In the capital city of Yangon, you will find the beautifully majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda sits upon holy Singuttara Hill. To understand the reason why this hill is considered so holy, and to grasp the significance of the Shwedagon to Buddhists and to the people of Myanmar, it is important to know both the history and the legends of how it all came to be.

Over 2,500 years ago, there lived a king by the name of Okkalapa. He was ruler of Suvannabhumi and ruled over the Talaings. At this time, Siddharta Guatama was living in northern India. He was still a young man and was not yet recognized as the Buddha.

 
 
     
 

It was and is believed that a new Buddha, or “Enlightened One”, will come into being once every 5,000 years. At the time of Okkalapa, it had been approximately 5,000 years since the last Buddha, and it was considered time once again.

Singuttara Hill is important because it was the holy resting spot of the relics of three Buddhas. Their relics were enshrined within Singuttara Hill, thus making it a holy place. To keep it holy, it was believed that gifts given by the new Buddha, which would become relics, had to be enshrined every 5,000 years in the hill.

But Okkalapa was concerned, as a new Buddha had not come to be known yet, and if it took too long he feared the hill could lose its holiness. He went to the hill to pray and to meditate, unaware of Siddharta Guatama’s coming into enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in northern India at the same time.

According to area legend, he appeared to Okkalapa and told him to be patient, that his wish for the hill would soon be granted.

As Guatama was reaching the end of his 49 days of meditation, he was visited by two brothers. Their names were Tapussa and Bhallika, and they happened to be from Myanmar and were subjects of Okkalapa. These two merchant brothers present Guatama Buddha with a gift of some honey cake, as they recognized him as The Enlightened One.
To express his thanks to them, he pulled out 8 of his hairs off of his head, and gave the hairs to Tapussa and Bhallika. They took the hairs and headed back home. However, during their journey they were twice robbed, and 4 of the sacred hairs were taken from them. By the time they reached Myanmar, they had only 4 of The Buddha’s hairs left.

However, their return was still a celebrated one by King Okkalapa and his people, and a large party was thrown in honor of the brothers. It was decided that a shrine place should be built on Singuttara Hill to house these newest relics. At the party in their honor, the brothers presented a casket containing the Buddha’s hairs to their king, and he opened it.
there were great tremors upon the earth, a great rocking earthquake. It is also said that all of the trees then burst into blossom and lovely jewels fell from the sky.

A shrine was created on Singuttara Hill to house these 8 miraculous hairs, and the area was deemed sacred. An enormous pagoda was then created atop the hill to house the shrine, and it is considered one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar. The pagoda itself is a wondrous architectural achievement. The top soars well over 300 ft into the air (approximately 100 meters or more) above the hilltop and can be seen from quite far away. The Shwedagon, which means, loosely translated, “golden hills” is magnificently made out of gold and jewels all over.

The details as to exactly when and how the construction of the pagoda began are somewhat sketchy, but writings document that it was well-known and visible by the 11th century. Over the years, various kings and queens took part in renovating it, and enlarging the structure, making it even taller and grander than before.

 
     
 
Some interesting stories of the Shwedagon Pagoda deal with its enormous bells. In 1608, a Portuguese invader by the name of Philip de Brito y Nicote stole a bell that weighed in at around 6,0000 lbs, or 30 tons. However, as he was attempting to return home with the bell, it fell into the Bago River and was lost.

The bell was replaced in 1779. That was after a massive earthquake in 1768 toppled the highest part of the pagoda. Once that part, the stupa, was rebuilt, King Hsinbyushin’s son Singu had a 23 ton bronze
bell cast. It was called the Maha Gandha bell. In the 1820’s, however, British soldiers plundered the pagoda, and stole this bell.

 

 
 
     
 

En route to Calcutta, the bell fell overboard and sank into the sea. It was later recovered and now sits atop the pagoda platform, on the northwest side.

Finally, in 1841 another bell was created, this one weighing approximately 8,000 pounds (40 tons) and covered with 45 lbs (20kg) of gold plating. This bell, called the Maha Tissada bell, still resides in the pagoda, on the northeast side of the enclosure.

The years of 1852 through 1929 mark a time of British military occupation in Myanmar, with colonial rulers controlling the areas. However, the people of Myanmar were still able to have full access to the Shwedagon. In 1871 a new diamond-studded piece for the pagoda’s structure was donated by King Mindon of Mandalay. The people of Myanmar were thrilled at this tribute and well over 100, 00 of them gathered at Shwedagon to celebrate. And although this made the British military somewhat uncomfortable, they had to allow it as the people were honoring their faith.

It is evident that, over the centuries, the Shwedagon Pagoda has survived difficult times. It has withstood earthquakes, invasions, pillaging, foreign occupation and an internal stairwell fire in 1931 that destroyed many ancient monuments. Another earthquake in 1970, which was the 9th that the area had sustained since the 1500’s, led the government to begin a renovation project on the crown of the main pagoda.

Each disaster brought damage to the pagoda, but it has always withstood the onslaughts and endured the renovations. The fact that Shwedagon has survived these times of hardship and damage and still stood firm adds to its sense of majesty. It also adds to the sense of pride within the people of Myanmar, that nothing can truly leave lasting damage upon this beloved site. And people have always pitched in to make sure that any needed renovations took place to strengthen and secure it. Thus, to this day it sits, strong and steady, mystical and sacred, high upon a sacred hill.