“Its spire of gold, touched by the flaming sun, is the first object upon which the eyes of the world traveller rest as he approaches Rangoon, and it is the last of the city he looks upon when his steamer is bearing him away; and the memory of it never fades from the eyes of one who has once looked upon it.”
– The Silken East, V. C. Scott O’Conner, 1904
According to legend, two Mon brothers found Gautama Buddha in contemplation under a tree. Gautama gave them eight strands of hair, and a mission that took them far away from the peace and quiet of his tree: to bury the hairs on a distant hill where those of two previous Buddhas had been buried. They did this in about 600 BC and Shwedagon was built to mark the spot. Other historical sources date the original pagoda somewhere between the 6th and 10th centuries, but either way, the pagoda was added to and extended by various monarchs eager for merit over the centuries, and was first covered in gold by the famous widow queen, Shin Saw Pu.
Shwedagon has seen plenty of conflict and violence over the years, as rival forces vied for control not just of the symbolically and materially valuable pagoda, but for the strategic high ground on which it stood. Mon and Bamar repeatedly fought over the pagoda, until the arrival of the British, who then used the pagoda as the core of their military base (more about this in a later post). Shwedagon remained a centre of protest through the colonial years and into the modern day, playing a part in both the 1988 and 2007 demonstrations.
Still visible from most of the city, and beautifully lit at night, Shwedagon makes an impression on every visitor to the city. One of my favourite early accounts of the pagoda dates from 1744, by Alexander Hamilton (unfortunately not the same one that founded the United States), who could not believe that the stupa had no interior space like a church. He was sure that the pagoda had doors and windows that were kept shut, and opened only to allow priests inside.
Many of the photos I’d hoped to take on the platform are no longer possible due to the many architectural additions over the years. In 1904, O’Conner wrote of the Shwedagon: “Originally of a design remarkable for its antique simplicity and dignity, it has of late been almost entirely concealed by the accumulation of an enormous number of petty shrines. Some of these, indeed, are wrought with great delicacy and skill. Yet they serve no true purpose of art, since they are wholly unnecessary; and they are worse than unnecessary, since they obscure what was already beautiful and adapted to its purpose.” He goes on to say that the trustees of the pagoda felt that it was not in the Buddhist tradition to deny someone who wanted to earn spiritual merit by adding to the pagoda complex – and also noted that the money people paid to do so added to the coffers of the pagoda.
Whether you agree with O’Conner’s minimalist tendencies, or prefer the modern day riot of detail, it’s certainly the case that the experience of visiting Shwedagon has changed over the years. For instance, in one of oldest photographs of the platform the main stupa was directly accessible. Less than 20 years later new additions formed a ring around the Shwedagon – shrines, smaller stupas and a chinthe are visible. Today that chinthe stares into the back of another ring of shrines, and can just be seen peeking out from behind the Saturday shrine post.
Today, it’s no longer possible to build a new shrine on the platform (though there are bound to be some exceptions made over the years). Instead meritorious donations are used to renovate and maintain the platform, and regild the many existing shrines and stupas.