You’ll find Sule Pagoda at the intersection of Maha Bandula and Sule Pagoda Road in downtown Yangon. Its lower part squats in the middle of the crossroads while its upper part tapers above it, from a distance looking like a giant golden party hat. I’ve been in taxis approaching the pagoda and seen the taxi-drivers lift both hands off their steering wheels and clasp them in a gesture of prayer. “Don’t pray,” I’ve felt like shouting at them. “Just steer!”
As well as occupying a geographical crossroads, Sule Pagoda has in the recent past been at a metaphorical crossroads. It became a rallying place for anti-government protestors during 2007’s Saffron Revolution, named after the colour of the robes of the monks who, alongside students and political activists, led the demonstrations. Although that episode seemed to end in victory for the ruling military junta and the man in charge at the time, General Than Shwe, was able to remain in power until his retirement four years later, it may have nudged Myanmar down the road to reform that it’s (hopefully) travelling on today.
The pagoda has four entrances, each facing one of the four stretches of road that form a compass around it. Apart from those four entrances, the pagoda’s circumference is used for commercial purposes – as you walk along the circular pavement that rings the outside of the structure, you pass dozens of identically-sized, identically-styled shop-fronts, one separated from the next by narrow strips of yellow-tiled wall, and all possessing metal grills that close over their doors in the evenings.
The businesses in most of those shops seem rather mundane, for instance, selling phones and sim-cards. There is, though, a music shop with a guitar-shaped sign outside it. Also, there are a couple of fortune-tellers and astrologers – including one that sports a sign with a hand whose lines are charted and annotated according to the ‘science’ of palmistry: ‘head’, ‘heart’, ‘life’, ‘balance’, ‘intuition’ and so on.
Another feature of the pagoda’s exterior is the pigeons that seem to permanently cluster on the road in front of one entrance. At times there’s so many of them they resemble a grey, feathery carpet. The pedlars operating at that entrance keep them fed and somehow they all manage to survive the wheels of the passing traffic.
Many of the pedlars are ladies crouching at the entrances with bell-shaped cages that are packed with little birds. I presume what they’re doing is similar to a practice I’ve seen in other Buddhist countries – they sell you a bird at some holy spot, then you say a prayer and release it for good luck. Inside the entrances, meanwhile, vendors at counters sell big shiny bouquets of artificial flowers. You also (foreigners at least) need to pay an entrance fee and remove your shoes.
Standing at the top of each flight of entrance-stairs is a huddle of Buddha statues, their heads haloed by psychedelic whirls of coloured lights. However, while I wandered along the tiled concourse encircling the building’s golden spire, the most interesting feature I saw was this pair of dragons whose criss-crossing bodies form an ‘X’ shape.
Their two curling tails form frames that contain two pictures. One shows a green peacock with golden-eyed feathers – according to www.signology.org, “(i)n Buddhism, the ‘eyes’ in the peacock’s tail is a symbol of watchfulness.” The other shows a big and rather alarmed-looking white hare. On www.what’s-your-sign.com, I’ve read that “it’s said that the Buddha, disguised as a hare, threw himself in a fire as a sacrifice to the god Indra. His reward was to live an eternal life as the moon.” So I wonder if the pale disc against which this hare is depicted represents the moon.
Something I’ve noticed in this and in other temples in Myanmar is that people come to them, sit down, close their eyes and spend periods of time actually meditating. They seem to visit with a genuine desire to become attuned with what’s represented by the symbolism and imagery around them. This is a contrast to similar holy sites I’ve visited in certain other Buddhist countries, where I get the impression that visitors come, make a quick offering, say a quick prayer and hurry off again – presumably in the hope that so long as they’ve shown their faces and gone through a few motions, they’ll be rewarded with happiness and fortune.