The soles of my feet were black as tar by the time I’d made a circuit of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Fortunately, the folks at Viking River Cruises were waiting for us with wet wipes. I cleaned and massaged my aching feet without complaint, for the famous Buddhist shrine, which requires visitors to remove their shoes and socks before entering, turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Today, Shwedagon Pagoda is the most dominant landmark in Yangon, especially since the 325-foot high spire, along with scores of temples, ordination halls, and shrines that surround it, crowns a prominent hill in the city center. Initially, however, it was a much more modest structure. Although archaeologists estimate it was originally built by the Mon people between the 8th and 10th centuries, legend insists that the Pagoda was built 2,600 years ago during the life of Gautama Buddha, in order to hold eight of his hairs. Through the centuries, the pagoda suffered periods of decline and earthquakes, followed by rebuilding. With each iteration, it grew larger, taller, and more extravagant, eventually reaching its present height.
The word Shwe, which means gold in Burmese, is ubiquitous in Myanmar. It is woven into names of businesses, monasteries, ceremonies, and even food, but nowhere is it more appropriately used than at Shwedagon Pagoda. Today the stupa sits on a base of bricks covered with gold plates and the bell-shaped portion is covered with pure gold plates from base to tip. The umbrella crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, and a 76-carat diamond adorns the very tip of the spire. Many of the 2,000 shrines that surround Shwedagon Pagoda are also golden, although paint rather than precious metal has been used to achieve the effect in many cases. Dozens of temples that rise along the outer edge of the site also glow golden or are covered with mosaics crafted from mirrors that reflect and multiply the opulence.
Since our Program Director was providing fascinating historical background, I hesitated to wander out of range of my headphones. But the sun was setting so I whispered my apologies in her ear and headed off to photograph the enormous site before I lost the light entirely. Halfway around, dusk began to fall and I started running here and there, trying to capture as many images as possible before dark. I was just about to despair that I’d not had enough time when lights blinked on all over the site. What had been beautiful just moments before became incomparably exquisite. The darker it became, the more an ethereal golden glow seemed to emanate from within Shwedagon Pagoda.
We stayed just long enough for me to satisfy my photography addiction. Our group reconnoitered at the entrance and chatted excitedly as we cleaned our feet. Though none of us had been particularly crazy about the idea of walking around shoe and sockless for several hours along with thousands of other barefoot pilgrims, even the tender-feet among us agreed that no visit to Yangon would have been complete without a stop at Shwedagon Pagoda.
Disclosure: Viking River Cruises sponsored me on their Myanmar Explorer cruise/tour however the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.