Sunday, 2 March 2008

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon Main Stupa

The large platform that supports the great stupa contains a variety of other stupas, prayer halls, sculptures and shrines.
One must always walk around (circumambulate) stupas clockwise, so visitors take a left from whichever entrance to the platform they've chosen. Beginning from the southern entrance, straight ahead is a large shrine to Konagamana, the second Buddha, on the south side of the main stupa's plinth. Flanking the shrine are the planetary posts for Mercury.

Continuing west around the plinth, the pilgrim passes a double-bodied lion with a man's face, a laughing necromancer with his hands on his head, and an earth goddess. At the southwestern corner of the plinth is the planetary post for Saturn.
Away from the plinth towards the southwest corner is a pavilion with 28 images representing the 28 previous Buddhas, and near the far southwestern corner is a monument with inscriptions in four languages that recounts a 1920 student rebellion against British rule.
Moving up the west side of the platform, a glass case has two figures of nat (spirits), one of which is the guardian nat of Shwedagon. Next is a prayer hall known as the Rakhaing Tazaung, which is bare inside but has fine woodcarving on its terraced roof. The next prayer hall has an 8m (24-foot) long reclining Buddha, and north of this is the Chinese Merchants' Tazaung, featuring a variety of Buddha figures.
On the west side of the plinth are figures of Mai Lamu and the king of the nat, the parents of King Ukkalapa who is said to have enshrined the Buddha hairs at Schwedagon. The large building directly west of the main stupa is the western adoration hall, built in 1841 but destroyed in the fire that swept the platform in 1931. Flanking the hall are the planetary posts for Jupiter.
Returning to the west side of the platform, directly across from the adoration hall and at the top of the western stairway is the Two Pice Tazaung. North of this is a low pavilion built by manufacturers of monastery supplies. Next is is pavilion with tall columns and a multi-roofed pavilion (pyatthat) rising from the upper roof.
Opposite this, at the northwestern corner of the plinth, is the planetary post for Yahu, a mythical Hindu planet that causes eclipses. Nearby is the Eight Day Stupa, a small stupa with a golden spire and eight niches around its base, each with a Buddha image. Between the niches are figures of animals and birds, representing the eight directions, signs, planets and days of the week.
Northwest of the stupa is the bell pavilion housing the 23-ton Maha Ganda Bell. Cast between 1775 and 1779, this great golden bell was pillaged by the British in 1825, but they dropped it into the Yangon River while trying to get it to the port. After repeated attempts to raise it, the British gave up and said the Burmese were welcome to it if they could get it out of the river. The Burmese placed logs and bamboo beneath the bell until it eventually floated to the surface.
North of the bell pavilion is a large pavilion housing a 9m-high Buddha and often used for public meetings. Behind this is a small shrine with a highly revered wonder-working Buddha image covered in gold leaf.
In an open area of the platform to the east is the star-shaped wish-fulfilling place, where there are often many devotees kneeling and praying towards the great stupa that their wishes will come true. At the far northwestern corner are two banyan trees, one of which was grown from a cutting from the Bodhi Tree in India where the Buddha was enlightened.
On the north side of the platform is the Chinese prayer hall, with woodcarvings and Chinese dragon figures on the sides of the stupa in front of it. The adjacent pavilion is guarded by life-size figures of Indians and the next one by British lions. The significance of these figures is not clear. The crocodile-like bannister at the northern stairway dates from 1460.
Between the stairway and main stupa is a pavilion on the site where the great hti of the main stupa was placed before being raised to the top, and then the Hair Relics Well, which is said to be fed by the Ayeyarwady River. The Buddha's hairs were washed in this well before being placed in the main stupa.
On the north side of the plinth stands the northern adoration hall, featuring an image of the historical Buddha. Flanking the hall are the planetary posts for Venus. The post for the Sun is at the northeastern corner of the plinth, with the animal sign of the garuda, a bird-like creature of Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
Just northeast of the northern adoration hall is one of the most distinctive structures on the platform, a temple modeled after the Mahabodhi Temple in India. Next to this is a small gilded stupa and another two-pice tazaung, which enshrines a 200-year-old Buddha image.
The northeast corner of the platform is occupied by the golden Elder Stupa (or Naungdawgyi Stupa), built on the spot where the hair relics were placed before being enshrined in the central stupa. Women are not permitted to ascend to the Elder Stupa's platform.
South of the stupa is a pavilion dedicated to Izza-Gawna, a legendary monk who was able to replace his lost eyes with one from a goat and one from a bullock. The figure to the left of the main Buddha image has eyes of unequal sizes. In the far northeast corner of the platform is the Dhammazedi inscription from 1485, which was originally on the eastern stairway.
Heading south towards that stairway, one meets the elegant pavilion housing the Maha Titthadaganda (three-toned) Bell, which was cast in 1841 and weighs 42 tons. The bell pavilion's ceiling is made of lacquer inlaid with glass: look for red-billed green parrots hidden in the scrolling among the devas (angels).
Facing the eastern stairway is the eastern shrine hall, widely considered the most beautiful on the platform. Rebuilt after the fire of 1931, it houses an image of Kakusandha, the first Buddha. On either side are the planetary posts for the moon; adjacent to the post on the north are golden Shan umbrellas. Behind the shrine hall, up on the main stupa plinth, is a Buddha image known as the Tawa-gu, which is said to work miracles.
Next to the eastern entrance is the graceful U Nyo pavilion, with a series of woodcarved panels illustrating scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha.
A few structures south from here is a prayer post topped by a mythological hintha bird and an interesting hanging bell. Opposite these on the southeastern corner of the plinth is the planetary post for Mars.
The southeastern corner of the platform has another sacred bodhi tree and offers a good view over Yangon and across the Yangon River. This area of the platform is home to the office of the pagoda trustees, a small museum, a pavilion with fine woodcarvings, a revolving hti, and a telescope for looking at the real hti high atop the stupa.

Names: Shwedagon Pagoda; Shwedagon Paya; Shwe Dagon Paya; Shwe Dagon Pagoda
Dates: Founded 6th-10th century AD; first attested in 1485
Location: North of the city center between People's Park and Kandawgyi, Yangon, Myanmar
Hours: 5am-10pm
Cost: $5
Photography: Permitted; $5 camera fee sometimes enforced

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