A travel package to Myanmar with Lekker Adventures takes you to its most popular and oldest Buddhist temple, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is located in the heart of the capital city, Yangon, and is the main tourist destination in Myanmar.
Affectionately known as the Great Dagon Pagoda or Golden Pagoda, the cone-shaped temple is completely covered in gold plates and jewels and contains the relics of four previous Buddhas. Its official title is Shwedagon Zedi Daw and is the most sacred site for Buddhist pilgrimages that travel to Myanmar.
Legend behind the splendid temple
Much of what is known about the origin of Shwedagon Pagoda is based on a legendary tale of two merchant brothers who encountered the ‘Enlightened One’, the new Buddha, over 2 500 years ago. The ruler at the time, King Okkalapa, and his people had been patiently waiting for the new Buddha to show himself. One will come every 5 000 years and it had been longer than that since the last Buddha had been recognised.
The king was concerned that one had not come to be known yet and went to the top of Singuttara Hill to meditate. The relics of three Buddhas had been enshrined on top of the hill and it was regarded as a holy place. To keep it holy, gifts had to be given to the new Buddha and enshrined every 5 000 years. Okkalap was worried that time was running out and the hill would lose its holiness.
Living in northern India was a young man by the name of Siddharta Guatama. Little did Okkalapa know as he fretted about the holy state of the sacred hill that the enlightenment of Guatama, the new Buddha, was transpiring at the same time.
Two merchant brothers from Myanmar, and subjects of Okkalap, met Guatama and presented him with a gift of honey cake, symbolising that they recognised him as The Enlightened One. In return Guatama gave the brothers 8 hairs off his head. Only 4 hairs made it safely back to King Okkalapa, who in turn threw a large party in honour of the brothers. When the casket was opened and the hairs revealed, the earth trembled violently, the trees burst into blossoms and jewels fell from the sky.
King Okkalap built a shrine on Singuttara Hill to house the sacred hairs along with relics of the three previous Buddhas. Thereafter, an enormous pagoda was built on top of the hill to house the shrine and today it is considered one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar.
The magnificent pagoda has stood the test of time and the structure itself and the relics it houses have survived earthquakes, internal fires, invasions and pillaging. The fact that it has survived such hardships and natural disasters lends the pagoda an air of mystique and it represents ‘great strength’ to the people of Myanmar.
From humble beginnings of 8.2 meters, the pagoda has grown in size under the rule of various kings and queens. Today the top soars well of 100 meters (30 feet) into the air and can be seen from miles away. Loosely translated, Shwedagon means “golden hills”. Its gold-encrusted and heavily-jewelled exterior glows like a glorious beacon in the heart of Yangon.
The pagoda was created using 8 688 sheets of gold, 5 448 diamonds and 2 317 rubies, sapphires and other gems on the inside and outside. It houses 1 485 bells, of which one – the Maha Tissada bell – weighs in at 40 tons and is covered with 20kg of gold plating. The ‘smaller’ Maha Gandha bell weighs 23 tons.
The base of the stupa is made of bricks covered in genuine gold plates, donated by Myanmar people and from monarchs in its history. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. The rest is a creation comprising the bell-shaped dome, an inverted almsbol and lotus petals, the banana bud and umbrella crown. The crown is entrusted with thousands of diamonds and rubies and the very top is a bud with a 76 carat (15g) diamond tip.
There are four entrances, each leading up a flight of steps to the platform on Singuttara Hill. A majestic pair of leogryphs called clinthe, or mystical lions, guards each entrance.
What you should know
It is customary to circumnavigate Buddhist stupas in a clockwise direction so one should start off at the eastern shrine which houses a statue of Kakusandha, the first Buddha. Moving in a southerly direction, make your way to a statue of Konāgamana, the second Buddha. On the western side is the statue of Kassapa, the third Buddha. The fourth Buddha, Gautama, is found at the northern end.
Remember to remove your shoes and socks before entering the pagoda out of respect for the Buddha. A ‘no footwear and socks’ policy is strictly implemented.
Dress appropriately when visiting any Buddhist temple in Myanmar. Wear trousers or shorts/skirts that are at least knee length, and shirts and blouses should be elbow length. If you are unsure of what is the correct dress code, rather choose something conservative and modest so that you do not offend anyone.
Shwedagon Pagoda is still an active place of worship and a holy place for Buddhist pilgrimages travelling to Myanmar. Respect their need for serenity and calm and behave appropriately. Speak in hushed tones and walk quietly around the pagoda.
The temple is rich in history and a photographic exhibition in the visitor’s centre pays tribute to its art, history and architecture. Learn more about the Buddhism principles and walk away with a sense of peace and hope that inspires the thousands of pilgrimages who visit the temple every year.
There are donation boxes located around Shwedagon Pagoda if you would like to contribute cash and coins for the upkeep of the temple. They are labelled for specific purposes such as gold plating, electricity, water and maintenance. The people of Myanmar are fervently honest and you can rest assured that your donation will go towards what it is meant for.
The Shwedagon Pagoda Festival begins during the new moon of the month of Tabaung in the traditional Myanmar calendar and continues until the full moon. It’s a fascinating experience and it’s well worth planning a holiday to Myanmar to coincide with the festival period.
Experience the sights and sounds of Myanmar. Lekker Adventures specialises in providing you with the complete travelling experience to Myanmar. Click here to find out more about travelling to Myanmar with the assistance of Lekker Adventures.