Thursday, October 2, 2008

Shwedagon Pagoda

The most spectacular building in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a great bell-shaped, solid brick stupa covered with an estimated 55 tons (50 tonnes) of gold. It rises 368 feet (112 meters) on Theinguttara Hill, above the city. The sixteenth-century English adventurer Ralph Fitch wrote that “it is of a wonderful bigness, and all gilded from the foot to the top…. It is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in all the world; it stands very high….” The base of the pagoda, nearly 1,500 feet (460 meters) in perimeter, is surrounded by over seventy sculpture-enriched smaller shrines. It may be approached from four directions, and in the sixteenth century the gates to its three tiered terraces opened from long avenues lined with fruit trees. Although the tourist literature justifiably claims it to be the highest pagoda and the largest golden monument in the world, it is an architectural feat if for no reason other than its size and economic value. It is a thing of great glowing beauty, and a high point in the development of Buddhist architecture in Southeast Asia.

The Shwedagon Pagoda’s origins are immersed in myth. Tradition asserts that it has stood on its hill for 2,500 years, although archeologists believe it to be about 1,000 years younger. But Theinguttara Hill had long been sacred because of the relics of three earlier Buddhas buried there: the staff of Kakuthan, the filter of Gawnagon, and the waistcloth of Kassapa. The legend describes how two brothers met Guatama Buddha, who entrusted them with strands of his hair to be enshrined in Shwedagon. With divine help, they and King Okkalapa discovered the holy hill. To guard all four relics, consecutive pagodas of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron, and gold were built one upon the other. The pagoda was damaged by earthquakes on at least eight occasions between 1564 and 1919, but rebuilding and enhancement by successive kings caused it to grow from the original 66 feet (20 meters) to its present height.

Although it was in the insignificant Lower Myanmar town of Dagon, it seems that Shwedagon emerged as a major shrine during the Mon Kingdom of Hantharwaddy toward the end of the fourteenth century a.d., when King Binnyau undertook repairs to its structure. Between 1455 and 1462, Queen Shinsawpu built the terrace, balustrade, and encircling walls and gilded the pagoda, by then raised to a height of 302 feet (92.3 meters), with her body weight in gold leaf. Further changes were made in the eighteenth century.

In 1755 King Alaungpaya, patriarch of the Kon-Baung dynasty, reunited the whole of Myanmar. He recognized the strategic importance of Dagon and renamed it Yangon (“the end of strife”), which it retained until the British occupation of Burma in 1851. Shinbyushin, king of Ava, extended the Shwedagon Pagoda to its present height in 1774 and crowned it with a new golden htidaw—a seven-tiered umbrella. His son Singu regiled it four years later. In 1786 the top half of the building was brought down by a violent earthquake. The pagoda’s present form dates from its rebuilding at that time. A major renovation was ordered by King Mindon in 1871, when another new htidaw of layered gold, copper, steel, and zinc was erected. No major maintenance was then undertaken until 1999.

When the periodical gilding was being applied at the end of 1998, workers discovered the serious deterioration of King Mindon’s htidaw. Under the direction of the Committee for All-Round Perpetual Renovation of Shwedagon Pagoda, a 700-strong team of laborers and artisans set about to preserve the failing structure. Ngi Hla Nge of Yangon Technological University supervised the engineering work. At the end of April 1999 a new htidaw, consisting of a steel frame covered with gold and alloys and studded with nearly 8,000 precious stones, was hoisted into place; at its pinnacle there is a 76-carat diamond. Most of the cost was met by donations of cash, gold, and jewelry. The restoration was completed by the end of 1999.

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