Tag Archives: Temples

Bedecked in gold: The Shwedagon Pagoda

Came an atheist, left a believer

It was probably the first thing I saw as I exited the Yangon International Airport. I was nervous. I had bid farewell to my friends and my home back in DC and was stepping now into a mysterious land that I knew nothing about. But something about the 325 foot golden stupa that towered over the entire skyline of Yangon told me that I was going to be just fine. And as long as this gilded shrine stood watch, no harm was ever going to come to me in its land.

In the days that passed, I saw the Shwedagon Pagoda several times; from the glass window of my hotel room, every time I drove past it to reach downtown and even when I shifted into my new house, almost an hour away away from the Ar Za Nir street, where the pagoda was located. I saw it every single day and I could sense the strange feeling of guilt starting to rise within me. After all, it had been more than a month since I treaded it’s very streets, a month since it welcomed me, embraced me and yet I had still not found time to pay homage to the shrine that epotimised the very warmth and serenity that defined the city of Yangon. I knew it was time, time for the much awaited divine rendezvous.

A Divine Intervention

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Though the pagoda is open for tourists from 6 am to 10pm, it is best recommended to see the Shwedagon during sunrise and sunset. Because it is at these times one can see the golden pagoda glimmer in all it’s glory, thanks to the 1800 carat (76 being the largest) diamond orb located at the top, comprising 4351 diamonds that captures the rays of the sun, reflecting it beautifully and making the entire stupa glisten in the light. So following my friend’s advice and to save myself from Yangon’s scorching heat, I arrived at its footsteps at 5.00 pm, almost an hour before sunset. I had waited too long and I wasn’t going to miss seeing the shrine at it’s very best; just before, during and after sunset.

Just like most temples back in India, here too, the very first thing we had to do was remove our slippers before entering. But unlike temples back home, here there were no angry guards to yell at me or discard me as a mere sinner when I accidently treaded into its premises with my slippers on. (Even after living here a whole month, the locals’ lack of aggression and plentiful amount of patience still seem to amaze me). There was no shouting and no angry stares, but just a polite gesture to remove my slipper and place it in my handbag before I went in through security.

Despite the lack of aggression, it must be noted that this place is sacred and must be approached with utmost respect. Though it is absolutely fine to wear jeans and t shirts, one is expected to dress modestly keeping their arms and legs covered and nothing short or disrespectful is permitted. The entry for locals was free, but we had to pay an entry fee of $5 (8000 kyat) each. What was amazing was that despite being one the most visited attractions in Myanmar, seeing over 1000 tourists every day, there were no long queues, unecessary security check points or chaotic traffic jams at the entrance, making the entry as peaceful as the tiled premises encircling the pagoda.

There are several entrances to the shwedagon pagoda. If you don’t mind a bit of a climb, you can chose between the over hundreds of steps on the south, west, north or eastern entrance (south being the most preferred and having the least number of steps). Though the shopoholic in me, would have preferred to take the eastern entrance that houses a number of souvenir shops, tea stalls and interesting bazaars, the mommy in me decided to stick to the easiest option of taking the elevators at the southern entrance. And though I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on all the shopping, I was glad to find myself right at the footstep of the 150 year old Bodhi tree.

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A total of five Bodhi trees planted all around as early as in the 1926 is regarded with utmost respect and reverence by the locals and the monks alike. And I couldn’t help but consider myself lucky when one of the locals handed me a leaf from the Bodhi tree. It was only once I was handed the leaf did I realise that there were hardly any fallen leaf to be found lying around. Thankfully I was able to get just about three more for my friend, my daughter and my husband and couldn’t help but think of it as a sign acknowledging and accepting my arrival.

Though one might need a guided tour to completely understand the significance and the story behind each of the innumerable gilded Buddha statues and hundreds of temples spread across the sprawling 114 acre sacred land, our little group of three chose to simply walk around to absorb the sanctity of this architectural wonder and grandeur of the several Buddha idols. But despite having a detailed map of the the Shewdagon and the entire evening, it was still not enough to offer our respects to the various Buddha images (The Padashin Buddha, Saetawmu Buddha, Sun-Moon Buddha, Shin Saw Pu’s Buddha, Chan-Thar-Gyi Buddha, Dhamazedi Buddha, Shin Ma Htee’s Buddha, and my personal favorite the Jade Buddha carved out of one piece jade and weighing a total of 324 kgs, to name a few) housed in the different prayer halls.

However what we did have time for, was to simply marvel the sight of the thousands of oil lamps circling the shrine glimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of the hundreds of monks praying in the the gigantic shadows cast by the golden pagoda that towered over them and listen to the bustling of devotees as they offered flowers and washed the statues asking for forgiveness for their past sins and wishes for a prospective future.

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I was no devotee, my knowledge of the spiritual world rather limited to a few chants and rituals passed on from my grandmother and great grandmother, yet I couldn’t help notice the feeling that had begin to well-up within me as I washed the planetary post that represented the day, my daughter was born. I wasn’t sure how many times I was to wash the Buddha idol, the image of the guardian angel and the image of the animal that represented the day (I was only told much later that I was to do it 9 times). I wasn’t sure which mantra I was to chant. All I did know was that something changed within me as I sat cross legged engrossed in the sheer beauty that stood in front of me. I knew right away…I may have treaded into its premises an atheist, but was leaving a believer.

Treading on Holy grounds

Brilliant, Blissful and breathtakingly beautiful…are probably the words that come to my mind as I think about Bagan, an ancient city in the Mandalay region of Myanmar, a mere four hour drive from its capital city of Naypyitaw and eight from its commercial capital, Yangon. Often compared to Angkorwat in Cambodia, Bagan is known for its numerous religious edifices built between the 11th and 13th centuries and ranks amongst the top tourist destinations of Myanmar.

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I have to be honest here and admit that I did have my doubts when it came to choosing Bagan as our next holiday destination. Not that I ever doubted its beauty or sheer splendor. I had heard raving reviews from fellow travelers and seen some spectacular photographs splattered all across social media posted by my expat friends. My only worry was if a temple town like Bagan known for its pagodas and holiness was really my cup of tea. After all I came from Kerala, Land of thousands of Gods and countless places of worship, where it is considered almost impossible to cross any road, street or even an alleyway without sighting a temple, church or a mosque clustered in every nook and corner and therefore rightfully termed God’s own country.
As we approached Bagan, many aspects did remind me of the home, I bid adieu to a while ago. Gorgeous plush fields aligning the sides of dusty roads, bullock carts trundling hay and other produce to sell at the nearby village market and children gleefully jumping into muddy puddles, quite unaware of the threatening clouds that had started to form in the sky; were all reminiscences of my home back in Kerala.

That being the case, will Bagan offer enough to satiate the tourist in me or will it stand to disappoint? I wondered.
I was proven wrong almost instantly as we entered the premises of this World Heritage Site and I was certain that this holiday was going to be quite extraordinary. Visions of hundreds and hundreds of pagodas began to unfold in front of us, some glittering golden in the heat of the scorching afternoon sun and others displaying a reddish hue, quite characteristic of the baked bricks and sandstone used in the construction of many of these ancient temples.
A total of 2300 well-preserved temples stand tall today in an area stretching over 40 square miles, having survived earthquakes, fire and the Mongol invasions. Once there had been 10,000, each temple built as a sign of devotion, faith, offering or simply as a symbol of economic and political standing.
After having absorbed the beauty of the river Irrawaddy that flowed lazily in front of us, it was time to explore the sacred pagodas and temples. We immediately knew that it would take us days if we ever wanted to cover a reasonable number of these awe-inspiring structures and months to truly imbibe each of its historical and religious significance. So like most of the other tourists we decided to make the best use of our short stay here and stick to the top major attractions of Bagan

Ananda Temple

Dhammayangyi

One can easily though expensively (costing $300 per person) catch the inexplicable beauty of Bagan on top of a balloon ride but no visit to this holy city is considered complete without paying your respects to this particular temple. Regarded the most important and amongst the most highly revered temples, a trip to Bagan without having visited its holy grounds is regarded incomplete and to an extend even inauspicious.
So it was no surprise that the Ananda temple resplendent in white and gold was our first obvious choice. We entered through the west entrance, quite crowded by pilgrims and vendors displaying a multitude of souvenirs, books on Bagan history and beautiful lacquer. But the setting within the temple was quite the opposite compared to the hustle and bustle that we just witnessed outside. A 31 feet tall image of Buddha awaited our arrival at the other end. Made in pure teak wood and adorned in glistening gold leaf, there were a total of four similar images each facing a particular direction, namely north, south, east and west.
The image that welcomed us at the west end had its hands stretched out in the form of abaya mudra, depicting a sign of fearlessness. The mudra in the north and south were the same, symbolizing Buddha’s first sermon while the one in the east was shown holding a herb, symbolizing dharma as the ultimate cure for misery and distress.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Bagan

From the most prominent to the largest temple in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi Temple was our next stop. We were immediately welcomed by the sights of local artists skillfully replicating the splendor of Bagan in shabby canvases and friendly hawkers trying to make a sale by showing off their impressive yet limited knowledge of the English language.
The temple was built by King Narathu, when he came into power after killing his own father. The temple was a way to atone for his sins but call it Karma or simply fate, King Narathu was assassinated before it could have been completed. I wasn’t sure if it was the stories of murder and deceit, our guide eagerly elaborated or simply the dark claustrophobic passages within, I could definitely feel a sense of eeriness that had started to creep in. ‘Definitely need some fresh air,’ I joked to my husband.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwezigon

And fresh air we got in plenty at our next stop and my personal favorite, Shwesandaw Pagoda. Probably Bagan is no place for adrenaline junkies but if you are still looking for some kind of a thrill amongst the sanctity and the calmness, Shwesandaw Paya is definitely the place for you. The Pagoda that has a total of five terraces and a set of rather steep 52 steps, leading to the top is considered to be one of the tallest pagodas and definitely the best place to catch a mind-blowing view of the sunset, when the entire scene turns color to a classic sepia tone.

Shwezigon Pagoda

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The sun had set when we reached our last stop for the evening, the Shwezigon Pagoda, a gold-covered pagoda that continued to glisten quite untouched by the darkness that surrounded its shrine. Believed to preserve the bone and tooth of Buddha, this pagoda definitely reminded me a lot of the Shwedagon Pagoda back in Yangon.
A total of six temples, a horse cart ride to devour the external beauty of the other lesser known pagodas and a crazy climb at the Shwesandaw Paya, I now sat at a local restaurant devouring a plate of freshly made hot chapatis and vegetable curry recollecting all the grandeur that I had just witnessed.

Yes Bagan was a temple town just like I expected, Yes there was a religious structure in every nook and corner just like I expected and yes a lot of it did remind of my home back in Kerala, including the spicy curry that now warmed my throat. But what I didn’t expect was this feeling I felt within me, the sheer sadness that I would soon have to bid farewell to the truly mystique structures that stood in front of me. I knew there was so much more and felt I was probably denied my fair share of this magnificent city.
“I want to come back, I told my husband as we slowly made our way back to the hotel. “Please bring me back,” I whispered as I turned to take one last look at the stupas that slowly started to fade in the background.