The Story of Shwedagon

Amrita Kundu

The glittering golden Shwedagon Pagoda is the most famous monument of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. Terming it as spectacular is an understatement as Shwedagon has witnessed the history of Myanmar for centuries and has awed millions in Myanmar and abroad as the crown of the country.

A part of the Yangon Heritage List, Shwedagon is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Myanmar. It is considered to be one of the oldest Buddhist stupas in the world that enshrines Buddha’s hair strands in its core. The building is a remarkable structure, covered entirely in gold plating and adorned with 4000 diamonds on the top. It is not just a block of gold structure—the entire complex has 4 separate entrances for each shrine and a terrace that only monks can access. People have come all over to donate gold to contribute to the pagoda’s maintenance.

History of Shwedagon Pagoda

There are parallel stories about the history of the pagoda. According to archaeologists and historians, Shwedagon Pagoda was built between 6th to 10th century AD by the Mon people. However, legend speaks otherwise. It is believed that Shwedagon was constructed more than 2600 years ago following an interesting incident where two merchant brothers—Tapussa and Bhallika, met Lord Buddha during his lifetime and received eight strands of his hair. When the brothers returned to Myanmar, they kept these hair strands in a golden casket along with other relics of Buddha in Singuttara Hill. Stories say that when the local ruler King Okkalapa opened the casket, unbelievable things happened. People’s spirit was uplifted, the hair emitted rays which penetrated heaven and hell, blind people received eyesight again, the deaf started to hear and the dumb started speaking distinctly. Due to these incredible incidents, the King decided to build the stupa.

However, the stupa was quite neglected and underwent significant decay for many centuries since. In the 14th century, King Binnya U decided to refurbish the stupa and build a temple with a height of 60 feet. Significant renovations were made by Queen Binnya Thai in the 15th century when the height of the temple was raised to around 130 feet. Terraces were created on the hill and the uppermost terrace was paved with stones. Slowly, Shwedagon Pagoda started growing its popularity amongst Buddhist pilgrims and by the 16th century, it was already an important Buddhist monument.

Regular earthquakes during this period have damaged the structure of Shwedagon, the worst one happening in 1768, which destroyed the top of the stupa. In the late 18th century, King Hsinbyushin started work repairs on the pagoda and further expanded its height to almost 330 feet. When Myanmar was annexed to the British Empire, King Mindon added a crown umbrella, commonly known as ‘hti’ in the local language. The top of the ‘hti’ was then tipped with diamond weighing 15g in gold.

The Architecture Of Shwedagon Pagoda

The pagoda has gone through several modifications over the centuries. The height of the temple has been increasing since the 15th century, with the addition of newer halls, monasteries and expanding shrines to enhance the complexity of the structure.

There are four gateways to the pagoda, each guarded by Clinthes, mythological creatures of guardian lions. All the gates have decorative walls depicting stories of the various incarnations of Buddha. Three of these gates have escalators and elevators for easy accessibility. The eastern and southern gates have vendors selling a range of goods such as religious offerings, images of Buddha, good luck charms and books.

All the gates lead to the terrace, which has four small stupas in each cardinal direction — north, south, east and west. There are eight small shrines located on the eight corners of the main stupa with a different image of Buddha in each. Seven of these represent the seven days of the week — Wednesday being split into two halfes — morning and evening, thus accounting for the eighth image.

The main building is located on the top of the hill and is characterized by the large golden stupa, that consists of several levels which rise from an octagonal base. The octagonal terraces at the base of the stupa can only be visited by monks. The bell-shaped central dome is adorned with horizontal bands with a spire on top.

The crown umbrella consists of thousands of precious stones – diamonds, sapphires and rubies. The biggest stone is the 76-carat diamond located at the uppermost part of the umbrella. The gold exterior of the main stupa consists of gold plates donated by devotees.

Shwedagon will be the most stunning thing you’ve ever seen. While it glistens against the sun’s rays during the day, the view at night is equally awe-inspiring. We hope knowing this overview of history and architecture of Shwedagon will enhance your experience of visiting this monument.





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