Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

July 18, 2015
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

A golden symbol of faith: Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

“A golden mystery…a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.” Thus marveled Rudyard Kipling at spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, a collection of temples and shrines that is one of the holiest sites in the Buddhist world. Located on a hill in Myanmar’s capital city of Yangon (formally called Rangoon), the Shwedagon Pagoda is a sacred center of pilgrimage for Buddhists. Chock full of stellar architecture and art, I found it mesmerizing to share this spiritual place with devotees and monks as they made offerings and worshipped.

Officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw, legend claims the pagoda is 2,600 years old, making it the world’s oldest Buddhist stupa. Archaeologists maintain it was built between the 6th and 10th centuries…but who’s counting? It is believed two traders encountered the Buddha just days after His enlightenment and were rewarded for their kindness to Him with eight of His hairs. Those sacred hairs, along with relics from three earlier incarnations of the Buddha, are enshrined in the stupa.

Over millennia the site has survived earthquakes, fires, cyclones, foreign occupation and been pillaged more than once. But Burmese royalty and the devout have always restored the temples and kept them glistening in gold and precious stones. Central to Burmese culture, the pagoda was an important site for the Myanmar independence movement as well as the 2007 Saffron Revolution led by local monks.

Temple, Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

Prayers offered to Buddha in one of many splendid temples. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Visit Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda is located in Yangon’s Dagon district, approximately 4.5 km north of Sule Pagoda (the heart of downtown). A taxi ride from downtown should take around 15 minutes (although the extremely lengthy traffic lights made my trip much longer). The taxi should cost 2000 – 3000 kyat ($2.00 – $3.00).

Monk worshipping in Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

A monk worships in one of the many Gandakuti (caves). Photo: Jeff Dobbins

The pagoda is open daily 4:00AM – 10:00PM, and its visitor center is open from 8:00AM to 9:00PM. Be sure to take the informative map of the complex.

Entrance fee to Shwedagon Pagoda is $8.00 for foreigners.

When visiting the pagoda, be sure to dress modestly. You must wear trousers or at least knee-length shorts or skirt (clad in cargo shorts, I was compelled to purchase a longyi, the traditional Burmese ankle-length “skirt,” for 5000 kyat before being allowed to enter). Exposed shoulders or midriff is unacceptable. You must enter the Shwedagon complex barefoot.

There are four entrances to the pagoda (east, west, north and south), each a long, canopied staircase ascending Sanguttara Hill. All are lined with stalls selling flowers, books, ceremonial umbrellas, religious items and incense. There are also fortunetellers, teahouses and money exchange booths.

There are elevators to the hilltop platform at each of the entrances except the west, which offers an escalator. Guests with wheelchairs can enter the pagoda through the Southern Stairway.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

Among the faithful at the base of the main stupa. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Highlights of Shwedagon Pagoda

It is customary for Buddhist to circle the pagoda in a clockwise direction.

At the center of the complex is the 326-foot Shwedagon Pagoda. The glistening stupa is covered in gold leaves and gold plates and topped by a 43-foot umbrella, made of a half ton of gold and 83, 850 jewels. The stupa’s apex is an orb covered with 4531 diamonds (including a 76-carat diamond), 2317 rubies, sapphires, and other gems, as well as 1065 golden bells.

Planetary post in Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

Everyone must find their planetary post to make an offering…and a wish. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

There are a multitude of smaller pagodas and shrines circling the base of the stupa. Among them are eight planetary posts representing the days of the week (in Burmese astrology, Wednesday is divided between before and after 6pm). Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. Find your planetary post (the day of the week on which you were born – found here) to pay respects, pour water and make a wish.

There are many Buddha images in the Gandakuti (caves) and prayer halls, depicted in styles from varied regions and ages. Several are believed to fulfill worshipers’ wishes.

In the northeast corner stands the glistening 150-foot Naungdawgyi Pagoda.

The museum in the northwest corner displays precious religious items donated to the pagoda over the ages, as well as close-up photos of the jewel-encrusted umbrella and orb of the main pagoda (details are difficult to see because of their height).

Look for the donation boxes located around Shwedagon Pagoda, which are labeled for specific purposes such as for gold plating, electricity, water and maintenance, among others.

Here is a video by Amazing Places on Our Planet that beautifully captures this mystical site.

Nighttime at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

Truly spectacular, lighting up the night. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Have you visited the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda? If so, what did you find most memorable or moving? Tell us in the comments below.

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