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According to Burmese accounts the Shwedagon pagoda was constructed in 585 b.c.e. It has since been, and is still being, much embellished. Successive Mon and Burmese kings and queens added their weights in gold to the spire as it rose higher and higher through the centuries. The finial or hti is encrusted with enormous rubies and diamonds. The Shwedagon finally reached its present height of 326 feet in the fifteenth century under the patronage of the Pegu queen Shin Sawbu. According to tradition, the Buddha gave eight of his hairs to two Mon merchants who returned to their land and dedicated the pagoda. The Shwedagon is now the most famous shrine in Burma and truly a wonder of the world. Best visited at night, one enters another world of gilded spires and tinkling bells, flickering candles, and reverberating gongs.

The pagoda rises from the 190-foot high Dagon Hill and has four main entrances—one to each cardinal point—with long covered stairs, commanded at their feet by giant chinthé lions, and lined with pagoda shops selling flowers and religious paraphernalia. The south and east stairs have been remodeled recently. The main terrace was leveled by the Pegu kings in the fifteenth century; it covers fourteen acres and is paved with marble slabs. The main stŪpa has a circumference of 1,421 feet; the base is octagonal, each side lined with eight subsidiary stūpas for a total of sixty-four. At each corner is a manothiha or sphinx. Octagonal terraces rise for eighty feet; only one terrace above the main platform is accessible, and only to monks and male Buddhists. Above these are the circular bands that rise to the hti finial.

Opposite the covered zaung-dan (stair halls) are the four principal shrines dedicated to each of the four buddhas who have manifested themselves during the present eon. Filling the platform are several hundred shrines and temples, mostly dating from the colonial period and Rangoon's development as a mercantile capital. There are shrines erected by various merchant guilds, including the Chinese Buddhist Community. A fire in 1931 destroyed many of these pavilions and they were subsequently rebuilt. There are many fine examples of traditional wood carving. Surrounding the main stūpa are planetary shrines for the days of the week with their corresponding animals. There are countless other shrines, statues, and symbolic objects on site. Divine beasts are everywhere, as are nats (spirits). The Mahā Ghaṇṭā, a great bell cast by King Singu in 1779, is especially notable. It weighs twenty-three tons, has a diameter of over six feet, and stands seven feet high. In 1825 the British attempted to send the bell to London as booty, but while loading it onto a ship it fell into the Rangoon River and was abandoned there. Later an association of pious Burmese salvaged it from the riverbed and were allowed to replace it in the Shwedagon. There is another larger bell, the Mahatisadda Ghaṇṭā, that weighs forty tons; it was donated by King Tharawaddy in 1848 and is the second-largest bell in Burma.

See also:Monastic Architecture; Myanmar; Myanmar, Buddhist Art in; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


Moore, Elizabeth; Meyer, Hansjorg; and U Win Pe. Shwedagon: Golden Pagoda of Myanmar. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Win Pe. The Shwedagon. Rangoon: Printing and Publishing Corporation, 1972.

Paul Strachan