“The platform upon which the pagoda stands is approached by four great flights of stairs at the cardinal points. Of these, the southern stairs are the most frequented, facing as they do the immemorial road which leads up from the banks of the river, straight through the heart of the town to the pagoda.”
– The Silken East, V. C. Scott O’Conner, 1904
Each entrance of the Shwedagon has slightly different characteristics and histories. The west was closed off during British control of the pagoda, as the area was used to store munitions and arms. The east, my favourite, passes through a busy street of vendors, monasteries and temples, before ascending through two levels of covered steps. The north has the longest approach on the platform itself, and will be covered in another post. And then the south; considered the primary entrance, and certainly the most photographed over the years
One of the earliest photos of the entrance was taken by J Jackson in 1868. In it there are no chinthes, and the façade is plain.
The main photo for this article was taken around 1895, after the addition of the chinthes. The chinthe is a lion-like creature, that can be part human, or part dog – or maybe anything; the rules don’t seem entirely fixed. The popular story of the chinthe is that a princess fell in love with a lion, ran away with him, and together they had a son. She eventually gets tired of jungle life and goes back to live in the palace. The lion is furious and starts causing all sorts of trouble for the kingdom, until one day the son, who has grown up ignorant of his unusual start in life, kills the lion. When he triumphantly tells his mother, she reveals he’s actually killed his own father. To atone for the sin of patricide, he builds some statues of lions outside a pagoda.
Visible on the original photo is an impressive looking stucco sculpture that surrounds the arch. This is apparently a representation of the nats on their mythical home, Mount Meru. Nats are a kind of spirit, whose worship predates the arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar. After some failed attempts to stamp out belief in nats as Buddhism took root in the 11th century, they were essentially incorporated into the religion.
The stucco is still visible from some angles, though it’s a bit less grand than in the original photo. The organic look of the sculpting and the darker paint is quite striking against the ordered lines and gold of the rest of the entrance.
“There is a curious and melancholy history connected with the people who hold these little stalls. They are called “pagoda slaves,” and they were and are yet looked upon as outcasts”
– Among Pagodas And Fair Ladies, Gwendolen Trench Gascoigne, 1896
After passing through the arch, the walkway climbs the hill to the pagoda, passing vendors selling offerings, souvenirs, and various other goods. Historically, these stalls were manned by pagoda slaves. Pagoda slavery started as a voluntary and respected position, usually taken by high status individuals who were gifted land to maintain themselves as they cared for religious sites. However over time the position was degraded, as various kings made prisoners of war or convicts into pagoda slaves, presumably to enhance their own karma.
As a result, pagoda slaves held the absolute lowest social status. The position was hereditary, and inescapable; a curse was placed on them that any who tried would contract leprosy. Monks would not take their alms, and no non-slave would enter marriage with one under any circumstances.
When the British abolished the monarchy in 1885, and weakened the existing social order that had accompanied it, many pagoda slaves left their positions and blended into the general population – though many did not, or could not. Interestingly, a travelogue published in 1904 described Bahan (not yet absorbed into the Yangon metropolis of today) as ‘the village of the pagoda slaves’.
Now, over a hundred years later, it’s not clear what relation, if any, there is between those now working the stalls and the pagoda slaves that preceded them. There is a good article here on the descendants of pagoda slaves in Bagan. They still tend to the temples today, and rely on money from visitors – and they still deal with the social stigma associated with pagoda slaves. If I’m able to learn more, I’ll add an update here.