If someone asked me which person I’d like to meet if I had an opportunity to go through the pages of history, I would instantly say Gautama Buddha. What I find most fascinating about this historical figure is his persistence in finding answers to life’s most fundamental questions—why are we born, what is the purpose of life, and how to put an end to suffering. His philosophy has helped millions in their quest to find happiness and inner peace. Although, the Buddha’s teachings are just as alive today, to learn from the man himself would have been an experience of a lifetime.
Today, one who seeks to build a connection with the Buddha takes a journey to Buddhist shrines and monasteries. Countless monks, pilgrims, and devotees visit pagodas where the Buddha’s energy seems to flow through the chiming bells and the resounding chanting of the monks. Built around 2,500 years ago during the time of the Buddha, Shwedagon Pagoda sits at the heart of the Buddhist heritage.
Located on the Singuttara hills in Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda is believed to be the most sacred stupa in Myanmar. Believed to contain the hair relics of the Buddha, many say that the pagoda has preserved the lifeforce of the Buddha for thousands of years. For someone like me, who longs to find a connection with one of the most inspiring individuals in history, Shwedagon Pagoda was the closest I could get.
I boarded a plane to Shwedagon Pagoda during the fall—a time when the leaves turn bright yellow and the pagoda shimmers in a sparkling yellow too. They say yellow stands for enlightenment. To me, it was as if nature was awakened by the Buddha’s touch.
I stepped out of the airport looking for a taxi. Although I didn’t speak Burmese, it wasn’t difficult to convey where I wanted to go. Everyone in Myanmar may not know English, but everyone knows Shwedagon Pagoda. My taxi driver knew little English, but he managed to explain to me the dos and don’ts of the monastery.
Wearing Longyi—traditional attire of Myanmar—is a must, shirts and t-shirts with religious themes or offensive messages are prohibited from being worn inside the pagoda. These rules may be unwritten, but everyone who visits the pagoda observes them unbegrudgingly.
I must have reached halfway, when I saw the tip of the pagoda’s umbrella crown rising from the horizon. But only when I got there, did I see the real beauty of Shwedagon Pagoda. Covered in gold from top to bottom, the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda stood 99 meters tall, decorated with thousands of diamonds and other precious stones. The monument shone under the afternoon sun, reflecting a mix of colours. Hundreds of Bodhi Trees—said to have germinated from the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment—surrounded the pagoda. As I walked toward the entrance, I realised something profound. This was a monument that is believed to be built in the lifetime of the Buddha. People, who were fortunate to meet him must have been here where I stood. In a way, I had established a timeless connection with the Buddha.
I was standing at the southern gate, one of the four entrances to the complex, still bewitched by its beauty. The gates had giant Chinthes—the mythological lion of Myanmar with a white body and a golden head that are believed to be the guardians of the pagodas. I ambled across to the Arakanese Prayer Pavilion with aesthetic carving and colourful paintings of the Jataka tales, depicting the story of the Buddha’s previous lives. A few steps later, I was near the main stupa, the Golden Pagoda surrounded by 64 small stupas.
What I found most interesting was the legend behind the Golden Pagoda. According to the folklore, two brothers went to meet the Buddha. On the brothers’ request, the Buddha gave them eight strands of his hair, so they could enshrine them in their country, Burma. The brothers presented the holy relics to their king, who then asked Sularata, a divine Nat spirit, to find a spot for the enshrinement. The spirit found a place on the Singuttara hills, where the relics of the previous Buddhas were also enshrined.
Recalling the legend, I was lost in my thoughts when the sound of people chanting in the stupas, broke the reverie of my thoughts. I saw monks and devotees praying in the prayer hall. The echo of the chants and the chiming of bells in unison was an experience that has remained etched in my mind ever since. I only felt a surge of calm flowing through my body. Every nook and corner of the Shwedagon pagoda I wandered to, the calm and serenity kept me company.