A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a National Geographic photograph of the Shwedagon Pagoda, en Myanmar, a sight I had never seen before and my jaw literally dropped to my chest.
The gleaming gold structure does not resemble any western idea of architecture and it kind of looked to me like something out of this world.
But I’ve learned not to underestimate the power and wonder of the human spirit and instead I went on to research this magnificent temple.
Plus, I am always attracted to spaces of worship, they are always so peaceful and so comforting and I guess that because of that people put so much effort into their design.
It’s just the quintessential cultural travel!
What is Myanmar?
Ancient cultures have lived in this region and during the 9th century a culture called the Burmans became dominant, bringing their language and culture.
After centuries of war and invasion, Burma was colonized by the British from 1824 to 1885.
After their independence in 1948, Myanmar was immersed in civil war between its ethnics groups.
In 2011 a civil government was established after being under military rule from 1962.
Buddhism and the Shwedagon Pagoda
It is traditionally believed that the Pagoda is 2600 years old, but archaeologists have determined that it was built between the 6th and 10th centuries.
The brothers traveled back to Okkalapa and with the help of the King, they built the first pagoda on the holy Singuttara Hill, the site where past Buddhas relics were enshrined.
The Pagoda in the past
Every new king added a bit to the original Pagoda.
In 1485 King Dhammazedi erected three stone inscriptions on the eastern stairway, each in a different local language.
The inscriptions tell the story of the Pagoda since the time of Gautama Buddha and they can be seen today.
Two huge bells can be seen as well, the one donated by King Singhu of Ava in 1826 and the one donated by King Tharawaddy in 1841.
It is customary for Pagodas en Myanmar to have a stairway in each cardinal point. The four stairways in the Shwedagon Pagoda climb the Singuttara Hill and they serve as entrances to the complex.
The most used entrance is the southern stairway which has public toilets for tourists as well as a counter to collect the $5 entrance fee.
The western stairway is the only entrance that doesn’t have vendors and has escalators. The southern and northern entrances offer you a choice of stair or elevators.
What is a stupa?
A stupa is a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine and the complex of the Shwedagon Pagoda is full of them.
The main stupa of the complex is the big massive golden structure overseeing the city and it stands on top of a 6,4 meter (21 feet) tall plinth.
The base of the main stupa has an octagonal shape and it is surrounded by 64 small stupas, eight on each side.
There are four additional larger stupas on each cardinal point, in front of each stairway.
The main stupa is 99 meters (326 feet) high and if you start walking around it, you’ll have walked 433 meters (1,421 feet) when you’re done.
The top of the structure is called the hti or umbrella and it is decorated with 5448 diamonds and 2317 precious gems. In the middle of the hti is a 76 carat diamond.
Touring the Shwedagon Pagoda
As with any religious site, beware of a dress code and wear appropriate garments.
Before entering the complex you must remove your shoes and socks, so if you’re concerned with walking barefoot on public floors, well, don’t be, because you’d miss out on seeing this magnificent place.
Coming from the southern entrance (considered the main one) the proper way for a visitor to see the Pagoda is to turn left and start walking clockwise.
Here’s a map of what you’ll encounter. Click to enlarge.
1. Southern stairway
2. Western stairway
3. Northern stairway
4. Eastern stairway
5. Southern main shrine – Temple of the Konagomana Buddha
6. Chinese Merited Association Tazaung (Buddhist Shrine)
7. Hall of Golden and Silver Hills
8. Shrine of Sun and Moon
9. Commemorative Column for first Rangoon University students’ boycott
10. Guardian spirit of Shwedagon Pagoda
11. Hall of U Thin and Daw Thet Pyin
12. Rakhine Tazaung
13. Daw Pwint Tazaung
14. Statues of Melamu and Sakka
15. Koo Chein Kan and Ma Kyee Kyee Hall
16. Two Pice Tazaung
17. Main west shrine – Temple of the Kassapa Buddha
18. Pagoda of the Eight Weekdays
19. Maha Gandha Bell
20. U Po Thaung Hall
21. Shin Saw Pu Shrine
22. Maha Bodhi Tree
23. Hall of Great Prosperity
24. Victory Ground
25. Eleven – Shrine cluster
26. Chan Ma Phee’s Hall
27. Buddha’s Foot prints Hall
28. Zediyingana Society
29. Sandawdwin Pagoda
30. North main shrine – Temple of the Gautama Buddha
31. Maha Bodhi Pagoda
32. Hall of Wizards
33. Saw La Paw’s Pagoda
34. Strand Market Two Pice Hall
35. Shin Itzagawna Tazaung
36. Naungdawgyi Pagoda (Elder Brother Pagoda)
37. Maha Tissada Bell
38. Replica of the Hti
39. Bo Bo Aung Shrine
40. Daw Ngwe Zin’s Hall
41. East main shrine – Temple of the Kakusandha Buddha
42. Tawa Ghu Buddha
43. U Nyo Tazaung
44. Dhammazedi Stones
45. Hall of Carousal
46. Curio Museum
47. Shwedagon Museum
You will find many amazing structures, sculptures and works of exquisite craftsmanship.
Some of the highlights include the 30 feet tall Buddha, the reclining Buddha, the massive bells, the fabulous shrines, the inspiring prayer halls and Dhammazedi’s inscriptions.
The whole design of the complex takes into consideration astrology, the birth of the Buddha, planets and animal signs.
Every corner is filled with mysticism, every shrine has a purpose and as a pilgrim or a visitor you are immersed in this flow of peace, reverence and self-observation.
In depth information
There is so much to say about the Shwedagon Pagoda complex, and here are two sources which I think do an exceptional job at explaining each bit, taking you from place to place inside the site.
The article in Today in Myanmar gives you all the detailed and thorough information you need to really delve into the spirit of this place.
If you’d like good detail, but perhaps a more succinct guide, Sacred Destinations might be for you.
Knowing about the Shwedagon Pagoda has been really like one of those treasured moments when you learn something new, it’s exciting, awe-inspiring.
I just can’t wait to get there and absorb its spiritual atmosphere and be transported beyond my mundane reality.
Here’s a short one minute video to inspire you even more:
Did you know the Shwedagon Pagoda existed?
Have you visited it before?
Now that you know about it, what do you think of its glorious architecture?
Share your comments in the field below or join the conversation in Facebook!
- Getting there: There are flights to the city of Yangon from the main capitals in Europe, through Kuala Lumpur or Bankok, once in Yangon you can take a taxi or a bus.
- Hours: 04:00-22:00 every day.
- Entrance fee: $5.
- Temperatures can reach 90 to 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) so dress appropriately.
- Official website: www.shwedagonpagoda.com/
- Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Shwedagon
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/shwedagonpagoda