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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Botataung and Birth Day Buddhas

“Let the site tell you its secrets.”

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

 In Myanmar, the sacred is intertwined with everyday life. Sacred buildings, gold and white, rise from the landscape, a testament to the Buddha’s teachings. And the people weave their spirituality into their daily life. It’s not uncommon for families to head to the nearest temple at day’s end to enjoy a quiet time together as well as practice their devotions.

Boatmen on the Yangon RiverI like to go to temples in the late afternoon and early evening so I can see the ordinary folk pay their respects to the Buddha. Botataung Pagoda in Yangon, borders the Yangon River where Strand Road intercepts Botataung Road in the east of the city. It’s an area where ordinary working folk live. At day’s end they leave their occupation and head to the pagoda.

Botataung Pagoda

In Myanmar, a pagoda or paya is the name for a temple complex consisting of a central stupa, which is a white or gold upside-down bell-shaped structure that houses a sacred relic – usually a hair of the Buddha. The stupa is a closed structure and sits in the middle of a marble platform, surrounding which are various other structures where the people can pray and present flowers and candles to Buddha statues.

 

Botataung is unusual in that you can go inside the central stupa and see the golden receptacle that houses the Buddha’s hair.   There’s not much space inside and everything is covered in gold. The devout touch the shrine gently, say a prayer and quietly file out.

Entering the Stupa Slideshow

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The marble slabs surrounding the stupa were warm to my feet at the end of the day. Two little girls were sitting on the marble, waiting for their mother who was pouring water over a Buddha statue.  The elder of the little girls was teaching her sister to pay respects to the Buddha. Hands are placed together, touched to the head and the heart and the head is touched to the floor. The little one was a quick learner but her sister got distracted.  She wanted to copy her mother and pour water over the Buddha.

Learning to be a Buddhist

Click to see images and mouse over to see captions

In a pagoda, Buddhas that represent the days of the week surround the central stupa. Buddhists pour water (as a sign of respect and for good luck and good karma) over the Buddha that sits at the corner for the day of the week on which they were born.   You might be expecting to find seven Buddhas but there are actually eight because the Burmese split births on a Wednesday into morning and afternoon. I’m not exactly sure why but it has to do with the ancient Burmese calendar that has eight zodiac signs for the days of the week.

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One friendly fellow, noticing my interest in the birth day Buddhas, came up to me, pulled out his smart phone and offered to find my day of birth with an app. I’m not sure which of us was the more surprised when his app only went back to 1950!

Days of week Burmese

Still, the encounter did make me curious so I consulted the oracle known as the Internet and now I know my birth day was a Tuesday.  Next time I go to a pagoda, I will head to the southeast corner and look for a Buddha with a lion statue.

You might also enjoy my Children of Myanmar images on Flickr

Children of Myanmar

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Yangon Circle Line

“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” ― Paul Theroux

I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train, probably because I equate it with independence. At the age of eleven, my mother, full of fear and trembling, took me to Piccadilly Station in Manchester and put me on a train to Carlisle. She ensconced me in a ‘Ladies Only’ carriage with strict instructions to change at Carlisle and catch the afternoon train to Kirkcudbright (Scotland). It was a trip I had made with my mother and sister many times – to visit my grandmother and other Scottish relatives my mother had left behind when she married my father, an Englishman, and settled in Lancashire. I knew the route like the back of my hand, including spending an hour between trains in the ‘Ladies Only’ waiting room in Carlisle.

Not quite the stuff of a Paul Theroux journey by train but exciting for an eleven year old wanting to fray the cord that binds and tethers. Even then I wanted to see the world.

I have no idea if Paul Theroux has ever travelled the Circle Line in Yangon – too short a journey (28 miles), seats too hard, no restaurant car and no table so he could make his notes on what he sees and what people say. The line, a narrow gauge railway built by the British in the 1950s doesn’t go anywhere – merely round in a circle through the outskirts of Yangon. The whole trip takes about three hours.

Yangon Circle Line - map
Yangon Circle Line – map

The main railway station in Yangon is centrally located but I took a taxi, as it’s quite a long walk from the usual tourist haunts. I found the ticket office easily (signs in English) and paid for my ticket in local currency (kyats), a very modest 10 cents instead of the one US dollar that tourists were charged previously. This trip is often described as a commuter train because it goes through the Yangon suburbs (another misnomer) but you won’t find any briefcases here. You need both hands to haul yourself aboard as the three steps are quite steep but there are handrails.

Finding a seat was easy – just slide onto one of the long benches on ether side of the carriage. I slid into a corner and watched as the other passengers embarked; a few housewives, a schoolgirl, a man with two large baskets filled with bananas suspended from a shoulder yoke and a few tourists. They were joined by a couple of young women, one with bags of attitude for the camera.

Who do you think I am?
Who do you think I am?

We pulled out on time (there are many trips during the day), and although the route is said to serve 100,000 to 150,000 passengers each day, my carriage was almost empty. Disappointed at the small turn out, I sat back and watched the city give way to countryside almost as soon as we had left the station.

A heavy load
A heavy load

After an hour and a half of little action, I was beginning to feel that it was a dull ride with a few people getting on and off at various stops in the middle of nowhere. Then, we drew into a station that I now know is called Danyingon where there was lots of activity. It looked like a vegetable market was laid out on either side of the track, which indeed it was.

Life from the train
Life from the train

Now, I really love markets and thought about jumping off, speaking idly of course as I would have needed to descend the steep steps, a Mount Everest for me, to reach the ground.

Before I could act, suddenly I was in the midst of a melee as women and men, hauling very large baskets and bundles, swarmed my carriage. I retreated into my corner as they settled themselves all over the place, baskets and bundles rising almost to the ceiling. I just hoped that the various bundles now resting on my feet and legs contained nothing unpalatable that could wriggle free. I such situations, I am always glad to be wearing rather stout travel shoes with closed toes.

The train pulled out and much to my surprise, out came knives, string and plastic bags. This motley crew set to work, separating the produce into smaller bunches, which they expertly secured by twisting the string and tying it off. They chatted and joshed each other but worked steadily. I realized that these were the usually invisible ‘middle men’ (and women) of commerce who go to the outskirts of Yangon each day to where the produce is grown and sold and bring back as much as they can carry to either sell themselves or sell to other vendors in the city.

Twist and tie

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Twist and tie

No fingers were idle on the homeward journey and by the time we reached Yangon everyone was packed up and ready to leave. Even before the train stopped, produce was pushed out the windows to helpers on the platform and several valiant ones were slipping and sliding in their rubber flip-flops over the mounds stuffed in the stairwells. I was not in a rush and watched women, smaller than some of the bundles, manhandle them down the steps and onto the platform. Within a few minutes, the loads were removed and I could leave the train. The platform was a hive of activity as the ‘middle men’ (mostly women) organized their wares and a new set of passengers climbed aboard.

End of the line slideshow

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Little did my mother know when she deposited me on the 9:30 a.m. to Carlisle all those years ago that she was preparing me for a great train journey. As someone said, ‘The most important reason for going from place to place is to see what’s in between’. By that criterion, the Yangon Circle Line was a great train journey.

If you like to travel by train, go quickly, as the Circle Line with its busy produce vendors may come to an end. Just recently the Government of Myanmar announced that it intends to build a state-of-the-art wholesale produce market on the outskirts of the city, near Danyingon. There are also plans for a cold storage facility and a transportation centre so the produce can be trucked to China.

Mixed emotions
Mixed emotions

 

 

 

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Yangon Street Scenes

Ganesha and the Mogok ruby dealers

What is it that lures us back to places we have been previously? One of my first walks in Yangon on this trip was to find the Golden Smiles Inn, the guesthouse where I had stayed in 2004, well to the west of where I stayed in 2014. The Golden Smiles Inn was no longer listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook so that should have tipped me off. But I remembered a great wrapped Bodhi tree, alive with Ganesha and other Hindu deities at the foot of which sat the dealers in rubies from Mogok.

Street map of Yangon

Street map of Yangon

Off I sauntered along Maha Bandula Street, round Sule Pagoda, down Sule Pagoda Road, passed Maha Bandula Gardens and headed west along Merchant Street. Shortly after where Strand Road joins Merchant Street, I spotted the Bodhi tree at the intersection of Shwe Botha Street and Merchant Street. There were the little plastic stools and tables loaded with rubies from Mogok but the cracked neon happy face sign that signaled the Golden Smiles Inn was nowhere to be seen.  I walked up and down several times peering into the dim interior of the shops and buildings. This is a busy little spot, crowded with people buying and selling. I skirted the biggest crowd, clearly in some sort of lackadaisical line, and peeked into the building. There was the dilapidated photocopy machine I remembered, jammed into a very small space under the stairs of an entryway to the building that had been the home to the Golden Smiles Inn.

 

I slipped passed the line and climbed the stairs to discover that the Golden Smiles Inn had morphed into a Christian chapel!   It was locked so down the stairs I went, passed the muddle of people wanting to have copies made and out into the street. I looked up. Under the rash of electrical wires, I could make out the Grecian columns that supported the balcony where I had eaten breakfast all those years ago. The grimy white columns I remembered were now painted cream and the balustrade had a burgundy trim. No sign of the backpackers’ laundry that hung in dismal heaps above the heads of the breakfasters.

 

A little frisson of sadness fluttered through me. But at least Ganesha and his friends the ruby dealers were still in their place. I wandered off, satisfied that my memory for places was still intact.

Streets of Yangon Photo Essay

Click on the image to take you to a photo essay developed with Adobe Slate

Streets of Yangon

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Yangon: City of blood, dreams and gold

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.40.02 PM

Rudyard Kipling, the bard of the British Empire was right when he wrote:

‘This is Burma. And it is unlike any land you know about’.

He could equally have said, ‘And Yangon (Rangoon in his day) is unlike any city you may have visited’.

Pablo Neruda, Chilean consul in 1927 described it as a city of blood, dreams and gold. Both Burma and Yangon certainly have a past that is liberally sprinkled with blood, dreams and gold. The story of the country and the city are material for a Hollywood blockbuster and is ably told by Amitav Ghosh in The Glass Palace.

The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace starts off in Mandalay as the British conquer Upper Burma (1885) and tells the rags-to-riches story of Rajkumar, a poor boy from India. It follows three generations through to World War 11 and takes place in Burma, India and Malaysia. It’s rather a grand sweep of the history and geography of an interesting part of Asia. In addition, the reader learns a lot about the social mores of the times, about the last king of Burma and about Yangon at the height of the teak trading business.

 

Yangon is certainly unlike any other Asian city I have visited in my fifteen winters of wandering most of which are huge with glass, steel and concrete modern buildings in the central business district surrounded by the more interesting (to me) ethnic quarters of the people who settled there, usually Indian and Chinese.

Yangon is large (about five million) and although it does have Indian and Chinese quarters, they merge imperceptibly into each other and overflow into the central commercial area. Fortunately, glass, steel and concrete buildings are still in short supply even in 2014.

Yangon, or Rangoon as it was called in the days of the British Raj, is situated at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers. It’s a flat city, and would be perfect for walking except it is hot (very hot) and the streets are straight and long (very long). But walking is the best way to see the old colonial buildings, of which Yangon has the greatest number in Southeast Asia.

IMG_3644-EditDagon, as it was called in the early eleventh century when it was founded, was a small fishing village that grew up around the Shwe Dagon pagoda. This most beautiful pagoda (temple) was built on a small hilltop between the sixth to the tenth centuries by the Mon people. During this period, the land we now call Myanmar was a fragmented set of warring factions. The Mon people settled in what the British referred to as Lower Burma, the southern part bordering with Thailand. Further north lived the Bamar in what the British referred to as Upper Burma.

In 1755, Alungpaya captured Lower Burma, which was ruled by the Mons.   Alungpaya who lived near Ava (one of the ancient capitals not far from Mandalay) became king and renamed Dagon as Yangon. The British captured Yangon during the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26) but returned it to Burmese administration after the war. The British were still interested in Burma as an adjunct to India and seized Yangon and Lower Burma in the second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852.

As most of Yangon had been destroyed by fire in 1841, the colonial masters set about rebuilding the city as a Victorian hymn to commerce. The new city was laid out on a grid plan, aided by the flatness of the delta region around the two rivers. Upper Burma was captured in the third Anglo-Burmese war (1885) and Yangon became the capital. Shortly after (1889), Kipling stopped off from his ship for one night on his journey from Calcutta to San Francisco and ate dinner at the Pegu Club, the exclusive haunt of British officials and army men. Burma was probably one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia at the time. Teak from the forests of Upper Burma and rice from the Irrawaddy delta (now know as the Ayeyarwady) were shipped out of Yangon. Yangon became an important commercial centre in the later Victorian and early Edwardian periods and the colonial buildings that still abound in the city are a testament to its importance.

Strand Road

Many of the grander buildings are located along Strand Road, which runs along the river.  This would have been the centre of commerce in the old days and many of the buildings reflect this.  It’s still a pretty busy area of the city.

Democracy Monument in Maha Bandula Gardens

 

Another centre for old colonial buildings is around Yangon City Hall where a striking red clock tower announces the High Court Building.  Close by is Maha Bandula Gardens where you can  see the Independence Monument that celebrates independence from the British in 1948.

 

The heart of this old colonial city is, fittingly, a revered temple, Sule Pagoda.  It sits in the middle of the road and the vehicles flow around it, a unique oriental take on the British roundabout.

Sule Pagoda

Architecture of Yangon

Slideshow – Hover mouse over image to see title

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Burmese Days – Introduction

Bog yoke Aung San Market in Yangon

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon

Chinthe at entrance to ShwedagonExactly a year ago (December 2014), I was in Myanmar, the Burma I heard about in my childhood. It was not for the first time. Burma, as it was then, entered my imagination during my childhood listening to my father (who was a Commando in Italy during World War II), talk about Wingate’s Chindits. The Chindits were a special force that marched through a thousand miles of jungle to counter the Japanese invasion of Burma. Later I would learn that their unusual name was an Anglicized version of chinthe or chinthay, a mythical lion, often with a human face, that is the guardian of the pagodas or payas (temples) in Myanmar.

In the early eighties, I was in Bangkok for a teacher education conference and heard a lot about Burma in the Thai news. Most of Burma was closed to foreigners but some lucky ones got a seven-day visa. I decided there and then that as soon as Burma opened up, I would visit.

Twenty Eight Street in Yangon

 

I went first in 1999 with my friend Enerys and again in 2004 on my own. They were both fantastic trips in a magical land, still almost medieval in terms of development. I went again last December, wondering what changes I would see after a ten-year absence and also hankering to visit places off the typical tourist route – Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan.

 

Of course, I started out in Yangon. I wanted to arrange a trip to Mrauk U, an ancient capital, situated in the Rakhine state, close to the Bangladeshi border. I also wanted to photograph some of the old buildings in Yangon before they were replaced with bright and shiny steel and concrete structures.

Tenements in Yangon

 

Alas, the ones that shimmered in my memory – tall dilapidated Victorian tenements across from Scott market, pastel paint peeling – had already disappeared.

 

Scott market built in 1926 and named for a British civilian, is now called Bogyoke Aung San market, in memory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father who negotiated Burma’s independence from the British in 1947, was assassinated later that year, and is revered as the father of modern Myanmar.

Shwedagon face lift

 

Even the magnificent Shwedagon was under bamboo wraps for a facelift. No cheap plastic surgery for this most sublime of pagodas – only the best gold plating will do!

 

Yes, if you want to see Yangon before the gentrification really takes hold, or for that matter the Burma of George Orwell, you’d better put it on your bucket list and go quickly.

More chinthe

Chinthe - half lion, half humanChinthe and hti (spire)Chinthe on a small shrine

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