4351 diamonds totalling 1800 carats. On the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond.
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, as shown in the table below. FYI, the Buddha was born on Wednesday morning.
Eight-Day Symbolism at Schwedagon
One must always walk around (circumambulate) stupas clockwise, so visitors take a left from whichever entrance to the platform they've chosen. Beginning from the southern entrance, straight ahead is a large shrine to Konagamana, the second Buddha, on the south side of the main stupa's plinth. Flanking the shrine are the planetary posts for Mercury.
Continuing west around the plinth, the pilgrim passes a double-bodied lion with a man's face, a laughing necromancer with his hands on his head, and an earth goddess. At the southwestern corner of the plinth is the planetary post for Saturn.
Away from the plinth towards the southwest corner is a pavilion with 28 images representing the 28 previous Buddhas, and near the far southwestern corner is a monument with inscriptions in four languages that recounts a 1920 student rebellion against British rule.
Moving up the west side of the platform, a glass case has two figures of nat (spirits), one of which is the guardian nat of Shwedagon. Next is a prayer hall known as the Rakhaing Tazaung, which is bare inside but has fine woodcarving on its terraced roof. The next prayer hall has an 8m (24-foot) long reclining Buddha, and north of this is the Chinese Merchants' Tazaung, featuring a variety of Buddha figures.
On the west side of the plinth are figures of Mai Lamu and the king of the nat, the parents of King Ukkalapa who is said to have enshrined the Buddha hairs at Schwedagon. The large building directly west of the main stupa is the western adoration hall, built in 1841 but destroyed in the fire that swept the platform in 1931. Flanking the hall are the planetary posts for Jupiter.
Returning to the west side of the platform, directly across from the adoration hall and at the top of the western stairway is the Two Pice Tazaung. North of this is a low pavilion built by manufacturers of monastery supplies. Next is is pavilion with tall columns and a multi-roofed pavilion (pyatthat) rising from the upper roof.
Opposite this, at the northwestern corner of the plinth, is the planetary post for Yahu, a mythical Hindu planet that causes eclipses. Nearby is the Eight Day Stupa, a small stupa with a golden spire and eight niches around its base, each with a Buddha image. Between the niches are figures of animals and birds, representing the eight directions, signs, planets and days of the week.
Northwest of the stupa is the bell pavilion housing the 23-ton Maha Ganda Bell. Cast between 1775 and 1779, this great golden bell was pillaged by the British in 1825, but they dropped it into the Yangon River while trying to get it to the port. After repeated attempts to raise it, the British gave up and said the Burmese were welcome to it if they could get it out of the river. The Burmese placed logs and bamboo beneath the bell until it eventually floated to the surface.
North of the bell pavilion is a large pavilion housing a 9m-high Buddha and often used for public meetings. Behind this is a small shrine with a highly revered wonder-working Buddha image covered in gold leaf.
In an open area of the platform to the east is the star-shaped wish-fulfilling place, where there are often many devotees kneeling and praying towards the great stupa that their wishes will come true. At the far northwestern corner are two banyan trees, one of which was grown from a cutting from the Bodhi Tree in India where the Buddha wa enlightened.
On the north side of the platform is the Chinese prayer hall, with woodcarvings and Chinese dragon figures on the sides of the stupa in front of it. The adjacent pavilion is guarded by life-size figures of Indians and the next one by British lions. The significance of these figures is not clear. The crocodile-like bannister at the northern stairway dates from 1460.
Between the stairway and main stupa is a pavilion on the site where the great hti of the main stupa was placed before being raised to the top, and then the Hair Relics Well, which is said to be fed by the Ayeyarwady River. The Buddha's hairs were washed in this well before being placed in the main stupa.
On the north side of the plinth stands the northern adoration hall, featuring an image of the historical Buddha. Flanking the hall are the planetary posts for Venus. The post for the Sun is at the northeastern corner of the plinth, with the animal sign of the garuda, a bird-like creature of Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
Just northeast of the northern adoration hall is one of the most distinctive structures on the platform, a temple modeled after the Mahabodhi Temple in India. Next to this is a small gilded stupa and another two-pice tazaung, which enshrines a 200-year-old Buddha image.
The northeast corner of the platform is occupied by the golden Elder Stupa (or Naungdawgyi Stupa), built on the spot where the hair relics were placed before being enshrined in the central stupa. Women are not permitted to ascend to the Elder Stupa's platform.
South of the stupa is a pavilion dedicated to Izza-Gawna, a legendary monk who was able to replace his lost eyes with one from a goat and one from a bullock. The figure to the left of the main Buddha image has eyes of unequal sizes. In the far northeast corner of the platform is the Dhammazedi inscription from 1485, which was originally on the eastern stairway.
Heading south towards that stairway, one meets the elegant pavilion housing the Maha Titthadaganda (three-toned) Bell, which was cast in 1841 and weighs 42 tons. The bell pavilion's ceiling is made of lacquer inlaid with glass: look for red-billed green parrots hidden in the scrolling among the devas (angels).
Facing the eastern stairway is the eastern shrine hall, widely considered the most beautiful on the platform. Rebuilt after the fire of 1931, it houses an image of Kakusandha, the first Buddha. On either side are the planetary posts for the moon; adjacent to the post on the north are golden Shan umbrellas. Behind the shrine hall, up on the main stupa plinth, is a Buddha image known as the Tawa-gu, which is said to work miracles.
Next to the eastern entrance is the graceful U Nyo pavilion, with a series of woodcarved panels illustrating scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha.
A few structures south from here is a prayer post topped by a mythological hintha bird and an interesting hanging bell. Opposite these on the southeastern corner of the plinth is the planetary post for Mars.
The southeastern corner of the platform has another sacred bodhi tree and offers a good view over Yangon and across the Yangon River. This area of the platform is home to the office of the pagoda trustees, a small museum, a pavilion with fine woodcarvings, a revolving hti, and a telescope for looking at the real hti high atop the stupa.
Quick Facts on Shwedagon Pagoda
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|16.798408° N, 96.149432° E
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- Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma), 90-96.
- Home of the Shwedagon Pagoda
- Shwedagon Pagoda - Sacredsites.com
- Photos of Shwedagon Pagoda - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Below is a location map and aerial view of Shwedagon Pagoda. 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.