The magnificence of Shwedagon Pagoda
Mankind has long believed that building high allows us to connect with the divine. The Mayans created monumental stepped pyramids as temples to the gods. In medieval Europe, towns and cities competed to build the tallest cathedral, using dangerously thin stone walls pierced with stained glass windows. And in the kingdoms of Indochina and South Asia, towering stupas were erected as grand reliquaries of the Buddha.
Perhaps the greatest of these Buddhist stupas can be found atop Yangon’s Singuttara Hill, dominating the skyline even as high-rise buildings take shape in the burgeoning downtown area. This is the 99-metre-high Shwedagon Pagoda, an architectural wonder, national icon, and Myanmar’s most sacred site of pilgrimage.
Its legendary roots go back to more than 2,600 years ago, when two merchant brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika, visited Gautama Buddha and offered him alms. Buddha gifted them with eight strands of hair, which they brought to their home kingdom of Okkalapa in present-day Myanmar.
It is said that Gautama, who by this time had already attained enlightenment, instructed the merchant brothers to enshrine these hairs on a hill where relics of his three previous incarnations were already buried. But the king of Okkalapa had trouble finding the hill, and he searched in vain for the next three years. It was only with the help of a compassionate deity and local nats (spirits) that Singuttara Hill was revealed, along with the exact spot where the relics of the past three Buddhas had been laid to rest.
A pagoda was built over that auspicious spot, and because it enshrined the relics of all four Buddhas, it gained the name Shwedagon, ‘Reliquary of the Four’. Over the centuries the pagoda was enlarged by multiple kings and queens, until it reached its current height in 1774.
Shwedagon’s main stupa is made up of many constituent parts; some are described as lotus petals, a bell, banana bud and umbrella. The latter is embellished with sapphires, almost 5,500 diamonds and more than 2,300 rubies. Above it the stupa is crowned by the diamond bud, named for its thousands of diamonds totaling 1,800 carats. The biggest one, at the apex, weighs in at 76 carats. And it is not just the amount of gemstones that is staggering: the entire structure is clad in almost 8,700 plates of pure gold.
Reflecting on his visit in 1889, Rudyard Kipling described Shwedagon Pagoda as “a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire.” More than 125 years have passed since then, but the glorious stupa still inspires that same sense of awe in those who look upon it from afar, and in the pilgrims and visitors who come to circle its sprawling base. ◊