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Snapshot of Impressions of Myanmar Art & Architecture

MYANMAR | Monday, 10 February 2014 | Views [894]

 

Snapshots of Myanmar Art and Architectural History:

 Myanmar’s history starts late.  The first historical records aren’t until about the 2nd -3rd C, and those are few and far between. Most of the written record doesn’t begin until the 10th-11th C.  The earlier periods are cased in oral legends, however, these legends seem to have adapted over time to include figures from later periods or regions.  Most of the pre-Bagan period (11th-13thC) architecture was constructed from wood, which simply has not survived the ravages of time, fire and earthquakes, so we don’t really know much about the earlier people.  From the artifacts found at various sites across the country, it is clear that Buddhism came early to the region and was seemingly the most prominent of the belief systems, along with Hinduism and Animism. One group that is recognized through inscriptions is the Pyu around the Bagan region.  They lasted from about the end of the 2nd C to the 9th, and the earliest ceti (also spelled zeti, Nepali chaitya, Tibetan stupa- although each has their own regional differences) in the area, the Buphaya, was built in the 3rd C.  The inscription by the side of the temple complex states that first king, King Thamaddarit confronted the five great dangers afflicting the region: a large tiger, a large flying squirrel, a large boar, a large bird, and a large viney gourd plant.  The bell shaped ceti is built in a modified shape of a gourd on the spot where he killed the plant. While there seem to be various legends on who actually constructed the first version of the Buphaya, it is on a bend on a bluff overlooking the Ayarwaddy River, which makes it a perfect place for both look out and for worshipping the spirits of the three worlds and four directions.  The ceti has been renovated a number of times, and today its gold painted surface glistens in the sun.

Buphaya is by far the oldest structure in the region.  About six hundred years elapsed before the next still-standing group in the 9th century.  They too are shaped like gourd-bells, or at least rounder than the later ones. One of the nicest is the Ngakwywenadaung, which still has traces of glazed brick around the middle. This ceti seems to be in a pattern that was later refined in the pagodas, of having the solid dome sit on a series of increasingly smaller terraces with the bell capped by a conical finial.

From about the early 11th C there are still-standing, in various states of renovation or semi-original condition, differing forms of religious structures.  Some like the ceti are solid and others hollow with worship sites inside.  There are four distinct types of solid structures: the bulbuous, like Buphaya, those with a square base, those with a circular base and a few Singhalese style payas built after some of the local monks came back from Sri Lanka.  There are many more variations in the hollow styles, including the most two most popular: the single entry and those that have a center cube with entrances from the four directions.  During the Golden Age of Bagan, the 11th-13th C, all of these styles were used. 

The inside corridors and rooms of the pagodas, hollow temples, were covered with murals filled with scenes from the life of the Buddha, the Jataka tales, events from the local monastery and village, Mahayana and Tantric paintings, Deva & Brahma figures, music and dancing, floral motifs and animals and bird motifs.  According to a sign in the Archeological Museum there are four categories of Myanmar pictorial art: kanut, nari, kapi and gaja.  “There four fundamentals cover drawings of Buddhas, human beings, celestials, animals, palaces, monasteries, floral and linear patterns and landscapes. Kanut refers to the curling and curving of an object (vines, waterlilies etc.); nari is a woman, but the term is used for beautifying all people, devas and Buddhas (this is why many of the Buddhas have a very feminine look to them); kapi refers to drawings of monkey figures, including demons, ogres, and animals of speed and motion such as horses, birds, dancing creatures like kinnaras (bird feet human face), garundas, and gandhebbas (celestial musicians); and gaja refer to elephants which are considered to be bringers of luck, especially white elephants.”  Today there are only a few of the pagodas that still have discernible murals, three of which the Abeyadana, Ananda and Sulamani make up for the loss of the others.  Unfortunately, in attempts to clean the buildings, the walls were whitewashed in many of the other structures and the murals covered up.  Additionally, 19th C. Europeans took a toll on the sites as well, especially noted is one German engineer who even signed his name on the spot where he hacked out a mural and sent it to Berlin.  He also took all the statues from the one surviving Hindu temple.  The authorities have recently added a three sandstone Shivas, a reclining Vishnu, and a small Trimurti grouping in the recesses where the original statues would have stood, but they are a sad reminder of what should be there.

 

I will only comment on the two that I was able to take photos in as hopefully the pictures will be able to be uploaded soon. (I still have some software issues to work through with the worldnomads folks.) The Abeyadana murals have been cleaned with UNESCO funds and are therefore not allowed to be filmed, so I will skip a discussion on that site other than to say it has incredible paintings that combines Mahayana, Brahmanic and Theravadan traditions.

 

The Ananda temple, 1090-1105, built by King Kyansittha, is quite unusual in a number of ways.  Not the least of which is that it is laid out in the pattern of a large Greek cross; each axis is 290 feet long. It was supposed to represent the cave where some Indian monks who came to Bagan had lived when they meditated in Nandamula Hill, which some say is in the Himalayas, while others attribute the location to Orissa. The description from Historical Sites in Myanmar reads:

“The main basement projects a large gabled portico with four huge square pillars inside….. The main basement is surmounted by two receding curvilinear roofs and four receding terraces crowned by a spire in the form of a mitre-like pyramid called sikhara.  The pinnacle consists of a tapering pagoda with a hit (umbrella), rising to a height of 172 feet from the base. Small replicas of the spire placed above the angles of the receding roofs and above the porticoes, and figures of lions on the top terraces and above the arch-pediments enhance the scale ad elegance of the profile.  Two tiers of windows along the thick walls of the main structure admit ample light into the interior. Inside the square block are two vaulted and high but narrow corridors running parallel to each other along the four sides of the temple.  They are connected by low and narrow passages in front of the windows by which light is admitted, and further intersected by four large corridors into which access is obtained through the porticoes.  In the centre is an enormous cube, 82 feet wide on each side, which rises to the spire.  On each face of the solid square mass is a tall arched alcove, each enshrining a colossal figure of a standing Buddha, 31 feet high, with hands raised to the breast in the pose of giving a sermon. Subdued light falls on these Buddhas through medial windows pierced through the upper terraces.  The entrance to each porch is guarded on the outside by two door-keepers seated on pedestals in arched niches crowned with miniature spires.  Each entrance to the main building is also guarded by another set of door-keepers in plaster work standing on low pedestals.” P.58 

On the outside of the structure are remnants of glazed tiles on the base and receding terraces which portray events from the Jataka Tales as well as monsters from Mara’s army on the west side and joyous devas celebrating the Buddhas conquest of Mara on the east.  Inside the murals covered with Buddhas, which complement the four large standing figures at each of the four directions. The murals on the outer corridor differ from the ones on the inner, leading one on a complete storyboard (that is somewhat indecipherable today) as one circles around the center cube.

There are a number of legends associated with this magnificent structure and many of them aren’t so nice.  One I find particularly interesting is that King Kyansittha, the ruler who commissioned the temple, had the architect put to death as he didn’t want anyone else to replicate his masterpiece.  This is the same story that I heard in Uzbekistan about a minaret and in India about the Taj Mahal.  These legends get recycled the way our water bottles do.

 

There are so many amazing structures in Bagan that it would be impossible (and incredibly boring) for me to explain even the highlights of them.  That said I do want to share a bit about Sulamani as it is a transitional edifice from the darker inner chambers with rounded almost Romanesque arches to the beginnings of a Myanmar form of Gothic architecture.

Sulamani was commissioned by King Narapatisitthu in 1183(1181?, the books and inscription at the site differ) ; it is a two-storied vaulted structure with entrances and prayer halls at each of the four directions. There are staircases going up to the upper terraces, but they have recently been closed off to tourists. The height of the two stories is about equal. The cornices of terraces sport glazed tiles of different shapes and sizes.  The brickwork, which is now laid bare as the external mortar has dissipated, is incredibly finely done and it is said that not even a needle can pass between the mortars.  The mural that one sees inside are a testament to the living presence of the site in people’s minds and hearts, although they are also somewhat heart-breaking to the historian.  Most of the original murals have been covered up and repainted with murals from the Konbaung Period (1752-1885), but they are nicely done and one can get a sense of what they valued from their artwork.  There is only one corridor around the central cube, and the structure is much smaller than Ananda, but it has a good feel to it.  Perhaps this is because of the light that comes in from the skylights on the Buddhas and the vaulted arches, but it could also be because of one of its legends. 

It is said that when King Narapatisitthu was coming back from climbing a mountain he say a ruby shining in a hollow. He decided to build a pagoda as a work of earning merit on the site.  He made the people fill in the hollow to create a base for the new structure, thereby upsetting a local elder. He told the King that,

“ the work thou doest, O king is not of merit, as thou thinkest, but of demerit! …. I reject the alms offered by the king!’ Then spoke King Narapatisitthu, ‘O glorious one! If thou wilt reject my alms thou canst avoid it only by leaving my kingdom. Is not the alms offered by the people mine also?’ ‘What!’ thought Panthagu the elder, ‘Speaketh the king thus to me? I will cross over to the island of Ceylon.’ And so he sojourned in Swegyo practicing piety near Tawgyi.” When the King heard what happened he realized his mistake and sent his minister off to bring back the master.  The minister, realizing that the elder would not come willingly, decided to trick him by bring with him a golded image of the Buddha. Once the boat arrived the minister asked to elder to embark as it was the Buddha’s command. The elder, knowing he must follow the Buddha, climbed aboard and they journeyed back to Myanmar.  Once they arrived: “The king surrounded by his ministers, went forth to meet him, and raised him by the hand and brought him to the palace.  Coming to the palace the king with his own hands prepared an alms and minister to him. ‘Great master!’ said the king, ‘henceforth from thee I take my doctrine!’ pp.145-6 The Bagan Wayfarer. 

The story shows both secular and sacred pride, diplomacy, forgiveness and reconciliation, perhaps that’s why I like it.

 

The Archeological Museum has a nice collection of Buddhas and inscriptions.  After spending some time reading the translations of the texts, it seems that there was a pattern among donors of the sacred structures. They were all donated by the king’s household and local people; the larger structures were given by royalty and the numerous smaller ones by merchants and villagers. The wealthy appear to have given slaves, land, musicians, bronze and ironware as well as food. One of the inscriptions from the east entrance of Shwezigon, perhaps the most elaborate gold guided temple in Bagan, was from King Kyansittha who reigned 1084-1113, and was one of the most influential kings of the Bagan period. It reads:

“Graceful and Solar King of the Three Worlds. Shri Tri Bhuvanar Ditra Dharma Raja called King Kyansittha honored and propogated the religion of Buddha. There were no thieves and enemies during Kyansittha’s reign.  Toja Min Gyi wiped the tears of loved ones who were separated. King Kyansittha distributed meals and snacks to all people with his right had and properties with his left.  Besides King Kyansittha looked upon all people with compassion.  During his time the king renovated the ruined towns and villages.  There were no dangers in his country named Arimaddhanna. Which was very pleasant with plenty of mushrooms, bamboo shoots, flowers, fruits and so on.” 

He creates a picture of a Shangri-La for posterity.  As many other rulers, he was good at propaganda as well as at building sacred sites. Today, the temples are still built and restored with funds gathered from the populous as well as from tourists.  The government does not support any of the religious institutions.

 

The Bagan period rule ended from internal strife and the kingdom fell apart reverting back to small disassociated villages.  The second period for a united Myanmar was in the 16th C and this was the time of the first Elephant War with Thailand. It was a brief empire as it lasted only 75 years. This second period was concentrated in the power of King Bayinnaung who brought the country together in 1550, after his death in 1581, things started to unravel and by the 1620s there were separate chieftains again. I was not able to visit their capitals at Bago and Inwa, so cannot report much on this period.

 

The Third Myanmar period, the Konbaung Period lasted from 1752 until their collapse at the end of the third Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1885, when the country lost its territories in Bangladesh and came under British colonial power. The early part of the 19th C was the height of the Burmese power and the greatest extent of their territory. This period was ruled from various places including Amarapura and Mandalay, which is today not nearly as magical as the name implies. This Empire was founded by King Alaungpaya who conquered the former capital of Inwa, and it was his son, Hsinbyushin, who destroyed Thailand’s long-standing capital, Ayutthaya.

Amarapura is called the “City of Immortals” and today has a few very interesting sites.  The first is U’Bein’s Bridge, (1847) which is the largest, 1.2km, teak bridge in the country.  It crosses Lake Taungthaman, and was so named after the minister who insisted that it be built to help people get across the lake in the rainy season.  There is about a 10-12 foot difference in water level during the dry and wet seasons. During the dry season, now, one can almost walk across the area where the bridge is, but not quite; there is still a couple of hundred feet of water that needs to be traversed.  Fishermen and boats are everywhere, and people sell crabs, fish shrimp and other sea creatures from the lake on either side of the bridge.  Both sides are also graced with temples.  The one on the eastern side, Shin Pi Shwe Qu has a fascinating array of religious figures from multiple religions.  There is a Kuan Yin by the entrance next to a Shiva, a Saraswati, and a laughing Buddha.  Not far from there is the Myanma spirit of wealth, and a Kali, along with various locals spirits, the Nats.  On the far eastern side of the temple complex there is a freestanding Buddha holding a globe and another on a globe, showing the universality of Buddhism. This doesn’t appear to be an ancient temple, but it does house quite an eclectic collection of sacred images.  The first temple one comes to after the bridge on the Western side, where there are a number lining the street back to the Maha Gandaron Monastery, is Taung Min Gyi. (As an fyi, these temples are mislabeled and described in Lonely Planet.  That series rarely makes mistakes, but here do!) The six roofs to this pagoda look eerily like a Nepali temple. Inside there are a number of glass-tiled columns showcasing a very large (from base to top almost 47ft.!) porcelain white sitting Buddha in the earth touching position. The pagoda and Buddha have been recently renovated and shine in the reflecting glass.

Around the corner is the Maha Gandaron Monastery that houses over 1000 monks, many of them school-aged. There is a daily processional at 10 am when the monks line up, the younger ones near the front of the line after what I gather are the masters/teachers and then the older ones to march silently into the dining hall.  Earlier in the day and the day before the meal preparations began.  Cutting vegetables and cooking them over huge pots on fire stoves is quite an ordeal for over 1000 people.  The meals are all donated, most often by local people, and I was amazed to learn that there is actually a three month waiting list to become a donor. On the day that ones donation is accepted one is allowed to serve the monks.  The donors stand in a line by huge pots of rice and vegetables and serve the line of monks in a very orderly and official manner.  They scoop heaps of rice onto a dinner plate sized bowl, then the monk proceeds down the line for the various vegetables.  After lunch, as this was the lunch meal, I saw some – but not all – leaving with their bowl and plate with a few packaged slices of bread (shortbread cake?) on top.  As this was only about 11am and they are allowed to eat until 1pm, this could be for a later snack, or as I was also told, food for their sick classmates who couldn’t make it to the dining hall. After lunch the young monks have a break before they start their afternoon study and meditation periods. The monastery is quite large and well kept up.  It was clear that it wasn’t starving for funds.

One of the other remarkable sites around Taungthaman Lake is Pahto Taw Gyi Pagoda, which was built in either 1790 or 1820 (the accounts differ) by King Bodawpaya. This temple was constructed to resemble Ananda in Bagan and is right now undergoing renovations.  Latticed bamboo covers the exterior forming an odd gated look to the massive white bell-shaped structure.

A successor to King Bodawpaya, King Mindon moved the capital to Mandalay in 1857. The city took its name from the famous hill, which had been a sacred spot for centuries.  One of its legends has the Buddha and Ananda visiting the site and proclaiming that it would be the place of a future kingdom steeped in the Buddhist tradition and proclaiming the dharma. Today there is a very modern temple on the summit of the hill, which is also the main place in Mandalay for watching the sun set over the Ayarwaddy River.

 

Up river from Mandalay is Mingun, which is the site of what would have been the largest stupa in the world had it been finished.  It was started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya, and has a solid brick base of 137m in width and, with only a third of the construction completed, a current height of 50m. It would have been by far the tallest single free-standing religious structure in the world (the Potala is on a hill has many buildings). There were two huge lion statues on the sides of the entrance from the river, but they were destroyed by an earthquake in 1838, and the base was severely damaged by the 1975 earthquake.  Keeping with the superlatives, the largest uncracked bell in the world is next door to the Pathotawgyi (Unfinished) Pagoda. There is a larger bell in Moscow, but it has a crack. I was told there are now plans to build an even larger one…. The bell can be rung and people were taking a wooden post and plowing it into the copper sides. It does ring and the sound is actually quite nice. For those who like statistics, it weighs 90 tons, is 3.7m high and 5 m. wide.  Further down the dirt road lined with vendors selling straw hats, lacquerware, sandpaintings and traditional clothes, t-shirts and jewelry is the Hsinbyume Pagoda, which was built in 1816 as a memorial to the wife of the crown prince.  This pagoda is unique in that it is laid out like Mt. Meru and represents the entire Buddhist cosmology.  One goes up a series of whitewashed circular shaped terraces to reach the culminating spire. The views from the top over the river and surrounding countryside are spectacular. One can’t quite see all the way to Mandalay, but on a clear day, can see all the golden and white spires of behind the town reaching out above the trees to touch the sky.

 

As all good new capitals need their sacred images to ground them to the past, the Mahamuni Buddha was brought to Mandalay from Amarapura. The image was originally from Myauk U in Rakhine, but had been brought to Amarapura by King Bodawpaya’s son in 1784.  There are some stories that the image in Mandalay is not the one from Myauk U as that one never made it to Amarapura, but the current image is worshipped as one of the most sacred objects in the country. There is a face washing ritual that takes place every morning at 4am. The entire image is gold, but the face is not covered in devotional gold leaf. As with the Five Buddhas in the temple in Inle Lake the gold leaf has created a slightly misshapen body. The gold leaf on the Mahamuni Buddha can only be applied by men; women aren’t allowed near the platform on which the Buddha sits.

 

One of the most remarkable places in Mandalay for Buddhist scholars is Kuyhodaw Pagoda complex.  The Pagoda was built by King Mindon in 1857 and was modeled on Shwezigon in Bagan. While the temple is interesting, what is especially so are the shrines housing the 729 marble tablets comprising the Tripitaka, the ‘Three Baskets’ of Buddhist Pali Canon. Combined these tablets are considered to be the world’s largest book, and as each table is 5 ft high and 3.5 ft across and 5 in. thick, it must be.

 

Most of Mandalay was destroyed by bombs in WWII.  The Royal Palace and many of the temples were ruined.  The fires caused by the bombs took a toll on all the wooden structures.  One of the last remaining wooden temples is the Shwe In Bin, which is in old Myanmar style on a set of pillars about 7 feet from the ground. The carvings show ten Jataka Tales as well as record images from the royal family. 

The Royal Palace and residence were destroyed, but have since been recreated to give visitors, locals and foreigners a taste of the former grandeur of the Empire.  Today it is also used as a military base.

 

Yangon, which means ‘end of strife’, was named by King Alaungpaya in 1755 and became the capital once the British conquered the last vestiges of the Konbaung regime. The British mispronounced the Burmese name as Rangoon, which became the city’s name until independence in 1948. It remained the capital until 2007 when the current military government moved the capital up country to Nay Pyi Taw.  Yangon remains the economic hub of the country and is its largest city, although not a particularly nice one. There are a few important sites amid the overcrowded alleyways and traffic-chocked streets, however.  The three I had the time to visit were the National Museum, the Sula Pagoda, and the country’s most sacred site, the Shwegadon Pagoda.

 

The National Museum does not allow cameras, so there are no photos to share of their extensive collection.  The museum houses artifacts from the Paleolithic to the modern period, with most of the interesting pieces from the 19th C. There is a huge golden lion’s throne that takes up an entire room.  The back of the throne has a staircase that lead to the throne itself, emphasizing the king’s celestial placement over those of his subjects.  The very large gold covered palanquins for the king had just slightly smaller replicas for Buddhist scrolls.  The scrolls are carried from one monastery or the palace to another, much the way the king himself was. Gold filigree work embossed with jewels was also demonstrated in a number of Betel Nut containers.  There were a number of them in the museum and they looked like large, sometimes almost 18” in diameter, chalices rather than containers for messy betel nuts, but I guess if you are rich enough to have a number of pure gold pieces of furniture it doesn’t matter what you put in them.

One of the rooms that I really would have liked to take pictures in was the performing arts exhibit.  They had some magnificent Myanmar harps that are shaped like crescent moons, and circular gongs encased in over a meter in diameter golden casings. They also had a wall of Myanmar puppets showcasing the various set roles for the cast including the royalty, ministers, commoners and devas- spirits/gods. 

The museum had at least three large models of palaces around the country, including that of the one in Mandalay.

 

Even if photography wasn’t permitted at the National Museum, it was at the pagodas. It was a very long traffic-clogged drive from the hotel to the Sule Pagoda, which is in the center of a roundabout in the heart of the city. In the vicinity are a Baptist Church, two Chinese temples, the Synagogue and, not too far away, the Mosque, so it also functions as a hub for the other faiths. Sule is supposed to be over 2000 years old, and is supposed to hold a hair relic of the Buddha brought by two Indian Buddhist missionaries, Sona and Uttara as well as other relics from the body of the Buddha gifted to the orginal pagoda later on. The structure is in an octagonal shape that flows into a bell and inverted bowl. From top to bottom it measures 152 above the platform, which makes it quite noticeable from all angles of traffic. As one walks around the site there are carvings and paintings of the story of the two monks, the history of the site, as well as those from the Jataka Tales and life of the Buddha.  Additionally there are eight areas where devotees pour water over a Buddha figure.  The areas all have different animals and are for different days, although there are eight of them. It seems Wednesday is split into day and evening/night, with after 6pm being associated with the planet Rahu (which in Hinduism is a powerful planet that can emit negative energy, somewhat like a bad Scorpio) The animal for Wednesday is the elephant, but is shown in the morning, with tusks and in the evening without them.  (As my daughter was born on a Tuesday, I was curious what her animal was, it is a lion; Saturday, the day I was born, is a dragon.) The ritual consists of praying at the site of one’s birthday, then pouring water from a small cup five times over the Buddha’s head, once each for the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, then for one’s parents and finally for one’s teacher/guru.  Then one pours water over the day’s animal according to one’s own specially chosen number.  The water symbolizes the unity of all as we are comprised of fluids as is the world.  It’s a very nice thought and ceremony. 

There were two additional mini-rituals that are unique to Sule.  On the central pagoda spire is an image of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.  To ask for help and blessings, one purchases gold leafs, puts one or more in a little boat that is by the side of the counter where the gold is sold, then cranks the boat across a wire bridge to send the offering to Maitreya.  I think I pushed so hard I hit the Buddha, but I’m sure others have done the same thing, so hopefully there was a stop at the top and that was what I heard rather than having metal boat touch metal Buddha.  The other leaves are used to put on a sitting and standing Buddha on the other side of the pagoda.  The gold offering is supposed to grant one one’s wishes.   The amount of gold leaf on the Buddha figures throughout the country – and in Thailand – is truly astronomical.

 

Shwedagon is the holy of holies in Myanmar.  It is steeped in legend and gold. It is said to be over 2500 years old. Historical Sites in Myanmar recounts one of the legends as:

“two merchants Taphussa and Bhallika from Okkala went to India on a trading venture.  They met the Buddha under the sacred Bo tree and offered him honey cakes.  Having partaken of the cakes presented by them the Buddha bestowed on them eight sacred hairs from his head. On their return they were deprived of two hairs by the king of Ajetta and another two by the king of the Nagas.  Arriving at Okkala they were greeted by King Okkalapa who helpd a great festival in honour of the sacred relics. With the help of Sakka, king of gods, a site on the Theinguttara hill outside the gates of Asitanjana (the city) was selected to lay the foundation of a pagoda for enshrining the relics.  On excavation of the site, relics of the three preceding Buddhas, namely the staff, the water-dipper and the lower garment were recovered.  These were buried again with the sacred hairs brought by the two brothers.  When the relics were examined before placing in the vault the casket was miraculously found to contain the original number of eight hairs. Over the relic chamber was erected a golden pagoda enclosed in a silver one which in turn was enclosed by a series of tin, copper, lead, marble and iron pagodas.  Finally a brick pagoda was built to encase the whole series of smaller pagodas.  It was only twenty-seven feet high.” Pp.113-114. 

 

In 1362, the then ruler built it up to sixty-six feet, making the village a religious center.  Subsequent rulers added on to this base, and when Shinsawbu (1453-72) became Queen of Bago, she built it up to what it basically is today. She also offered her weight in gold to guild the pagoda.  When she was dying she arranged to be brought to the temple so that she could die looking at the spire. Dhammaceti followed her footsteps and offered four times his weight and that of his queen to add to the guilding.  Today it is 326 feet high with a perimeter of 1,420 feet.  According to Historical Sites of Myanmar:

“The base is surrounded by 64 small pagodas with four larger ones in the center of each side. Above the base are three terraces receding in successive planes and having seven angular projections between the main sides facing the cardinal points. Next rises the bell-shaped superstructure followed by the dome in the form of an inverted bowl.  Then come the multiple mouldings, two bands of ornamental lotus divided by a ring of spherical bosses (ywai), and the spire shaped like a plantain bud. The latter is surmounted byt the hti (umbrella), an insignia of great sanctity, gilded and covered with precious stones. The pinnacle of the hti is made up of a bejeweled vane and the crowning diamond bud.” P.115 (Yes, the diamond is real.)

Shwedagon is an amazing site.  The four entrances each have a series of staircases up the hill, the main one also now has escalators.  The numerous shrines around the site house more Buddhas than one can count.  As at Sule, the wood carvings and the paintings tell the story of the pagoda, as well as have scenes from the life of the Buddha and the Jataka Tales. There are the stations of the week for devotion and these are well used by locals and foreigners, but it is the gold bell spire that captures attention and imagination.  The site is truly a phenomenal house of living sacred art and worship.

 

Myanmar history, architecture and art are bound to its Buddhist tradition.  The images are all related to its sacred history.  Early on there were traits from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos, but these were blended into a unique Myanma style, that has further regional distinctions.  Hindu elements along with the local Nats have also been incorporated into their sacred art and traditions.  It will require a separate entry to discuss religion in Myanmar.

 

References:

John Allen et. al. Myanmar. London: Lonely Planet, 2011

Maung Htin Aung. Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism. London: Oxford UP, 1962.

Khin Myo Chit. A Wonderland of Pagoda Legends. Yangon: Parami Bookship, 2010.

Seikko Cho Cho. The Bagan Wayfarer Paragu. Yangon: Seikko Cho Cho, 2013.

Ma Thanegi. Inle Lake: Blue Sea in the Shan Hills. Yangon: Asia House, 2005.

Aung Thaw. Historical Sites in Myanmar. Yangon: Ministry of Culture

Than Tun. History of Pindaya (Town, Pagoda and Cave). Mandalay: Yadana Publ., 1998.

Than Tun.  Buddhist Art and Architecture with Special Reference to Myanma. Yangon:Monywe, 2002.

Than Tun. Restoration of Shwe Yan Pagoda and Monastery. Yangon:Kunthaya, 2008.

‘Y’ trans. Outline of The Paung Daw OO Pagoda. Inlay Lake. pamphlet

Amarapura Taung Min Gyi Pagoda information pamphlet

Mandalay and Region Tourist Guide notes

 

 

 

 

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