The gilded Shwezigon Pagoda, on the outskirts of Nyaung U in the northeastern corner of the archeological zone, was Bagan’s most important reli- gious site during the reign of King Anawrahta, founder of the Bagan Empire , and his son, King Kyanzittha, who completed work on this com plex. Over the span of their two lifetimes, military conquests and land reforms brought peace and prosperity to the kingdom, enabling an intense period of temple construction of which this, along with the Ananda Temple, is the shining example. It was Anawrahta’s enthusiastic promotion of Theravada Buddhism, coupled with a tolerant attitude to nat worship, that also forged the distinctive religious culture of Burma in the 11th century – one that endures to this day. Evidence of this is to be found in the south east corner of the pagoda’s enclo- sure, where the Shrine of the 37 Mahagiri Nats is dominated by a stone statue of Thagyamin, the king of the nats.
Believed to enclose a bone and tooth relic of Gautama Buddha, as well as a gold image of Anawrahta and a Chinese emerald Buddha, the main zedi (stupa) measures 160 ft (49 m) high and 160 ft (49 m) across its base, with four smaller stupas at its corners and bands of 500 beautifully enameled Jataka plaques around its sides. Four other subsidiary shrines at the zedi’s cardinal points house beautiful castcopper Buddhas dating from 1102. Also worth a close look, on the eastern façade of the pagoda near the great lion images, are the Edicts of King Kyanzittha, recounting the ruler’s coronation and the foundation story of the site.