The Shwedagon Pagoda at Dusk
by Scott McIntire, travel blogger for GLOBOsapiens
The Shwedagon Pagoda, by far the most famous tourist site in Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar) and also the most sacred Buddhist site in all of the country, stands roughly 328 feet tall and is covered at the higher elevations with solid gold plates and a wealth of jewels (diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires) at the pagoda’s top (known as the umbrella, or ‘hti’ in Burmese) donated by earlier royalty. The pagoda is said to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha that were brought from India, and its construction dates back to the 15th century.
Walking around the base of the majestic Shwedagon, which is surrounded by 64 smaller pagodas and numerous temples and pavilions, is particularly awe-inspiring if one arrives a little before the sunset to witness the pagoda bathed in the warm reflected hues and the subtle shifting shadows of the day’s fading light, and stays into the night as the dusk sky yields to the darkness and the pagoda, now illuminated from below by spotlights, dominates the night sky with its brilliant yellow-golden glow. The ornately-decorated pagoda compound can be a bit crowded in the evening, as locals from all walks of life tend to pay a visit to the Shwedagon with their families at the end of the day as a social outing (which provides one with a good visual cross-section of Burmese society), yet the mood conveyed by the compound is very peaceful. Many have come to worship or make offerings to the Buddha, or to the other deities that pre-dated the introduction of Theravada Buddhism from India, but are still revered and somewhat incorporated into the Buddhist belief system.
As one strolls the grounds of the compound (in a clockwise manner as, dictated by local tradition), the warm evening air is sweetened with the perfume of incense and flowers offered by the faithful. The sound of the voices of young Buddhist nuns chanting prayers in the ancient Pali language mingles with the call of birds and the shimmering melodies of the countless small brass bells that adorn the pagodas, and the penetrating low tomes of larger bells weighing several thousand pounds and housed in ornate pavilions as they are struck three times by the faithful, symbolic of the Three Gems of Buddhism: refuge in The Buddha, refuge in the teachings of The Buddha, and refuge in the monks (“Boda, Dharma, Sangha”).
At the eight cardinal direction points around the base of the Shwedagon which are identifiable at night by the flicker of myriad candles lit in front of a circular raised altar containing a white marble Buddha that sits beneath the protective gaze of a gilded nat spirit statue, people come to the astrological ‘planetary post’ that corresponds to the day of their birth to pour water over the Buddha to symbolically cleanse it, or drape a flower garland around the neck of the Buddha statue, as a form of offering. A gilded statue of the animal that represents the astrological sign of the day sits at the base of the planetary post altar. As there are eight cardinal directions and only seven days of the week, Wednesday is divided into two planetary posts representing Wednesday morning (direction: south / sign: tusked elephant) and Wednesday afternoon (direction: northwest / sign: tusk-less elephant).
At other locations around the Shwedagon, people make offerings to a particular Buddha or nat statue to seek spiritual help in passing an important examination, or to conceive a child, or to help them through some particularly hard time at the direction of a <ital>behdin saya<ital> (psychic), again based on the date and time of their birth. Along the four large and ornately-decorated stairway halls located along the cardinal directions that lead up to the hilltop pagoda compound, the numerous vendor stalls selling temple offerings, Buddha and nat statues, and a variety of traditional handicraft along the stairway convey an almost festive atmosphere. The images and sensations of a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda remain long after you’ve left and become fond memories.
Scott McIntire is an engineer who has worked in the aerospace and automotive industries, but whose true passion is traveling to exotic destinations and exploring other cultures, particularly in the East. He has made seven trips to Southeast Asia and enjoys sharing his experiences through photos, videos and travel writing. He contributes to the travel blog globosapiens.net and has been published in the San Jose Mercury News’ Travel section.