BURMA’S WINKING WONDER
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 … ”
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 agains
t 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 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 on 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 monk-led 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. Both monks and laymen alike were denied access to the pagoda for several days before the government finally relented and permitted them in.
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.
Mon Queen Shinsawbu was noted to have provided her own weight in gold (40kg), which was made into gold leaf and used to cover the surface of the stupa. T
he queen's son-in-law, Dhammazedi, offered four times his own weight plus that of his wife's in gold.
Shwedagon has been rebuilt many times since then due to earthquakes (including eight in the 17th century alone) and the most recent one being in 1970.
The Shwedagon stands on a platform covering over 5 hectares on a hill 58m above sea level. It can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city, and the citizens of Rangoon literally live out their everyday lives in its shadow.
There are four covered walkways, or Tazaungs, that lead up to the pagoda's platform. Both the southern and northern entrances have the choice of an elevator or stairs; the western entrance has escalators instead of stairs and is the only entrance without vendors. The eastern stairway has the most authentic ambience, as it passes monasteries and vendors selling monastic necessities.
The steps are lined with shops selling flowers (both real and paper) for offerings, as well as Buddha images, incense, antiques and other items. Despite the vendors, the walkway is cool and quiet, which only increases the impact of bright sun and overwhelming color as you step onto the platform at the top.
The platform is full of glittering, colorful stupas, with the main stupa being the center of attention for most pilgrims. A mat pathway has been laid around it to protect visitors’ bare feet from burning on the hot marble platform. The stupa is completely solid, every inch is covered in gold, and the upper parts are studded with diamonds totaling over 2,000 carats.