In 1889 Rudyard Kipling called the Shwedagon pagoda “… a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.” Just as its beauty was appealing, so too was its elevated location on Singuttara Hill looking south across Yangon to the Yangon River. The British overtook and occupied the Shwedagon pagoda in all three Anglo-Burmese wars, at one point controlling it for 77 years until 1929.
The Shwedagon pagoda is more than 2,500 years old — making it the oldest pagoda in the world. It is certainly also one of the shiniest, with the main stupa reaching over 300 feet tall, covered in gold plates donated by people around the country in the interest of maintaining its luster and appearance. Queen Shin Sawbu literally gave her weight in gold in the 15th century — so maybe that’s the origin of the saying. The crown of the pagoda has over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies, and the tip top (or diamond bud) holds a 76-carat diamond — seriously impressive devotion to Buddhism by the poorest country in Southeast Asia, of which 32% of the population lives in poverty.
Our first visit to Shwedagon was on Sunday afternoon — a great day to visit since many local families were there enjoying the day together. We were taken by taxi to the tourist entrance, where we each paid our $5 USD tourist entry fee, stored our shoes and squeezed into the elevator that whisked us up to the main terrace. There are three other entrances — long, beautiful stairways leading up to the pagoda on the north, east and west sides, but regardless of what entrance you choose you’ll be chased down for your tourist entry fee, or proof of purchase, if you look the least bit foreign.
At the main terrace, we began our clockwise walk around the pagoda which is enormous — there are countless shrines, statues, images of Buddhas, devotional areas and places where people are just relaxing in the company of one another.
Monks, artfully draped in their sunset-hued robes, were quite curious and sometimes asked where we were from and how long we’d been in Myanmar. We were just as curious about them, and struck by the beauty of their colors moving across the white marble and among the golden stupas. We would pass small groups as we walked around the pagoda, then turn back to have another look and find them doing the same to us — caught in the act, but everyone smiling and mutually intrigued by the foreignness of us to them, and them to us.
There is nothing quite like the gaze of a monk, steadfast and pure with no hint of flirtation. Some were willing to be photographed, while others seemed divinely omniscient and able to sense a stealth camera lens pointed toward them from just about anywhere.
In Myanmar, Buddhism and astrology go hand in hand. Around the pagoda there are eight planetary posts — each with a planet and an animal representing a day of the week. Wednesday has two posts — representing up to 6:00 p.m. and after 6:00 p.m. Your planetary post is determined by what day of the week you were born on (and what time, if it was a Wednesday). For instance, I was born on Friday so my planet is Venus and my sign is guinea pig. If I’m visiting the pagoda, I go to the Friday/Venus/Guinea Pig post and offer prayer flags or flowers and pour water over the image of Buddha while praying and making a wish. Or, I may need to do the same at another post based on the guidance of my astrologer and the subject of my wishes or the bad luck I hope to change.
There were exquisite scenes of people in devotional pose throughout the pagoda — sometimes alone and tucked in a doorway meditating on a single image, sometimes sitting in the open among the crowd. We walked, we sat, we watched, we walked some more. There was an ease and a sense of comfort that came from walking barefoot in such a grand place. It slowed us down, it was peaceful and not at all as if our faith ever mattered. Greatness is awe-inspiring, and not exclusive. I felt this here, just as in other religious sites around the world like St. Peter’s Basilica and Boudhanath.
Leaving Shwedagon by the east entrance, we descended the staircase back into the reality of Yangon. Huge statues called “leogryphs” (combination lion and griffin — so close to a liger!) flank the point of access.
The street outside is filled with a constant parade of pagoda-goers, lotus flower vendors, stone carvers, food and drink carts and occasional dogs in admirable zen meditation.
Further down the street, we discovered a flower market and a neighborhood of monasteries and homes bordering the pagoda. Run down and ramshackle, the accommodations left a lot to be desired. But one monk greeted us over the stone wall with a big, red smile full of betel nut (see Day 1), curious about what country we were from. I so wish I would have taken his picture, but his presence was just too reverent for such a material gesture. Here’s a picture of some windows instead!
After an hour spent exploring, we rounded the bend and headed back to the main street to find a taxi when one last scene from life near the Shwedagon pagoda played out before us — with its color, line and remarkable beauty. This… is why we love to travel.