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Shwedagon:   Myanmar's Holy Land


This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

It's been said that as soon as you leave the airport in Yangon, the capitol of Myanmar (Burma), you know you're in a different place. I remembered that as I started my vacation from my job in Thailand at Yangon's Mengaladon International airport. I didn't even have to leave the airport lobby. As soon as I reached the arrivals lounge I noticed the men in skirts. Or rather men wearing traditional longiys. The longyi is similar to an Indian sarong, but both men and women wear it. For men it is checkered; for women it is either plain or printed with colorful designs. It makes sense in a hot climate, as it allows the air to move freely. Yangon is a city where, rather than skyscrapers, huge gold towers called "zedis" dominate the skyline.

Once I'd checked into my hotel, I got a taxi to the holiest place in Burma, the Shwedagon Pagoda. History and myth are intertwined at Shweedagon and it's not easy to figure out which is which. It has been a holy place for at least 700 years, probably more. To the Burmese, it has been a holy place since before the creation of the world. The Burmese have their own cosmology and they believe that the world has been created and destroyed four times in the past. Each time a Buddha has come to the earth to teach people the way to nirvana.

The story of the Shwedagon reads like this:   One day, 2500 years ago in the time of the Buddha, two Burmese merchants were in India. As they were carrying their goods on ox carts, the oxen stopped for no apparent reason. Little did they know that Thangya Min, the king of the nats (Burmese spirits, see the previous article), had placed a spell on them. As nothing would make them budge, the merchants decided to find a tree to rest under. They found a bo tree by a lake and walked to the shady side of it to rest. There they found a man sitting in deep meditation. There was a soft but clearly visible light of a thousand colors around his head. He was the Buddha. As they rested there the Buddha shared his teachings with them and then gave them eight strands of hair from his head to take back to Myanmar. They kept the hairs in a golden box and headed home right away. When they returned home they delivered the teachings of the Buddha to the king who immediately converted to Buddhism and spread the teaching throughout the kingdom. He then decided to build a great pagoda for the hairs. That night the king had a dream in which Thangya Min showed him the hill where the hairs should be enshrined. As the site was being excavated, the laborers discovered that relics from the previous three Buddhas had been enshrined at the same spot and that great shrines had been erected on the hill in each of the world-cycles.

When it came time to place the hairs in a new box, designed just to hold them, the old box was opened. As it was opened a bright light emerged from the hairs that shown to the summit of heaven and to the lowest point in hell. The blind could see, the deaf could hear, the ground shook, lightning flashed, a storm of gems and gold descended upon the earth, and all the trees of the earth at once bloomed and bore fruit. The hairs were place inside a zedi, a bell-shaped shrine.

The Shwedagon has been added onto for centuries and the wealthy have often made donations of gold and gold jewelry to the shrine. Just seeing it from the street is amazing enough. The four entrances are guarded by two white and gold lions measuring almost 30 feet in height. Each stairway is protected from the sun by dozens of huge green and gold pavilions with multi-tiered roofs, which look like temples in themselves. After paying the fee I hired a guide. Despite having seen many pictures of Shwedagon, the effect of walking into the complex was jaw-dropping. It's a golden fairy-tale land filled with zedis, open-faced shrines and temples. All around are statues of nats, angels, magicians, mythical animals, real animals that appear in Burmese legends, nat shrines and other otherworldly items. In the center is the main zedi.

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