Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmarShwedagon Pagoda Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma)

Golden Pagoda, Rangoon

Burma also called Myanmar; is often in the news for the actions of its military junta and the peoples’ struggles for democracy. But Burma is not all despotism and struggles; it is a nation with a very ancient and rich culture from as far as 4th century BC. There are numerous monuments -some of them with great prominence- related to the Buddhism. The 98 meters tall Shwedagon Pagoda (also known as the Golden Pagoda) is undoubtedly the most famous among them. It shines like a golden peak up above the Singuttara hill; spreading its golden glitter all around Rangoon (Yangon) the capital of Burma. People of Yangon (Rangoon) wake up in the morning and see the Golden Pagoda sparkling in the early rays of the rising sun.

Not just the abode of god

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmarShwedagon Pagoda image courtsey: sacred-destinations.com

For the People of Burma this Pagoda is not just an abode of god but god itself; as they have no place sacred enough to deposit some of the most sacred possessions (the relics left by four former Buddhas) they have like the ‘container with eight hairs of Gautama Buddha’, the staff carried by Kakusandha, a water filter used by Konagamana and a robe (only a piece left at present) used by Kassapa. It is Gautama Buddha who established Buddhism. Kakusandha, Kassapa and Konagamana are saints later ascended to the status as follower of Gautama Buddha.

How these relics arrived?

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmarShwedagon Pagoda in an 1825 lithography

Myths and folklores have answers to all questions; as they have no limitations science and archaeology have. Let us rely upon the Burmese myths to understand the origin of the temple and the invaluable relic kept inside it. This temple is believed to be about two thousand five hundred years old (archaeologists opine that it has been built between 6th and 10th century).

The myth regarding the temple and eight sacred hairs kept in a golden container is thus; long ago two merchants (Taphuss and Bhallika) of the land of the Ramayana approached Buddha and received eight hairs from his holy body and proceeded to Burma to be enshrined it there. Knowing their sacred mission; king Ukkalapada of Burma built a temple on the Singuttara hill and helped them to install it there.

The myth has it that when the container was opened ‘there was tumult among man and spirits, rays emanated from the hairs rose up to the heaven and down to the hell, the blind could see, the deaf heard, the dumb spoke”

Rebuilding Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmarBuddha statues at the Shwedagon Pagoda

After its construction there were no maintenance works took place and the structure was in a state of disrepair. The Burmese king Binnya U of the ‘Mon’ dynasty rebuilt the pagoda to a height of 18 meters, there after there were several rebuilding exercises took place in various eras. Mon face and Shwedagon inscriptions give the list of maintenance works undertaken of which Queen Shinsawbu who preceded king Dhammazedi is of special significance.

Queen Shinzawbu

To the present status of the Shwedagon temple the cultural world should be greatly indebted to this great queen who ruled Burma from 1453 – 72. It was she who formed a terrace on the Singuthara Hill, paved its top with flag-stones and rebuilt the temple to a height of 40 meters. She assigned her hereditary slaves to the regular maintenance works of the temple. When she grew old she surrendered her crown to Dhammazedi and retired to Dagon. It is said that during her last illness her bed was arranged so as to enable her to watch the golden fane from her death-bed.

The structure

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmarThe Maha Tissada Gandha Bell at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Much of the delight of this complex rests in its complex geometry of its shape and the surrounding structures, its golden glow can mesmerize anyone with a heart. It has been estimated that about 8688 solid gold bars have been used to plate its surrounding domes and for the main stupa another 13513! With a single look at this pagoda one will agree that all the gold and efforts for its construction did not go waste!

This pagoda complex has four entrances (mouk) that lead to the platform (yin byin) made on the top of the Singuthara Hill. There is a pair of mythical lions known as ‘chinthe’ place on the gates. On the top of the steps stands the statue of Konagamana considered the second Buddha. The base of the stupa is made of bricks and covered with golden leaves. As the stupa goes upwards it gets composed of shapes of various articles in very artistically carved.

The Stupa

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmarShwedagon Pagoda at night

Above it is the terrace where only monks are allowed to enter, next to it is the bell shaped parts (khaung laung bon) of the stupa (the onion-shaped hood of structures), above it is the turban (baung yit), above it the inverted alms-bowl (thabeik) and above it the inverted and upright lotus petals, above it the ‘banana-bud’ and then the crown.

The crown (hti) is tipped with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies and its utmost tip has a diamond weighing 76 carats (15 grams)

Invasions desecrations looting and earth-quake

In its long history Shwedagon Pagoda has been rocked by a series of earth-quakes but that occurred in 1768 shook the whole Burma; had its impact on Shwedagon Pagoda also; top of its stupa was brought down by the violent quake. It was duly rebuilt by King Hsinbyushin, it is with this work the Pagoda attained the present height. One recent quake that occurred in 1970 damaged the alignment of its hti (crown).

The Portuguese under Philip Brito invaded Burma in 1608; the Shwedagon was their prime target they plundered of everything they could take; perhaps a bit more than what they could chew! The Gigantic bell (donated to the temple by king Dhammazed) too heavy; while trying to cross the river with it their boat the bell slipped and sunk in to the river and got lost.

The British who occupied the pagoda after the Anglo-Burma war in 1824 used the sacred Pagoda as a fortress! And when they vacated the complex all portables were lost and many damages done to the complex; but fortunately the stupa was intact. It was the 25 ton ‘maha gandha’ bell the British took, but the fate was that this bell also got sunk in the river!

One stage to clamor

Shwedagon Pagoda is the central stage of all activities in Burma, any demonstration that has to be noted by the whole nation; has to be conducted here; this trend has made this temple premises a stage for all sorts of demonstrations and political activities. It all began with the university students protesting against a bill gathered around the pagoda, when the government yielded to their demands and took the responsibility of free university education.

Later students, oil-field laborers and people of all hues made it a point to assemble here to demand their rights. In 1938 Aung San demanded complete freedom from here; later in 1988 his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi demanded the same from here. Those who clamor for more and more favors from government also use this arena in wanton greed forgetting the sanctity of this sacred site.

Untapped potential

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon myanmar The Karaweik is a famous icon along Kandawgyi Lake's shores.

At present Shwedagon Pagoda is more a pilgrim center than a tourist spot, Buddhists all over Burma visit this spot and perform the rituals associated with it. This beautiful and historic Pagoda lying on the western side of the famous lake by name Lake Kandawgyi has immense potential. This lake an artificial one made by the British to supply water to Rangoon is about 8 km in circumference and a very shallow one with lush vegetation on its banks. A ship shaped restaurant (Karaweik) built to cater the needs of the tourists.

1 comment:

palmcop said...

Well, I do not actually imagine it may work.