Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Architecture and Layout


Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Architecture and Layout
   The Shwe Dagon Pagoda is dense with religious and symbolic meaning. In physical terms, it can be understood in terms of three components: the 99-meter (326-foot)-high stupa, said to contain the relics of the four Buddhas of the present era, including eight hairs of Gotama Buddha; the pagoda platform upon which it is built, which is roughly rectangular in shape and five hectares in area; and clusters of devotion halls (tazaung), shrines, smaller stupas, and other sites that crowd the platform and reflect both the complexity of the Burmese Buddhist tradition and its syncretic association with subordinate non-Buddhist beliefs in gods and spirits (nats) and occult figures (weikza). The stupa is believed to be solid, though a newspaper article published in 1968 tells of a person who claimed to have entered a tunnel many years before and discovered the "Relic Chamber" deep within. During their occupation of the pagoda platform, the British dug tunnels inside it. It is covered on the outside by gold leaf, which is replaced at regular intervals by devotees, although the "banana bud" is covered with gold plates. The total amount of gold adorning the stupa is estimated to be over three tons.
   The bell-shaped stupa, raised above the platform on a plinth, is built up on successive, tapering levels, each with a distinct name relating to its physical appearance: the "square" and "octagonal terraces," the "bands," the "bell," the "twisted turban" molding, the "lotus," the "banana bud," the "umbrella" (hti ), and the "diamond bud." Both the seven-tiered umbrella and the diamond bud are elaborate metal structures, studded with gemstones, bells, and small Buddha images. A flag-like device called the "vane" extends from the diamond bud near the apex of the stupa, whose structure in totality represents the different levels of worldly existence reaching up to the attainment of nibbana (nirvana).
   The pagoda platform is approached by way of four stairways on the north, east, south, and west sides. The southern stairway is considered the main entrance, flanked at its base by two enormous chinthe (lions). All stairways except the western one (which was fitted recently with an escalator) contain small shops selling a wide variety of devotional items, such as flowers, beads, and sandalwood Buddha images. Pilgrims make their way around the platform in a clockwise direction.
   The variety of buildings clustered around the stupa is overwhelming: shrines (planetary posts) for each of the eight days of the Burmese week; small stupas ringing the main stupa; devotional halls for each of the four Buddhas of the present era, located at the four cardinal directions; the Naung Daw Gyi (Elder Brother) pagoda, which is, according to legend, where the eight hairs of Gotama Buddha were kept before being encased in the main stupa; a sacred banyan tree; nat and weikza images and shrines; a reproduction of the Maha Bodhi stupa in India; and the stone inscriptions of King Dhammazedi that relate the pagoda's history. A distinctive feature of many of the buildings located on or approaching the platform is the classical Burmese pyat-that or tiered roof structure, originally built of wood, which makes a striking contrast with the immense solidity of the main stupa. Despite chronic shortages of electricity in Rangoon (Yangon), the Shwe Dagon Pagoda is usually illuminated at night, an impressive site.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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