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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Travel Date 15th November 2012.
Click on any picture to see a larger version.  

Two enormous golden pagodas dominate Yangon. The Sule Pagoda is downtown; see my pictures on the previous post. Although 45m (150') tall and quite massive at the base it seems to attract no special attention from the locals or tourists. Effectively it has become the centre of a traffic roundabout. It is still a place of devotion and worship but the numbers congregating around it are limited by traffic and available space.

The other major pagoda is the Golden Pagoda or Shwe Dagon (pronounced to rhyme with “way to go”) Pagoda. At 99m (325') it is over twice as high as the Sule Pagoda. It is set on a hill a few km from the centre and can be seen from almost all of central Yangon. It is by far the most popular tourist and religious attraction in Yangon.

It may help if I clarify the differences between stupas, pagodas, monasteries and temples in Myanmar. Temples are roofed buildings that worshipers enter; monasteries include accommodation for monks as well as worship facilities. But I was surprised to find that despite their size all the stupas and pagodas in Myanmar I encountered were effectively solid with no entry to the interior (unless the monks had some secret access). In Myanmar the only significant difference between a stupa and a pagoda appears to be size and decoration, unlike further East in Japan and China where some pagodas have interiors used as temples. The purpose of a stupa or pagoda is to be a reliquary, usually for relics believed to be from one of the early Buddhas. Those relics are blessed, then sealed inside containers, then the stupa is built over the container.

Most stupas are claimed to contain relics, but some contain objects related to Buddha or are built to commemorate special events or aspects of Buddhist theology.

Rulers and rich men would acquire a relic and build a stupa as thanks for good seasons or battles won, or to hope for better things to come. To build a stupa was considered beneficial to the builder, improving karma for a fortunate rebirth or possibly trying to atone for past errors. Destroying a stupa, or allowing one that was your responsibility to fall into disrepair, was believed to have the opposite effect. Over the past two millennia in Myanmar that led to many thousands of stupas being constructed and many of those evolving into massive pagodas as they were later renovated and expanded. If no relics were available then renovating or expanding an existing stupa was considered almost as good for karma. When I later visited Bagan and saw so many thousand stupas there it occurred to me that there were either many, many past Buddhas to create that many relics or he was a very, very large person.

The major pagodas, monasteries and temples I visited were all surrounded by a clutch of smaller pagodas and stupas; it seems that there may be a karma benefit to being near a more important religious site.

Almost every pagoda or stupa incorporates statues of Buddha in the surrounds.

At the Shwe Dagon there are also a number of temples surrounding the main complex with a variety of Buddha statues ranging from tiny to massive.

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon is a classic example of a stupa that started out modestly and grew like Topsy. Legend has it that two merchant brothers received eight hairs from the Lord Gautama Buddha 2,600 years ago. When they returned to Burma they found that relics of earlier Buddhas were enshrined on Singuttara Hill so they decided to build their stupa there. When their golden casket of relics was opened, miracles occurred:

There was a tumult among men and spirits ... rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell ... the blind beheld objects ... the deaf heard sounds ... the dumb spoke distinctly ... the earth quaked ... the winds of the ocean blew ... Mount Meru shook ... lightning flashed ... gems rained down until they were knee deep ... all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.

The archaeologists are a little more prosaic; they believe that the original stupa was built by the Mon people some time between the 6th and 10th centuries of the modern era. The original was about 8m (27') high but later renovations and improvements saw it increase in height and size in stages as various kings and queens decided to improve their karma. Some added gilding as it expanded. As it rose, the numbers of ancillary stupas, pagodas, temples and monastery facilities expanded with it.

Thankfully for my aging legs, an elevator has been built at one of the entrances.

The rules are very clear: no shoes, no socks. One thing they don't mention on the noticeboards is that it is respectful to move around the pagoda in a clockwise direction for good karma. Moving in the other direction is bad karma. I noticed that several of the tourists were not aware of this, which caused some frowns from the locals although they were far too polite to say anything.

As I entered the main complex from the elevator corridor I saw this ancient banyan tree on the right. It is reputed to be descended from the great banyan tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in India where the Budhha Siddhartha Gautamare attained enlightenment.

As I wandered a group collected in front of one of the Buddha statues on the main pagoda circumference and started chanting. The video is brief; they were still chanting almost an hour later as I left.

All that gold is real.

I enjoyed the visit; it was a fascinating evening.

Cheers, Alan

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