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Category: Shwedagon

The Old Town and Chinese Quarter

1855

2018

“Here many thousands of people literally swarm by day, and sleep twenty in a single room at night. This portion of the city is called ‘The Town.’ It is almost always very dirty, except when washed by heavy rains.”
– Julius Smith, 10 years in Burma, 1902

Though the exact location of the older photograph here is not recorded, the density of the housing and the presence of Shwedagon just visible in the distance does suggest that it was taken from what is now downtown Yangon. Regardless, it provides a glimpse into what Rangoon looked like around the time the British were remaking the city, versus its appearance today.

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Shwedagon Pagoda

c.1890

2018

“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.

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Shwedagon, South Entrance

c.1890

2017

“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

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Cantonment Gardens

1890

2017

“On this lake float many charming pleasure boats, some rowed by gay laughing groups, and others skim along with their glittering sails set, looking like large white birds”
– Among Pagodas And Fair Ladies, Gwendolen Trench Gascoigne, 1896

The cantonment refers to a British military zone around the Shwedagon Pagoda. As the only high ground in the vicinity of Yangon, Shwedagon has often found itself used as a strategic location in conflicts involving the city, and it was the core of the British cantonment.

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‘Footwearing Prohibited’

British troops at Shwedagon in 1945

“Touching on Burmese English usage, let us deal now with the ‘footwearing prohibited’ notice in all the pagodas and have done with it. Its literal interpretation is too old and stale a joke now to be even mildly funny. The expression is not, anyhow, more absurd than many expressions which have invaded our English tongue from America and the armed forces[*]. “You see,” a Burman said to me, wearily, “if we change it to a ‘footwear prohibited’, as the people who want to improve us are always urging us to, the people will think it’s a new rule which means that they mustn’t even carry their footwear. The people understand what it means – that the wearing of footwear is prohibited. If the highly educated among our own people have no objection to the expression, why should we mind what outsiders think? If it makes us look ridiculous perhaps it is not more ridiculous than the sight of Western people paddling round our pagodas in their socks, frightened to go barefoot.”
– Ethel Mannin, Land of the Crested Lion, 1955

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