Dominating the skyline around Yangon is the towering golden spire of Shwedagon Pagoda. The large stupa sits on a hill just north of the city's city center, and has come to symbolize Yangon, as well as all of Myanmar.
The shrine traces its roots back more than 2,500 years. Singuttara Hill, on which the Shwedagon Pagoda is built, was considered sacred ground even back then. According to legend, King Okkalapa of Suwannabhumi, a kingdom covering the area around present day Yangon, was meditating on Singuttara Hill when the newly enlightened Buddha appeared to him.
Meanwhile, in Bodhgaya, Gautama Buddha was also meditating under a Bodhi tree. After 49 days, he accepted a gift from his disciples, which happened to be a honey cake offered by two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Bhallika, who came from the village of Okkala in Suwannabhumi. In gratitude, the Buddha plucked eight hairs from his head and gave them to the brothers.
The brothers had a rather perilous trip back to their village. They were robbed not once, but twice on the way. Each thief relieved them of two of the Buddha's hairs. On returning home with just the four hairs, the brothers were warmly greeted by King Okkalapa. However, when the king opened the casket containing the hairs, there were not four, but the original eight, and they emitted a bright light that radiated to all corners of the world, bringing sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and many other miracles.
These very holy relics were therefore enshrined in the kingdom's holiest place, on top of Singuttara Hill. There is actually a sequence of six pagodas within the golden outer shrine, one each built of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble and iron brick.
The main golden stupa is nearly 100 meters tall, and plated with 8,688 solid gold tiles. The umbrella shaped crown is set with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies, sapphires and topaz, then topped with a large emerald meant to catch the light of the sun. The main stupa is surrounded by more than 100 other smaller pagodas, pavilions and halls.
Despite the legend recounted above, the exact origins of the pagoda are unknown. However, it is known that the stupa was a well established religious site well before the eleventh century. A succession of kings and queens had the pagoda renovated and enlarged from the fourteenth to late fifteenth centuries. The next 300 years saw the addition of the terraces and out buildings, then in 1768 an earthquake caused the collapse of the top of the pagoda, and requiring another major renovation.
Four stairways climb the hill, one for each of the four cardinal points. Most visitors use the Southern Stairway, which is guarded at the base of the hill by two huge half-lion, half-griffins called chinthe. Tourists are often taken to the Western Stairway, because it has a generous parking area. The stairway was closed during the British occupation, and soon after the British left, a stall at the bottom of the stairs caught fire. The fire spread up the stairs and destroyed several ancient buildings before being put out. You may be surprised to see escalators climbing this route.
No matter which stairway you take, at the top you will arrive at the vast platform created in the fifteenth century. The massive pagoda lies in the exact center of the marble paved terrace. Surrounding the base of the pagodas are 64 smaller stupas, as well as assorted chinthe and other statues. A wide walkway surrounds the pagoda and the stupa at its base. Visitors should always walk in a clockwise direction around the plaza.
Opposite the top of each stairway, at the base of the pagoda, are chapels dedicated to some of the past lives of the Buddha. Northwest of the pagoda is a large open area where most devotees stop to kneel before the stupa and say their prayers. This is also known as the "wish fulfilling place." At the eastern edge of this area is an oddly shaped pagoda with niches housing Buddha statues representing each of the eight days of the week -- Wednesday is considered 'unlucky' so it is divided into two days.
The Sandawdwin Tazaung, a chapel covering an old spring.
Near the northwest corner of the terrace is the Assembly Hall, a large open space where the highly respected abbots of the temple lecture on Buddhist teachings. At the back of the hall is a tall standing Buddha statue. You may see devotees standing before the statue pulling a long cord. If you look up, you'll notice that the cord is attached to a fan over the Buddha's head. As the cord is pulled, the fan is moved back and forth, helping to keep the enlightened one cool as he listens to your prayers.
Next to the chapel on the north side of the pagoda is the Sandawdwin Tazaung, built over a spring which, according to legend, was used to wash the Buddha hairs before they were enshrined in the Pagoda. Opposite to this pavilion, along the eastern edge of the terrace, are a number of pavilions housing the old crowns and decorations of the pagoda, which were replaced during renovations over the years.
The public is open daily from 4:00 to 21:00, but tickets to foreigners are not sold before 6:00. Foreigners must pay an entrance fee, which includes a guide. Visitors must remove their shoes before climbing the stairs up to the terrace.