Download PDF Available - IPSA Paper room

yes no Was this document useful for you?
   Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the workof artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Document related concepts

Decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent wikipedia , lookup

Buddhism and psychology wikipedia , lookup

Gautama Buddha wikipedia , lookup

Buddhism and sexual orientation wikipedia , lookup

History of Buddhism wikipedia , lookup

Buddhist philosophy wikipedia , lookup

Silk Road transmission of Buddhism wikipedia , lookup

Buddhist ethics wikipedia , lookup

Triratna Buddhist Community wikipedia , lookup

Wat Phra Kaew wikipedia , lookup

Sanghyang Adi Buddha wikipedia , lookup

Enlightenment in Buddhism wikipedia , lookup

Pre-sectarian Buddhism wikipedia , lookup

Buddhism and Western philosophy wikipedia , lookup

Women in Buddhism wikipedia , lookup

Greco-Buddhism wikipedia , lookup

Relics associated with Buddha wikipedia , lookup

Anawrahta wikipedia , lookup

Alaungpaya wikipedia , lookup

Shwedagon Pagoda wikipedia , lookup

A Sacred and Public Space:
the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma
Donald M. Seekins
College of International Studies
Meio University
Nago, Okinawa
Abstract: The Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon is the most important
Buddhist site in Burma, but it is also a talisman of royal or sovereign
power, which competing rulers have sought to possess for themselves
in struggles for control of the country. During the British colonial period,
it became a site for resistance to foreign rule, and is closely connected to
Burma’s modern history of revolutionary nationalism. The post-1988 military
junta has sought to assert their control over it by sponsoring an ambitious 1999
renovation project, but for many Burmese people, the stupa is a symbol of
hope and a refuge from worldly suffering, made worse by SPDC misrule.
“Merit was better than food. Merit was hope.” 1
Throughout its modern history, Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, has been the
country’s commercial, economic and administrative center.2 But its urban landscape is
dominated neither by the picturesque British colonial-era buildings located downtown
nor by the high-rise hotels and condominiums that have been constructed since Burma’s
socialist economy was opened to foreign investment in 1988, but by the 99 meter-high
Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Despite its huge bulk, the pagoda seems to hover weightlessly
above the skyline, an orb of glittering gold, surmounted by a jewel-encrusted hti. 3
Amy Tan. Saving Fish from Drowning (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), p. 401.
Between 1852 and 2005, Rangoon (or Yangon, as it is officially named after 1989) was Burma’s capital.
But in November 2005, the State Peace and Development Council military junta began relocation of
government personnel to a new national capital and military headquarters located near the town of
Pyinmana in southern Mandalay Division, in the central part of the country. The official name of this new
capital is Nay Pyi Daw (“place where the king resides”), apparently expressing SPDC Chairman Senior
General Than Shwe’s dynastic pretensions.
Hti means “umbrella” in the Burmese language, and in this context refers to the pagoda’s elaborate
Unlike many other, newer Buddhist sites, including those sponsored by Burma’s former
dictator Ne Win and the post-1988 military junta, the State Peace and Development
Council (SPDC), 4 the platform of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda is almost always crowded
with devotees. Driving past it, the visitor can sometimes see motorists make a devout
but risky gesture, taking their hands off the steering wheel to briefly put them together
in prayerful homage. Despite its many historical identities - past colonial and national
capital, multi-ethnic commercial hub before the socialist regime was established in 1962,
impoverished socialist metropolis thereafter, and a site of economic and cultural
globalization since 1988 - Rangoon is truly, in the words of one author, the “City of the
Shwe Dagon.” 5 The pagoda formed the nucleus of both the old Mon town of Dagon
(Lagun) and the Burman town of Yangoun (“End of Strife”), which was established by
King Alaungpaya, founder of the last royal Burman dynasty, in 1755. Moreover, no
other site in Burma – not even the thousands of pagodas and temples in the old royal
capital of Pagan – expresses more forcefully the historical connection between
Theravada Buddhism and the country’s evolving but problematic identity as a state and
national community.
In this paper, I wish to show not only how the Shwe Dagon has become a space
for religious devotion, but also a symbol of state and nation and a “prize” which
contending forces have sought to capture for themselves – not only during the British
colonial period, the massive pro-democracy movement in 1988 and its junta-ruled
aftermath, but also in dynastic times when competing kings sought to claim it as their
own in violent struggles for supremacy in Lower (southern) Burma. In consequence, the
Originally known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the junta changed its name
to the SPDC in 1997.
Noel Singer. Old Rangoon: City of the Shwedagon (Gartmore, Scotland: Kiscadale, 1995).
pagoda embodies – in its buildings, images, inscriptions, and its very structure – not one
but many diverse and sometimes contesting narratives.
Public spaces express constructed narratives and memories that communities
hold in common, which form a basis for their unity and identity. As a consummate
public space, the Shwe Dagon – including not only the gilded and gold-plated pagoda
spire (stupa) itself but the platform on which it stands and adjacent buildings – is not
only open and accessible to all (including non-Buddhists and non-Burmese as well as
Burmese Buddhists) while many other public spaces in Rangoon, sites related to
modern history such as the Bogyoke Aung San Museum and the Martyrs’ Mausoleum,
have been closed off to ordinary citizens by the post-1988 military regime, but also has
a legendary and spiritual history that connects the devotee to the life of Gotama Buddha
and his teachings (dhamma). A sacred site, its elevated position on top of Theingottara
(Singuttara) Hill, a place celebrated in Burmese Buddhist legend, as well as its location
surrounded by many Buddhist monasteries (kyaung) and rest houses (zayat), clearly
separates it from the profane – administrative, commercial and residential – spaces
beyond. Yet “worldly” powers have shaped the pagoda’s history – even in its legendary
The atmosphere on the pagoda platform, reached by elevators and four covered
stairways connected to it at the cardinal points of the compass, is tranquil and calm.
Visitors must shed their shoes and stockings, wear modest clothes, and behave in a
respectful manner, and they usually move around the stupa in a clockwise direction,
stopping at sites such as the eight “planetary posts” which are devoted, in an
astrological manner, to the eight days of the Burmese week and whose originally nonBuddhist meanings coexist with the pagoda’s dominant Buddhist narratives. But
although this is not a place where people can “do their own thing,” in 1960s parlance,
neither is it physically controlled in the top-down manner of public spaces such as the
tomb of Mao Zedong in Beijing or Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi – where respectful behavior
is enforced by officious custodians and armed guards. 6
Unlike a church, where during services worshippers are usually expected to
remain stationary and approach the altar only at designated times (e.g., to receive the
Eucharist), the pagoda space is both centered and multi-centered. In other words, while
the Buddha relics contained within the base of the stupa constitute its raison d’être and
its spire expresses the overwhelmingly hierarchical spirit of Theravada Buddhist
cosmology (the different levels or realms of sentient beings, reaching to
nibbana/nirvana at its apex), the many structures on the platform – for example, the
planetary posts, prayer or devotional halls (tazaung) and pavilions, several bodhi trees,
images of Buddhas and other spiritual beings such as the weikza or occult master Bo Bo
Aung, “prayer-posts,” the “Golden Elder” stupa and dozens of smaller stupas, the 16ton Maha Ganda bell donated to the pagoda by an eighteenth century monarch, a
museum filled with other offerings given to the pagoda in the past (one of the more
amusing is a “golden putter” won by a Burmese golfer at the Philippines Masters
Invitational Tournament in 1979, sitting atop a little patch of plastic grass), and a
monument to the Student Strike of 1920 – provide places where devotees can stop and
pay homage, meditate, or just relax and sightsee. Along three of the covered staircases
leading to the pagoda platform, there are many small shops selling religious items,
including flowers, paper parasols and incense to be given as offerings as well as books,
There are doubtlessly Military Intelligence agents and informers in the pagoda precincts, given its great
symbolic and political importance. But they are involved in covert surveillance rather than overt control.
sandalwood Buddha images and calendars. Some western observers have likened the
Shwe Dagon site to an amusement park with a host of gaudy attractions, where
simplicity and singleness of theme is sacrificed in favor of a complex saturation of
seemingly unconnected themes (the contrast with the classic simplicity of Japanese Zen
temples is especially striking). Yet while the senses are flooded with unrestrained
brightness and color, the atmosphere – calm without being somber or sanctimonious makes it a place for repose and recreation as well as Buddhist merit-making.
The Shwe Dagon Pagoda: Design and Dimensions
The height of the pagoda is 326 feet (or 99.4 meters), which includes the hti
(umbrella, crown) and its highest point, the “diamond bud” (seinbu), which is a small
sphere encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones. The 7-tiered wrought iron hti
contributed to the stupa by King Mindon in 1871 weighed 1.25 tons and was 33 feet
high. It was joined to the brick stupa by an iron shaft and was supported by iron struts
resting upon a brass capital on top of the “banana bud,” which is part of the stupa. In
1999, it was replaced by a new stainless steel hti, under the sponsorship of the State
Peace and Development Council. Although of approximately the same dimensions as
Mindon’s hti, it weighs four times as much, 5 tons, including a quarter ton of gold.
The various levels or bands of the stupa have distinct names, starting from
bottom to top: the plinth (elevation: 6.5 meters), 2 sets of terraces of square and
octagonal shape (highest elevation: 27 meters), 5 round bands (highest elevation: 34
meters), the “bell” (kyi-gwe) which is decorated with floral motifs (highest elevation: 47
meters), the “twisted turban” mouldings (highest elevation: 61 meters), the “lotus”
(highest elevation: 70 meters) and the “banana bud” (highest elevation, 86 meters) Both
at its base and higher levels, the stupa is solid. It is covered by gold leaf and, on higher
elevations, gold plates. Every four or five years, the gold covering the exterior of the
pagoda is repaired and renewed.
The plinth lies 21 feet (6.5 meters) above the platform of the pagoda, which is
roughly rectangular in shape and 14.0 acres (5.6 hectares) in area. Major structures on
the platform include the four tazaung or devotional halls at the cardinal points of the
compass containing images of the four Buddhas whose relics are stored in the stupa, the
Naung Daw Gyi (Golden Elder) Pagoda, and a replica of India’s Mahabodhi Temple, as
well as the sites mentioned in the text. See Moore, “Text and New Contexts,” Moore, et
al. Shwedagon, and Win Pe, Shwe Dagon.
Pagodas and Pagoda Religion
Although I am not a scholar of comparative religion or Buddhism, I have a
strong personal interest in the religion. Moreover, it is impossible to discuss the role of
the Shwe Dagon Pagoda as a public space without considering in some detail the
Buddhist tenets that underlie its central importance in Burmese life, its role as a sacred
In its legendary cycle, the Shwe Dagon is celebrated as the “four relic pagoda,”
containing not only eight hairs of Gotama Buddha, which he gave to two Mon
merchants traveling in India, who after many adventures brought them back to their
Lower Burma homeland, but also relics possessed by three earlier Buddhas. 7 With the
help of spiritual beings (nats), the two Mon merchant brothers, Trapusa (or Tapussa)
and Bhallika, discovered the place where the three earlier relics had been enshrined, on
Theingottara Hill, which is just north of the colonial-era business center of modern
Rangoon and west of Kandawgyi (or Royal) Lake. King Ukkalapa (Okkalapa), a local
Mon ruler, sponsored construction of a stupa to house the relics. 8
Pagodas or stupas have a long history in the Indo-Buddhist world. The English
word pagoda is believed to come from the Sanskrit dhatu gharba, meaning “relic
chamber” or “relic womb,” and the oldest representative of this type of structure is the
On the legends associated with the pagoda, see Win Pe. Shwe Dagon (Rangoon: Printing and Publishing
Corporation, 1972): pp. 5-15; and Elizabeth Moore, Hansjörg Meyer and U Win Pe. Shwedagon: Golden
Pagoda of Myanmar (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999): pp. 140-144. The relics of the three earlier
Buddhas are the staff of the Kakusanda Buddha, the water dipper of Konagamana Buddha and the
bathing-robe of Kassapa Buddha.
In the original version of the legend, the merchant brothers lived in an Indian city. The Burmese or Mon
variant is recorded on the 15th century inscriptions of King Dhammazedi, located on the pagoda platform.
See John S. Strong. Relics of the Buddha (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 73-80. The
Mons are an ethnic minority group who established Indianized states in Burma before the migration of the
Burmans, who now form the country’s largest ethnic group, into the country.
stupa at Sanchi, in central India, which was built by order of the Indian Emperor Asoka
in the third century B.C.E. 9 In the words of a Malaysian Buddhist website:
“Pagoda – comes from Sanskrit ‘dhatu gharba.’ From the harmika in the stupa,
lies the anda (dome) or world egg. Here resides the sacred relic, with their
dhatus (magic elements) which like the eggs, possess the power of life. The
power of this womb and its world egg is transferred through the sacred altar
that stands over gharba (the womb), namely the harmika, and becomes
a force for spiritual life and renewal. Therefore, ‘dhatu’ refers to the magical,
sacred relics (i.e., the Buddha’s) and ‘gharba’ the womb. From dhatu gharba
comes the Singhalese ‘dagoba’. In Burma and other East Asian countries, the
dagoba becomes ‘pagoda.’ 10
The first Europeans, the Portuguese, who visited pagoda sites in Sri Lanka,
Burma and Siam during the sixteenth century wondered what god or devil was
“worshipped” there, and sometimes assumed that stupas contained hollow chambers
(most of them do not) where pagan rites were performed. But given their own religious
traditions, Catholic Europeans were quite conscious of the importance of Buddha relics
and condemned them as possessing demonic powers in the same measure that Christian
relics were holy. A Buddha tooth relic, captured by a Portuguese military expedition on
Sri Lanka in 1560, was destroyed with great ceremony the following year by the
Archbishop of Goa, while horrified envoys from Burma, whose king had offered to
purchase the tooth for a huge ransom, looked on. 11 Later generations of Europeans have
Moore, et al., Shwedagon, p. 131.
Subang Jaya Buddhist Association, Malaysia, at:
The anda is the “bell on the main stupa” (or the bell shape of the stupa, see Moore et al., Shwedagon, p.
52), while the harmika is a square platform which surmounts the stupa, or pagoda.
The episode is recounted by Strong, Ibid., p. 1 and D.G.E. Hall. A History of South-East Asia. 3rd ed.
(London: Macmillan, 1964), p. 247.
generally had more positive views of the religion, and western adherents to Buddhism
have claimed not only that Buddhism’s spirituality is equal or superior to that of
Christianity, but also that it is a more “scientific” or “rational” religion, especially in its
espousal of the law of kamma, or cause-and-effect. 12 But they still tend to dismiss
“pagoda worship” as mere superstition.
In keeping with the hierarchical or vertical orientation of Theravada Buddhist
cosmology, modern scholars such as Winston King have depicted the Buddhist belief
system in terms of progressively higher levels of spiritual development. King’s image of
the pyramidal structure of this progressive spiritual ascent is especially striking: he
defines seven levels in this pagoda-like structure, beginning with folk religion
(including the worship of spirits or nats) and ending with a Buddha’s attainment of
nibbana/nirvana. “Pagoda religion” is the sixth or second lowest level, and King
defines it as follows:
Pagoda religion represents the most concrete physical means of honouring
the ultimate but ineffable hope of Buddhism. For the pagoda, enshrining
the relics of that One who first showed men the way to Nibbana in this
world age and containing His image, offers a tangible means of expressing
that hope, however imperfectly. Emotionally speaking, the pagoda and image
represent the contemporary embodiment of the hope of Nibbana, made
visible in the Buddha. 13
On this point, see Winston Smith. A Thousand Lives Away: Buddhism in Contemporary Burma
(Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1964), pp. 114-146.
King, Thousand Lives, p. 71.
To which King adds the comment,
But, of course, to this tangible Buddha-worship of the pagoda it is easy to
add a multitude of other tangibilities, not actually Buddhist, but consoling
and helpful along the way. 14
In the case of the Shwe Dagon, these include not only the “planetary posts,”
where people give offerings on their birthdays (each of the eight planets represents a
day of the Burmese week – and the day on which a person is born is considered of
major astrological significance) and shrines to Bo Bo Aung and other occult masters,
but also “wish granting stones,” the image of a monk who was a master alchemist, a
discoverer of the Burmese “philosopher’s stone” that turned base metals into gold, a
fertility shrine for women who wish to have children, and numerous images of nats.
However, in Relics of the Buddha, John S. Strong challenges the idea that relics
and pagoda worship can be simply dismissed as Buddhism-for-the-masses. He argues
that the veneration of relics, rather than being a compromise that “pure” Buddhism has
had to make with the nat-worshipping multitudes, is a central component of the original
Buddhist doctrine, giving the religion strong affinities with mediaeval Christianity,
before Protestantism condemned relics as being mere inanimate objects. Strong quotes
David Snellgrove to the effect that “there certainly were pure philosophical doctrines
propounded during the early history of Buddhism, just as there have been ever
since…[but] there is no such thing as pure Buddhism per se except perhaps the cult of
Sakyamuni as a supramundane being and the cult of the relic stupa.” 15
As generally understood, pure or doctrinal Buddhism emphasizes that with
Gotama Buddha’s passage into nibbana/nirvana, sentient beings cannot pray for his
intervention in mundane affairs, and the only spiritual recourse for believers is his
teachings (dhamma). 16 But Strong argues that from the beginning of the religion’s
history (that is, its establishment by the Historical Buddha, Gotama), Buddha relics (of
which the Buddha’s bodily relics, hair, bones and teeth, have been the most revered) are
not only powerful narrative tools, which “retell” the biography of the Buddha, the
process through which Prince Siddhartha became a Buddha, but also, in his words,
“extensions of the Buddha’s biography,” both in the sense that – despite the
parinibbana (the Buddha’s passage into nibbana at his death) - they assert the continued
“presence” of the Buddha in the world and in the sense that they have their own
“biographies”: “(t)he Buddha relics…do not just recall events from his life, but have
adventures of their own. They travel to distant countries, to heavens and naga worlds.
They help to legitimate empires here on earth [italics added] and they further spread the
dharma to places that the living Buddha never visited…the relics continue to do things
the Buddha did, to fill the roles the Buddha filled; but they also do new things that the
Buddha never did.” 17
Strong’s analysis of the centrality of relics to Buddhism and their “living” nature
may provide a more adequate understanding of the significance of the Shwe Dagon as
both a sacred and public space than depictions of it as a Buddhist amusement park, or an
Strong, Relics, p. 3.
The Three Refuges of the believer are thus: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (the community
of Buddhist monks).
Strong, Relics, pp. 7, 8.
expression of superstitious popular Buddhism, along the lines of King’s hierarchical
definition of “pagoda religion.” This is true because virtually all Burmese Buddhists,
highly educated as well as ordinary believers, acknowledge the importance of the Shwe
Dagon in their religion. Although it is not, like a Japanese Shinto shrine, a place where a
god or goddess resides, its intimate and direct connection to the life of the Buddha
makes it, in a sense, a living thing, or at least vital, life-giving, powerful. Not a pile of
bricks, a monument, or a tomb (like the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, marking the 1947
assassination of independence leader Aung San, located nearby), or even an aid to
proper meditation (though it may serve that purpose for some devotees), it is something
which, in the magical definition of the pagoda given on page 7, above, seems to play an
active role in the histories and lives of those who pay homage to it. What this may mean
will be discussed below in the section of the post-1988 military junta’s donation of a
new hti to the Shwe Dagon in 1999.
Merit-Making and the Work of Kings
In Burmese folk religion, the weikza or occult master uses his magic powers to
achieve an unnaturally long life so that he may be present when the Future Buddha
(Maitreya, Mettaya) appears in the world. By being in close proximity to a living
Buddha and paying him homage, the weikza can much more easily attain Enlightenment
for himself. For ordinary human beings, the pagoda and the relics it contains are
something like a functional equivalent – in other words, to be in the presence of a
pagoda is in some sense to be in the Buddha’s presence. 18 By constructing a pagoda,
This is reflected in the Burmese language, in which the word paya (hpaya) can refer to an exalted
person like the Buddha, or a pagoda (e.g., Shwe Dagon Paya). During the British colonial period, high
ranking Burmese civil servants were often addressed as payagyi (“great lord”).
renovating it, giving it offerings of precious things or simply paying homage on its
platform, the devotee acquires varying degrees of merit (Burmese: kutho), which may
not lead directly to nibbana/nirvana, but will make possible a better, more spiritually
privileged rebirth, a new life in which the burden of worldly suffering will be less than
in the present one. As Melford Spiro writes, the greatest source of merit in Burma is
considered to be the construction of a pagoda. 19 This is reflected in the staggering
number of stupas, old and new, to be found throughout the country, and the zeal of the
present military regime, the State Peace and Development Council, in promoting
pagoda projects. 20 No greater praise can a Burmese Buddhist receive than to be
addressed as paya taga (pagoda-builder).
Although western adherents often stress Buddhism’s “democratic” nature – its
rationality and focus on the individual, whose own efforts alone can achieve
Enlightenment – the social dimension of Theravada Buddhism is, like its cosmology,
hierarchical. Since ordinary devotees lack the resources to carry out large-scale meritmaking activities such as pagoda construction, it falls to the king, with his superior store
of merit, power and wealth, to uphold and preserve the religion, and make it possible for
even his poorest subjects to acquire merit of their own. The model Buddhist monarch
was the third century B.C.E. Indian emperor Asoka, who has a legendary connection to
the Shwe Dagon: he is said to have sent two monk missionaries, Sona and Uttara, to
Lower Burma and they in turn invited him to view the pagoda in person. Since the stupa
Melford E. Spiro. Buddhism and Society: a Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2nd ed.
(Berkeley: University of California, 1982), p. 109.
Though this zeal seems to have slackened off a bit, perhaps for economic reasons but also because of
the purge in 2004 of the premier sponsor of these projects, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt.
was, two centuries after the Buddha’s death, covered with vegetation, Asoka ordered it
cleared and the site repaired. 21
Asoka was an ambitious pagoda-builder, who is said to have collected together
most of the Buddha relics that had been passed down since the lifetime of the founder of
the religion and enshrined them in 84,000 stupas located throughout his imperial
domains (and perhaps beyond, as accounts of “Asokan pagodas” are found not only in
India but also in Southeast Asia and China). 22 This immense undertaking was said to
have been motivated by the king’s compassion, which was comparable to that of a
bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be. For by spreading the holy relics throughout his empire, if
not the whole world, he made them accessible to the multitudes, giving them the hope if
not the certainty of salvation, and the alleviation of their worldly suffering, in the next
life if not in this. 23 This Asokan model of compassionate Buddhist monarchy inspired
the twelfth century King Alaungsithu to inscribe in the Thatbyinnyu Temple, in the old
capital of Pagan, the following Pali verse:
By this abundant merit I desire
Here nor hereafter no angelic pomp
Of Brahmas, Suras, Maras; nor the state
And splendors of a monarch; nay, not even
To be the pupil of the Conqueror.
But I would build a causeway sheer athwart
The River of samsara, and all folk
Would speed across thereby until they reach
Win Pe, Shwe Dagon, p. 15.
Strong, Relics, pp. 124, 125.
Ashoka is compared to the bodhisattva Alavokitesvara, who looks down with compassion on the
suffering of his people. Ibid., 144. Some Burmese kings, such as the 18th century Alaungpaya and the
18th-19th century Bodawpaya, regarded themselves as bodhisattvas or Buddhas-to-be.
The Blessed City. I myself would cross
And drag the drowning over. 24
However, Asoka’s vast pagoda building project also had geopolitical
significance: the network of 84,000 stupas gave unity to his empire, since they not only
distributed merit-making opportunities to its farthest reaches, but also connected these
localities to the imperial capital, his seat of power. 25 In a similar fashion, later Burmese
monarchs viewed the pagodas within their kingdoms not only as vehicles for royal (and
bodhisattva-like) compassion, but, though the act of donation to the stupas, also as
expressions of their sovereignty and legitimacy. From at least the Burman Pagan
Dynasty (1044-ca. 1325) the dynastic state has had the paramount role of protecting and
promoting the Buddhist religion, largely though not exclusively through the cult
associated with the stupas.
In the words of Elizabeth Moore, “Donation to the Shwe Dagon by royal or
central authority has always marked control of the [Irrawaddy] delta, rule of the
country.” 26 Underlying this was the following power-equation: that to be a legitimate
(bodhissatva-like) Buddhist monarch, capable of affording merit-making opportunities
to his subjects, a ruler had to exercise control over important pagoda sites and their
relics, this control being expressed through generous donations. This in turn meant two
things: stupas were not politically neutral spaces, part of a “spiritual realm” separate
from the realm of the exercise of the violent power of a state (in other words, kings did
Quoted by Donald E. Smith, in Religion and Politics in Burma (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1965), p. 25. The “Blessed City” is nibbana; samsara is the cycle of rebirth and suffering that ends only
with the attainment of nibbana.
Strong, Relics, p. 143, 144.
Elizabeth Moore. “Ritual Continuity and Stylistic Change in Pagoda Consecration and Renovation.” In
Myanmar Two Millennia, pt. 3 of the Proceedings of the Myanmar Two Millennia Conference, 15-17
December 1999, (Yangon/Rangoon: Universities Historical Research Centre, 2000), p. 161.
not usually share them or enter them as a neutral space); and secondly, that donations to
a pagoda by a king were in a sense a test of legitimacy since ill fortune could arise if the
renovation was carried out improperly, or if the pagoda did not “accept” the monarch’s
donation – a matter that was reportedly much on the minds of the SPDC junta when it
sponsored renovation of the Shwe Dagon in 1999.
To this, one must add a further perspective: both Asoka and his Burmese
counterparts recognized the sinfulness of the ruler’s vocation, which seeks power both
through the violent elimination of dynastic rivals and the conquest of foreign states. To
achieve supremacy over his enemies, the aspiring ruler had to possess an abundant store
of merit, built up over many previous lifetimes, and also gain the opportunity for further
merit-building activities in order to counteract the immense demerit (akutho) acquired
through the exercise of state violence. Donation to pagoda projects, as mentioned above,
was seen as the most effective way of building up merit, or conversely, leveling down
large stores of demerit.
Power Politics and the History of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda
Originally, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda was a Mon stupa, known as the Kyaik
Lagun in the Mon language, which first came to prominence in the fourteenth-fifteenth
centuries, when Lower Burma was ruled by Mon monarchs independently of the
Burman state of Ava in Upper or central Burma. The Mons, a people related
linguistically to the Khmers or Cambodians, established the first organized states in
Burma during the first millennium C.E., and were also the first people in Burma to
adopt Indo-Buddhist civilization from the Indian subcontinent, in part due to early trade
ties. Although it is unlikely that Mon states, such as the one ruled by King Ukkalapa
near modern Rangoon, existed during the lifetime of the Buddha (as mentioned in
footnote 8, the original legend of the two merchant brothers Trapussa and Bhallika takes
place entirely in India), the original Mon “identity” of the pagoda is acknowledged by
Mon and Burman Buddhists alike.
The official history of the pagoda (Burmese: thamaing), as found in the royal
chronicles of Mon and Burman monarchs and the stone inscriptions commissioned by
the Mon King Dhammazedi in 1485, which are found on the pagoda platform, tells of
its connections to the life of Gotama Buddha, his three predecessors and other
illustrious figures such as the Emperor Asoka, and the donations made to the stupa by a
succession of powerful kings. Background to this was the violent competition of these
rulers for control of Lower Burma: though originally Mon, the Kyaik Lagun was
“Burmanized” (thus, Shwe Dagon, “golden Dagon”) by a succession of conqueror kings
from Upper Burma who subjugated Lower Burma during the sixteenth and the
eighteenth centuries and extinguished Mon independence. Burman control of Lower
Burma was permanently imposed (that is, before the establishment of the British
colonial regime in the nineteenth century) when the Konbaung Dynasty founder
Alaungpaya (r. 1752-1760) captured and destroyed the old Mon capital of Hanthawaddy
(at modern Pegu) in 1757, his son Hsinbyushin (r. 1763-1776) executed the last Mon
king, and Alaungpaya’s successors repeatedly suppressed Mon uprisings in Lower
Burma with great brutality, in part because of fears that the Mons might ally with
Burma’s historic enemy, Siam. Yet the Mons stubbornly resisted Burman domination as
late as the 1820s, in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Burmese War. When the British
occupied Lower Burma in the mid-nineteenth century, they found the region
depopulated, in large part because of the brutality of the Mon-Burman wars of the
previous hundred years. Rice fields had turned into jungles, where tigers prowled.
Although the Shwe Dagon Pagoda (Kyaik Lagun) seems to have been
established at some time during the first millennium C.E. and the town of Dagon
(Lagun), the precursor of Rangoon, grew up around it, the stupa did not become truly
prominent until the Mon Queen Shinsawbu (r. 1453-1472) raised its spire to near its
present height, provided it with a hti, and donated her weight, 40 kg., in gold for gilding
its surface (the first such embellishment in its history). She also established an
organization of caretakers, donated extensive glebe lands for its upkeep, and ordered
renovation of the pagoda precincts, including the terracing of Theingottara Hill. The
glebe lands encompassed practically all of what is now the modern city of Rangoon as
well as territories beyond. Much of her reign was taken up with these devout pagodacentered works, which meant that for long periods she lived at Dagon rather than the
royal capital of Hanthawaddy, and at the end of her life chose to spend her last moments
within sight of the stupa. 27
The Shwe Dagon does not seem to figure prominently in the first conquest of
Mon-ruled Lower Burma by the Pagan Dynasty founder, King Anawrahta (r. 10441077), although it is recorded that he paid tribute to it. 28 But by the fifteenth-sixteenth
centuries, the stupa’s geopolitical fortunes were clearly reflected in the record of
donations to the site, especially the raising of a hti to the pagoda’s highest point. The hti,
literally translated as “umbrella” (in other words, a multi-tiered umbrella of state, used
to shade persons of royal or noble status in India and Southeast Asia), also – in its
Win Pe, Shwe Dagon, pp. 18, 19.
Ibid., p. 15.
design - resembles the crown worn by a monarch. Crowning the stupa was the
prerogative of a legitimate monarch: not only a devout, merit-accumulating act, but also
an assertion of sovereignty, of the authority to rule a certain population and territory.
Replacement or Repair of the Shwe Dagon Hti
1436: new hti donated by Shinsawbu, later queen (Mon)*
1572: new hti donated by King Bayinnaung (Burman)*
1582: new hti donated by King Nanda Bayin (Burman)
1619: new hti donated by King Anaukpetlun (Burman)
1644: hti repaired and re-hoisted by King Thalun (Burman)*
1652: hti repaired and re-hoisted by King Pindale (Burman)*
1663: hti repaired and re-hoisted by King Pye (Burman)*
1667: new hti donated by “people of Myanmar [Burma]”*
1775: new hti donated by King Hsinbyushin (Burman)*
1871: new hti donated by King Mindon (Burman)
1999: new hti donated by “people of Myanmar [Burma] headed by the State Peace
and Development Council.”
* following earthquake
source: Moore, “Ritual Continuity,” pp. 160, 161.
Since Mon and Burman hti were different in styles, hti design reflected the
centuries-long rivalry of the two peoples. For example, when a Mon army invaded
Upper Burma in the fifteenth century, the king ordered placement of a Mon-style hti on
stupas which fell under his control; and when the Burmans recovered these territories,
these were replaced with Burman style ones. According to Elizabeth Moore, “in
crowning a pagoda, Mon and Bamar [Burman] styles remained different, as they were
used to mark authority over an area.” She notes that the Shwesandaw Pagoda in Prome
has two hti, a Mon and a Burman one, and when King Bayinnaung (r. 1551-1581)
subjugated the kingdom of Lanna in what is now northern Thailand, he placed hti on top
of local stupas to assert his suzerainty – a feature not found on stupas in other parts of
modern Thailand. 29
The Rangoon area is prone to periodic earthquakes, which have caused damage
to the Shwe Dagon over the centuries, including the collapse of the hti from its summit.
For the most part, its repair or renovation was responsibility of the reigning monarch.
The traditional connection between donating a hti and sovereignty posed a
problem for the British colonial authorities of Lower Burma when King Mindon (r.
1853-1878), who ruled only in Upper Burma when he came to the throne after the
Second Anglo-Burmese War, proposed replacing Hsinbyushin’s 1775 umbrella with
one of his own after the trustees of the pagoda found that the former was heavily
corroded. Since the British assumed this was solely a religious matter, they quickly
agreed to the king’s proposal, and only later realized, to their regret, that the idea of a
Burmese king raising the hti to the stupa’s summit had political as well as religious
meanings, causing considerable “excitement and agitation” among the people of British
Burma. Not only was the king not allowed to come to Rangoon to preside over the
umbrella-raising ceremonies, but the British impressed upon him that, while the finial
had been donated by him, it would be the people of British Burma rather than he who
would carry out its actual elevation. The elevation was completed without incident in
the presence of an audience of 100,000 people from all over Lower Burma on
Moore, “Ritual Continuity,” pp. 156, 157.
November 26, 1871. The British hastily sent King Mindon’s delegation, which brought
the hti from Mandalay by riverboat, back to Upper Burma the following day. From the
point of view of the British Chief Commissioner, “it would…have been much better if
the excitement regarding the Htee had never been raised.” 30
The Pagoda as Public Space: the British Colonial Period, 1852-1948
The British occupied Burma in three stages during the nineteenth century, the
three Anglo-Burmese Wars of 1824-1826, 1852 and 1885. During the first two wars, the
Shwe Dagon Pagoda became the site of pitched battles between Burmese and British
Indian troops because its location atop Theingottara Hill, overlooking both the
approaches from the north and southward to the port fronting the Rangoon River, gave
it great strategic value. In the aftermath of both wars, the British drilled a tunnel into the
pagoda. According to B.R. Pearn’s A History of Rangoon, during the first war “General
Campbell [the British commander] had ‘an attack made on the bowels of the Shwe
Dagon, which was continued till every hope of finding the long expected treasure had
vanished.’” 31 And following the Second Anglo-Burmese War the officer in charge of
tunneling into the stupa claimed that he was trying to discover whether it could be used
as a powder magazine, “though unkind critics opined that King Hsinbyushin’s treasure
was more in his mind.” 32 In fact, in November 1852 a powder magazine located near
the pagoda blew up, resulting in several deaths and the destruction of a zayat (rest
house), which the British were using as a theater. 33
Win Pe, Shwe Dagon, pp. 42-46.
B.R. Pearn. A History of Rangoon (Rangoon: Baptist Missionary Press, 1939), p. 128.
Ibid., p. 181.
Win Pe, Shwe Dagon, pp. 41, 42.
The British conquest of Lower Burma brought into the country a power that was
alien to the Indo-Buddhist traditions of the Mons and Burmese. In part, this explains the
looting of the Shwe Dagon and other pagodas as well as the demolition of practically all
the less significant stupas to be found within the Burmese town of Rangoon, once
construction of the new colonial capital was begun. 34 The looting became so
widespread after the 1852 war that the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie,
though an avid imperialist, protested that the desecrations were alienating the Burmese
population. 35 However, Burman kings had also looted and destroyed stupas, as when
Alaungpaya devastated Hanthawaddy in 1757 and Hsinbyushin razed and plundered the
old Siamese capital of Ayuthaya a decade later. The significance of the British
occupation was not, or not only, its attacks on Buddhist sites, motivated by greed and,
later, a perceived need for urban orderliness. Rather, British rule supplanted the old
ideological and political order centered on the Buddhist religion (the “Asokan” polity)
with nineteenth century western values of efficiency, profitability and scientific
In no way was this more evident than in the new colonial landscape that was
constructed in Rangoon after the British decreed the permanent annexation of Lower
Burma: not only the physical appearance of the city but also its population was
transformed. South of the pagoda, a new business district with western style buildings,
whose grid design was in large part inspired by the plan for the city of Singapore
several decades earlier, emerged, the majority of whose residents, managers and
workers came from Britain and other western countries, India and the Chinese
“Every vestige of the old city of Rangoon…had been utterly destroyed.” Pearn, History, p. 196.
Ibid., p. 182.
communities of the Straits Settlements (present day Malaysia and Singapore). By the
early twentieth century, most of Rangoon’s population was foreign – over fifty percent
of it from South Asia (British India), including short-term migrant laborers. Burmese
people (“indigenous races,” who included the Karens, many of whom were Christians
with close ties to the British) formed altogether a minority of less than a third of the
population during 1901-1931. 36 Most of them were confined to distinct neighborhoods
outside the central business district such as Ahlone and Kemmendine (Kyee Min Daing)
in the classic, ethnically segregated “plural society” pattern. The colonial city was
dotted with new foreign places of worship: not only churches of various denominations,
but also Hindu and Sikh temples, Muslim mosques, a Jewish synagogue and Chinese
temples and clan halls.
Thus, Rangoon became a foreign rather than a Mon or Burmese city. The Shwe
Dagon remained under military occupation: British soldiers occupied the western
stairway, the pagoda hill had been completely fortified by 1876 (serving principally as a
measure against civil disturbances),37 and military graves were located on the pagoda
platform until 1929-1930, when the stairway was opened to devotees and the soldiers
and graves removed to installations north of the city. The area north of the central
business district, where the Burmese King Tharrawaddy had built a fortified town in
1841, had been turned into a cantonment or military-administered area after the Second
Anglo-Burmese War. The cantonment lay adjacent to the pagoda, especially to the south
and the southwest (where the European Infantry Barracks, Cantonment Garden and
Brigade Exercise Ground were located) and the west (where there was a cantonment
Ibid., p. 287.
Ibid., p. 215.
golf course, now the location of two public parks, People’s Park and Resistance Park).
For Rangoon’s Burmese Buddhist minority, the pagoda remained a center of devotion:
in fact, the general climate of economic prosperity in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries led to the construction of many new structures, such as tazaung
(devotional halls), on the pagoda platform. Some of these were of garish design,
contrasting poorly with older, more restrained structures that had been dismantled. 38
However, the stupa had new functions and meanings: not only a site for military
installations but also an increasingly popular attraction for western tourists. A
succession of western, mostly British, celebrities visited the stupa and wrote about it,
including Rudyard Kipling, who described it as a “a golden mystery…a beautiful
winking wonder.” 39
During the colonial period, especially in the early twentieth century, the Shwe
Dagon also became a symbol of Burmese national aspirations. It may be inaccurate to
say that during the twentieth century the site acquired a “secular,” political meaning
divorced from its Buddhist past. This is not only because the overwhelming majority of
Burmese were and are Buddhists, but also because from its inception, modern Burmese
nationalism was closely linked to the religion and its defense against foreign colonial
influences, as reflected in the activities of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association
(YMBA) and the General Council of Buddhist (later Burmese) Associations (GCBA),
as well as the popularity of anti-British “political pongyis [monks]” such as U Ottama
and U Wisara and their thousands of activist monk followers, based in monasteries
located in Rangoon and countrywide. With the more secular, modernist trends that
Singer, Rangoon, p. 159.
Robert Reid et al. Myanmar (Burma). (Footscray, Australia: Lonely Planet, 2005), p. 91.
emerged in the 1930s, the connection between Buddhism, Buddhist sites (especially the
Shwe Dagon) and Burma’s identity as a national community was never entirely
abandoned, even by leftists such as Thakins Nu and Aung San.
The Shwe Dagon figured in early Burmese opposition to the colonial
government in two ways: first, the GCBA, serving as the peak organization for the
nationwide network of YMBAs, criticized the continued military occupation of the
pagoda and the threat that this posed to the holy site, demanding that the British
government set a clear date for the complete removal of the troops (this would, as
mentioned, occur only in 1929-1930). 40
Secondly, the YMBA took up the “shoe controversy,” the tendency of
Europeans (westerners) to assume that the traditional Burmese prohibition against
footwear in pagoda precincts did not apply to them, because it was unsanitary and
beneath their dignity. After the occupation of Lower Burma, shoe wearing by
westerners at pagodas, including the Shwe Dagon, was tolerated, but by the second
decade of the twentieth century, it had become a political issue that generated
considerable bitterness on both sides. A learned monk, the Ledi Sayadaw, wrote a
lengthy treatise, On the Impropriety of Wearing Shoes on Pagoda Platforms, and
Burmese sentiments on this issue became so aroused that the colonial government felt
obliged in late 1919 to give in on the issue, allowing pagoda trustees the authority to bar
visitors who refused to comply with footwear regulations. 41 However, the government
made a highly unpopular exception: in Donald Smith’s words, it “reserved the right to
Win Pe, Shwe Dagon, pp. 50, 51.
There had been a violent attack on European visitors by Buddhist monks at a site in Mandalay in
October 1919. See Smith, Religion and Politics, pp. 87-89.
send soldiers, police or magistrates into pagodas when necessary to maintain public
order without hampering their movements by the removal of shoes.” 42
The Shwe Dagon was naturally at the center of this controversy. An unpopular
British lieutenant-governor, Reginald Craddock, had visited the stupa platform without
doffing his footwear, and Thuriya (The Sun), a well-known vernacular newspaper, made
fun of subservient Burmese who wanted to compromise on the issue, publishing a
cartoon showing pagoda trustees (gawpaga) carrying obese western visitors on their
shoulders around the Shwe Dagon platform. 43 Considering the footwear ban an affront
to their racial honor and an attempt by the Burmese to humiliate them, few Europeans
ascended the platform after 1919. The Prince of Wales, on a 1922 state visit, avoided
the site, and the popular writer Somerset Maugham quenched his curiosity by slipping
up the pagoda staircase at midnight, beholding “the great terrace” where “shrines and
pagodas were jumbled pell-mell with the confusion with which trees grow in the
jungle.” 44
It is not surprising that the Shwe Dagon became a focus of anti-government
resistance during the 1920s and especially the 1930s, as popular opposition to foreign
rule grew stronger. In December 1920, the first generation of activist students took a
vow to oppose the government-promulgated Rangoon University Act on the southwest
corner of the pagoda platform, where the monument to the students now stands. Several
hundred students took shelter in zayats (rest houses) adjacent to the pagoda during this
first student boycott. Although the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, its leaders went
on to establish the National School Movement, which taught a Burmese and Buddhist
Ibid., p. 89.
U Thaung. A Journalist, a General and an Army in Burma (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1995), p. 8.
W. Somerset Maugham. The Gentleman in the Parlour. Itineraria Asiatica (Bangkok: White Orchid,
1995 [original: 1930]), p. 10.
curriculum separate from the official school system, and had plans to establish a
“national university.” 45
Not only students but also the “political pongyis” converged at the pagoda on
several occasions. After the arrest and conviction of the activist monk U Ottama in 1921,
the monks held a mass meeting at the Shwe Dagon and launched a movement to
“overturn the offering bowl”: to refuse to accept offerings from anyone who cooperated
with the British authorities during the monk’s trial. This was a severe sanction, since the
principal means through which ordinary Buddhist lay people earned merit was through
donations to the monks. 46 In 1938, 10,000 people, including 1,500 monks, gathered at
the pagoda to demand the punishment of a Muslim writer who had published
disparaging remarks about Gotama Buddha. This was followed by violent attacks by
Burmese, including monks, on Muslims and other Indians – in other words, both a race
and a religious war and one of the more sordid movements with which the Shwe Dagon
was associated. 47
During the 1930s, many Rangoon University students made regular visits to the
Shwe Dagon: according to U Maung Maung, “they…performed Buddhist work in the
hostels, such as going to the Shwe Dagon every Sunday morning and sweeping or
washing the platform. In this way, they gained contact with important leaders of the
Rangoon community, the gawpaga (trustees of the pagoda funds) of the Shwe
Dagon.” 48 When a student boycott was organized in February 1936 to protest the
U Maung Maung. From Sangha to Laity: Nationalist Movements of Burma, 1920-1940 (New Delhi:
Manohar, 1980), pp. 21-23.
Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, p. 103. A similar boycott of the Burmese armed forces, the
Tatmadaw, occurred in summer of 1990 after monks participating in demonstrations in Mandalay were
Ibid., pp. 110, 111.
U Maung Maung, From Sangha to Laity, p. 129.
expulsion of student union leaders Nu and Aung San from the University, the strike
center was again located at the pagoda, and the boycotters resided at its rest houses.
During the massive popular protests that took place in Rangoon in support of striking
oilfield workers in late 1938 and early 1939, the Shwe Dagon was a destination for antigovernment marches and parades including not only student activists, workers and
leaders of the most important nationalist party, the Dobama Asiayone, but members of
the general Burmese public. Following the 1942-1945 Japanese occupation,
independence leader Aung San frequently gave speeches from the terrace of the pagoda
hill, including an address in January 1946 to the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League
in which he described the Shwe Dagon as “a place hallowed in our history”:
Here, on this height, under whose shadow we are meeting, stands the majestic
Shwedagon Pagoda which is the standing monument of our nation’s labour of
love, the shrine and refuge our nation’s deathless hopes and boundless
inspirations, the gigantic feat of human creation chiseled out of hoary legend,
reflecting, in its golden beauty, mortal man’s tireless striving after the infinite
and the absolute. 49
The pagoda was now truly a public space dedicated to the promotion of
“revolutionary nationalism,” which can be defined in terms of its goals: a mass
movement undertaken not only to rid the country of foreign rule, but to transform the
colonial capitalist and “globalized” society according to socialist and Buddhist ideals.
Ideologically a secularist, Aung San avoided specifically Buddhist references in his
1946 homage to the site. In fact, during the colonial period and its aftermath, the stupa
From “Burma’s Challenge,” in Josef Silverstein, ed. The Political Legacy of Aung San. Revised edition
(Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1993), p. 93.
acquired a “national” narrative that was not in opposition to its earlier Buddhist
narratives; whether it was distinct from them became a major issue for many Burmese,
especially after independence in 1948.
In the traditional polity, the significance of the king’s sponsorship of pagoda
projects was cosmic, in the sense that these meritorious deeds were addressed to, and
benefited, all sentient beings, irregardless of their worldly (national, ethnic) affiliations.
Thus, the sixteenth century Kings Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, though ruthless in
dealing with their Mon enemies, respected Mon culture, since it was the vessel through
which the message of Buddhism was given to the Burmans. In dynastic times, worldly
loyalties were personal, constituting a network of patron-client relations reaching up to
the royal court itself. Beyond this was the impersonal universality of the dhamma.
However, during the colonial period the Shwe Dagon Pagoda became a public as
well as a sacred space. Early twentieth century Burmese nationalism conceived of a
“public,” a “nation,” bounded by religious affiliation: “To be Burmese is to be
Buddhist.” It was to this public and none other that the pagoda “spoke.” But its
emergence as a public space and national symbol was problematic. In a multi-ethnic,
multi-religious society, the “Burmanization” (that is, the “Buddhafication”) of the
public sphere (for example, U Nu’s 1961 constitutional amendment making Buddhism
the state religion, which alienated practically all the religious minorities) created a crisis
of national unity and identity that continues to afflict Burma today.
Nineteen Eighty-Eight and the Struggle to ‘Occupy’ the Pagoda
After General Ne Win overthrew the parliamentary government of Prime
Minister U Nu in a March 1962 coup d’état, Burma became a secular state and official
connections with the religion were severed. 50 However, the Shwe Dagon remained a
focus of national life. In conformity with Ne Win’s substitution of authoritarian, topdown rule for democratic institutions, pagoda trustees were no longer elected by
Rangoon’s Burmese Buddhist adult population, but were appointed by his junta, the
Revolutionary Council. In October 1970, an earthquake occurred, and the trustees
undertook an inspection of the stupa, which showed damage to the metal shaft
connecting the hti to the “banana bud” and to the hti itself, subsequently repaired. 51
During the 1980s, Ne Win sponsored the construction of the Maha Wizaya Pagoda,
containing relics donated by the king of Nepal. The new stupa, which is hollow, is
located adjacent to the southern entrance of the Shwe Dagon.
Activist students of Rangoon University and other higher educational
institutions in the city repeatedly opposed the Ne Win regime, especially during the
mid-1970s and in 1988. In December 1974, protests broke out over the issue of holding
a state funeral for the highly respected United Nations Secretary General, U Thant,
which Ne Win refused to sponsor (U Thant had been close to his political rival, U Nu).
Students seized the coffin containing his remains and brought it to the university
campus, where they intended to enshrine it in a mausoleum, creating a new public space
and focus for anti-regime opposition. Troops stormed the campus on December 11 and
recovered the coffin, an operation that resulted in a number of student deaths and many
arrests. 52 The following year, students gathered at the 1920 boycott memorial on the
pagoda platform to protest the imprisonment of their comrades, and were themselves
In August 1961, U Nu made Buddhism the state religion through a constitutional amendment.
Win Pe, Shwe Dagon, p. 55.
Andrew Selth. “Death of a Hero: the U Thant Disturbances in Burma, December 1974.” Australia-Asia
Papers (research paper no. 44), April 1989, 33 pp.
arrested. 53 On June 22-23, 1988, on the eve of the popular movement of “Democracy
Summer,” students set up a new strike center at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. 54 In JulySeptember, the general public in Rangoon joined the students and Buddhist monks for
massive anti-government demonstrations that shut down the city and brought about the
end of the Ne Win regime, though a new military junta, the SLORC, violently seized
power on September 18, 1988.
In terms of its historical associations and its place in establishing a post-1988
pro-democratic opposition, the August 26 speech by the 43 year-old daughter of Aung
San, Aung San Suu Kyi, on the western slope of Theingottara Hill to an audience of
hundreds of thousands of people was one of the central events of Democracy Summer.
The speech not only won her, a person previously uninvolved in politics, enduring
popular support and leadership of the opposition movement, but it was also a masterful
display of the “politics of memory.” Older Burmese were impressed by the ways in
which she resembled her much-revered father, both in words and appearance, and could
not help but recall his speeches at the pagoda before his 1947 assassination. Ne Win and
his military subordinates, who by late August 1988 had retreated from the city of
Rangoon, leaving it largely under the control of student-led and popular “strike centers,”
could not have seen the location of the speech as anything but an attempt –
demonstrably successful – to reawaken the memories and narrative of revolutionary
nationalism at one of its major colonial-era public spaces. Daw Suu Kyi praised the
present generation of activist students for their courage and patriotism (many had been
shot dead by the Riot Police and the army during the anti-government demonstrations of
Comment of former student activist, Rangoon, to author, March 2003.
Bertil Lintner. Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (Hong Kong: Review Publishing, 1989), p.
March, June, and July-August), framed her father’s political vocation in terms of
constructing a democratic Burma, and most significantly called this “national crisis” the
“second struggle for national independence.” 55
Although the pagoda and its precincts remain open to all, the State Peace and
Development Council junta has sought to “occupy” it through traditional meritaccumulating activities. The most important of these projects was the replacement of
King Mindon’s 1871 hti by a new one in April 1999. Examination of the old hti and the
stupa’s superstructure showed that they had sustained considerable damage over the
previous 128 years. Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, Secretary-1 of the SPDC and the
third most powerful general in the junta at the time, assumed the chairmanship of a
special committee charged with overseeing its replacement. 56 Working closely with
technicians and the Shwedagon Ovadacaria Sayadaw (Shwe Dagon Advisory Council
of Sayadaws - high ranking monks), the committee encouraged lay people to make
generous donations to the new hti and earn merit for themselves. Although the reaction
of the general population to the junta’s hti-raising endeavor was decidedly mixed, with
many people expressing skepticism about the SPDC’s cetana (good will), large amounts
of gold and many gemstones were donated by ordinary citizens, a total amount of
83,850 pieces of jewellery and 0.21 tons of gold. Constructed of stainless steel, the new
hti weighed four times as much as King Mindon’s, or well over five tons. 57 This
Aung San Suu Kyi. “Speech to a Mass Rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda.” In Freedom from Fear and
Other Writings. Ed. by Michael Aris. 2nd ed (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 193.
The committee was named the “Committee for Gilding, Inspection of Diamond Orb, Vane and
Umbrella.” Before his 2004 purge, Khin Nyunt was also head of the Work Committee for the All-round
Perpetual Renovation of the Shwedagon Pagoda, founded in 1995. See also Khin Maung Nyunt. “Placing
a new Hti on the Shwedagon Pagoda.” Myanmar Perspectives, vol. IV: 2 (1999), pp. 6-12.
See Shwedagon Zedi All-Round Perpetual Renovation Committee. Historic Record of the hoisting of
the Gold Umbrella on the Shwedagon Pagoda (Rangoon: Shwedagon Board of Trustees Office, 1999), p.
required considerable strengthening of the pagoda’s lower levels, especially the “banana
Although he and his fellow generals in the SPDC were careful to show
deference to the sayadaws and emphasize that the hti-raising project was a meritmaking opportunity for all, Khin Nyunt occupied a central position both in the
renovation project and the elaborate ceremonies that accompanied the actual elevation
of the new hti on April 4-6, 1999. The Historic Record of the Hoisting of the Gold
Umbrella on the Shwedagon Pagoda, a glossy and very detailed publication sponsored
by the restoration committee, includes many photographs of Secretary-1 giving homage
to the stupa from atop its spire, supervising and inspecting the restoration of the
umbrella, the vane and the seinbu or diamond orb, and polishing and hanging jewellery
on the holy objects. After Khin Nyunt polished the most precious parts of diamond bud
and vane, the Historic Record claims that mysterious “rays” were emitted: a
phenomenon which caused the “wonder of the entire nation.” 58
According to Juliane Schober, the moving of a consecrated Buddha image is
considered a dangerous act because if it is handled improperly, ill fortune can be
incurred. Even household Buddha images are powerful objects, and must be treated
with great respect and deference. 59 Still more powerful are objects such as the hti and
diamond orb that make up Burma’s holiest stupa, whose alteration, it seems, was
fraught with dangers, both technical and supernatural. Should the renovation project fail,
not only would bad things happen (including natural disasters), but it would show the
lack of merit and legitimacy of the military regime.
Ibid., p. 46.
Juliane Schober. “Venerating the Buddha’s Remains in Burma: From Solitary Practice to the Cultural
Hegemony of Communities.” The Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 6 (2001), p. 127.
According to a Burmese exile publication, an earthquake occurred when the
SPDC initially attempted to remove the hti: “That was a strong indication that [the]
Shwedagon itself wouldn’t accept the generals’ plan…But later they tried again and
again and the earthquakes stopped.”60 The magical “rays” mentioned in the Historic
Record were interpreted as a sign that the stupa had accepted the generals’ meritorious
good works, with Khin Nyunt in a controversial central role. 61 Another supernatural
occurrence is reported by Elizabeth Moore: security cameras mounted on the pagoda
failed to function, showing only a “curtain-like screen” at night that was originally
attributed to weather conditions but could not be remedied until sacred texts were
recited and special offerings given. Then, the cameras began working properly.
According to Moore, a sympathetic observer of SPDC merit-making activities, “This
was one of a number of events not able to be explained technically but witnessed by a
large number of people.” 62
That objects associated with the Buddha – including but not restricted to relics –
have power and something like a will of their own is also revealed in a story concerning
another SPDC Buddhist project: the White Stone Buddha, an image carved from a huge
block of marble found near Mandalay and brought by river and overland to Mindhamma
Hill, a site located near Rangoon’s international airport, in 2000. The barge carrying the
stone image docked on the shore of the Hlaing River, from which it was to be
transported by special rail link to its final destination. But there were fears that the
ground was too soft to support the stone once it was off-loaded from the barge.
However, these fears proved unfounded when the huge stone magically levitated off the
Aung Zaw. “Shwedagon and the Generals.” The Irrawaddy, vol. 7: 4 (May 1999), p. 12.
Controversial because in the hierarchy of the SPDC, he is lower in rank than both Senior General Than
Shwe, the junta’s chairman, and General Maung Aye, the SPDC’s vice chairman.
Elizabeth Moore, “Ritual Continuity,” p. 167.
ground and could be easily moved onto the rail car. The White Stone Buddha’s main
sponsor was also Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, and the magical event occurred at
Gyogon, not far from the site of a teashop where a fight between Rangoon Institute of
Technology students and local youth in March 1988 became the spark that ignited the
massive anti-regime movement of that year. 63
When the raising of the hti of the Shwe Dagon was finally completed on April 6,
1999, the generals must have been greatly relieved: it is reported that upon ascending to
the summit of the pagoda, they shouted “We won! We won!” 64 According to the staterun media: “The ceremony can be marked as a milestone in all-round nation-building
endeavors of the patriotic Tatmadaw to ensure secure and prosperous life for the
nationalities since September 1988 [the date of the SLORC/SPDC power seizure].” 65
As if to further show the auspiciousness of the event, cool rains began falling on April 7
and lasted until Thingyan or the Burmese New Year (mid-April), a most rare occurrence
since this is the driest and hottest time of the year. However, the SPDC’s “conquest” of
the stupa could not be taken for granted. The exile publication reports that five days
after the hti elevation was completed a fire broke out on the eastern staircase, though it
was quickly extinguished. 66
Burmese and non-Burmese alike affirm the paramount status of the Shwe Dagon
Pagoda because the stupa contains the relics of not only Gotama Buddha, eight hairs
given by him to the Mon merchants Tapussa and Bhallika, but also the personal
Discussion with resident, Rangoon, March 2003.
Aung Zaw, “Shwedagon,” p. 13.
Ibid., p. 14.
Ibid., p. 14.
possessions of three earlier Buddhas. Thus its “biography” is far more venerable than
that of any other site in Burma. There is a Buddha tooth relic in the country – given by
the king of Colombo to the Burman king Bayinnaung in the sixteenth century – which is
enshrined in the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda outside of Sagaing in Upper Burma. But its
authenticity is considered questionable.
Apart from the quality of its relics, however, the Shwe Dagon’s status can be
attributed to the fact that many Mon and Burman monarchs have paid homage to it and
sponsored its renovation – beginning with its first major patron, the Mon Queen
Shinsawbu, in the fifteenth century. As a “prize” in the often bloody subjugation of the
country of the Mons in Lower Burma by the Burmans, the worldly history of the Shwe
Dagon is tightly interwoven with the history of the nation, a process that continued
during the British colonial era when it became a focus of nationalist resistance and
during the upheavals of 1988, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi through her August 26
speech on the pagoda hill revitalized its connection to revolutionary nationalism. For
purposes of acquiring legitimacy, the SPDC needed to assert its worthiness to carry out
the most kingly of roles, making a spectacular donation to the stupa, a new hti. Thus,
the pagoda is a contested space, encompassing many different narratives and historical
memories, as reflected in the holy, supernatural and historical sites that crowd its
In a 1989 essay, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote that:
The people of Burma view democracy not merely as a form of government
but as an integrated social and ideological system based on respect for the
individual. When asked why they feel so strong a need for democracy, the
least political will answer: “We just want to be able to go about our own
business freely and peacefully, not doing anybody any harm, just earning
a decent living without anxiety and fear.” 67
But democracy, even in this very fundamental sense, still remains out of reach.
Eighteen years after the popular uprising of 1988 and sixteen years following the
General Election of May 27, 1990 that gave a landslide victory to Daw Suu Kyi’s
National League for Democracy, the SPDC junta, with the backing of its Asian
neighbors and foreign investors in the West, wields nearly unchallenged power inside
the country and Aung San’s daughter still languishes under house arrest. For most
people in Rangoon and other parts of the country, Burmans and ethnic minorities alike,
standards of living have steadily declined and life is focused almost exclusively on a
day-to-day struggle for survival, in which supernatural powers are often invoked.
However, for ordinary Burmese, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda is still a place of hope.
Apart from opportunities for individual merit-making, its spaces express collective
memories and narratives in which the biographies of Gotama Buddha, his predecessors
and their relics are central, but which also include many subsidiary histories and
legends: from the “Ox-Goat Monk” who discovers the gold-transforming philosopher’s
stone through the mysterious power of alchemy and the Maha Ganda Bell, taken as
booty by the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War but ingenuously rescued by the
Burmese and restored to the pagoda platform, to the patriotic students of 1920. Such a
dense collection of narratives and memories can be “occupied” but not controlled by the
SPDC. So the pagoda space offers devotees glimpses of worlds that are very different
from the one in which they live, and the most fundamental of hopes – not only that
Aung San Suu Kyi. “In Quest of Democracy.” In Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, p. 173.
things are constantly changing, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, but also that things
can be very different from the way they happen to be now.
July 4, 2006