Shwedagon through the Ages
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Shwedagon through the Ages

By The Irrawaddy MAY, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.4

History has not always been kind to Shwedagon, Burma’s most sacred pagoda, but after two and a half millennia, it still stands as a timeless monument to the spiritual aspirations of Burmese Buddhists. Shwedagon, the golden pagoda at the heart of Burmese civilization, has long inspired strong feelings in Burmese and non-Burmese alike. W. Somerset Maugham de-scribed it in these terms: The Shwe Dagon rose superb, glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write, glistening against the fog and smoke of the thriving city. The Gentleman in the Parlor (1930) For Burmese, however, Shwedagon represents more than just hope. In many ways it is the purest expression of the nation's spiritual heritage. According to tradition, it was built during the lifetime of Siddhartha Gautama, and it contains relics bequeathed by the founder of Buddhism to King Okkalapa of Suvannabhumi, land of the Talaings, who lived in the region near Singuttara Hill in Lower Burma. The relics—eight hairs from the Buddha's head—were promised to Okkalapa in a vision as he meditated on the top of a hill where the relics of three previous Buddhas were enshrined. When Gautama emerged as an enlightened being from 49 days of meditation under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India, he accepted a gift of honey-cake from two merchant brothers from the village of Okkala. The two merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika, received eight hairs as an expression of the Buddha’s gratitude. However, during the difficult journey back home, they were robbed of four of the hairs. Nevertheless, upon their return, they were received with great joy by the king, who prepared a feast attended by the native gods and nats, or spirits, and together they decided upon a place to erect a stupa as a reliquary for the hairs. Then, when Okkalapa opened the case containing the hairs, he discovered that all eight were miraculously in place. The hairs emitted a brilliant light that rose high above the palm trees and radiated to all corners of the world. Suddenly the blind could see again, the deaf could hear, the dumb could speak, and the lame could walk. The earth quaked, lightning flashed, the trees blossomed and bore fruit, and a shower of precious stones rained down. While recent visitors have not been witness to such miracles, the stupa itself has become even more magnificent over the centuries. Originally, a 20-meter high golden pagoda was erected over the shrine containing the relics. Smaller pagodas of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble and iron brick were built one over the other, within the golden pagoda, to enshrine the relics. Now the main pagoda soars nearly 100 meters over its hilltop surroundings. While its chief claim to fame is its sacred contents, the bell-shaped stupa is itself a sight to behold. The outside of the stupa is plated with 8,668 solid gold slabs, and its tip is set with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and topaz. A huge emerald sits in the middle to catch the first and last rays of the sun. All this is mounted on and above a 10-meter Htidaw (umbrella), built upon seven gold-plated bars, decorated with 1,065 golden and 420 silver bells. The golden stupa is surrounded by more than 100 other buildings-smaller stupas, pavilions and administrative halls. With two and a half millennia of history behind it, Shwedagon is also a treasure trove of stories which convey a sense of Burma's tumultuous past. In relatively recent times, a devastating earthquake struck in 1768, bringing down the top of the pagoda. King Hsinbyushin of the Konbaung dynasty restored it to its former majesty, and his son, Singu, had a 23-ton bronze bell cast in 1779. The British, during their 1824 to 1826 wartime occupation of the country, later plundered this bell, known as the Maha Gandha bell. However, when they tried to transport it to Calcutta, it sank into a river. After several failed attempts to recover it, the British agreed to let the Burmese try. Burmese engineers devised a way to raise the bell by having divers tie countless pieces of bamboo to it. Their successful attempt to bring the bell to the surface did not only win them the right to restore it to its proper place in the pagoda; it also instilled in the Burmese a new pride in themselves, at a time when they were being subjected to humiliating defeats. Perhaps the most impressive sight that greets any visitor to Shwedagon is that of hundreds of Burmese people, of every walk of life, gathered there for prayers and meditation or simply to while away their time in the presence of their nation’s most sacred monument. Even in these dark times, Shwedagon reminds the Burmese people that the clouds of their present suffering will one day pass, leaving only the vast vault of the open sky to bring the light of Nirvana to their lives.

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