Thousands of visitors stream through the Shwedagon Pagoda every day to pray at the shrines clustered around its base. Approaching from one of the four principal stairways, the majority proceed in a clockwise direction, pausing to make offerings at various landmarks along the way, or to savor the spectacle of the great stupa from the shaded comfort of the covered halls encircling the marble-lined middle terrace. The atmosphere is especially intense at dusk, when the crowds peak, red-robed monks encircle the upper tiers of the golden spire, the air is filled with the scent of incense and candles, and the gilded zedi glows an ethereal color. Dress codes apply (no shorts, miniskirts, or plunging necklines), but otherwise the mood is surprisingly relaxed and inclusive for a place of such religious significance – a testament to the tolerant, hospitable nature of the Burmese.
The great stupa and its surrounding terrace may be approached via four different covered stairways, or zaungdan, aligned with the cardinal points. Each is lined with stalls selling religious paraphernalia, floral offerings, incense, Buddhas, colored flags, streamers, sou- venirs, and other curios, but they all have a slightly different feel. Damaged by fire in 1931, the western stairway leading from the People’s Park is the most modern, with new escala- tors and a pair of giant shiny chinthe, or leogryphs. The north- ern approach dates from 1460 and has 128 steps, while the eastern one, a continuation of Bahan Bazaar, has the most traditional ambience, due to the
The Middle Terrace
Emerging for the first time from the entrance halls to the glare of white marble and gold of Shwedagon’s Middle Terrace is an experience few visitors forget. The principal monument, towering ahead, is surrounded by a forest of elaborately gilded and decorated subsidiary stupas, shrines, and pavilions (tazaung), ranged around a processional walkway built in the 15th century by the Mon kings, who leveled the top of Singuttara Hill for the purpose. Worshippers generally proceed in an auspicious clockwise direction (let ya yit), replicating the movement of the heavens.
The first stop is usually the bo bo gyi or planetary post correspond ing to the day of their birth . Eight in total – Burmese astrology recognizes eight days, with Wednesday divided into two – these take the form of little white Buddha statues to which devotees offer water, flowers, and paper umbrellas. Each day is associ ated with a different animal, represented beneath the statue: a winged gryphon for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked One of the Shwedagon Pagoda‘s four massive stairways, or zaungdan, lined with a variety of shops and stalls elaborate woodcarving and paintwork of its pillars and roofs. This entrance has an elevator. The southern stairway, leading up from the city side of the monu ment, also has an elevator and tends to be the busiest of all, espe cially in the evenings and on weekends.
elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday after noon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday, and mythical dragon- serpent for Saturday. The larger statues behind are the planetary posts’ guardian spirits, or nats.
Other popular sites around the Middle Terrace are the Nine Wonders of the Shwedagon: mostly miracle-working statues of Buddhas, saints, wizards, and necromancers believed to be capable of creating beneficial, or counteracting malevolent, spells. In the evening, hundreds of people file between them, then kneel at the open court to the northwest of the enclosure, known as the Wish Fulfilling Place, to murmur prayers and prostrate themselves before the stupa. Often there are also large family groups attending their children’s shin pyu or coming-of- age ceremony, the children dressed in white silk suits and wearing elaborately sequined hats on their heads, and their elders sporting the finest silk longyis and htameins.
As the stupa’s floodlights are illuminated after sunset, thou- sands of candles and bundles of incense are lit at the table lining the base of the monu ment, fill- ing the air with fragrant smoke.
The Great Stupa
Originally built to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha, along with other precious relics, the great stupa is believed by Myanmar Buddhists to be 2,500 years old, although archeologists maintain that it more probably dates from the Mon era of the 4th–9th centuries AD. Earthquakes and fires have toppled the mighty tower on several occasions, leading to ever larger and more beautiful reconstructions.
Queen Shin Sawbu of Pegu- Hanthawaddy (1394–1471) first covered the stupa in gold leaf, donating her own body weight in gold for the purpose. She was later outdone by her son-in-law, King Dhammazedi, who gave four times his weight, plus that of his wife, to re-clad the stupa. Its present imposing height of 325 ft (99 m), though, was achieved only in 1769.
The pagoda’s design follows a standard Burmese archetype , which has since been often copied throughout the country, most recently in The Shwedagon Pagoda’s Middle Terrace, with elaborately decorated subsidiary shrines Naypyitaw, where the ruling generals built an exact rep lica on the outskirts of the capital.
The arresting spectacle of the golden tower soaring from the summit of Singuttara Hill astonished the British troops who used the complex as a cannon emplacement in the Anglo-Burmese Wars of 1824 and 1852, although this didn’t stop them from pillaging the shrines in search of treasure and attempting (unsuccessfully) to carry off the great Maha Gandha bell to be melted down for cannonballs.
In modern times, the pagoda has served as a rallying point for the pro-democracy struggle. Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a massive crowd here in 1988 during the uprising of that year, and in 2007 the stupa was occupied by protesting monks during the Saffron Revolution.