“The Shwe Dagon rose superb, glistening with its gold,
like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write
glistening against the fog and smoke of the thriving city.”
W. Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930)
A few weeks ago I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yagon, Myanmar and I’m still recovering from the enormity of the experience. As you see from the pictures, the pagoda is gigantic – standing 99 meters high.
This pagoda is particularly sacred not just because it contains relics of the historical Buddha, Gautama, but it also contains relics of three of his predecessors. No one has been able to verify this though because that would call for the destruction of part of the pagoda itself. The central stupa – the Shwedagon – is said to be covered with 68 tons of gold. (The word ‘shwe’ in Burmese means gold.) The very top of the stupa is even more remarkable: It has a golden orb covered with 5,448 diamonds as well as more than 2,300 rubies, sapphires, and other gems. There is a 76 carat diamond at the very apex of the orb. (I didn’t catch a glimpse of that.) This is all the more remarkable because Myanmar is well known for being one of the poorest countries in the world.
The entire complex was so large (14 acres) that even though there were hundreds of people there the day I visited, it was serene. The complex with the Shwedagon stupa and the smaller pagodas is set on top of a medium sized hill. There are four covered stairways leading up to the main plaza with the pagodas. (Myanmar citizens can enter for free but foreigners must pay $8 Canadian. Somehow, they figured out I was a foreigner and I had to choke up the cash!) Like everyone else, I had to remove my shoes and socks before I could even climb the stairs. After I got to the top of the stairs, I discovered that even the uniformed policemen are bare footed.
Although the Shwedagon pagoda is clearly the main attraction, I was just as impressed with the collection of some 78 other pagodas – no two of which have the same architectural style. They are scattered about with no discernible order. All of these buildings rest on a marble tiled plaza.
This is the most sacred place in the country and clearly the most loved. This became obvious to me during my visits to dozens of other stupas around the country including very sacred sites in both Bagan and Mandalay. The others were in poor to very poor condition. There seemed to be little effort to maintain the other pagodas. Frankly, they were often filthy. The Shwedagon was spotless in every respect, clearly showing that it enjoyed pride of place.
A few words about the pictures
Unlike all the other places I visited, it is impossible to show one picture that captures the essence of this magnificent place. The best I can do is walk you through some of the sites and put them in perspective.
When I first walked up to the foot of the stairs leading to the Shwedagon, I was taken by the huge lions guarding the foot of the stairs. The lions were disproportionately large.
The second picture shows a temple with worshippers. In fact, all the temples had worshippers. Some of the worshippers made their prayers as brief as possible and then departed with haste. Most of them stayed for inordinately long periods. Their visits were unquestionably important events in their lives.
The third picture shows just a few of the 78 pagodas. No two had even similar architectural styles. While I was wandering among them, there was no question I was in a very special place.
The fourth picture shows candles, incense, and water. The ornate structures you see here surround the massive pagoda.
There were dozens of monks. This picture shows just two of them. One of them looks like he is carrying his iPad. Nearly every man in the country serves at least two years as a monk. Many of the women spend a year and a half as “nunks.”
The sixth picture shows only a few of the profusion of pagodas. Notice the different architectural styles and their somewhat random placement.
The seventh picture shows the classic view of the Shwedagon. This is the perspective you normally see on postcards and coffee table books.
The eighth picture shows the Shwedagon in all its glory. As you walk toward the grand pagoda, you lose sight of its grandeur and become increasingly aware of the smaller structures at the foot of the pagoda shown in the fourth picture above.
The ninth picture shows a worshipper washing the Buddha. A priest led me through the ritual; he asked me to name the aspects of my life I was praying for.
Buddhism is a way of life
As a child growing up in the western world, I became so accustomed to hearing wonderful sentiments expressed on Sunday mornings in well scripted sermons and then seeing those sentiments violated at every opportunity afterwards that it no longer seemed unusual. It was just “the way things are.” My visit to the Shwedagon – in fact my visits to all the Buddhist countries in Indochina – showed me that Buddhism is the antipode of religions life in the West. I could see that the Buddhists live their religious teachings on a moment-by-moment basis. There is almost no gap between what they profess and what they do. I’m afraid, though, that this generalization does not apply to the generals who have ruled Myanmar for the last few decades.
All photos by Jan Wall – All Rights Reserved