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The Shwe-Dagon Paya

Ethel Mannin

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Vol. III, No. 1, 1955

It is usual when reporting on a foreign country to deal first with the capital. I have observed this in the best travel books, and have also gone to work in this way myself. The Eastern traveller, visiting London or Paris, would not report first on Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame; he would first study and report upon the cities enshrining these treasures. But then Rangoon does not enshrine the Shwedagon Pagoda, which though it dominates the city is not strictly speaking in it but on the outskirts of it. So that it may be considered as a separate entity. Rangoon enshrines the Sule Pagoda, as positively as London's Piccadilly Circus enshrines the Eros fountain, and the Sule Pagoda is beautiful and of interest, but it is not dramatic like the great Shwedagon. It was not of the Sule Pagoda but of the dramatic, the incomparable Shwedagon that Ralph Fitch, that considerable traveller, declared in the sixteenth century, that it was 'the fairest place, as I suppose, that doe bee in all the worlde.' Fitch had almost certainly seen the Taj Mahal, that 'dream in white marble', before he reached Burma and had his first glimpse of the dream in pure gold as he sailed up the Rangoon river. The present writer, having also seen the turquoise enamelled domes of the Mosque of Shakh-Zinda, the crowning glory of Tamerlaine's Sumarkand, would still place the Shwedagon Pagoda first, without having to think about it.

I do not know why the Shwedagon is so incredibly moving. Perhaps it is because of the sheer purity of its line against the flawless sky. It is dramatic and beautiful from whatever angle it is approached. There are four covered staircases up to it, North, South, East and West. The main entrance is the South, and here at the foot of the steps stand huge guardian beasts, half lion, half dragon, characteristic of the pagodas everywhere. They are white, picked out with red, blue, and gold paint, and have a fabulous fairy-tale quality. At either side of the steps as you mount - barefooted - there are small open-fronted shops or stalls, selling Buddha images of all kinds, small gilt shrines for the home, tinselled pictures of the Buddha and his chief disciples, strings of large rosary beads, tinselled marionette dolls, tiny paper parasols for placing on shrines, wood-carvings of the guardian lions, ivory carvings of all kinds, real tortoise-shell combs, small oblong drums - essential to Burmese music - and near the top of the stairs flower stalls, where also joss-sticks and candles are sold. The flower stalls are of a sweetness unknown to any European flower-stalls, for they are stacked with jasmine, tuber-roses and many other heavily scented flowers native to the East, as well as roses and carnations, and lesser, scentless, flowers such as asters and marigolds. The flowers, singly and in bunches, are tied to thin sticks, so that they may be easily placed in the vases in front of the Buddha images. They will not live, for there is no water in the vases, but they are not intended to, since they are not placed there as a decoration for the shrine, as flowers are arranged on a Christian altar, but solely as an offering; this being so their perfume should not be inhaled by those who offer them, and they should be carried upright, not in any careless, casual fashion.

At the back of some of the stalls, in a kind of half dark hinterland, there are small cafes at which meals are cooked and tea is made, and here are benches where after dark, when there is no more buying or selling, people sleep. A whole world of life goes on in that half concealed hinterland beside the pagoda steps.

The approach to the East steps is through a long bazaar where all manner of things are sold, slippers, clothing, combs, jewellery, religious books and pictures, all the conglomeration that makes up a bazaar, and this bazaar continues on up the steps which seem as a result merely like the continuation of the busy narrow Street. Once on these steps with David Maurice we met with a friend of his, an old hermit in from the country. He wore the dark clothes and carried the staff of his calling. After he and David had warmly greeted each other we all three continued on up the steps. David explained that it would not be correct to say that the old man lived by the begging bowl, for he did not in fact beg, but that if anyone liked to make him a present he would accept not as a favour but as conferring one, for the chief benefit would accrue to the giver, who would acquire merit thereby. Without any desire to acquire merit, however, I nevertheless thought it would be nice to give the old man a few kyats, and asked David to convey this to him. This was done and the offer accepted, with the request that it be done in the proper place, up on the platform of the pagoda - the marble pavemented terrace, that is to say, which encompasses its base.

When we reached the platform we walked round a little past various carved wooden shrines, beautiful with red lacquer, housing Buddha images of marble or gold or brass or alabaster, until we came to a spot where the hermit said it would be right to give and to accept alms. Having given we abased ourselves at the feet of the venerable man, who gave us his blessing. Then seeing what was going on, and that they had a holy man in their midst, other people came and gave gifts of money, so that it was altogether a good day for the hermit that he had encountered his old friend on the steps, and a good day for David and for me and for the others who rallied round. The old man explained to us what a good thing it was for us all, and how it was part of his kamma that he should have been on those particular steps at that particular moment, and we parted in that aura of goodwill which is always a good thing whenever and wherever it is met with.

The West steps are flanked by golden pillars, and the roof is gilded and painted. There are fewer shops and stalls here and in places none at all, so that there are views out over the city, and the walk half way up the pagoda hill is visible. It is beautiful to do this walk at sundown, when the tall palms which spring up here and there at either side of the path lean against the crimson sky and the pagoda takes on an incredible sunset splendour of golden fire. Then as the brief twilight fades the lights come out on the pagoda and the palms blacken against the violet sky. But then, too, by moonlight this walk is most magical; then the palms and the wild plantains at each side of the path, and the little chalet-like wooden houses at various points, are touched with mystery, and the soft silver light seems to drip from the trees and the ornately carved gables of the houses like water. Inside the little houses people squat on floors eating rice, or telling their beads before a Buddha shrine, by the light of a single candle. There is a tremendous commotion of cicadas.

Between the palms and the neem trees at one side of the path there are sudden glimpses of the lights of the city down below. Above, at the other side of the path, poised between the plumes of the strangely leaning palms, there are glimpses of the illuminated pagoda on its hilltop, its gold as burnished by moonlight as by sunlight, and when the moon is young it is like a jewel that has somehow strayed from the spire of the pagoda. There is a desolate, eerie patch before the path crosses the East steps; only weeds and thorns grow here, and the ground suddenly makes the bare feet aware of flints. I had here the strange experience of feeling suddenly cold and afraid, with an unaccountable feeling of horror. I explained to my companion that it was as though 'something awful' had happened here at one time. My companion, however, felt nothing except that the going here was stonier. Crossing the steps and continuing to follow the path at the other side the magic reasserted itself, and I had again the feeling of walking in a fairyland of beauty and strangeness remote from everyday reality. It is a curiously private world, too; on neither of the occasions when I invaded it did I see anyone else walking there for the sake of it, and the people living there stared with the air of people not used to being intruded upon, though only the prowling pariah dogs seemed to resent it. It was not until I got back to London that I learned that during the second war of annexation, in 1852, under Lord Dalhousie, the pagoda had been fortified and there had been bitter fighting at that point, where the Burmese had been taken by surprise, and many soldiers, both British and Burmese had died there.

At the top of the hill, where the pagoda stands surrounded at its base by lesser pagodas, and by shrines innumerable, all encircled by the flat marble-paved terrace, another new world of strangeness and beauty is revealed. The small golden pagodas round the base of the big one all have their little crowns of bells which tinkle most sweetly in the wind. At the base of the pagoda, too, there are carved wooden shrines, red lacquered, and with charming gabled roofs in tiers, terminating in fine spires, and they too have their little bells.

There are shrines, too, large and small, across the terrace from the base of the pagoda, all of them housing Buddha images, reclining Buddhas, standing Buddhas, Buddhas in the conventional lotus position. At the top of each flight of steps there are big shrines, with huge Buddha images, and long altars where flowers are laid and candles and incense-sticks lit. In these major shrines men, women and children are always to be found, kneeling on bamboo mats contemplating the Buddha image, bowing down in the act of worship till their foreheads touch the ground, repeating such formulas from the scriptures, such precepts of their faith, as are suited to the occasion, but always that which reminds them that life is sorrow, impermanence, illusion, from which, as the Lord Buddha taught, only the overcoming of craving can release them.

When someone makes a donation to the pagoda fund the big bell is struck, and its reverberations spread far out over the terrace. In his most beautiful book about Burma, The Soul of a People, the late Fielding Hall, who was an official in Burma during the British Raj, tells how the British took this bell from the pagoda and sought to bring it to England as a war trophy, (it was after the first war of annexation) but as it was being put on board ship it slipped and fell into the river, from which all the efforts of the British engineers failed to raise it. Then the Burmese asked if they might try to recover the bell, their sacred bell, and if they were able to might they be allowed to restore it to the pagoda. 'And they were told, with a laugh, perhaps, that they might; and so they raised it up again, the river giving back to them what it had refused to us, and they took it and hung it where it used to be. There it is now, and you may hear it when you go, giving out a long, deep note, the beat of the pagoda's heart.' The Burmese have not forgotten this story of the bell; I was told it more than once, in Rangoon and in Mandalay, and more than once I read it.

In addition to the lesser pagodas, and the shrines, at the base of the pagoda itself there are little gilded wrought iron trees, very decorative and charming, with the names of their donors set forth in plaques at their feet. There is also strip-lighting, now, in the various shrines, and on the pagoda itself, and the names of the donors are everywhere prominent. There are many who like the present writer deplore the vulgarity of this ostentatious giving as much as the inappropriateness of the strip-lighting. Yet so great is the sum of beauty of the Shwedagon and its surrounding shrines that no vulgarity, no anachronism, can really take from it. It is a pity; it would be better not there, but magnificence is not minimized by minor blemishes.

The gaunt pariah dogs, many of them bitches with litters of skinny little pups running round them, which inhabit the pagodas everywhere -- they too would be better not there. To the Western mind they would be better put out of their misery, but this is not acceptable to the Buddhist mind, and nothing except an outbreak of rabies, when a child or two gets bitten, can provoke any action; then the services of some Moslem will be sought, poison laid, and a minor clean-up carried out. But for the most part the wretched creatures contrive to stay alive on the border-line of starvation, and even to breed and rear their litters on the odd handfuls of rice the kindly-disposed put out for them, and such edible scraps as they can find among the refuse in the gutters. In time one learns to accept them as part of the general picture, even not to notice them very much. Life is struggle and suffering for all creatures, particularly in the East; it always has been, for thousands of years, and no doubt always will be, and whilst there is grave cause to be exercised concerning man's inhumanity to man is it not disproportionate to wax excited over some miserable pariah dog? Fielding Hall thought that at the Shwedagon even the pariah dogs looked in not too bad a condition. Perhaps it is true - or was true when he wrote at the end of the century. I don't know. We see what we want to see, and it is anyhow not important.

What is important is beauty, and human life, and love, and the light men live by, and the faith, and the hearts of men. What is important in Burma is the Buddhist faith which gives meaning to their lives, and the beauty created out of that faith - through, by and for that faith. What is important in Rangoon is not that it is no longer 'the most beautiful city in the East' as was once - extravagantly - claimed for it but that the Shwedagon Pagoda has survived a war which laid low a tragic amount of the man made beauty of the world, and has survived the changes of the after-war, and is still 'the glittering mass of golden stupa standing on the last hill, of the Pegu Yomas.' What is important is what this glittering mass means to the men and women, young and old, who climb its many steps, in the brief coolness of early morning, or the long heat of the day, to lay a few flowers, light a few candles or perhaps merely to sit and contemplate the image of the great teacher by whose precepts they seek to live. And what it means is hardly to be compassed in a few words, for it is a way of life, and ultimate truth. What is important is the impact of all this beauty on the hearts and minds of those who do not wholly - or even in part - accept the faith it symbolizes. Anyone who has ever felt, as opposed to merely observing, the beauty of the Shwedagon Pagoda is as spiritually enriched thereby as from the impact of any other great art; perhaps more so, for here the beauty is not merely aesthetic, but alive with the soul of a people and with a moral force six hundred years older than Christianity.

There are always many people up on the pagoda terrace, in early morning, at mid day, at sundown, and after dark. The atmosphere is not oppressive as in a church, but as lively as a street. Children race about playing games; I have even seen young people fooling about as young people do, and it is not considered irreverent when sitting in front of a Buddha image to smoke a cheroot, and I have seen both men and women doing it in pagodas everywhere, and chatting as they sit. The Buddha is not considered divine. He was a great teacher, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One. The people come to pay his memory homage, and by repeating his precepts remind themselves of the truths he revealed to the world and which they accept as a way of life. It is a conception of worship and of prayer quite different from the Christian and the Moslem conception. It is a conception of religion in which man must look to himself for salvation, not to any divine power.

So the people at the Shwedagon, and at the pagodas everywhere, behave according to their current moods and needs; they do not whisper of tiptoe about. They talk and laugh, or they repeat the precepts, or they merely sit silently gazing, each paying homage in his own way, worshipping in his own way. There are many trees up on the platform of the Shwedagon, and a number of odd corners behind the shrines where there are little courtyards and terraces looking out over the city to the lakes. There are tall palms here, and shady neem trees, and there is a big old sacred tree round whose base the people apply gold-leaf and during the water-festival they bring a great deal of water to this tree - for it was under such a tree that Prince Gautama, who became the Lord Buddha, received his enlightenment. It is very pleasant to sit in the shade of the trees in what might be described as the back streets of the pagoda - taking the broad marbled walk round the base to be the main street - and the people like to sit there, on wooden benches, or perched on the parapet, talking, smoking, eating, admiring the view, or merely watching the coming and going of their fellow men.

People make the pilgrimage to the Shwedagon from all parts of the country; Shans from the Shan States, Kachins from the northern hills, Mons from the villages of the deep south. And there are always pongyis - monks - walking about in their orange coloured robes, and shaven-headed nuns in their pale pink robes; and there are a few beggars, but they are not beggars in the ordinarily accepted sense but beggars as it were for the kingdom of heaven's sake, and mostly they are lay nuns in dark robes.

The pagoda enshrines eight hairs of the Buddha's head brought from India more than 2500 years ago by two Burmese merchants. There was then on this southernmost spur of the Pegu Yoma only the Mon - or Mun - village of Dagon, which eventually became Yangon, from which comes the modern name Rangoon. The shrine now known as the Shwedagon Pagoda, strictly Shwe-Dagon Paya - was the creation of Shinbyushin, King of Ava, in 1774. He raised it to its present height and gilded it with his own weight in gold. But centuries before then, during the years of the Mon Kingdom of Pegu, Shinsawbu, Queen Regnant of Hanthawaddy, had gilded it with her own weight in gold. King Singu, the son of King Shinbyushin, regilded the pagoda in 1778 and had a sixteen ton bronze bell cast, which stands now at the north-east corner of the platform. This is the bell which fell into the river during the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824, and was brought up by the Burmese in 1826 and restored to its place. The great canopy or umbrella - the hti - was the gift of King Mindon, who founded Mandalay. It cost half a million rupees and is hung with some fifteen hundred bells, one hundred of which are gold, the rest silver. This wonderful gift was sent by the king down the Irrawaddy in 1852, when Lower Burma was already in the hands of the British. The king had begged that one of his own representatives be allowed to officiate at the hoisting of the hti but the British considered that this would be in the nature of a political gesture, and taken as such by the people, and the request was refused. Nevertheless a vast crowd attended the event and celebrated it with great festivities.

The hoisting of a new hti for even the smallest of pagodas is always an occasion for festivity, for pwe, as it is called, when open-air performances of dancing and singing go on literally from dusk till dawn. People come in from far and wide for pwe, and innumerable eating booths are set up, and stalls for the sale of fruit-juice, drinks, sweets, fruit, cakes, and all manner of things. The Burmese love festivals, and it unifies their national life that these festival are invariably in connection with their religion. There is more to say about pwe, so important in Burmese life, but the place is not here, where we are considering, "the fairest place that doe bee in all the world."

Aldous Huxley, who found the Taj Mahal 'disappointing', reacted to the Shwedagon as to a 'sacred Fun Fair, a Luna Park dedicated to the greater glory of Gautama - but more fantastic, more wildly amusing than any Bank Holiday invention.* 'That is sad for Mr. Huxley that his eyes and his spirit were denied the vision of beauty, that he missed 'the perfume of the thousand prayers that have been prayed there, of the thousand thousand holy thoughts that have been thought there.' I have seen this pagoda athwart the mango tree beside my bedroom window at sunrise, and have leaned upon its parapet at sundown; I have seen it burnished to golden fire in the mid-day sun, and bewitched into something in a dream by moonlight. I have heard the tauk-te lizard calling its name somewhere out of sight as I wandered barefoot over the warm stones behind the shrines. I have sat and watched the people come and go in their bright clothes, the women with flowers in their hair, and themselves like flowers, and the young men so straight and slim in their longyis and neat light jackets. I have been up and down the many stairs many times, always at the top meeting with a fresh shock of delight the scent of jasmine and tuber-roses. I have seen the fabulous golden cone reflected in the lake at the other side of the city, by sunlight and moonlight. And by sunlight and moonlight rising above the city in sheer golden purity from its surrounding forest of trees.

I do not merely remember it all, how it looked at these different times, from these different angles, but feel again, recalling it, the emotion it evoked. It is as though the heart itself remembers. Words do not seem adequate to convey such shining beauty; paint might serve the purpose better. But then I think that perhaps the words of Fielding Hall, in which he sums it all up - after describing it as like 'a great tongue of flame', and a 'most wonderful sight, so brilliant in the hot sunshine that it seemed to 'shake and tremble in the light like a fire - in a very simple phrase, are after all the most telling, since words will not compass such beauty, and there is nothing for it, therefore, but to fall back as he did upon the simplicity of the statement - 'it is a very beautiful place, this pagoda ........'

* "Jesting Pilate" -- 1926

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