2 October 2018
Shwedagon Pagoda has endured the vagaries of nature and people, towering stoically over Yangon with its quiet, majestic charm despite earthquakes, cyclones, invasions, wars, foreign occupations and internal strife that struck the country since it was built hundreds of years ago.
Located on Singuttara Hill, which is almost 190 feet above sea level, the pagoda and its structure towers well over 300 ft into the air, making it a sight to behold for both the predominantly Buddhist residents of Myanmar’s economic capital as well as for awestruck visitors.
A stairwell fire in 1931 destroyed many of the ancient monuments inside the pagoda. A powerful earthquake that struck Yangon in 1970 – the ninth that the area had sustained since the 1500s – also weakened the crown of the main pagoda.
Historical evidence indicates that the Shwedagon Pagoda – believed to be the oldest stupa in the world and considered the most sacred site for Myanmar’s Buddhists, which make up some 90 percent of the country’s population – was built in 6th century by the Mon people, one of the major ethnic groups in the country.
However, according to legend, two traders met Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago and were given eight strands of his hair. The Buddha instructed the traders to enshrine these in a hill in what is now Yangon where relics from three previous reincarnations of Buddha were buried.
The two businessmen gave the eight strands of hairs to the king who searched for the location, but failed to find it. Finally a Nat spirit came to help and pointed to the monarch the spot where previous relics were buried. And so the king built the Shwedagon Pagoda and enshrined the eight strands of hairs of the Buddha.
The Shwedagon Pagoda compound includes 64 small stupas and a 99-metre main stupa, which is the temple’s most eye-catching structure as its upper reaches are completely covered with gold leaf. This is where the sacred relics of the Buddha are enshrined and it is not open to the public.
A seven- spired hti — an umbrella-shaped ornament with golden bells attached to it — adorns the top of the pagoda. The hti is decorated with thousands of diamonds and other precious stones.
Visitors standing on the pagoda platform can see the multi-coloured reflection of the rays of the sun from the huge diamond on top of the gold-plated hti.
While natural disasters have scarred the stupa, it has not only survived but is flourishng.
Today, Myanmar’s most precious and revered site is up for a major facelift that is expected to rejuvenate and further strengthen the iconic structure.
Earlier in September, the main stupa was covered in bamboo scaffolding as workers began work on facelift, which will include replacing of some of the solid gold plates and installing gold-leaf coverings.
The government is set to install a monitoring system to check the groundwater levels at the hill where the stupa sits. Four walls will also be built around the hill to prevent landslides and erosion. Between 1996 and 2007, the hill suffered landslides and erosions at least four times.
U Myint Kyaw, Myanmar Engineering Society (MES) chairman, said improvements must be made to ensure the sustainability of Shwedagon Pagoda.
“Shwedagon Pagoda is located on a steep hill. Due to water erosion and earthquakes some of the retaining walls around the hill have been weakened and damaged,” he added.
U Nyan Myint Kyaw, instructor and professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, Yangon Technology University, said the groundwater monitoring system is very important to ensure the stability of Singuttara Hill.
The groundwater monitoring system for Shwedagon Pagoda will be the first in the country and is expected to cost a lot of money, U Nyan Myint Kyaw said, underscoring its importance for ensuring the sustainability of the site and the pagoda.
Since 1972, the pagoda has been undergoing piecemeal maintenance work using cement grout to repair cracks caused by water intrusion.
For the current project, the Ministry of Construction, the pagoda’s trustees and experts from the Myanmar Engineering Society are collaborating in the surveying and the rebuilding of the retaining walls.
The drainage system will also need to be improved to ensure that the repository of relics is safe from water intrusion.
There is already a plan for the construction of the retaining wall near the West gate of the pagoda, as well as for the restructuring of the drainage system, said Construction Deputy Minister U Kyaw Linn.
“The surveying process will not touch or affect the repository of relics because these are in the body of pagoda. The survey will only be done in the boundary of the 14 acres of flat ground around the pagoda,” he added.
Money appears to be the least of concern in efforts to conserve and strengthen Myanmar’s most famous religious icon.
Shwedagon Pagoda has funds of over K67 billion and US$15.2 million, according to the Yangon government records. It is estimated that the kyat and dollar accounts of the pagoda earned about K47.64 billion in interest in 2017.
“Shwedagon Pagoda is one of our most precious and treasured pieces of heritage in Myanmar and has funds. When we talk about Singuttara Hill, it is not too wide and so we can conserve this heritage site for our grand children and future generations,” said U Hla Myint, a former government official.
“I want to suggest that to ensure long-term sustainability we must collaborate with international experts. We want to make Singuttara Hill as strong and firm as a rock hill,” he added.