A Buddhist wonderland



Every evening since I’d arrived in Yangon, I’d viewed Shwedagon Pagoda from my hotel window.  It was a gorgeous, golden-glowing apparition that dominated the city’s skyline.  So when I went to visit the pagoda one Saturday afternoon, I expected to see it close-up and in detail – but that and nothing more.


Well, I found the massive pagoda in all its glory – its architectural features including, as you look up its 99-metre bulk, several terraces, a bell, a turban band, an inverted alms bowl, lotus petals, a banana bud, an umbrella crown, a vane and, right at the top, a diamond bud.  But I wasn’t prepared for the palaver and hurly-burly going on amid a congestion of structures surrounding it.  It was an experience I can liken only to being in a Buddhist wonderland.  A Buddhist Disneyland, even.


For, yes, the great pagoda is hemmed in by a veritable forest of smaller but still-striking edifices.  Piercing up around it are countless golden spires and pinnacles, and tapering, tiered and baroquely-ornate roofs.  These belong to several different arrangements of stupas, including four that mark the cardinal directions, four more that mark the corners of the plinth on which Shwedagon Pagoda stands, and another sixty that ring its circumference; and to pavilions that serve as museums, galleries and rest centres, and to others again that serve as places of worship and meditation.



The pagoda is encircled by a marble-floored thoroughfare.  Countless visitors wander along this, swarming around and in and out of the smaller structures, their bare soles insulated against the heat of the sun-baked tiles by a long green strip of matting.


Incidentally, there’s free wifi here courtesy of Redlink Communications.  So the environs of Shwedagon Pagoda must be one of the most cosmic and meditative places in the world to sit and surf the Web.



While I explored, I heard loud, sonorous clangs as visitors struck the many bells hanging about the site.  I also passed elderly monks, swathed in dark crimson robes.  And I marvelled at the number of Buddha statues on display.  It was as if a giant Buddha statue-making machine had gone into overdrive, and its off-switch had stopped working, and it kept churning out more and more of the things.  I particularly liked the many ‘electro-Buddhas’ whose heads were haloed with swirling multi-coloured lights.



One building there contains a replica of the ‘sacred tooth’ of Buddha – the real tooth is allegedly contained in a temple in Kandy in Sri Lanka.  However, Shwedagon Pagoda can boast an impressive number of original relics.  Contained within the great gold-plated dome are, for instance, eight hairs said to have belonged to the Gautama Buddha; plus the reputed staff of the Kakusandha Buddha, the reputed water-filter of the Konagamana Buddha and a reputed fragment of the robe of the Kassapa Buddha.



I loved the seemingly infinite number of details around the pagoda – the human figurines, both serene and jovial; the squatting lions; the coiled snakes; the sphinxes gazing down from rooftop corners; the serpentine dragons descending from those corners to the floor.  But after an hour, mentally, I felt a bit knackered by it all – there was so much to see that I ended up suffering from sensory overload and visual exhaustion.



Shwedagon Pagda might be one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar but as usual, when it comes to unscrupulous city developers and unscrupulous city development-projects, nothing is really sacred.  Lately there was controversy in Yangon about several proposals for new buildings close to the pagoda that, allegedly, would block views of it and spoil the ambience of its neighbourhood.  A particular outcry was raised about a thing called Dagon City One, a proposed development of luxury apartment buildings involving nine hectares of land belonging to Myanmar’s military and 300 million dollars of American money.


After noisy lobbying by indignant Buddhist monks and scholars, and by Yangon’s citizenry, the government announced that the projects would be shelved.  Let’s hope people stay vigilant about future development.  I would hate it if a few years from now the golden nighttime gorgeousness of Shwedagon Pagoda was obscured by a London-style Gherkin, or a London-style Walkie-Talkie, or a London-style Shard.



A muckle crocodile



Nearly 100 metres high, the gold-plated and jewel-studded stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda stands on Singuttara Hill and dominates the skyline of Yangon.


To reach it from its southern side, you first have to enter a passageway at the junction of Uhtaung Bo Road and Shwedagon Pagoda Road, which is housed in a long, spired pavilion climbing the hillside.  Inside, the alternating staircases and stretches of gently-rising floor are flanked by varnished red columns; and set behind those columns are rows of little shops selling figurines, flowers and religious souvenirs.



Yes, the passageway is really a tourist-shop drag.  But I have to say that it looks very smart.  There’s barely an ounce of the tattiness that you’ll find among the tourist-stalls crowding the entrances of most popular religious sites in the world.  In fact, you have to remove your shoes and hand them in at a reception desk at the bottom of the passageway, before you enter it.  Here, evidently, even treading between the souvenir shops qualifies as treading on sacred ground.


There are other entrances to Shwedagon Pagoda, on its east, north and west, but I don’t know if their approaches are as grand as this one.


I tried to take photographs as I ascended the passageway, but my cheap camera was defeated by the subdued but shimmering light that filtered into it through the various openings along its sides.  Here’s the only photograph that achieved anything close to clarity.  (For some reason, someone had left an open umbrella abandoned in the middle of the floor behind me.)



As I climbed the final flight of stairs leading to the entrance of the pagoda proper, I realised that the low, open walls on either side had, reclining on top of them, two monstrously big and monstrously long crocodile statues; their backs notched and serpentine, their jaws frozen in a bemused rictus, their eyes bulging and sinister.  And immediately I found myself thinking of the children’s poem Crocodile, written in Scots by the late J.K. Annand, which goes thus:


“When doukin in the River Nile,

I met a muckle crocodile.

He flicked his tail, he blinked his ee,

Syne bared his ugsome teeth at me.


Says I, ‘I never saw the like,

Cleanin your teeth maun be a fike!

What sort a besom do ye hae,

Tae brush a set o teeth like thae?’


The crocodile said, ‘Nane ava.

I never brush my teeth at aa!

A wee bird redds them up, ye see,

And saves me monie – a dentist’s fee!’”