Shwedagon Pagoda – A beautiful winking wonder

Architecture is a visual art and the buildings speak for themselves.

Julia Morgan

Buddhists like to build their scared places at the top of a hill. I’m not sure why. Maybe, it is because each step upwards expiates our earthly sins and carries us closer to a purer state in which we can enter the sacred spot. Kiplings’ ‘beautiful winking wonder’, the Shwedagon Pagoda, sits at the top of Singutarra Hill, which is 167 feet above Yangon. There are four covered walkways with steps that climb the hill; at the top sits a splendid stupa covered with gold plates.

On my first visit in 1999, I carried my karma step by step, up the 167 feet to reach the terrace via the least used walkway at the eastern entrance. I had stayed near Kandawgyi Lake and this was the closest entrance. On this visit, I went looking for the western entryway because it has escalators. (The other walkways now also have lifts but I am claustrophobic and prefer escalators.) All taxi drivers in Yangon know where the Shwedagon is located but not all know where the escalators are. My taxi driver took me to the southern entrance (on Shwedagon Road). Before I dismissed him, I hopped out and asked one of the parking lot attendants to see if we were at the correct entrance. We weren’t. He directed the taxi driver to the western entrance, which seemed a long way round and definitely too far to walk in the late afternoon heat.

Shoes must be removed at the bottom. You can leave them with a minder but I took mine with me in my backpack because I was not sure by which walkway I would descend. Unlike my first visit, where I plodded up the Singuttara Hill, I floated to the top on the escalators and stepped out onto the marble terrace still warm from the rays of the late afternoon sun.  I was immediately in a magical and exotic location.  Gold everywhere.  Pagodas and Buddhas in vast quantities.  And people galore.  The Shwedagon is a shrine that lures Buddhists from all over Myanmar and all corners of Asia.  It vibrates with a quiet peace.

The Shwedagon is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. The stupa rises 325 feet above the terrace and is covered with golden plates, not merely gilded with gold leaf. The spire or hti that seems to pierce the brilliant blue sky is covered with a multitude of precious gems. It’s an enthralling place in which to spend several hours, marveling at the architecture and at the devotion of the people. The setting sun burnishes the pagodas and shrines surrounding the central stupa. There are so many Buddhas and all quite beautiful in their own way. I often wonder how the people decide to which Buddha they will pay their respects, for choose you must as there are Buddha statues to last you a lifetime.

As the sun sank, the orange of the sky was matched by the glow of the lamps being lit on the small wall that surrounded the central stupa. Clearly, a temple festival was taking place. The mood was calm and joyful.

Shwedagon Pagoda is an exotic and beautiful place with almost a cacophony of architectural styles. Yet the shrines and pagoda continue to whisper in my memory long after the escalator deposited me at the bottom of Singuttara Hill. It gleams softly in my mind’s eye whenever I think about Yangon – one of the most entrancing Buddhists sights in all of Asia.

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