Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist landmarks, and the holiest site for Burmese pilgrims. Apart from the myths and legends surrounding its beginning, the great stupa is a curious witness to Burma’s long and tumultuous history of war, independence struggle and politics.
“ Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun … ” That was how Rudyard Kipling, the Bombay-born English author and poet, described Shwedagon Pagoda ten years after he first saw it in “From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches” -- Letters of Travel vol. 1 (1899).
Epicentre of Burmese Politics
About 75 years earlier when the British landed Rangoon during the first Anglo- Burmese War, they immediately seized and occupied the Shwedagon built on a hillock, made it a fortress in a commanding position over the city, remained there for two years. The Second Anglo-Burmese War saw the British re-occupation of the Shwedagon in April 1852. This time the stupa was to remain under their military control for 77 years until 1929. (Reference: Burma, By D. G.E. HALL, M.A., D.LIT., Professor Emeritus of the University of London and formerly Professor of History in the University of Rangoon, Burma, Third edition 1960.) In 1920, students from the University of Rangoon met at a pavilion on the southwest corner of the pagoda and planned a protest strike against the new University Act which they believed would only benefit the elite and perpetuate colonial rule. This place is now commemorated by a memorial.
The result of the ensuing University Boycott was the establishment of “national schools” financed and run by the Burmese people; this day has been commemorated as the Burmese National Day since.
The terraces of the Shwedagon were again where the student strikers camped out during the second university students strike in history of 1936.
Two years later, oilfield workers on strike hiked all the way from the oilfields of Chauk and Yenangyaung in central Burma to Rangoon to establish a strike camp at the Shwedagon Pagoda. This strike, supported by the public as well as students and came to be known as the ‘1300 Revolution’ after the Burmese calendar year, was broken up by the police who, in their boots raided the strike camps on the pagoda, which offended Burmese who would remove their shoes in pagoda precincts.
The “shoe question” on the pagoda had always been a sensitive issue to the Burmese people since colonial times. The Burmese people had always removed shoes at all Buddhist pagodas.
Hiram Cox, the British envoy to the Burmese Court, in 1796, observed the tradition by not visiting the pagoda rather than take off his shoes. However, after the annexation of lower Burma, European visitors as well as troops posted at the pagoda openly flouted the tradition. It was not until 1919 that the British authorities finally issued a regulation prohibiting footwear in the precincts of the pagoda. However, they put in an exception that employees of the government on official business were allowed footwear.
The regulation and its exception clause moved to stir up the people and played a role in the beginnings of the nationalist movement. Today, no footwear or socks are allowed in the pagoda.
In January 1946, General Aung San, father of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed a mass meeting at the stupa, demanding “independence now” from the British with a thinly veiled threat of a general strike and uprising.
Forty-two years later, on August 26, 1988, his daughter addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa, demanding democracy from the military regime, which marked the beginning of the 8888 Uprising, the second struggle for independence.
In September 2007, amidst the monkled Saffron Revolution, the most serious protests in the country since the 1988 uprising against the military regime, Shwedagon Pagoda once again was a witness to bloody crackdown on protesting monks and civilians. The protests started in Burma in mid- August due primarily to the unannounced decision of the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to remove fuel subsidies which caused the price of diesel and petrol to suddenly rise as much as 66 percent, and the price of compressed natural gas for buses to increase fivefold in less than a week.
Led by students and opposition political activists, including women, the protest demonstrations were at first dealt with quickly and harshly by the junta, with dozens of protesters arrested and detained. Starting September 18, the protests had been led by thousands of Buddhist monks, who were to be killed, or arrested late September, most of which occurred near the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Since then, the authorities have kept their eyes on visitors to the pagoda, fearing there may be yet another political movement in the making.
It begins with two ethnic Mon merchant brothers who met the Buddha himself. The Buddha gave them eight of his hairs to be enshrined in Burma. With the help of several nat (spirits) and the king of Okkalapa, the builder of the majestic stupa, the brothers discovered the hill where relics of three preceding Buddhas had been enshrined.
A chamber to house the relics was built on the sacred spot and when the hairs were taken from their golden casket, a miracle happened: 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... Mount Meru shook... lightning flashed... gems rained down until they were knee deep... all trees of the Himalaya, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit. Once the relics were safely placed in the new shrine, a golden slab was laid on the chamber and a golden stupa built over it. Over this was layered a silver stupa, then a tin stupa, a copper stupa, a lead stupa, a marble stupa and an iron-brick stupa.
The truth of the legend has never been questioned in the society that accepts the cycle of rebirths and the fruit of karmic deeds for the probability is there.