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The Botataung Pagoda

(Shrines of Burma)


Vol. 1, No. 2, 1953

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       Tradition says that the name ''Botataung" is from 'Bo' a military officer and 'ta taung' one thousand and that it was on a hillock at this site that one thousand military officers of the king were drawn up as a guard of honour to welcome the landing in Burma of the relics of the Buddha brought over from India more than two thousand years ago.

        An account from ancient histories of the building of the Pagoda states that the Buddhist king Sihadipa gave one of his ministers a sacred hair from the Buddha's head and two body relics and this minister, renowned for his goodness and faith, consulted a famous religious leader and, on his advice, chose the Botataung Mount on the bank of Rangoon River at a distance one thousand tars (7,000 cubits) in a South-Easterly direction from the Shwedagon Pagoda and there enshrined the sacred relics.

        For over two thousand years the histories and traditions told that here, beneath this sacred edifice, was buried the sacred hair, the two body relics and an unspecified amount of treasure.

        Burmese histories were always noted for a degree of truth and candour greater than that of some more modern histories in the newer countries, but after more than two thousand years have rolled by in this world, so demonstrably subject to Anicca (impermanence) it may he forgiven if memories cloud and men's minds grow doubtful.

        There were those who in pre-war Burma were ready to doubt the real existence of the ancient relics and the accounts of the old histories.

       It has been said that "Sometimes out of evil cometh forth good" and the old histories were to be vindicated by the trials and misfortunes of war.

        The Botataung Pagoda was a famous Land-mark on Rangoon's waterfront. Situated just below the long lines of jetties that serve this busy port whence rice, petroleum, timber and mineral are shipped to the whole world, a most vulnerable spot in war, yet the Japanese air - raids on Rangoon in 1941-42 did no damage though bombs fell nearby and bullets rained death from the sky but on the 8th of November, 1943 the R.A.F. bombed Rangoon's wharves and a whole "stick" of bombs straddled the ancient Botataung Pagoda, leaving where had stood one of Burma's oldest and most venerated fanes, a heartrending heap of twisted and blackened ruins.

       As soon as the war ended a Rehabilitation Committee of leading citizens was formed to take steps to rebuild the Pagoda. Preliminary work was commenced and plans drawn up for the rebuilding.

        The top-burden of the ruins was cleared away and then on the 4th of January, 1948 marking the day on which Burma regained her freedom and independence, the Rehabilitation Committee put in gold pegs as the first step towards actual re-erection of the Pagoda. A fitting ceremony was performed and the aid of all Forces and Beings was invoked and at 8-45 a.m. on this independence day, a moment judged auspicious, five gold pegs were driven simultaneously into the ground. The centre gold peg was handled by Thado Thiri Thudhamma Sir U Thwin, the gold peg at the North-East Point by U Ba Thaw, Botataung Pagoda Trustee, the gold peg at the South-East point by Sir Mya Bu, Retired Chief Justice, the gold peg at the South-West point by U Po Byaw, Shwedagon Pagoda Trustee, and the gold peg at the North-West point by Thado Thiri Thudhamma U Thein Maung, Chief Justice of the Union. These gold pegs were driven home simultaneously by these five gentlemen at the precise moment.

Discovery of Rare Treasure.

       After the driving in of the gold pegs the debris was cleared from the ground demarcated and bronze and silver images, coins and ornaments, some of which had been on display at the Pagoda at the time of the bombing, were recovered. Then a depth of seven feet having been excavated in order to establish the foundations of the new Pagoda, further excavations were carried out for a relic chamber in the very centre of the site. At a depth of three feet an ancient and well-constructed chamber was uncovered, in size 20' x 20' and 6 in height gradually decreasing in size towards the top and appearing like a huge pot placed up-sided down to cover completely what lay inside.

        In the very centre of this treasure vault was discovered a wonderful stone casket in the shape of a pagoda with a diameter of 23 ins, and 39 ins, high. Encircling this stone casket were figures of Nats (Minor Deities) carved out of laterite and evidently placed there to act as sentinels. The casket was immersed in mud as water had trickled into the vault during the many centuries it had been there.

        With this pagoda-shaped stone casket within the relic chamber were found various kinds of treasures: precious stones, ornaments, jewellery, terra-cotta plaques and images of gold, silver, brass and stone. The total number of these images recovered from within and without the relic chamber was seven hundred. The terra cotta plaques, some of them in a fair state of preservation, depict Buddhist scenes.

        Image of Lord Buddha in Terra Cotta. One of the terra-cotta plaques excavated from the relic chamber bears an image of the Lord Buddha and though affected by age and moisture it is exceptionally important. On the reverse side are inscribed characters which are very close to the ancient Brahmani script which came from Southern India. It is a precious evidence of ancient times and has been deciphered by U Lu Pe Win, Superintendent Archaeologist, Government of the Union of Burma, who points out that the initial word "e" from "evam vadi" shows that the script is in the manner of the ancient Mons. This is proof of the belief that the people who erected the Pagoda in ancient times were the Mons. The inscription is reproduced herein and the characters form the verse which summarises tersely the Buddha's Teaching as explained by Assaji (one of the five companions of Gotama - in his strenuous ascetic practices, to whom after His Enlightenment He returned and first preached the Doctrine), to Sariputta who in turn explained it to his friend Moggalana. Those two thereupon perceived the Truth of the Buddha's Teaching, joined the Order and became the chief disciples. The English translation is: "The Tathagata has explained the cause of all things which proceed from a cause and also the cessation thereof. This the Great Samana has taught." (Sariputta - Mahavagga, pubbujja Khandaka, Moggalana vinaya pitaka).

The Opening of the Stone Casket

       It was at once realised that the stone casket contained relics, but as this could not be opened up unceremoniously the pilgrims who flocked from all over Burma to see these discoveries had at first just to imagine the contents. The Rehabilitation Committee met on several occasions but could not take the responsibility of opening the casket. Then a meeting was called to which were invited 15 of the leading religious leaders (Maha Theras). At this meeting, on the advice of these Bhikkhus, that as an act prompted by good motives and religious faith it would be quite meritorious to open the casket, it was unanimously decided to do this in the presence of the members of the Committee and the public. Great precautions were taken so as not to cause the slightest damage and actually the cone was removed from the stone salver on which it stood without any very great difficulty. When this cone or stone layer was removed there was found inside another stone layer of similar shape but with a brilliant gold coating and this was more representative of a pagoda in shape while its exquisite workmanship and brilliance inspired feelings of deep religious fervour in the crowd present. Some mud had penetrated even here and the sides of the base were covered with this and when it was washed and sifted precious stones and gold and jewellery were discovered round the base. This second stone casket was then removed and inside was found a small pagoda of pure gold standing on a silver salver or base and beside this golden pagoda was a carved stone image 4 1/2 ins. high of very ancient workmanship.

        When the gold Pagoda was lifted up, a tiny gold cylinder of 3/4 ins. length with a diameter of 5/12 ins. was found and in this tiny cylinder were found two small body relics each the size of a mustard seed and a Sacred Hair of the Buddha. This hair was coiled round and fastened with a little acquer on which were traces of gold plaster.

The New Pagoda

       The Sacred Body Relics and the Sacred Hair of the Buddha with all the images and other precious objects recovered from the ruins of the Pagoda have been temporarily stored in a shelter near the site of the Pagoda. Meanwhile the building of a new pagoda goes on apace. There had been a good deal of encroachment on the ancient Pagoda lands when Burma was taken by the British and these lands have been restored as glebe lands by the Government of the Union of Burma and the Pagoda site is now restored to 6 1/2 acres. The new pagoda is of original design and in height 131 ft. 8 ins, on abase of 96 ft. x 96 ft. The pagoda is of reinforced concrete and is to be gilded and observers from abroad opine that this pagoda is a happy blend of the ancient and of the ultra-modern and a really wonderful piece of architecture. The date of completion and crowning is yet to be determined but it will be before that great forthcoming event in Buddhist history, the Sixth Great Buddhist Council which will be held in Burma from 1954.

        Unlike many of the older shrines, the Pagoda is not a solid core but has a huge internal cavity and worshippers may enter.

        Strength has not been sacrificed in the construction and the internal design is such that the odd nooks and corners, inseparable from an edifice of this shape, are being made the most of for artificial lighting and for guarded show cases in which to display the relics for public veneration. There is a well in the centre of the pagoda where was the ancient treasure chamber and this is to be kept open. An altar is to be erected in this well where the relics will rest so that they may be taken out on special occasions for worship.

        The Botataung Pagoda is symbolic of the vitality and energy exhibited in the great Buddhist revival. Here from the ruins of the old culture is being salvaged all that was best of the ancient wisdom and displayed in modern manner to a modern world.


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