Posts Tagged ‘Shwedagon Paya’

Just before we leave the big city of Yangon and head for the hills, literally, to experience some of the countryside in Shan State where life has not changed very much in many, many years – there are a few more  sites to visit, ones that give insight into the struggle for freedom being waged by the Burmese people today.

Square in front of Sula Pagoda (P1020129

The Sule Pagoda is central to downtown Yangon and is at one end of the square where many protests took place. Both Shwedagon Paya and the open square in front of Sule Pagoda had become rallying places for  a variety of protests.  Here, some thousands of students had been killed in a brutal crack down on protesting students on 8/8//1988. Other protests followed over the years, the most widely reported in the western media was the so called ‘Saffron Revolution” in 2007 (even though Burmese monks wear maroon robes.) This protest had begun in Mandalay when monks came out with their bowls turned upside down as a symbol of protest. Their protest soon gained numbers of lay people and spread to other cities including Yangon.

There are many reports of these protests on You Tube – just google ‘2007 Saffron evolution You Tube”.

The particular reason for these protests was economic distress right across the country. While the government generals and their families and supporters lived in luxury, the United Nations ranked Burma amongst the 20 poorest countries in the world.  Costs of fuel and basic food stuffs such as rice, eggs and cooking oil were rising at an alarming rate and the average income was something below $300 a year. While huge amounts of money were being spent on the military, the health and education of the people were being neglected.

As we walked in this square, we remembered those who had lost their lives here, who had been injured, who had been imprisoned and tortured under a brutal regime. We also hoped that the signs of change in the current regime are real and that the move towards a better way of life for these people will soon become a reality.

The renovated Yangon City Hall (P1020122

The British built city hall, on one side of the square is one of the colonial buildings that has been restored.

Baptist Church at end of the square (P1090814

At the other end of the square is a Baptist Church.  There are also several Catholic Churches in the city.


Burmese Independence Monument in Mahabandoola Garden (P1020127

On the fourth side of the square is a park with a massive obelisk rising 48m from the ground. It’s surrounded by five smaller columns and bronze lions. We were told that the people hope to be able to add a statue in this park to Bogyoke Aung San because he had dedicated his life to winning the  independence of Burma from the British.

Yangon British Secretariat Building (P1090832

Less than a year before Independence was granted, Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated as he chaired a meeting of the Governor’s Executive Council in the British Secretariat Building.  The building is now derelict.

Photo of Aung San (P1090936

Aung San Suu Kyi keeps a photo of her father on the fence of her home at 54 University Avenue. She was only two at the time of his death, but it is his dream of freedom for his people that is a real driving force in her life.

The gates at 54 University Ave. Yangon (P1090935

We stopped for a few minutes outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s home and reflected on her place in the history of Burma – and its future. She had just come back from a visit to the USA and a speech at the UN.  The people love her and are so proud of her. They pin so much of their hope in her. We can only hope that she has good people to support her as she moves forward in a better climate of co-operation with the current President, Thein Sein.

I have been reading a very good book titled “The Lady and The Peacock; The life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma”. It’s written by Peter Popham, a respected English journalist who has been to Burma many times. The book is published by Random House. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this amazing lady.

Dancing peacock symbol of NLD Party ( P1090935

The sign for the National League for Democracy and its symbol of the dancing peacock is on the gate post.

Frangipani and razor wire! (P1090930

I found this rather thought provoking – a young frangipani tree planted outside the razor wire fence. The values Aung San Suu Kyi embodies are the ideals of faith, love, caring for others, compassion and freedom as opposed to the enforced ‘law’, and often brutality, the people have endured under repressive regimes and colonialism.

A tangle of electricity lines (P1020085

Another thought provoking sight was this tangle of electric cables. It seemed somewhat symbolic of the complex and tangled history of this country. We were told that this sort of wiring, if that’s what it can be called, is a ‘left over’ consequence of Cyclone Nargis which struck this area with such devastation in May 2008.

Map of Yangon and the delta area (P1120822

When the cyclone came across the Bay of Bengal, it caused it’s estimated over 200,000 deaths. It was the worst natural disaster ever to hit Burma. And the generals initially resisted help from outside countries and emergency agencies. How many more lives were lost as a result of that decision is not known. But if you google Myanmar Cyclone 2008 in Images you will be horrified, as we were, by the scenes that people with cameras and mobile phones tried to get out to let the rest of the world know what was really happening inside this country. Eventually help was allowed.

We met a Burmese doctor who had responded immediately to people’s needs. His stories of the awfulness he encountered, brought us to tears. His bravery and compassion inspired us. Since the cyclone, he has continued with his compassionate work, setting up mobile health clinics and helping to build schools and provide teachers.  He’s an extremely dedicated man and we were very privileged to meet him and hear his story.

Damage to “Road to Mandalay” (P1120131

One of the casualties of Cyclone Nargis was “The Road to Mandalay”, the ship we travelled on for seven days on the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River. It was in Yangon for maintenance when the cyclone struck – wrong place, wrong time. Fortunately, it is now better than new and we had a wonderful time on board.

But before we got to that part of our journey, it was time to farewell the city of Yangon and fly to Heho in the Shan State and drive north-west into the beautiful countryside and hills around Pindaya.  This was a very different part of Burma and our journey became ever more interesting.

And on our wat to Heho, we flew close to the new capital city of Naypyitaw… but we did not stop by to visit!

Map of central Burma showing Naypyitaw (P1120821

When the military government decided to build a new capital, Naypyitaw, 320kms north of Yangon, they left behind a city which, they claimed, is expanding too much for the government to reside there. But they also left behind a city that had witnessed so many of the people’s protests and struggles for freedom. They built a new super highway from Mandalay to Yangon – eight lanes wide between Naypyitaw and Yangon. With that in place, the army can respond quickly to protests if need be! Within the city itself, there’s a 20-lane Boulevard, but like most roads in this new city, it’s usually empty – unlike the congested streets of Yangon that the generals left behind!

Construction of the city was begun in 2002. Since 2005, government ministries and military headquarters have gradually been moved to their respective ‘zones’.  Civilians are banned from entering those compounds.

We were told that in the Parliamentary complex of the new city, there are 31 buildings as well as the City Hall and a 100-room presidential palace. In the Ministry complex, all the  buildings are identical in appearance.

It’s estimated that almost a million people now live in the new city. Apartments in the Residential zones are mostly four story apartment blocks. They are allotted according to rank and marital status. The apartment roofs denote who lives there; green roofs are for employees in the Ministry for Agriculture. Ministry of Health employees live in blue roofed apartments. High-ranking government officials live in separate mansions as befits their status.

A huge pagoda / stupa called Uppatasanti Pagoda or Peace Pagoda was completed in 2009. It is similar in shape and just a little smaller than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It’s a show piece. 

This is not a visitor friendly city, not one that the general population can enjoy. And, it seems, that most Burmese are not at all happy that billions of dollars were spent to build this new city while so many of the population are very poor, and while housing, education and medical health provisions need so much improvement.

We were not disappointed that we did not visit this new city – we had the real Burma to explore. More of that next time.

Jennie and David

Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels

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Our first day out and about in Yangon began with a visit to the Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred religious building in Burma / Myanmar.  Over the years, we have stood in awe of the majesty of cathedrals in Europe, of Abbeys such as Melk Abbey on the Danube, of mosques like Hassan 11 Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco and the wonderful Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.  But this experience was different.

The great golden Shwedagon Paya  (P1020048 © DY of jtdytravels)

This golden stupa dominates the Yangon skyline as it rises from Singuttara Hill, its brilliantly shining spire thrusting 99m into the air. We had seen its photo in books and on the web but nothing really prepared us for the experience of actually being there. It was awe-inspiring. It’s huge and that’s gold – real gold, up there!

A small city of spires (P1090779 © JT of jtdytravels)

The stupa is not a building that you go inside and marvel at the architecture, the sculptures, the art works, the stain glass windows. It’s a mighty, magnificent structure surrounded by a small city of a myriad golden and painted, carved and sculptured stupas, pagodas and temples. It’s almost overwhelming in its scope – and even more so in trying to understand why it is there at all.  I find that when I visit such places it is best to put aside my own belief structures and ‘way of life’ philosophy and allow myself to contemplate another way of looking at life. And for this, our guide Sunshine was an excellent instructor and I have followed up with a good deal of reading.

Let’s begin with why.

The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture. Its basically a solid, bell shaped structure that is built as a tomb for Buddhist relics. And this stupa, the most important in Burma / Myanmar is said to contain some of the Buddha’s hair.  In a country whose people have been steeped for centuries in the Buddhist faith, this stupa is a focus for religious contemplation and meditation as well as for bringing offerings, often in the form of flowers or of gold leaf to maintain the beauty of stupa and pagodas.

Pagodas and temples surround the stupa (P1020011 © DY of jtdytravels)

Everywhere you walk in this huge compound, the central stupa is seen through other gilded and decorated stupas and beautifully carved plaster and wooden pagodas and temples. These have been added over the centuries, often by the old Myanmar royalty and wealthy believers.

The origins of the main stupa, Shwedagon Paya, are lost in ‘the mists of time’, in legend and folk lore. Its age is unknown, but Singuttara Hill, where it is located, has been an ancient sacred site for thousands of years. The  Burmese believe that the relics of three previous Buddhas were buried here.  Legend has it that the current Buddha gave eight of his hairs to two Burmese merchants who had given him some food as he sat meditating under a tree in Northern India. On their return to Burma, the merchants gave some of the hairs to their king who decided to preserve them in a huge stupa. That stupa is said to have been made of multiple layers of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron and gold, each built one on top of the other, to a height of twenty meters.

Legend meets history only in about the 10th Century. Archeologists believe that the building was begun by the Mon people, the ethnic group who dominated this area at that time. It may well have been built over a former building that housed Buddha’s hairs and that is the belief of the Burmese people to this day.

The stupa fell somewhat into disrepair until the 14th Century when the then Mon king had it rebuilt to a height of 18m (59ft).  Earthquakes have caused problems for the stupa over the years and it has had to be rebuilt several times. Over the centuries, kings and queens of Myanmar visited the shrine and many donated their weight in gold to be added to the structure.

Way back in 1586, an English man, Ralph Fitch, visited the great pagoda and wrote:

“….it is called Dogonne, and it is of a wonderful bignesse, and all gilded from the foot to the toppe…it is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in all the world; it standeth very high, and there are foure ways to it, which all along are set with trees of fruits, suchwise that a man may goe in the shade above two miles in length….”

Shwedagon Paya sores into the sky. (P1090753 © JT of jtdytravels)

The 17th Century was a particularly bad century for this stupa… it suffered damage on at least eight occasions.  Then in 1786 the entire top half came crashing down. It needed a big reconstruction. And that happened in the 18th century when it was rebuilt to the present height. The lower part of the structure we see today is solid brick, over which, it is claimed, the builders used 8,688 ‘plates’ of solid gold. The upper part is said to be clad with another 13,153 smaller plates of solid gold. I’m not sure who counted them, but its a lot of gold.

The glittering top of Shwedagon Paya (P1090758 © JT of jtdytravels)

The top of the stupa is far too high up for the eye to discern any great detail.  I’ve magnified the photo to try to give a sense of its beauty. The crown or umbrella is claimed to be studded with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and other precious gems.  On the very top is a 76 carat diamond – that’s 15 gm of diamond.  And 1,485 golden bells hang from the edges of the umbrella .  The whole building is truly stunning; it’s breathtaking in its golden glow. One can only stand in awe of the craftsmen who built it – and those who maintain it. Every four years the stupa is shrouded by bamboo scaffolding as it is checked and maintained with loving care. We were fortunate to see it without scaffolding and in all its majesty.

But there’s so much more to see here than ‘just’ the main golden stupa, although it is always there in every view as you circumnavigate its immense base. There are Pagodas and temples made from wood (teak), from plaster, from brick. Some are covered in gold leaf; some painted with gold coloured paint. There are many shrines containing buddha statues of every size, shape and description, together with smaller shrines housing Buddhists sprits, called Nats.  There are ‘miracle working’ images. This is a place of pilgrimage. A place that Burmese Buddhists revere above all others.

I know that many of you will never get to see it for yourselves so let’s walk (via photos) and get some idea of the magnitude of this amazing place. I also hope that our photos might inspire others of you to make the journey. This was only the beginning of our trip and already we knew we were experiencing something very special.

Soaring, decorated spires of a pagoda (P1020037 © DY of jtdytravels)

Let’s begin with some of the Pagodas, tiered-towers with multiple eaves with decorated finials, often with a symbolic Buddhist meaning, for example, a lotus. In Burma / Myanmar the term “pagoda”, in general, can be used for any kind of Buddhist edifice without specific difference between architectural appearances. (The word stupa comes from India and defines the bell like solid structures.)

Carved teak pagoda (P1020052 © DY of jtdytravels)

Teak is/was one of the predominant timbers of this country and is used in many pagodas across the country. It has been logged far too extensively mainly for lucrative export and now needs protection. Only the government can permit the logging of a teak tree and gain it’s revenue. More about that later. Here, let’s just admire the beauty of the carvings on these beautifully proportioned buildings.

Pagoda decorated in colourful bas relief (P1090797 © JT of jtdytravels)

Perhaps my favourite pagoda was a square one, decorated with colourful bas reliefs. I was so surprised to see such a structure. It’s so different but it’s pictures tell stories to those who come here to meditate.

A prayer and meditation shrine area (P1090777 © JT of jtdytravels)

Throughout the complex, are many prayer and meditation shrine areas where devotees can enter to pray and can observe educational and moral knowledge from paintings and Buddha images placed inside. This one had added modern sparkle with coloured lights flashing on and off. I’m not too sure how that helps meditation! There are no chairs, just mats on very clean polished marble floors. No shoes are worn in the whole compound. The material cloaks worn by some of these Buddha statues are gifts from the faithful.

Another meditation shrine area (P1020056 © DY of jtdytravels)

The golden face of one Buddha statue (P1090741 © JT of jtdytravels)


Large reclining Buddha (P1020055 © DY of jtdytravels)


Internal ceiling of one prayer area (P1020021 © DY of jtdytravels)

Each ceiling in the many prayer and meditation areas is different – and all are beautifully decorated.

Many of the floors are also ornate (P1090745 © JT of jtdytravels)


The Tuesday shrine (P1090726 © JT of jtdytravels)

For the Burmese, the date of your birth is far less important than the day of the week on which you were born. At various points around the base of the stupa, in order, are shrines dedicated to the days of the week – with two for Wednesday, one am and one pm. This one is where Tuesday born people come to pray, burn incense and add offerings.  Aung San Suu Kyi is Tuesday born, so this is where she comes to give special thanks for her birth and life. It’s a happy shrine so I’m glad I, too, am a Tuesday born girl.

At my Tuesday shrine with David (P1090729 © JT of jtdytravels)

With this happy snap, we’ll leave the Shwedagon Paya now until next journal because there is so much more to learn here . It’s not just about the buildings and their ancient and religious stories, but also about the modern history of this country for this compound is also particularly redolent of Burmese / Myanmar secular history.

Jennie and David

Photography © Jennie Thomas and David Young of jtdytravels

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