“I might certainly describe the charm of the Sule Pagoda, the creeks choked with teak logs, the crowded shipping, the dingy markets, the yellow-red brick of the Secretariat and the Chief Court, but to what end? Photographs are more accurate”
– Richard Curle, ‘Into the East: notes on Burma and Malaya’, 1923
When Alanpyaya won Yangon from the Mon in 1755, he had taken a small but strategic fort town, on an island that stretched from what is now 30th St to Thein Pyu Road. It was surrounded by swampy marsh, and was inundated with water with each tide. To the north-west, Sule pagoda sat on a small, rocky outcrop attached to the mainland, reached from the town by a footbridge.
When the British laid out the modern design of Rangoon, with Sule Pagoda at its center, a massive land reclamation project took place. Burmese labour built a sea wall along what is now Strand road, the swamp was drained, and huge quantities of earth were brought down from the north of the town to create the ground on which Rangoon would be built.
This means that Sule is one of the lucky buildings downtown that is actually built on solid bedrock. Many of Yangon’s celebrated buildings have struggled with their swampy foundations, including the Secretariat and St Mary’s Cathedral.
There are various origin stories for Sule – that it was the site of a meeting called by King Okkalappa to help two Mon brothers find the site of Shwedagon, or where those brothers convinced an ancient nat spirit to show them the site, by propping up his massive drooping eyelids with felled trees. Or more simply that Sule is derived from the Pali word for ‘small’, and refers to its smaller stature compared with Shwedagon.
Not everyone was a fan – the architect Friedrich Oertel visited in 1892, and unfavourably compared the elegant design of Sule with that of the ‘massive and powerful’ Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, near Sagaing. With a typically colonial flourish, he predicted that Burmese pagoda style was ‘well advanced on the downward path of decline and is doomed to die a natural death’, sped up by the ‘superior fascinations of European art’. Given that there’s barely a hill in the country without an elegantly tapered pagoda on top of it, I think we can safely say he got that one wrong.
I’ve not yet been able to establish when exactly the modern structure that rings Sule was built. The structure houses various shops, with what look like small residences above them. Several of the shops sell offerings to take into the pagoda, and others are suitably spiritual, if not religious – astrologists and palm readers. Secular matters can also be taken care of though, such as getting watches fixed and taking passport photos.
Sule is still the defining centerpiece of downtown Yangon. In both 1988 and 2007 it was a rallying point for protestors, and witness to the violence that followed. It is surrounded by some of Yangon’s most treasured buildings, and the ever-busy Mahabandoola Garden park. Though it gets a fraction of the visitors and attention that Shwedagon does, the area around it is always swarming with people and traffic; good human theatre for the Sule nat, if the tree trunks are still holding up his giant eyelids.