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Department of Research & Compilation, Sitagtu International Buddhist Academy, Sagaing, Myanmar,1998

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda is located in the town of Nyaung Oo four miles to the northeast of the ancient city of Bagan. It is 160 feet high and 160 feet wide at the base. Built in the early Bagan period on an open plain, this pagoda inspires faith even today, bringing joy to the hearts of monks and laymen alike as they behold its brilliant golden color.

According to historical accounts, King Anawrahta had requested a copy of the Tooth Relic from Sri Lanka. When the relic arrived by royal barge at the shore of Bagan, the king himself descended neck-deep into the river to receive it. Then carrying the relic to the forepart of his palace, he installed it there for his private worship. Shin Arahan advised the king that for the benefit of men, devas and brahma gods, he should build a pagoda and enshrine the relic within it so that it might be I worshipped for as long as the Sasana survives in the world. Accepting this advice, the king placed the relic on the back of his white elephant and set the animal free with this oath, "May my white elephant bow down at the spot where the Tooth Relic wishes to reside."

It is said in history books that when the white elephant bowed its head at a sand bank (zigon) some 90 uthabha to the northeast of the city of Bagan, the king became very disconcerted. Knowing this, Thagya min (Sakka, lord of the gods) caused the king to have a dream so that his mind would be put at ease. In the dream the sandy ground was transformed into solid stone and girded all round with an iron plate.

The king enshrined the Tooth Relic on the sand bank where the white elephant had bowed its head and there began to build a pagoda. In the year during which the three pissaya or terraces (2) of the pagoda were finished, the Tooth Relic replicated itself into four more copies. These were enshrined in the Tangyidaw, Lokananda, Tonwataung and the Pyektaung pagodas which had been built for them. That same year, an emerald image of the Buddha from China (given by Thagya min), and the Frontlet Relic taken from a pagoda built in Tharekhettara by King Dvattabaung were enshrined in the Shwezigon.

The king then had crafted a golden image of himself holding a jeweled flower salver and enshrined it in the pagoda. When the interior Shwezigon Pagoda was completed in Thekkarit 420 (1058 AD), it was crowned with a gold hti or umbrella amidst a grand celebration sponsored by the king. Anawrahta had planned to encase this interior pagoda within a larger one measuring 320 thandaung at its base, but he died in Thekkarit 446 (1084 AD) before his plan could be realized.

King Kyanzittha took up the task of completing the unfinished pagoda begun by his father in Thekkarit 451 (1089 AD), on the 13th waxing-moon day of Tansaungmon. His father's plan to extend the pagoda's panap-che or plinth (1) to 320 thandaung was excessive, so Kyanzittha consulted with Shin Arahan and constructed it to a width of 300 thandaung. He then encased the existing dome within a larger one 80 thandaung high.

The Shwezigon was completed with stone slabs hewn from the Tonwataung Pagoda which were three htwa long and one htwa wide. It was crowned with a gold hti or umbrella in Thekkarit 452 (1090 AD), on the full-moon day of Kason. (Some claim that Anawrahta died when he had finished the three terraces, and that Kyanzittha continued the building from there. Others assert that Kyanzittha built a larger structure over an already completed pagoda built during the reign of Anawrahta.). The shape of the pagoda as it is witnessed today is the same which was given to it by Kyanzittha.

Shwezigon Pagoda

The plinth of the Shwezigon measures 300 thandaung, the pagoda itself is 80 thandaung high and its khyaya-thi or spindle (21) just beneath the finial measures nine thandaung in depth. This spindle is made of five metals. The pagoda is adorned with twelve colossal pots, and statues of twenty-one lions, sixteen crabs and sixteen sea frogs. It has four mokh or arched entrances (3) and twelve staircases (4). Its first umbrella is nine daung in circumference and made up of nine tiers.

The Shwezigon Pagoda is a paragon in the perfection of its architectural parts. The four small pagodas placed at the corners of the central edifice, plus the arched entrances and the staircases taken together represent an innovation in pagoda design during the early Bagan period. These features, plus the Shwezigon's fine workmanship were adopted in the pagoda building of later periods.

Viewing the Shwezigon Pagoda from bottom to top, one will see that above the third terrace there it is made up of several elements; viz. an eight-angled kya-wun or lotus 5, a kya-wain(6), a kya-mhauk or inverted lotus surmounted by a kya-lan or upright lotus and (7) a kha-pat or girding belt (8). Above these one will notice that the bell-shaped dome is adorned with a nakham-htu or lip (9), a hkaung-laung-na or lower edge (10) and a yin-phwe kha-pat or breast belt (11). Above the dome there is the tha-paik hmauk or inverted alms bowl (12), which in turn is surmounted by several hpaung-yit or rings (13). Like many modern pagodas, the Shwezigon is equipped with rings that are staggered, with larger rings being separated by smaller ones (14), and again by mo-lyo or rain rings (15)

Above the rings are placed a kya-seik(16), another inverted lotus (17), kya-ywe or ball lotuses (18), a kya-pyan (kya-lan) or lotus with outspread petals (19), and another ring (20). Finally, all of these elements are surmounted by the spindle made of five metals (21) and an umbrella (22). On each of the four sides of the Shwezigon, there is a brick Buddha-shrine called a Kye-gu Taik; each of which contains an excellently crafted standing statue of the Buddha made of copper. On the eastern side next to a covered staircase, one will also find two inscribed pillars placed there by King Kyanzittha which record the history of the pagoda in Mon language.

In terms of pagoda design, of all the pagodas on the plain at Nyaung Oo, the Shwezigon became the favorite of later periods for the balance of its features. The five hundred Jataka plaques adorning its terraces on all sides, the lions at its corners, the staircases and arched en trances, the colossal pots and small pagodas placed at its corners, the lower lip and breast girdle of its dome which is surmounted by the inverted alms bowl and decorated with festooned flowers, its many rings and rain rings, and finally its spindle and banana bulb at the top; all of these features when considered artistically, make the Shwezigon a beautifully appointed pagoda.

When the pagoda was being constructed, the builders used an ancient Mon architectural method called ye-khyein-khwet to lay Out the sides of pagoda square perpendicularly on a level surface, and to orient the monument towards the east. This method is still in use today.

Nine remarkable features of the Shwezigon Pagoda

  1. Even though its umbrella is massive, it is not held in place with iron cables.
  2. The great pagoda's shadow never falls outside its boundary walls regardless of the time of day.
  3. The paper used in applying gold leaf when dropped from the upper lotus on the spire never drifts outside the boundary wall.
  4. However many people come to visit the pagoda, it is never becomes crowded inside the boundary wall.
  5. During the festival celebrated on the full-moon day of Tansaungmon, a rice offering will always have been made to the pagoda before anyone arrives.
  6. The sound of a drum beaten on one side of the pagoda cannot be heard from the other side.
  7. From a distance the pagoda appears to be standing on a hill.
  8. However much it rains, water does not accumulate in the courtyard of the pagoda.
  9. The khya-ya (medlar) tree at the south-east corner of the pagoda stays in bloom all year round.

It has been noted that the Shwezigon Pagoda is situated on the flat plain. During its construction carved blocks of stone were taken from Tu-ywing hill and passed hand-to-hand along a line of labourers all the way to the building site. The masonry of the structure of exceptionally high quality, and for this and many other reasons, the Shwezigon has been able to bear the stress of the elements well over the centuries. Hence, when an earthquake struck Bagan on July 8, 1979, at 6 P.M., the pagoda suffered only minor damage to its umbrella and lower inverted lotus. The rest of the structure remained intact.

Now, the entire pagoda is encased in 30,205 copper plates costing some 3,262,572 kyats; a renovation made possible by the generous donations of monks, novices and laypeople of Myanmar, and the donations of pilgrims from here and abroad. Besides this, visitors can now gaze upon and pay homage to the Shwezigon from afar while peacefully taking rest at any of the several pilgrims guest houses which are increasing day by day.

An annual pagoda festival is held at the Shwezigon beginning on the 10th waxing-moon day of Tansaungmon (Myanmar lunar month overlapping October and November) which lasts till the 10th waning-moon day of the same month.

Some Historical and Art-historical Facts

The standing statues in the four Buddha-shrines: On each side of the Shwezigon Pagoda stands a Buddha-shrine capped with a pinnacle in the shape of Bagan era betel box. Each of the four shrines contains a twelve daung high standing representation of one of the four Buddhas who attained enlightenment during this world-eon; these being, Kakusana, Konagom, Kassapa and Gotama. Each statue is an exquisite example of Bagan style standing Buddha iconography, as well as of craftsmanship in caste copper. The artistry is all the more impressive when one realizes that the copper plates making up the skin of the statues were embossed from the inside in order to give the figures their final shape. This sophisticated handicraft is called kye-khat-ni or the copper striking method'.

The Edicts of King Kyarizitha: Two historical inscribed pillars stand near the great lion images on the eastern face of the pagoda, on the left and right sides of the eastern entry-way. Historians have identified these as edicts commemorating the coronation of the great king Kyanzittha. Among the information they reveal, the insriptions record in particular 1) the Buddha's prophesy of Kyanzittha's reign, and 2) Kyanzittha's own heartfelt intention, expressed in subtle metaphor, to govern his subjects peacefully and beneficently.

King Bayin-naung's colossal bell and epigraph: The Archaeological Department has re constructed a bell house on its original foundation near the entrance of the covered staircase on the eastern face of the pagoda. Inside is a colossal bell donated the great king Bayin-naung, also known as by Hanthawati Hsin-hpyu-shin (15 15- 1581 AD). On it is written an epigraph in three languages; Mon, Myanmar and Pali. It is dated Myanmar era 929, and so it is more than 430 years old. Included in the bell's epigraph, is the record that in 1557 A.D, Bayin-naung covered the Shwezigon Pagoda "from its pinnacle to its base with a donation of gold-leaf so that it shines brilliantly." A smaller bell of the same shape can be found in the northwest corner of the pagoda compound near the covered stairs.

The stone-edict commemorating Kon baung era Hsin-hpyu-shin's umbrella donation: In the northeast corner of the pagoda compound there is an inscription contained inside an inscription house (index no. 11). The inscription is a commemorative edict recording the donation of a pagoda umbrella by King Hsin-hpyu-shin of the Kon-baung dynasty (1763-1776 AD). Nearby to the east is a wooden inscription house constructed by the Archaeological Department containing six historical inscriptions. In the northeast corner of the compound is planted a Bodhi Tree donated by Sri Lanka.

This "Short History of Shwezigon Pagoda" was written so that those who cherish ancient Bagan art and who love Myanmar, those who research history, those who delight in meritorious deeds, and those who visit from foreign countries and wish to compare the ancient craftsmanship of Myanmar with that of the West, might earn merit while studying and recording these facts about the Shwezigon.

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