This main platform that is used by most of the locals for prayers, offers and relaxation as well as by tourists to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda is actually not the top level but the middle level. The upper level is on the main stupa but access is only permitted to locals (men only!) And Buddhist monks with special permission from the Pagoda Security.
In front of us is the gold-covered Shwedagon stupa rising into the sky. The stupa is 295 feet / 90 meters high and has at terrace level a circumference of some 1.421 feet / 433 meters. Let me give you now some explanation concerning the design pattern of the stupa that is actually a standard pattern for all pagoda stupas. I will describe the pattern starting from the bottom and ending at the top.
1. The base of the Shwedagon stupa, a completely solid cone-shaped structure that gradually tapers towards the top, is a flat supporting block called plinth.
2. On top of this follow rectangular terraces (paccayas). What follows are
3. octagonal terraces (shit-mhaungs),
4. the bell (khaung laung pone)
5. The turban band (baung yit),
6. the inverted alms bowl (thabaik mhauk) with lotus petals,
7. Moldings (phaung yits),
8. The Lotus throne (1 row down-turned lotus petals, kya mhauk, and 1 row up-turned lotus petals, kya lan)
9. the banana butt (nga pyaw bu)
10, the umbrella (hti)
11. the cone,
12. the vane and
13. The diamond orb (sein bu) on top of the vane.
The golden stupa around which 64 smaller stupas and 4 larger stupas are placed is the majestic center piece of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Of the 4 large pagodas one is always placed at one of the 4 cardinal points, opposite the entrance to the top landing of the relative staircase. But this is by far not all the pagoda corporations.
The terrace covers a total area of some 14 acres / 7 hectares and on it are additionally to the dominant central stupa complex some 100 other devotional main sites such as the Victory Ground, Bodhi trees and structures such as smaller and larger prayer halls (tazaungs) , smaller and larger prayer pavilions (tazaungs), rest pavilions (zayats), shrines of various sizes, planetary posts, smaller and larger pagodas, the Maha Ganda Bell, the Maha Tissada Bell, the king Dhammazedi stone inscriptions, temples and numerous statues of Buddhas, chinthes, manokthihas, nats, weizzars, queens, kings, ogres, belus, nagas, etc. Almost all structures have tired roofs and are additionally lavishly decorated with golden (gold, gold bronze or brass). In case you are interested in counting all of the shrines including the smaller and smallest ones that exist within the Shwedagon Pagoda complex you will find that there are more than 300 of them.
At first glance everything appears to be scattered wildly here. It is what William Somerset Maugham in his 'The Gentleman In The Parlor' from 1930 describes as "At last we reached the great terrace. All about shrines, and pagodas were jumbled pell-mell with the confusion with which trees grow in the jungle" . I have visited the Shwedagon Pagoda many times and found that this is not true because everything within the main stupa area is very symmetrically designed and there is a definite order even in the ensemble of structures surrounding the stupa. Things have pretty much changed since I was here the first time some 25 years ago. Numerous innovations have been undertaken at the Shwedagon Pagoda during the last 16 years beginning in 1999 with a new hti with a weight of some 5 tons. With respect to the central stupa not so many things have changed but what concerns the other parts of the pagoda such as the stairways, the structures surrounding the main stupa, the gardens, etc. a lot. All of these things are in much better conditions now.
The reason for this is clear. The Shwedagon Pagoda was from about 1965 to 1995 almost exclusively visited by local Buddhists as well as local and foreign Buddhist pongyis (monks). Since 1995 (and especially since 2010) the Shwedagon Pagoda is to an increasing extent also an important attraction for tourists and in so far a very interesting source of income for the Shwedagon Pagoda Trust.
In front of us at the foot of the south side of the main stupa you see the Konagamana Adoration Hall also called Temple of the Konagamana Buddha or Konagamana Shrine. It is one of the pagoda's 4 main shrines. Each shrine is dedicated to one of the last 4 Buddhas. You remember that when I was telling you about the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda I also told you that Konagamana was the 26th Buddha and that as legend has it his water filter is one of the relics enshrined here in the Shwedagon Pagoda. When we walk around the stupa you will see the adoration halls of the other 3 Buddhas who relics are enshrined here. This Adoration Hall was renovated in 1947 and 2007. Let's go over there and see what is inside. As you can see here are many Buddha statues of different sizes and from different eras what you can tell from the different designs. To my best knowledge and belief I can assure you that some of these Buddha statues are among the oldest on the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Konagamana Buddha is sitting on a throne in the Bhumisparsha Mudra (gesture of touching the earth) in an illuminated cave the front of which is covered with a glass window. The statue is made of an alloy containing gold, silver, copper, iron and lead, relatively small and has a neon halo. In front of the cave is to Konagamana's right a Buddha statue in a separated position. This Buddha image is made of white marble. Placed more in front is one large Buddha statue made of brass in separated position on a throne placed on either side of the cave.
When I told you about my grandson, the Burmese horoscope and related things I promised you to tell you more about it after our arrival at the Shwedagon and that is exactly what I am going to do now. Actually, I am not just telling you more but am also demonstrating to you what I would like you to do while we are walking around the stupa.
Do you know at what weekday you were born? No? That is no problem because I have here copies of a 100 year calendar. This calendar enables you to find the dates and days of the week in any year from 1901 to 2000. Please take a copy and find out the exact weekday at which you were born. Ready? OK, is anyone of you born on a Wednesday? Oh, really, 2 of you were born on a Wednesday? Next question: were you born in the morning or evening? In the morning! That's great. I too was born on a Wednesday morning what means that the planet corresponding to our day and time of birth is the Mercury and the animal associated with us is the elephant with tusks.
Now let us move a few steps back from the Konagamana Shrine and see what we will find at the right and left hand side of the shrine in front of the Shwedagon stupa. On the left hand side you see amongst others a post. This post is the Planetary Post for Mercury. This and all of the other planet posts we will see are simply simple yet beautiful wooden posts some 12 feet / 3 meters in height. They are painted dark red and comprise 6 parts, namely (from foot to top) a platform, a pedestal, a sideways protruding vase holder for 2 vases (1 right, 1 left), a pillar, sideways protruding ornaments and a signboard with the gilded name of the day. On the right hand side you see, well, from here mainly praying people standing and sitting in front of a balustrade with 2 glass boxes, candles, joss sticks, flowers, small white paper umbrellas and trays with fruits, other kinds of food and glasses or plastic cups with drinking water on top of it and behind the balustrade the top of the second Planetary post for Mercury. At all 4 Adoration Halls you will see on both sides a planetary post for the same planet / weekday. Let us move closer and look at it from the side so that you can see more of what is going on.
Ah, now we can see what is behind the balustrade; in the background we see a large statue with a human face dressed in a golden robe and wearing a golden head gear. This is Thagyamin, the king of the celestials (nats). We see in front of him a small marble statue of a sitting Buddha with strands of Sabai (Jasmine) blossoms around the neck and shoulders. In front of the Buddha we see a beautiful with relief tiles decorated round water basin above a larger oval shaped water basin and a golden elephant (with tusks) standing in this larger basin at floor level. And we do also see people standing around this ensemble scooping water out of the upper basin and pouring it over the statues. Do you know what all of this means? No? OK, let me explain. These people are all born on a Wednesday morning and this is their place because here is the elephant with tusks. They are performing a Buddhist literal to gain merits and ask for favors. No important decision such as getting married, naming a child, making a larger purchase, moving to another place, making a business, etc. is done without seeking guidance and support. However, this ritual has nothing to do with Buddhism itself but is the result of mixing Buddhist and animal belief, which has its beginning with King Anawrahta of Pagan (1044 – 1077 AD) who introduced Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism, to be precise) into his Pagan kingdom.
Anawrahta, who was an animist himself prior to his meeting Shin Arahan who converted him to Buddhism, had to make concessions in order to keep his people peaceful during the process of eradicating the very popular animalism that was called the Aris whose followers were the Ari monks. He, therefore, integrated parts of animalistic belief into Buddhism and did, for instance, make 37 nats with their king being being Thagyamin, the naga cult, astrology and astronomy part of the Buddhist religion in his kingdom. Back to our 'wish offering' and 'washing ceremony' or as the Burmese say 'yadayar', to announce ones luck. Important is that you never try to understand things that are about religious belief because the whole point is that this is not a rational matter but completely a matter of feeling and believing.
At the basin there are small aluminum bowls (imitations of Burmese silver bowls with embossed traditional motifs). You take one of the bowls, fill it with water from the basin and pour it in turns over the head and shoulders of the statues. It is important that the number of bow contents you are pouring equals your age plus 1 cup for good luck. I am 56 years old and, subsequently, I will have to pour the contents of 57 bowls over the statues; meaning some bowls of water over Buddha's head and shoulders, some over Thagyamin's shoulders and some over the elephant's head and shoulders. While you are pouring the water you have to make a wish. It might be advisable not to ask for checked lily of the valley but for something you dear wish for and that you belief to be possible. Once you have completed the washing ceremony (pouring water) you make your offering. This means you light your candle (when it is windy you put the candle in one of the glass boxes so that they are not blown out), put some flowers and paper umbrellas in one of the vases, and so on. After that you sit down in front of the balustrade just as the locals do and say a prayer. And that is exactly what I and the other two 'elephants' of our group are now going to do. By the way, the order in which you perform the ceremony is not necessarily binding. Now you know why we have bought the candles, flowers and paper umbrellas. Those of our group who are born at other weekdays then Wednesday will perform this ceremony when they have found the animal corresponding to the day they were born while we are walking around the stupa. This is what I call not just watching TV but being part of the movie. Believe me, this way you will vividly experience how it actually shows to perform this ritual and that is, of course, much better than just watching others do it. And who knows your wishes may come true. Please, do not feel foolish when you perform this Buddhist literal. No one will find it funny what you are doing because there is absolutely nothing funny about this ceremony. Just concentrate seriously on what you are doing and do really hope that your desires will become true. Do not do it just for the sake of doing it because then it will not work. Afterwards you will feel good, believe me. OK, let us join the locals, perform our washing ceremony, make our offerings and wishes and say our prayer.
So, we are ready. How do you feel now? Good? You see, I told you so. Actually, we have cheated a little bit because our elephant would have been the last station of our walk but I wanted to demonstrate to you how it works at the beginning of our walk and, well, the fact is that the elephant is my animal. Let us begin our walk around the stupa. Remember, that planets circle the earth in clockwise direction. For this reason you always walk around the stupa of a pagoda clockwise following the path of the planets.
Before we start our walk a few words about some of the reasons for Buddhists to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda and places they are going to while being here. There are of course several reasons for visiting the pagoda but whatever the reason they have at their core worshiping. One reason is to attend festivals such as the Bo Bo Aung festival or the great Shwedagon Pagoda Festival. Other reasons are to just enjoy the tranquility and peacefulness to put mind and soul at ease, to meditate or to celebrate shin pyu the ordination of young monks in which case the monks-to-be and their families and friends first come to visit the pagoda . Yet another reason is to achieve specific devotional objectives. Correspondingly, the places on the pagoda that are visited and the sequence in which they are visited different. The 4 most typical 'standard tours' are wish offerings at planetary shrines and posts, obeisance to cult images, veneration of one specific Buddha and circumambulation. What we are doing is falling under the 1st and 4th heading although our main reason to be here is not of devotional nature; let's go.
The large pavilion on our left hand side is the Pavilion of the Chinese Community. In this pavilion are exactly 28 Buddha statues. This number was not chosen randomly but because this is the number of Buddhas that according to Buddhist faith have so far exhausted. The present Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, is the 28th Buddha in a line that goes far back in time and begins with the 1st Buddha, Tanhankara Buddha. The next Buddha will be the 29th one. He will come into existence in about 2.500 years and his name will be Maitreya Buddha. Buddhists believe that Maitreya is currently awaiting his re-birth in Tushita Heaven.
Now please turn your eyes to the right towards the south-west corner of the Shwedagon main stupa over there and you see the Planetary Post for Saturn. We move now toward the post and there you see the naga (Serpent) that is associated to the planet Saturn. In case you are born on a Saturday this is the place where you have to perform your 'washing ceremony'. Anyone of you born on a Saturday? Yes? You two ladies are born on a Saturday? Well, then it is your turn now with the 'yadayar'. The rest of us will wait till you are ready before we continue walking towards north along the west side of the pagoda's central stupa on our right hand side. Ah, do not be shy. You have seen how we 3 elephants just did it. Pluck up your courage and go on. And, how did you like it? Oh, I knew that you would find it just great. Let us move on.
Now look to the left. There is a small pavilion with a glass-covered front. The two statues in the Shrine of the Shwedagon Pagoda Guardian Spirit are Bo Bo Gyi, and to his left Thagyamin, the king of nats.
The pavilion diagon behind them is the Rakhine or Arakan Pavilion. It is an open pavilion and there is nothing in it but the few locales that are sitting on the floor to rest. However, the wood carvings on the tired roof, the barriers, screen and curtains are very beautiful. As you will see, almost all pavilions and shrines are multi-tired and lavishly decorated roofs with mostly gold colored or gilded barriers.
The adjacent structure, more precisely that which is in it, is certainly much more interesting.
It is the statue of a reclining Gautama Buddha with his head resting in the palm of his left hand. The statue is some 28 feet / 8.50 meters long. The Gautama Buddha statue is accompanied by other statues depicting his favorite pupil Ananda as well as two of his chief apostles, namely Shin Moggalana and Shin Sariputta. The next building is the Chinese Merchants Pavilion,