When the taxi dropped me off at my hotel on the west side of downtown Yangon around 1 a.m. I was feeling somewhat spaced out. Being in the air or in waiting lounges for twenty-eight hours and passing through ten time zones on the journey from Toronto can do that to you! My 12th floor room had a balcony which faced east to the downtown area and after a few hours of needed sleep, I stepped out to see this view – my panorama introduction to what would prove to be a fascinating city!
Yangon – made the official name in 1989 though some will still insist on calling it Rangoon, following the British pronunciation – is a sprawling port city of some five million and the gateway to Myanmar – again, still called Burma by some. As Myanmar’s largest urban centre, Yangon is also the commercial heart of a country whose military rulers had until recently shut it off from the rest of the world.
It was only ten years ago that the political capital was shifted from Yangon north to the newly-constructed Naypyidaw in the traditional Bamar (or Burman) heartland. Things in Myanmar are changing now; the military has stepped back somewhat and recent elections resulted in the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party and new hope for better days.
My first day in Yangon would be spent walking downtown for a visit to the Sule Paya or Pagoda and then, after dropping in at the Strand Hotel for a cup of coffee, a further walk east to the Botatuang Stupa close to the Yangon River. I would then take a taxi back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon nap before ending the day with a visit to Myanmar’s single greatest Buddhist temple complex, the Shwedagon Pagoda four kilometers to the north.
As my walk started, I was struck by the life on the streets. The sidewalks in particular had been taken over by food vendors and plastic chairs and tables filled the space. Also difficult to miss were the numerous roadside shrines which, even as I walked by at 8:45 a.m. had already received fresh flowers and offerings.
And since this was my first visit to Myanmar, I would sometimes be left wondering exactly what I was looking at. Take the figure in the photo above. I still have no idea of who he is and why he is there! He is lacking all the Buddhist symbolism I have learned to understand! Is he a nat figure, nats being a part of the pre-Buddhist religion of Myanmar which was incorporated into Buddhism when it arrived from India? He does not seem regal enough to be a great ruler – and yet he clearly has his devotees who have already been there that morning to set the tone for another day.
Downtown Yangon is a relatively new city, having been created by the British as the administrative centre of their Burmese Empire in the mid-1800’s. While there already were a few villages in the area before their arrival, the British developed the land near the river. Enlarge the map above and you will see that what is now downtown is the area crossed by four or five streets following the river’s course. Along the shore, dock after dock would have been lined with merchant ships and military ones that did the business of Queen Victoria’s empire.
To no surprise, most of the street names on the map above are British in origin. The one I walked down from the left side of the map to the middle was called Dalhousie; you can see that it ends up at the Sule Paya before continuing on the other side. As the British planners laid out the street plan of their administrative capital, they made the Sule Paya the center or focal point.
The British street names are long gone though some guide-books still refer to some locations by their former colonial names. The street in the photo above was Dalhousie; it is now Mahabandoola (also Maha Bandula) Road.
In the distance to the east you can see the Sule Paya. The heat of the day had not yet kicked in so the three-kiolmeter walk from my hotel was quite pleasant. My initial impression of the city – i.e. the infrastructure – was positive. The city somehow works – just! Having essentially been abandoned by the military rulers a decade ago, the city has been left with serious sewage and water, electricity grid, and road issues. But even if it is not Zurich, it is still not the chaos of New Delhi either!
The paya has four entrances, one at each cardinal point, and sits in the middle of a traffic circle. The base of the paya complex is ringed by small commercial shops selling everything under the sun, including temple offerings and other more-temple related items. In the shot below I am framing the paya from the SE with Maha Bandula Garden behind me.
I entered by the north entrance, after watching a woman with a cage full of birds provide visitors with an opportunity to earn some spiritual merit – the Buddhist equivalent of what I knew as indulgences as a young Roman Catholic Christian. Passers-by can do this by buying one of the birds and setting it free! Not clear is if the birds later return to their cages or whether the seller must catch a fresh batch of birds for the next day. Both locals and tourists were stepping up to pay for the release of a bird or two.
After buying an entry ticket ($4 US) and leaving my shoes with a shoe keeper, I walked up the two or three flights of stairs to the main terrace. Thanks to my travels in Nepal, I then did what I have learned any good Tibetan Buddhist would do – I walked around the stupa in a clockwise direction on the still-cool marble floor. Watching monks and anyone Burmese walk in whatever direction they wanted soon had me thinking that it really did not matter here. By the end of the day and visits to two more temples I could confirm my observation – in Myanmar there is no correct direction to walk around a stupa!
I would soon be told, however, what did matter – and by an agitated Frenchman no less!
The central stupa – some 45 meters (144′) high – has a octogonal base with each of the sides being 7.3 meters (24′) long. The eight sides coincide with the eight “days” of the Buddhist week in Myanmar – well, the usual seven with Wednesday being divided into two to make for a total of eight. Knowing the day of the week you were born on is essential as it determines where you will be praying and seeking merit at the pagoda. Each day has an area – a planetary post – at the base of the stupa dedicated to it. The woman below is in front of the shrine associated with her birth day. In some of the pix that follow there are images of other posts and petitioners offering gifts and praying.
An essential part of most Myanmar Buddhist shrines is a recreation of the Bodhi Tree, the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama sat until he became The Awakened One, the honorific title Buddha meaning “He who is Awake”. I would find out that in Myanmar the overwhelming majority of statues of the seated Buddha depict him in a pose (or mudra) known as Touching the Earth. It represents the very moment that Siddhartha defeated decisively the temptations of Mara to forsake his mission.
You will notice that all those engaged in prayer in the presence of the shrine Buddhas have their feet tucked behind them. This is the way it is done in Myanmar. It was also something that I did not know until that Frenchman I mentioned above made it clear to me that my seating posture – I’ll call it an awkward quasi-lotus position! – was disrespectful. I was too stunned to reply and only later did I think of something I could have said – “Disrespectful – no. Can we agree on “not knowing” instead?” And so did the Buddha begin his mission to dispel ignorance and nurture wisdom and compassion!
Near the north entrance of the paya is a replica of a royal barge. Attached to a rope which you pull to wince the boat with your prayer card up to the top of the stupa where the card is dropped off. In this way your petition will be that much more likely to be seen and acted on! I did not find out the cost of this act of merit seeking but continued on my walk around the stupa, looking into various shrines on both sides of the terrace.
Again, as I stared at the figure above I wondered what his story was. Unlike anything i had seen in other Buddhist societies, he may represent a temple or shrine guardian if that is stylized armour on his body and a helmet on his head. The strands of gold handing from his ear lobes do have a Buddhist ring to them and perhaps indicate royalty.
I visited the paya before noon on a work day and was one of very few tourists walking around. As the images above show, there were also few locals. Something to keep in mind if you are planning to visit – during the day the stupas and temples are mostly lacking the atmosphere that hundreds of monks and worshippers add to the scene. That evening I would visit the Shwedagon Pagoda close to dusk and – as luck would have it on an auspicious full moon day. The atmosphere was electric! It was also a lot cooler and the stone floor was no longer hot to step on.
Another mystery that Google search has yet to provide me with an explanation for – who do these two egg-shaped heads belong to? Who is that figure standing in between them and what is his story? And what is it about clocks – most not working – at Myanmar shrines?
The Sule Paya sits in the center of the Yangon created by the British some 150 years ago. As it stepped out, I faced City Hall, that white European structure you see below. Not in the image but just south of it is a park, once called Fytche Square with a marble statue of the Queen at its center. The park is now known as Mahabandoola Park and the Queen has been replaced with an obelisk celebrating national independence! (Maha Bandula was the commander of Burmese military forces who died fighting the British in the 1820’s.)
Across the street from the Sule Paya and to the left of the city hall in the above photo is a Bengali Sunni mosque.
My visit to Sule Paya had lasted about an hour and was my on-the-ground introduction to Buddhism in Myanmar It was another of the many instances when the intellectualized and philosophical Buddhism that I thought to be the “real” Buddhism did not coincide with any one of the actual real-world Buddhisms of those who live it every day in their own way.
If there is a reason to travel, I guess that would be it – to be provided with opportunities to unlearn what you think you know. Sule Paya makes for a good first temple to visit on arrival in Yangon but it pales in comparison to the awe-inspiring Shwedagon. An upcoming post will take a look at this religious site – one of the Buddhist world’s greatest.
Next Post (coming soon): Shwedagon: Myanmar’s Most Majestic Buddhist Site