Buddhism is at the beating heart of Burma and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is its epicentre. It was here in around 600 BC that strands of hair, given by the Buddha to two traveling merchants in thanks for alms, were said to have been enshrined on their return to the land of the Mon king, Okkalapa. Relics from three other Buddhas who had gained enlightenment were also enshrined there making Shwedagon – from shwe meaning gold and dagon, the old name for Yangon, meaning three hills – the only temple in the world to hold four such high-value Buddhist relics.
Apart from the stupa’s stunning dazzle value, with the rising, setting and midday sun’s rays reflecting changing golden auras, the 100-metre spire is thick with the precious stones of a nation which is one of the world’s most important gem producers. The umbrella near the spire’s top is encrusted with 500 kg of gold, over 83,000 gems and more than 4000 golden bells. The diamond orb at the peak sparkles with more than 4000 stones, a total of 1800 carats, with a 76 carat whopper at the apex. I wonder if that lot’s insured?
Shwedagon is as much a family-day-out destination as a place of religious contemplation. It’s of theme park size, sitting on over six hectares. The local people stroll at leisure enjoying the tranquillity, or they may take their lunch and find a comfy spot on one of the terraces for a picnic, or enjoy a convivial family day out dressed in their best longyis and colourfully coordinated blouses and shirts. Recently it’s become a great spot to check the internet and send emails as one of the few wifi hotspots in Yangon. And we found it one of the best locations in Yangon to find scarce ATMs.
Those who visit have a wealth of Buddhist images and historical artifacts to contemplate, including the serene Chan-Thar-Gyi image. There is also the 23-ton King Singu’s Bell, commissioned in 1778 in a five-metal alloy of gold, silver, copper, iron and lead, and one of the largest working bells in the world. Such is the allure of the metal that during the first Anglo-British war in the 19th century British forces tried unsuccessfully to steal the bell. Shwedagon and its treasures have endured many other ravages over the centuries including earthquakes, invasions, pillaging and fire.
The serene Chan-Thar-Gyi image.
The 23-ton King Singu’s Bell.
As with all temples in Burma Shwedagon has a “shoes off” policy, an aspect of Myanmar that I came to embrace. There’s something liberating about removing one’s shoes and feeling the cooling smoothness of marble and stone underfoot. Surprising under such a hot sun.
Saffron-robed Sri Lankan monks doing the tourist thing.