Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda – An Edifice to Enduring Spirituality

“To the Burmese, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a symbol of the continuity of our country, its constant presence a reminder that no matter what happens in life, we can count on our spirituality to get us through the hard times.”

From:  A Burmese Heart by YMV Han and Tinsa Maw-Naing

It is easy to get caught up in the statistics of the Shwedagon Pagoda, keeping a watchful eye over Yangon from Sanguttara Hill. The area of the terrace alone is 6 hectares, and the gilded stupa dominating the complex is an impressive sight. The diamond orb, towering almost 100 metres above the complex, at the top of the spire, contains around 4,531 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and other gems (numbers vary depending on the source), and has an apex diamond of 76 carats. It is impossible to see with the naked eye, but its purpose was never to dazzle, but to affirm devotion through donation. The practice of donating gold for the maintenance of the stupa that is covered in solid gold plates, as well as gold leaf, was started in the 15th century by Queen Shin Sawbu, who, not only gave her weight in gold, but also lived out the last years of her life in the shadow of it.

Its age is a matter of debate. Historians and archaeologists insist that it was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, but if the age claimed by legend, is indeed 2,600 years, it makes it the oldest pagoda in the world. Not only is it the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, but also a symbol for national identity. In recent years it was from the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda that Aung San Suu Kyi, or the Lady, as she is affectionately known, rose to prominence in 1988, when she addressed a crowd of 500,000 people, while it also stood at the centre of the monk-led uprising in 2007.

It is a living, thriving place of worship, open from 4 am until 8 pm most days of the year, where people pray, meditate, make offerings, take pictures, and socialize, as they swirl and pause in a near-constant stream of bodies around the golden stupa, and into adjacent enclaves and shrines.

The humidity that engulfs Yangon all year round, necessitates a constant need for maintenance and restoration, and everywhere one looks workers are busy painting, chipping, washing, or cleaning.

It is impossible not to be touched by this flow of humanity, and the glimpse of religious and social life it affords in a country with a very complicated history.

Visited:  November 2017

Notes:

* Visit it’s website for relevant information to plan your visit.

* Buy a plastic bag from one of the old ladies at the bottom of the stairs leading to the entrance, or carry your own, to place your shoes in. Best is to carry a backpack in which you can place your shoes.

* Make use of one of the guides, who will approach you quicker than you will be able to spot them. It takes an hour and is worth the money, and afterwards you can wander around on your own or simply sit and watch the people.

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