Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Yangon, Myanmar: Shwedagon Pagoda

The most impressive sight in Yangon is definitely Shwedagon Pagoda (8,000 kyat or $9). It's known as the most impressive temple in all of Myanmar. Situated on the top of the impressively high Singutara Hill, the 2,500-year-old monument enshrines eight strands of the historical Buddha's hair and several other relics. In modern times, the Pagoda is not only the most important holy shrine in Myanmar, but it also serves as a symbol of national identity and provides a place for people to gather in support of the pro-democracy movement.

Walking in, one of the first things that I saw was this  150 year old bodhi tree. It's considered to be a tree of wisdom and is reportedly the tree the Buddha was sitting under when he attained Enlightenment. The tree at Shwedagon (pictured left) is said to be an offshoot of the original bodhi tree, so it is considered holy. It was indeed a beautiful tree, and it was a peaceful place to say a prayer.

It is traditional to walk around the pagoda in a counter clockwise direction, so be aware of the flow of traffic when you are going in! I decided to hire a guide to show me around so I could learn more about the history. I only paid 5,000 kyat, so I felt that it was worth the hour or so of time that my guide spent walking around, answering questions, and pointing out particular points of interest with me.

The view from the top isn't too bad, right?

As you can see, the pagoda and its surrounding stupas are gilded with gold. According to legend, the gold ritual began under Queen Shinsawbu, who donated her own body weight in solid gold. That's crazy to me. Can you imagine people taking over a hundred pounds of gold, then pounding it so thin that it can be applied like paper to all of the little stupas and monuments that make up this Pagoda? The sun glinting off of the gold almost blinded me, and it makes me wonder how much money has been spent on making this place gleam. 

In addition to all of the gold, the top of the biggest stupa is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds; the largest is 72 carats. 72 carats! That's a diamond the size of someone's eye. In addition to the diamonds, the top is encrusted with over 2,000 gems such as rubies, emeralds, and sapphires and more than a thousand tinkling bells. You might be able to see them a little bit in the picture below, but the stupa is so tall (110 meters) that I doubt anyone's eyesight could pick them out. So much time and care has been put into making this monument beautiful, a fact that is obvious as soon as you might set foot inside of the grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda.

Just like Sule Pagoda, this monument is ruled by the cardinal directions and astrology. The four staircases leading up to Shwedagon arise from due north, south, east, and west. There are also four shrines attached to the pagoda in line with these directions dedicated to the four Buddhas of the current age -- Gautama, Kakusandha, Konagamana, and Kassapa. [According to some branches of Buddhism, there have been four Buddhas on earth and there is one more to come in the future. He is called Buddha Maitreya The last one, Gautama, is the most well-known, and his stories are the ones told most often because they are the ones to have survived to present-day.] Around Shwedagon, there are also eight planetary posts that represent the eight days of the week. Just like at Sule Pagoda, people go around pouring water on the animal that represents the day they were born for blessings and good luck.

Millions of dollars of gold and diamonds here, y'all.

Buddhas e'erywhere.

One of the many protectors of the shrines seated at the base of the stupa.

Some bells. I was encouraged to ring them by my guide -- I felt a bit out of place doing it,
but they certainly did make a satisfying ring heard 'round the pagoda.

Another view of the giant, golden Pagoda.

That's me! And by the way, I'm wearing a pink tank top under my blue shirt, but apparently it looks like skin.
It's not. It's a tank top.

People buy gold flakes to press onto statues like this all over the religious sites in Myanmar.
I find them fascinating!

You can tell that this is one of the most visited places in Yangon. I stayed here for a few hours, and I was constantly surrounded by monks, students, tourists, and normal people just going about their daily routine.

GIANT Buddha!

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