This Shwedagon Paya and its precinct have much more to tell of the story of Burma than just its religious, Buddhist story. It holds an important place in Burmese history especially from the British rule until today.
As we walked, Sunshine explained not only the story of this stupa but also many facets of the Burmese way of life .. and of life here under British rule.
Realising that we were all hot from our walk in the sun on those hot marble paths, eventually Sunshine steered us towards shady pavilions, just like sensible locals who know where the best shade is in the heat of the day.
The pavilion he chose for us to rest in was the home of a huge bell, the Singu Min Bell. But this was not the original bell. A much larger, 300-ton bell had been given to the Shwedagon Paya by King Dhammazedi in 1485. It was part of the scene here for over a century. Then, in 1608, a Portuguese adventurer called Philip de Brito e Nicote, plundered the stupa and its pagodas and took the bell. How his men actually managed to do that was not part of the story we heard! The intention of these men was to melt the bell down to make cannons. However, as the bell was being taken across the river, it fell into the waters and has never been recovered – nor has its place of resting been found. Myth or legend or history? Who knows.
In front of us on a raised platform was a 23-ton bronze cast bell, the Singu Min Bell, donated to the stupa by King Singu in 1779. It suffered a similar fate, but this time at the hands of the British who had landed here on May 11, 1824 during the first of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars. They quickly occupied the Shwedagon Paya precinct as a fortress. They pillaged and vandalised, even digging into the stupa thinking that it was hollow and that it would make a great place to use as a gunpowder magazine. Of course, that was impossible. This stupa is solid, as are most Buddhist stupas. But one of the things the British did take was the Singu Min Bell, intending to take it to Calcutta. But it also fell off the ship into the river! This time they knew just where it was resting. The British tried but failed in their attempts to raise the bell. However, the Burmese said they could do it, but … they would only do it if the bell was returned to the stupa complex. ‘It’s not possible’, said the British. ‘If you can raise it, you can have it.’ And they did.
So how did the Burmese raise this huge bell and return it to this platform right there in front of us in this shady pavilion. They did it by man power, persistence and some canny local knowledge! Divers tied hundreds of bamboo poles underneath the bell. The air trapped in the poles helped to float the bell to the surface at high tide. And then man power moved the bell back to its ‘home’. (This was another clever and wonderful use of bamboo in a country that makes so much use of this plant in all areas of their daily life. We’ll show more of their use of bamboo throughout these journals.)
The British army left Burma but returned and re-occupied the Shwedagon Paya once more in April 1852. Although the Burmese people were permitted to enter the area to pray and meditate, the stupa remained under British military control for 77 years, until 1929.
British colonialism in Burma also upset the balance between king and monks in the order of things in Burma. Whereas the kings had been as ‘patrons’ of the monks and shrines, buying themselves some valuable good karma, the monks had taught both the kings and the population the tenants of Buddhist philosophy and way of life. When the kings were deposed by the British, the balance had to shift. The monks needed to rely more and more on the general population for support… and the people, with no king to lead the way, more and more needed the teaching and example of the monks to support them through the repressive years. This balance became more obvious to us as we listened to people willing to talk about their faith and to tell their stories. One thing neither the British nor the junta could take from these people was their Buddhist beliefs and hope.
At the beginning of the second era of British rule (from 1852), there was again much looting. Seeing this desecration of a place that meant so much to the people of Burma, Lord Maung Htaw Lay, the most prominent Mon-Burmese in British Burma, successfully appealed to the the British India Office in London to have the destruction and pilfering of the treasures of the stupa stopped. With financial help from Britain, he eventually restored this great Buddhist shrine to its former glory and status. He became the founding trustee of the Shwedagon Pagoda Trust which cares for the site to this day.
The Board of Trustees don’t have to explain the rules to the Burmese pilgrims. They have been brought up to know the right forms of dress and behaviour in any religious precinct. But foreign visitors do need to be told.
All Burmese pagodas and temples are bare foot areas. No shoes. No socks. The Burmese people have always removed their shoes to enter a holy place. In everyday life, they wear slippers, or thongs, and thus it’s easy to slip footwear off and on. For me, and others of our group, it was much harder. My poor old feet hadn’t walked on bare paths, and certainly not on very warm marble, for a very long time! But I did it, as one must as a guest, respecting the customs of one’s host. Others chose not to enter these holy areas and I think they missed out on some great experiences and on seeing some fascinating Burmese architecture, craft and art.
I shall digress a little here to give a few traveller’s tips for Burma / Myanmar as a destination. We had been encouraged to make sure that we could walk two kilometres and walk up and down uneven steps unaided and without recourse to hand rails. That was sage advice. What I would add, is that anyone unused to going bare foot should toughen up their feet and have plenty of practice on various surfaces and get used to wearing either thongs/ flip flops or open backed slip-ons. Throughout each day, it’s a shoes off, shoes on experience!
And while I’m adding a traveller’s tip or two, I’d also advise exercises in squatting down and getting up without aids… especially for we women folk. Even though we were often grateful to the British for leaving a legacy of western ‘sit-down’ toilets in many places, they are not everywhere. And public toilets are not common. Recourse to restaurants is invaluable. And, I suggest, it is probably wise to go without, or at least limit, the amount of morning coffee and tea. Need I say more! At least the Shwedagon Paya has decent toilet facilities even though they are only available outside of the main precinct. I expect that many more ‘places of interest’ will improve toilet facilities as this country begins to be more and more ‘tourist conscious’.
Back to the “shoe question” which has always been a sensitive issue to the Burmese people since colonial times. At that time, visitors as well as British troops openly flouted the tradition. Not until 1919 did British authorities finally issue a regulation prohibiting footwear in the precincts of the stupa. Even then, they made an exception for ‘government employees on official business’. This ‘shoes off’ question was indeed one of the things that stirred up the people in the beginnings of the Burmese nationalist movement.
Shwedagon Paya is not just a holy place for the Burmese people but it has been at the centre of their nationalist movement, of their struggle for independence and freedom. A few examples: In 1920, and again in 1936, University students held protest strikes at the Pagoda. In 1936, oilfield workers set up a ‘strike camp’ here. In January 1946, the much respected General Aung San demanded independence from the British at a mass meeting at the stupa. On August 26, 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, so beloved by the people, addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa, this time demanding free and fair elections to free the people from the repressive ruling military junta. This struggle for freedom is still in the balance, but the people now say that, with the new President having talks with Aung San Suu Kyi,, they have more hope in their hearts.
Far too soon, it was time to go back into the city of Yangon. It was time for lunch. There was just time for one last look, one last contemplation of the great, golden stupa before we had to leave.
Our walk here had introduced us to many facets of Burmese architecture, thought and culture and, although very hot, foot sore and weary by the end of our tour, I was so very pleased that we’d had the opportunity to experience this amazing place and take in some of its history and stories.
Jennie and David
Photography © Jennie Thomas and David Young of jtdytravels