Shwedagon Pagoda, The Golden Wonder Part 4
To go up to the Shwedagon Pagoda is possible by stairs, elevator and escalator. There are 4 long stairways (zaungdans) covered with multi-tired roofs (pyatthats) that are leading up to the pagoda’s main platform. Each one has an interesting story to tell; but the northern stairway’s story is arguably the most interesting one of them. In 1852 Burmese soldiers had planned to rush up this stairway, attack the British and take the pagoda platform; but they failed. The wooden structure that we can see from the Planetary Post for the Venus where we are standing is the pavilion of the northern stairway.
Located on the left side of the way leading to it is the Sandawdwin Pagoda and on the right side the Maha Bodhi Temple. The northern stairway was built by Queen Shin Saw Bu in 1460. We are now going a bit closer to the Maha Bodhi Temple so that we can see the interesting details.
This temple is placed on a square building and its design is completely different from that of Burmese Buddhist temples. It is meant to be a miniature replica of the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya but, alas, the degree of similarity is relatively low as this is limited to the general shape of the structure. It is nonetheless a very interesting and beautiful structure and really worth being looked at because of the colourful jatakas. Of these are 72 on the main stupa and 56 on each of the small stupas placed on the 4 corners of the temple terrace. The Maha Bodhi style temple was built by the in 1904 born famous Burmese writer and publisher Daw Khin Lay Latt sometime around 1950. She was writing under her pen names Dagon Khin Khin Lay, Ko Ko Lay and Yuwati Lay Ni.
A few steps farther eastwards is the Kannaze Shrine also called Kannagi Shrine. It is the second structure to the east from the Maha Bodhi style temple and the Buddha statue the Kannaze shrine is housing is the Sutaungpya Buddha, which means as much as ‘The Buddha granting the wish of the King’. As legend says it is marking the place where King Okkalapa was praying for the appearance of the new Buddha and a sacred gift from him in order to ensure that the Singuttara Hill remains a holy hill.
Now please turn around and look to the main stupa. On the left corner you see the Planetary Post for the Sun. Our two Garuda birds will now go over there and perform their ‘watering or cleansing’ ritual. We will be waiting here from where we can see you well. When you come back we continue to the Shin Itzagawna (also called Shin Ajagona) Shrine.
Walking alongside the east side of the Kannaze shrine we have now in front of us the Naungdawgyi Pagoda and the smaller building in front of the pagoda is the Shin Itzagawna Shrine.
The shrine is home to several Buddhas but the most important statue is, of course, the one of Shin (monk in Mon language) Itzagawna. Shin Itzagawna’s eyes are as you can see of different size.
Here is the legend that explains why this is so. According to this legend Shin Itzagawna lived in Pagan and was not only monk but also an alchemist. He was obsessed with the idea to find the Philosopher’s Stone or ‘dat lone’ as the Burmese call it. This is a magical stone based on iron or mercury, which he believed could, among others, turn everything it touched into gold. Itzagawna had therefore promised to find the stone (more precisely phrased to make the stone by mixing the right ingredients) and present it to his king. The legend does not specify any time at which this happened for which reason it cannot be said which king this could have been. But from the fact that Shin Itzagawna was a Mon monk it might be correct to presume that this legend stems from a time after king Anawrahta had conquered Thaton, the capital of Mon king Manuha’s kingdom in 1057. Be that as it may, Shin Itzagawna experimented for a long time to find a way to make this Philosopher’s Stone by mixing different ingredients but always failed. Deeply disappointed and ashamed he threw the stone of his final experiment, that had again failed, into a cesspit and poked immediately afterwards his eyes out. Right after he did this he heard his novice shout that the stone he had thrown into the cesspit had turned into the philosopher’s stone when it hit the wastewater. Now it was clear that the missing ingredient Itzagawna had in vain been looking for was manure or faeces. The novice gave the Philosopher’s Stone to Shin Itzagawna who immediately ordered him to run to the nearby slaughter house and get him a pair of new eyes. The novice returned quickly but had gotten only one bull’s eye and one goat’s eye. Since time was of the essence Itzagawna did not mind, put the eyes into his eye sockets and with the power of the Philosopher’s Stone regained his eyesight. This is the explanation for the different size of his eyes. The Shin Itzagawna Shrine is one of the nine wonders of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Before I am going to give you information on the large Naungdawgyi Pagoda in the background we will now walk around its left corner and visit the Wizard’s Hall because these wizards (bodaws) are also alchemists (like Shin Itzagawna) and lots of Burmese believe in the magic power of them. It is believed that Wizards are immortal and possess supernatural powers. There are two wizards guarding the entrance to the Hall of Wizards. The left one is the Iron Wizard and the right one the Incantation Wizard. As unobtrusive as it looks, the Wizard’s Hall is one of the nine wonders of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Now we take a closer look at the beautiful Naungdawgyi Pagoda and its history. The Naungdawgyi Pagoda, also called Elder Pagoda, is located in the north-east corner of the Shwedagon platform and its stupa is a smaller version of the Shwedagon Pagoda’s main stupa. It is apart from the Shwedagon itself the by far largest pagoda within the Shwedagon Pagoda complex and what puzzles me is that it is not known when it was built, by whom it was built and why it was built.
There are three different legends and stories about this in circulation. One is that the location of the Naungdawgyi Pagoda marks the place where the casket with Gautama Buddha’s hairs was first placed when it arrived with the merchant brothers Tapussa and Bhallika and that the pagoda was built by the Mon king Okkalapa. Another legend is that the elder of the merchant brothers, Tapussa, once again went to India to see Siddhartha Gautama Buddha and that he was given one more hair from the Buddha. Upon his return he enshrined this hair at this place and built the pagoda atop of the shrine with the Buddha’s hair.
The third legend, well, it’s actually more a story, says that the Naungdawgyi Pagoda is a model built for the Mon queen Shin Saw Bu by her architects in order to show her what the Shwedagon Stupa would look like when shaped based on her ideas. Although all of these legends or stories lack credibility against the background of what is known about the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda I think the most credible one is that it was built as a model for queen Shin Saw Bu. Fact is that the pagoda was renovated in 2001 and consecrated on 28 January 2002. The terrace of the Naungdawgyi Pagoda can be entered by men only; women are not allowed on it.
Now we will go to the east side of the Naungdawgyi Pagoda using the way around its north side. The Naungdawgyi Pagoda is one of the nine wonders of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
We are now at the north-western corner of the Naungdawgyi Pagoda and at our right side we see the Saw Lapaw’s Pagoda. It was built in 1879 by Saw Lapaw, the chief of the during British times semi-independent Kayah State.
The Saw Lapaw Pagoda’s back and side walls are completely covered with mirror glass mosaic. The pagoda is housing a collection of partly or wholly gilded Buddhas of different size and in different mudras with the large Saw Lapaw Buddha in the centre.
In front of us we have now the upper landing of the Northern Stairway opening to the platform. In 1460 this stairway was built by queen Shin Saw Bu and it has an interesting history.
As a matter of fact, the northern stairway – something that happened on it, to be more precise – let to the decision made by the British in December 1853 that the Shwedagon Pagoda became a heavily fortified position of the British forces what, finally, let to the pagoda’s being for 77 years under British control. Here is the story about the event that set the ball rolling.
In the night from the 22 to 23 November 1852 members of the Burmese forces calling themselves the ‘Invulnerables’ fought in a surprise attack their way up to the pagoda platform. Then the ‘Invulnerables’ became well aware of how vulnerable they actually were because the entrance to the platform was as far as they got; they were repulsed and many of them left their lives.
In response to this incident the British decided in December 1853 to fortify the Shwedagon Pagoda and to close the western, northern and eastern stairway to the public.
To the right of the foot of the northern stairway is a rectangular pond called Blood Wash Tank, thwezekan in Burmese. This because according to a legend king Anawrahta’s general and commander-in-chief Kyanzittha (who was his son and later became king of Pagan) has washed here his ‘blood-soaked weapons’ during the war with the Mon in 1057.
The formulation ‘blood-soaked weapons’ is in my opinion a good example for the heroism attributed to the nowadays often exaggeratingly glorified former Burmese kings and generals.
Now we turn right and walk along the northern side of the Naungdawgyi Pagoda with the outer edge of the northern part of the Shwedagon Pagoda platform to our left.
We have now reached the north-eastern corner of the Naungdawgyi Pagoda and are standing in front of the small open pavilion that is housing the 3 Dhammazedi Stones with inscriptions from 1485.
They were made by order of Mon king Dhammazedi and are written in Mon, Pali and Burmese.
Prior to the stone inscriptions being moved to the north-east corner of the platform in 2008 they were at their original place at the top of the eastern stairway.
The stones and inscriptions are to my great surprise in an extremely bad shape but are said to provide important information about the Shwedagon Pagoda’s history, to include information on the Mon origins of the Shwedagon Pagoda, records of the renovations of the Pagoda, the propagation of the Sasana and the sustenance of the Sangha (monk order).
OK, now we will move southwards to return to the inner part of the main platform and to explore the eastern and south-eastern part of the Shwedagon complex.
Here we are, back on the inner part of the main terrace. We stand in front of the northern entrance of the open pavilion housing the Maha Tissada Bell, donated by King Tharrawaddy Min of Ava together with 20 kilograms/44 lbs of gold plating to the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1841.
The name of the bell means in Pali ‘Great Bell of Three Sounds’ and is after the Mingun Bell in Mingun the second largest bell in Burma. It is 8.4 feet/2.55 metres high, has a diameter of 7.6 feet at the mouth, a wall thickness of 1.5 inches and weighs 42 tons. We are now leaving the Maha Ganda Bell pavilion through its south entrance and see at our right hand side (adjacent to the Maha Bodhi Temple) the Shwedagon Pagoda’s second Two Pice Pavilion.
This Two Pice Pavilion is the place where the Two Pice Collections of Shwedagon Pagoda stall owners and Strand Road Market shop owners was collected for the stairways’ reconstruction and repair.
The pavilion is home to a some 200 year old Buddha statue that is as Buddhists believe capable of fulfilling wishes. This offers another good chance to secure good fotune in our future.
We continue our walk and just a few yards farther south opposite the north-east part of the main stupa we arrive at the Replica of the Hti, donated by king Mindon in 1871.
The hti replica is mounted on a gold and white coloured, round building that is housing a wooden seated Mandalay style Buddha statue on a gilded throne.
The entrance to the pavilion is guarded by 2 chinthes and framed by beautiful gold coloured ornaments. The 7 terraces forming the base (stupa) of the hti are also richly decorated with gold coloured ornaments.
Located south of the replica of the hti is the Replica of the Apex of the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was donated in 1774 by king Tharrawaddy Min. The apex replica is mounted on an elevated platform supported by a white round pillar resting on an equally white terraced pedestal. To the right of the hti replica you can see the Bo Bo Aung Shrine. This Bo Bo Aung must not be confused with the Shwedagon Pagoda’s guardian spirit Bo Bo Gyi. By the way, there are more weizzars, not only Bo Bo Aung; another very famous one is Mount Popa Bo Min Khaung.
Bo Bo Aung was (or is?) a weizzar. There are quite a few people here who believe that Bo Bo Aung is still alive for he has supernatural powers that do not only protect him from harm but also give him a life of longevity. But what is of even more importance for people who believe in Bo Bo Aung is that according to their belief he is taking good care of those believing in him, are not doing any harm to others and are living in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings (Sasana). In case you ask yourself why so many people believe in Bo Bo Aung, here is the answer: because he exists, he is real and is coming to help when you believe in him and have problems. And that is why he is worshipped in many Burmese households. Hmm, yes, I think I have to tell you a bit more about weizzars. Weizzar is the Pali word for wisdom. Weizzars can – so it is believed – fly in the air, dive into the earth, walk on water, create multiple bodies, be at many places at the same time, hear sounds that are very far away, can see things that are far, far away or very, very small, can read other people’s minds, see matters as they really are and not as they seem to be, materialise things out of thin air, and so on. They are as powerful as nats but other than the nats who were also real persons before they died a violent death and became nats, weizzars did not die. They are still alive but invisible as long as they wish not to be seen.
Here now you see Bo Bo Aung kneeling in front of the shrine and holding a bowl that is resting on a stand. He is looking like what Burmese call a ‘phothudaw’ because he is dressed like a monk but not in a red, brown or saffron coloured robe. He is wearing a white longyi in monk fashion, a white shirt and on his head he has a white, turban-like hat made of cotton. But he is not a monk. Here is an abridged version of the fantastic story I was told about Bo Bo Aung and how he became a weizzar with magical powers.
He is born as Maung Aung around 1750 and is like other phothudas a person who placed himself as a boy at the service of the monastery in his village. Maung Aung is known as an honest, clever, friendly, helpful and deeply religious person always eager to learn and willing to share with his friends whatever he has. In brief, he is a very nice guy and everyone who knows him likes him very much.
One day the Sayadaw of the village monastery dies. Since the villagers have seen that the Sayadaw had read a kyeni parabaik (inscriptions on a copper plate) with ‘Inns’ (secret information on magic) they believe that he had gained magical powers and that he was not really dead but had become a weizzar just leaving his old body behind.
After the Sayadaw’s funeral his disciples search for the copper parabaik but cannot find it. The oldest of the former Sayadaw’s chief disciples becomes the new Sayadaw and the others dived amongst them what little worldly possessions he had left. Right then the new Sayadaw sees Maung Aung who has meanwhile grown into a your man and he gives him the old pillow of the deceased Sayadaw because Maung Aung also was one of the old Sayadaw’s younger disciples. Maung Aung takes the pillow home. Sometime later he finds the copper parabaik hidden in the pillow and reads it. From then on he is Bo Bo Aung and has the supernatural powers of a weizzar.
What makes him famous throughout the country to this day is that the king, at that time king Bodawpaya, hears about Bo Bo Aung who as the people say is more powerful than the king. King Bodawpaya sends his people to have Bo Bo Aung arrested because he wants to execute him. But when he tried, Bo Bo Aung protected himself with his magical powers and there was nothing the king could do about it. In fact, he was so impressed that he set Bo Bo Aung who would never harm anyone and do only good things free. The Bo Bo Aung Shrine is another one of the nine wonders of the Shwedagon Pagoda.