Burma: A Land That Sacred Sites Call Home
By Melia McClure
Burma is a country of ravishing beauty, a land watched over by the holy gaze of ancient Buddhist temples. It is the largest nation in mainland Southeast Asia, with nearly 2,000 kilometers of uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Abundant natural loveliness in the form of verdant mountain forests and meandering rivers stands as a peaceful sentinel in the face of decades of political oppression. And, as they have done for thousands of years, many sacred sites keep reverent vigil over the landscape as Burma’s people await the winds of change.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda to the Burmese people, wherein is enshrined relics from four Buddhas, including the Supreme Buddha, Sakyamuni. Starting out as a structure of a mere 27 feet (8.2 meters) and now extending into the sky at 361 feet tall (326 feet, or 99 meters, above the platform), this gilded pagoda and stupa is also known to English speakers as the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda. It holds a dominant place in the skyline of the city of Yangon, aided in its ascension by the hill upon which it rests, Singuttarra Hill, and is one of the world’s great spiritual wonders. The stupa’s top is aglitter with thousands of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other gems, the largest of all a 76-carat diamond, and it is also adorned with 1,065 golden bells. Hundreds of brilliantly colored temples, stupas and statues comprise the pagoda complex, shining forth thousands of years of art and architecture.
Legend has it that the Shwedagon Pagoda has been in existence for more than 2,500 years. The story begins with two merchant brothers, Tapassu and Bhallika, who hailed from the ancient capital of Asitanjana which was located in Mon territory, now Burma. The brothers embarked on a trading journey to India, eventually arriving at the place where Sakyamuni Buddha sat in bliss on the 49th day after he had attained enlightenment.
At the urging of a deity, Tapassu and Bhallika offered Buddha honey cakes in a bowl supplied by the Four Regent Gods. Buddha ate the cakes and the brothers became his first lay disciples. They asked for a gift from him and in response to their request, Buddha passed his hand over his head and obtained eight hairs, giving them to his new disciples. The brothers enshrined the hairs in a ruby box and began their journey, by ship and by cart, back to their homeland. On the return trip, they encountered a king who requested two of the hairs, which he was given, and then, in fantastical style, when they reached the southwestern tip of Burma they came upon a naga (serpent) king who also requested two hairs, and in exchange carried the brothers to the naga country of Bhumintara. They placed the ruby box containing the four remaining hairs into a little pagoda made of pearls and sent a message to the king of the Mon people, King Ukkalapa, of what had transpired. The king responded by visiting the pagoda in the company of elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers. With the drama inherent in spiritual mythology, it is said that when the king opened the ruby box, “there was a tumult among men and spirits,” light rays from the hairs shot Heavenward, spontaneous healings occurred, the Earth shook and trees suddenly sprouted flowers and fruit. Deeply moved, the king made a sacred vow, so demonstrated by his clockwise walk of respect around the pearl pagoda. By this vow, the number of the Buddha’s hairs was restored to eight.
King Ukkalapa and the brothers then brought the hairs back to Asitanjana where, along with Sakka, king of the devas (literally, “shining ones,” a class of celestial beings), they decided to enshrine the sacred hairs on Singuttara Hill. It was there that three relics of three previous Buddhas had already been enshrined: the water filter of Kakusandha, the robe of Konagamana and the staff of Kassapa.
The enshrinement occurred on the full moon of Tabaung, the 12th and final month of the Burmese Lunar calendar. A relic chamber was constructed and filled with jewels upon which was placed a jewel-encrusted ship. Upon the ship was placed the sacred relics of the four Buddhas. A gilded stone slab sealed in the holy contents and on top of this, a golden pagoda came to rest. The golden pagoda was subsequently encased in a succession of pagodas: silver, gold and copper alloy, bronze, iron, marble and then, finally, brick, which was gilded over the ensuing centuries by both monarchs and the general populace. The practice of donating gold to maintain the pagoda’s gilding continues to the present day, having been started in the 15th century by Queen Shin Sawbu, who gifted her weight in gold.
Legend aside, many archeologists believe the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. Whenever the genesis of this ancient wonder began, it is certain that a succession of royal figures added to the stupa’s height, and repairs have been made to remedy damage caused by several powerful earthquakes. Over the centuries, this spiritual and architectural marvel has also been challenged by pillaging, invasions, foreign occupation and a stairwell fire, but continues to endure as the pride of Burma.
Today the Shwedagon Pagoda remains central to Burmese communal and spiritual life. Visiting sacred pagodas are important to the Buddhists of Burma, as the journey is symbolic of treading the noble path of compassion toward higher consciousness. All visitors must shed their footwear prior to touching the first step at any of the entrances. Pilgrims buy flowers, candles, flags and streamers to be placed as offerings at the stupa wherein are contained the relics of the four Buddhas. Burmese people walk around the stupa clockwise, as the legendary King Ukkalapa did. There are eight “planetary posts” corresponding to their calendar’s eight days of the week (Wednesday is divided into two parts), and pilgrims meditate, pray, and make offerings and wishes to the Buddha image at the planetary post that corresponds to the day of the week on which they were born. Buddhist ritual in Burma is strongly rooted in astrology that is in turn rooted in Hindu Brahmanism. A guardian angel is tucked behind the Buddha image, and underneath it is the animal that corresponds to the particular day of the week. As people make wishes, they often pour water onto the image as a means of paying respect and cleansing oneself of wrongdoing.
This magical landmark has also served as one of Burma’s few political arenas many times in its history, and it has continued to bear witness to strife into the 21st century. In September of 2007, in the midst of nationwide protests against the ruling military regime, Buddhist monks, thousands of whom led many of the protests, were denied access to Shwedagon Pagoda for several days. Nuns and lay people also participated in the demonstrations that left at least five dead, and many injured or detained.
A Steadfast Beacon of Hope and Beauty
Shwedagon Pagoda can be seen from nearly everywhere in Yangon, providing inspiration and spiritual balm to millions. In 1889, English writer Rudyard Kipling journeyed to this wonder of the ancient and modern worlds, and wrote of first laying eyes on it: “Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun….”
It is possible that it is even more exquisite now than when Kipling recorded his impressions. Founded as a tribute to compassion and enlightenment, Shwedagon Pagoda has inspired, awed and soothed throughout centuries. And, if history is any indication, this sacred site will continue to shine a light of hope and higher consciousness for generations to come.
Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock)
Perched with breathtaking precariousness atop a cliff edge 210 kilometers from the city of Yangon, the Golden Rock is one of the most revered holy sites in Burma. It is a massive 25-foot tall (7.6 meter) gilded boulder with a girth of 50 (15 meters) feet, topped with a 24-foot stupa. The Golden Rock’s area of contact with the cliff edge of Mount Kyaiktiyo is miniscule, and it has an overhang of half its length, giving awed onlookers the impression that it could come crashing down at any moment. The people of Burma believe that the rock was perched on the cliff edge 2,500 years ago. As legend has it, the rock is held in place by a single hair of the Buddha, which the Buddha himself, on one of numerous visits, had given to a hermit named Taik Tha. This sacred hair was brought by the hermit to his king, and given as a gift with the instruction that it be enshrined under a rock whose shape mimicked that of the hermit’s head. Indeed, the legend lives on in the name “Kyaiktiyo,” which means “Pagoda Upon a Hermit’s Head.” With the poetry of myth, the story goes on to tell us that this was no ordinary king, but rather a king that was the son of a zawgyi (a shamanic being with magical powers of alchemy) and a naga princess, and so his inherited abilities meant he had no trouble fetching the rock from the bottom of the ocean. With the aid of Thagyamin, a heavenly king in Buddhist cosmology, and a purpose-built ship, Golden Rock was transported from the ocean to the mountain, and once it was balanced on the single hair of the Buddha, the ship turned to stone. A stone that resembles a sailing vessel is enshrined nearby and known as Kyaukthanban Stupa, which literally means “stone boat stupa,” and is also worshiped by pilgrims.
Another legend tells us that the rock actually hovers in the air above the cliff. Once upon a time, there was enough space between rock and cliff for a chicken to pass through until the giant wonder dropped a bit, and then only a partridge could pass through, and then only a sparrow, until finally, now, the space is too small to be witnessed by the human eye.
A continuous flow of pilgrims is drawn to Golden Rock, with most men crossing a bridge that straddles an abyss to place a square of gold leaf upon the rock as an offering and an act of merit. Women are not permitted to touch it. Legend also notes that those who make pilgrimage three times in a year will be bestowed wealth and recognition, and it is said that one glance at this gravity-defying miracle provides enough inspiration to lead anyone to the Buddhist path. Whatever your faith, this natural wonder is worth a visit, not only to bear witness to a miracle, but to be surrounded by the high spiritual vibrations imprinted on this landmark by generations of pilgrims in a state of reverence. The village of Kinpun is located at the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo, and it is from there that one sets out to ascend toward Golden Rock. On the approach, many precariously situated granite boulders present themselves to determined visitors. The journey from Kinpun is approximately 11 kilometers, and near the top of the mountain two lions stand fierce watch at the entrance. The final 1.2 kilometer climb is steep and must be walked – barefoot, as per Burmese custom. Staunch believers who are disabled can be seen ascending toward the rock on crutches, and elderly people unable to climb are carried up on stretchers by porters.
As the light shifts throughout the day, so does the mercurial gleam of the rock, which offers a different glow at dawn than at sunset. November to March sees peak pilgrimage season, when the intensity of spiritual energy is heightened by reverberant chanting, prayers and candle lighting that continue throughout the night. The full moon of Tabaung in March is particularly special to pilgrims, and on that occasion 90,000 candles are lit on the platform on which Golden Rock rests, in veneration of Buddha.
Golden Rock has seemingly teetered on the edge of a mountain for centuries, surviving earthquakes to serve as a beacon of Divinity. Perhaps it also serves as a metaphor for the ability of human beings – spiritual beings in physical form – to be “made golden” as they take chances in life, “living on the edge” in search of meaning and higher consciousness.
Burma: An Ancient and Holy Land
Homo sapiens have lived in Burma for millennia, first establishing a Stone Age culture more than 13,000 years ago. Evidence of a caveman presence dates back three-quarters of a million years. Around the second century BC, when the earliest city-states began to take shape, commerce with India meant the importation of Buddhism, as well as multiple cultural, political and architectural ideas that have had lasting influence.
Despite wars and the shadows of imperialism and military rule, Burma’s culture continues to be steeped in the beauty of spiritual tradition and lore, which have carried the resilient Burmese people through shifting tides. The many holy landmarks rooted in the country’s age-old earth remind us that compassion is quietly unchanging, that in the midst of upheaval, it is ever-present and reaching toward the sky.