The Shwedagon Paya is much more than just another temple. It is cultural and religious heart of Myamar. Built on a small hill in central Yangon (Rangoon) great golden dome rises almost 100m and dominates city skyline. Rudyard Kipling was moved to call it “a golden mystery”.
By day, dome glitters like golden fire. Sunset plays a melody of shades with monument that never fails enchant. At night, complex is illuminated by thousands of strategically-placed spotlights. All Burmese are rightly proud of their national monument, and try to visit site at least once in their lives.
Legend has it main stupa (Buddhist monument in shape of a dome) is 2,500 years old and is home to eight hairs of Buddha, although archaeological evidence suggests it was built by Mon rulers of area around 1,000 – 1,400 years ago. Wars, earthquakes and other calamities have taken their toll on Shwedagon and most of present structure dates back to 1769.
The sacred dome is an enduring symbol of resilience of Burmese – or Bamah – culture. After each setback, Shwedagon is rebuilt and restored to its former glory.
Getting there is easy, as Shwedagon is just north of central Yangon and is easily most popular tourist attraction in city. Every taxi and motor rickshaw driver knows way. The $5 entrance fee includes use of a lift to main floor of complex, but there’s nothing to stop you following footsteps of Buddhist worshippers and climbing steps up Singuuttara Hill to summit. You have four covered walkways to choose from in addition to lifts at northern and southern entrances.
Visitors are allowed from dawn until early evening. English speaking monks often offer themselves as tour guides in return for a $5 donation.
Be advised that all visitors must remove shoes and socks while in main complex. Marble flooring is very hot around noon and slippery after rainfall, but a mat pathway is provided around main stupa.
As with all Buddhist monuments, visitors are expected to walk clockwise around complex. While golden stupa is central feature of Shwedagon, it is not only attraction. In north-western corner is 23 tonne Maha Ganda bell which dates back to 1770s. After first Anglo-Burmese War in 1825, bell was seized by British who intended to ship it to their homeland. The bell was dropped in Yangon River and British were unable to raise it. The Burmese were allowed to try their luck, and they placed logs and bamboo under bell until it floated to surface and was restored to its rightful place.
Just beside Maha Ganda pavilion is a small stupa with a golden spire. Between eight niches around its base are figures of animals and birds representing directions of compass and associated sign and planet for each day of week (Wednesday is divided into morning and afternoon.
This theme is also displayed on main stupa. North is represented by Friday, planet Venus and a guinea pig or mole. North-west is Wednesday afternoon, Yahu and a tuskless elephant. West is Thursday, Jupiter and a rat. South-west is Saturday, Saturn and a naga (dragon-like serpent). South is Wednesday morning, Mercury and a tusked elephant. South-east is Tuesday, Mars and a lion. East is Monday, Moon and a tiger. North-east is Sunday, Sun and a garuda (mythical winged beast like a dragon). Worshippers are supposed to pray at site which represents day on which they were born.