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Posts Tagged ‘stupa’

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.

Continuing our walk amongst the pagodas (P1090798 © Jt of jtdytravels)

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.

Doc Sue and David on the hot marble paths (P1090791© JT of jtdytravels)

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.

A shady pavilion (P1090785 © Jt of jtdytravels)

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.

The Singu Min Bell (P1090787 © JT of jtdytravels)

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.)

A place of prayer and offerings (P1020031 DY © of jtdytravels)

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.

One of the many monks at the stupa (P1020060 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Rules for Foreign Visitors (P1010991© DY of jtdytravels)

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.

No shoes. No socks. Anywhere. (P1020043 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Burmese are used to going barefoot (P1020041© DY of jtdytravels)

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’.

Even the Spirit Nats are barefoot. (P1020033 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

An outer courtyard (P1010994 © Dy of jtdytravels)

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.

One last look at the golden stupa (P1020048 © DY of jtdytravels)

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

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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)

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Large reclining Buddha (P1020055 © DY of jtdytravels)

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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)

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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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