The Shwedagone Pagoda

The Shwedagone Pagoda

Any reference to Myanmar brings to mind pictures of a tall imposing golden dome of a vast structure against the backdrop of the clear blue sky, and as dusk descends, it lights up the surrounding areas as the hundreds of lights luminate the glittering gold. This is the Shwedagone Pagoda, also called the Great Pagoda, the Golden Pagoda or the Shwedagone Zedi Daw.

From a picture post card to images online, none do justice to the 99-meter tall Shwedagone Pagoda. With a city built around it, one crosses it frequently enough but none of us ever have our fill of the place. There is something that fascinates, that tugs and we feel a pull towards it, and as we cross it, we stop everything else, to just keep looking till it disappears from sight, and absorb its beauty one more time.

The Shwedagone pagoda is one more reason to love Myanmar, and having seen this one pagoda, all others, despite their own charm, pale in comparison. Its not just about the beauty of the physical structure, its towering presence above and beyond other structures, but more about its peaceful, almost ethereal ambience which we are all so reluctant to leave.

The pagoda is 2500 years old with a long history. It was initially built by the Mons as a short 8.2-meter structure on top of the Singuttara Hill that lies to the west of the Royal Lake. Over time it has undergone renovations and now stands at 99 meters with layers of gold plates that make the structure glow at any time of the day and night.

It is the Shwedagone experience, and not its history, that I would like to share. An entrance fee of USD 8 is charged from tourists. As we enter, in sleeved shirts and full pants, the crowds are the first to catch our attention. One sees so many local Myanmar people, most other historical religious places would have a higher number of tourists. Tanakha on their faces, they softly make their way towards the entrance. This is what makes Myanmar different, from places like India-the crowds never rush, push or tug, no breaking of lines and no hurry to be the first to enter. Quietly everywhere, even the children, await their turn.

In five years, the quiet ambience has been replaced by crowded fervour just due to the number of visitors within. The ambience is no less mystical, but there is often a wait to worship at shrines, pouring water, or the exact spot on the platform from where one can see the different colours reflected as the rays of the setting sun and the spotlights thereafter, fall on the large diamond and other gems at the top of the stupa. The top of the stupa is encrusted with gems including 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires and other gems, 1065 golden bells, and a single large 76-carat diamond.

The best time to visit the Pagoda are either early morning around sunrise before the sun reaches too high and becomes too hot, or around dusk when there is still natural light, and see the drift towards darkness and see artificial lighting flood the place illuminating the dome, spire, the 64 pagodas encircling the base, and every shrine.

A single visit is never enough to this oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world. Even after several trips one wants a chance to visit again. It is probably the peace and calm that permeates the soul, the feeling of being in a place far removed from the outside world.

As for myself, I have visited the Pagoda numerous times, and would happily go time and again. I cross it often from the outside and for those five minutes, as I drive by, my eyes remain glued to the sheer golden beauty of the Shwedagone Pagoda.

Celebrating Thingyan in Yangon – Fifth Year In a Row

After more than four years in Yangon, I too, like everyone in Myanmar, wait with excitement and enthusiasm, for Thingyan, the water festival. Thingyan is the biggest festival, event and celebration of the year in Myanmar. It comes as a welcome break from the hectic pace of life, and brings all activities to a virtual standstill for all, when work stops and workplaces shut down, when the mood of holiday and festivity in the entire month of April means nothing will move. Except for the water spraying pavilions, loud music and vendors feeding the hundreds playing, the city or actually, the whole country is transformed, the buzz and bustle is missing, and there is just an ambience of relaxation and fun, noise and merriment. Those who can afford it, leave the country to take a break elsewhere and catch up on all that is missing in Myanmar.

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Yangon’s Architectural Structures Need Restoration

Yangon is a city with character, one that charms and fascinates, despite, the aging structures that line its streets. The impeccable glistening newness of the Shwedagon Pagoda reveals the effort that goes into maintaining this exquisite structure which is perhaps the most beautiful pagoda in the world. In stark contrast, as one drives around Yangon, one sees dilapidated structures, rundown buildings, belonging to the era of British rule. They contribute as much to the character of Yangon, as the golden spired pagodas, monasteries and other architectural marvels. British architecture stands out in all the countries that were once British colonies, be it India, Sri Lanka or Myanmar. But while their counter parts in Delhi, Kolkata, Colombo and a host of other cities have been restored, maintained and preserved, Yangon sees them slowly, silently crumbling.

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Four Years in Yangon

I set foot in Yangon four years ago, and vividly remember the feeling of dread as the aircraft circled over numerous water bodies, lush greenery and pockets of habitation over vast expanses of flat land. The first three months were difficult and then we began to accept the place and its people. We began to enjoy the company of the locals with their ever smiling faces, and admire their level of contentment despite their very limited means and minimal access to comforts and luxuries. We admired the classless society, though there was respect and reverence for the learned and the elite, and we began to understand their amazing attitude and look inwards too.

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Of Familiar Fast Food Chains And Local Culture

Change has become the only constant in Myanmar. From a country that barely witnessed change a decade ago, to have become a rapidly transforming and growing economy, Myanmar stands for optimism and hope, development and advancement…all the positives that appear once the need for embracing change is felt. The air is rife with optimism and enthusiasm, even as the local populace waits expectantly for the next set of newbies to appear.

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Myanmar’s Mountains Beckon

Myanmar has become famous as the road less traveled attracting tourists from virtually every country. Its breathtaking, untouched natural beauty against the backdrop of which we see countless pagodas in every city, town and village, has led to a flurry of tourist activity. The number of tourists entering Myanmar in 2014 has touched 3 million, and the numbers are only increasing every month. Most of them explore Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle, Mytkyina, Taunggyi, and Kalaw.

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Three Thingyans Old In Myanmar

For the third year in a row, I can sense the excitement in the air, a sense of waiting building up, enthusiasm to switch off from work, close offices, while making plans for all that is to be done during the week long Thingyan break. Already, the first piles of wood planks and bamboo sticks are reaching roadsides where pavilions are going to be erected. Water guns and powerful water hoses are on sale, clothes and offerings for the monks, gift hamper and traditional Thingyan foods, stacking shelves. Gradually the cityscape will be transformed, with 35-40 large pavilions erected, road blocks placed, traffic rerouted, and water connections kept ready to draw water from the lakes around. This may not be everyone’s idea of fun and enjoyment, but the feeling of merriment is infectious and ropes us all in.

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 There is Something about Thai Food

Look east, and two of the most exotic tourist destinations appear on the horizon- our mesmerizing Myanmar and its immediate neighbor, Thailand. One exudes an old world charm, and the other is cosmopolitan and modern, with tourism as its biggest industry. Both countries have a predominantly Buddhist population, and the tropical climate implies similar agricultural produce is cultivated, both being considered as rice bowls to the world in the past even as they works towards becoming the world’s largest rice producers again. Thailand is also the most popular gateway to Myanmar, offers employment to over 2 million Myanmar nationals who migrated across the border legally and illegally, and is one of the largest foreign investors in the country.

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Bogyoke Aung San Market – Popularity at its Peak

A new wave of consumerism, buying and spending, has swept cities like Yangon ever since the country opened up over two years ago. Needs and wants are multiplying, much to the delight of retailers, in new shopping malls, standalone brand outlets, traditional stores in downtown Yangon, and also in the famous oriental Bogyoke Aung San Market in the heart of the city. Considering the wide range of products it offers, it is only natural for it to be the most popular shopping destination, and its popularity is only growing by the day. One would have expected the newer malls to supersede this 89-year old market, with the latest designs in fashion and home accessories, but as of now, none can match the wide range of goods available in Scott Market, at competitive and affordable prices. Its location, old world charm, warm and friendly shop owners, and compact size make it extremely convenient. There is no other place that comes anywhere close, since it houses the smallest to the biggest, cheapest to the most expensive, and hence is a one-stop place for all Myanmar products.

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Myanmar’s Traditional Medicine

The belief in turning to nature to heal and cure, is strong in nearly all Asian nations, and in Myanmar, even more so. Traditional medicine treatments have been followed in Myanmar for generations and continue to be popular even today, though more in remote rural areas, not least due to non availability of western (allopathic) medicines. Herbs and medicinal plants are found in abundance in this largely agrarian country, and serve as highly affordable remedies for diseases.

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