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The magnificence of Shwedagon Pagoda

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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.

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Approaching the pagoda’s south gate

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Floral offerings for the Buddha

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Devotees on their knees

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A temple guardian lion, known as a ‘chinthe’

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More guardian statues at the smaller shrines

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.

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An architectural masterpiece

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Gilded stupas shining in the sun

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This photo provides a sense of scale – and that’s just the pagodas around the main stupa

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The size of Shwedagon constantly draws you to look upwards

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Seeking shade… and punching in a phone number

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In the shadow of Shwedagon

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Monks going for a stroll

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Intricate carvings in teak

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Pilgrims pouring water onto the Buddha image at the ‘Saturday Corner’

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Oil lamps, incense and melted wax

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Paying respects

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Shwedagon’s ornate detailing is a sight to behold

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ahhhhh. You visited the incomparable Shwedagon, and wrote about it with clarity and elegance enhanced by beautiful photos.Thank you. It took me back. How lucky we are to have been able to experience this exquisite creation.
    Alison

    October 31, 2015
    • It truly is incomparable, Alison. I loved it there and went a little shutter-crazy because Shwedagon was just so beautiful. And we were so fortunate – so blessed even – with the timing. Within minutes after leaving the pagoda compound the clouds had moved in and it started to rain. It was small drops at first but then the heavens opened and we had to take shelter from the long torrential downpour. Had we gone an hour later we wouldn’t have had the same experience or the same pictures.

      October 31, 2015
  2. DD #

    This place is breathtaking!…On my bucket list!!!..Thanks for sharing

    November 1, 2015
    • You’re welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      November 1, 2015
  3. These pagodas and the teak carvings almost defy description – none of the adjectives seem to be enough. It looks oddly out of place towering above the trees at the end of the street. Your photos and information are excellent! I imagine the reality is almost overwhelming.

    November 1, 2015
    • Much appreciated, Marilyn. Shwedagon is so beautiful it is guaranteed to make your jaw drop. I had such a hard time with the captions for these photos – in many cases I just felt that what I wrote could not fully describe the intricacy of the carvings and the golden sheen of all those stupas. I hope you get to visit in the near future!

      November 1, 2015
  4. It is fascinating to me how many different forms Buddhist temples/pagodas/stupas take the world over. My experience with them has been mostly in the Himalaya, and the architecture and decoration are so very different from these gilded edifices. As I vacillate on my January trip destination(s), you are post-by-post swaying me this direction!

    November 1, 2015
    • That’s a great observation, Lex. Bama and I were in Sri Lanka before Myanmar and the temples/stupas there looked completely different! I guess the ancient Sri Lankan builders preferred giant dome-like stupas rather than the more slender ones here in Myanmar.

      I am deciding between two topics for my next post – an introduction to Burmese cuisine or a photo essay on the colonial architecture of Yangon. For variety’s sake, maybe I will choose the former. Hopefully it will still encourage you to choose Myanmar for your trip!

      November 1, 2015
  5. Indeed, it’s a truly magnificent temple. And I’m still amazed to imagine how this beautiful golden-temple survives through out the time, and becomes witness of the change in Myanmar.

    November 1, 2015
    • Yes, and in the political realm Shwedagon is a very significant place. It is a well-known protest venue, and back in 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi first came to prominence here.

      Ahead of the elections next week, the NLD were planning to hold a rally in a large park across the road from Shwedagon, but the military authorities made up excuses to prevent this from happening. I really hope the NLD sweeps the polls as predicted – they had a landslide victory robbed from them in 1991. I can only imagine what Myanmar would be like now if the military junta had backed down then.

      November 1, 2015
      • Well, if the military junta is fair enough, NLD should have governed the country since years ago. Whatever, we wish the best for Myanmar. Have a pleasant and safe trip ya James 🙂

        November 1, 2015
      • Thanks very much, Bart. Next stop, India! 🙂

        November 1, 2015
      • You’re welcome James.
        India? Ah senangnyaaaaa 🙂

        November 1, 2015
  6. Lael #

    Oh my goodness! All that detail. I would want to spend hours and hours there, just to take it all in. What beautiful photos!

    November 2, 2015
    • Thank you, Lael! I would have considered doing the same if it wasn’t so hot and humid. Plus it was also a fabulous place to people watch.

      November 3, 2015
      • Lael #

        🙂 I always wonder how I’m going to do in the heat and humidity.

        November 3, 2015
  7. What a beautifully detailed account of this stunning pagoda James! The detailing looks extraordinary even with my exposure to ornate Buddhist/ Hindu temples. I can’t wait to experience all that magnificence for myself.

    November 2, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Madhu! I thought Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok was awe-inspiring but Shwedagon took the term to another level. All the care and effort – not to mention the finest materials – that went into its construction were clear to see. I only wished I came back a second time to experience dusk at the pagoda.

      November 3, 2015
  8. Stunning photos! I only recently thought about traveling to Myanmar and Cambodia. How do you think it would be for a solo woman traveler?

    November 3, 2015
    • Thanks! I think Myanmar is perfectly safe for a solo female traveller, and Cambodia should be too (at least according to my friends who have been). I felt that the women in Myanmar were well-respected… I didn’t see any men catcalling or taking other inappropriate actions.

      November 3, 2015
  9. What a place! The level of detail is amazing. And it is so over the top! It’s spectacular. Wonderful photos. Thank you for sharing…

    November 4, 2015
    • You’re welcome. The pagoda may be over the top but it has been built in such a gorgeous, exuberant way – it didn’t feel gaudy at all!

      November 5, 2015
  10. I loved Myanmar. It was so raw and welcoming. This takes me back! nice piece.

    November 5, 2015
    • Thanks! I think raw and welcoming sums it up perfectly. Some of the people we met were so hospitable.

      November 12, 2015
  11. Your post here was like revisiting and reliving the evening/night I spent here ~ the glory and pride of the people of Myanmar and of the Shwedagon Pagoda was and still is inspiring (especially thanks to your writing and photos). Incredible place ~ incredible country!

    November 8, 2015
    • Shwedagon Pagoda is so photogenic it’s hard to get mediocre shots, especially if the sun is out! I would have loved to return at dusk and see the floodlights flicker on. That must be a magical experience.

      November 12, 2015
  12. The breathtaking view of the Shwedagon Pagoda took my mind to the ancient times. The splendid clicks show the beauty of the place so well. Thanks a lot for introducing us to this beautiful place with the help of your informative and colorful post.

    November 18, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Anisha. Breathtaking is right – Shwedagon was one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples I’ve ever visited. I hope you’ll get to experience it firsthand in the near future!

      November 20, 2015
  13. Beautiful

    November 21, 2015
    • Yes, it was an incredible place.

      November 21, 2015

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