Dominating the landscape: the Shwe Dagon Pagoda

Jean Cocteau, the French man of letters and esoteric films, was among many so-called celebrity tourists who traversed the crescent from British India through British Burma, British Malaya and on to British Singapore during the heady days of the 1930s.

The enfant terrible of French literature, Cocteau stopped briefly in Rangoon (modern-day Yangon) and for the first time experienced ‘an amalgam of India, Burma and China’. He saw his first Chinatown and visited an opium den. He also took in the great Shwe Dagon pagoda which he claimed was ‘in the same class as the Acropolis, the Castel Sant’ Angelo and the Pyramids.’

The first sight of the symbol of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, and which officially changed its name in 1989, is one which cannot fail to impress. Whether it really deserves to be placed in the same category as the likes of the Acropolis and the Pyramids as Cocteau would have us believe is down to individual taste.

Although it no longer dominates the city landscape as it once did, the Shwe Dagon’s gilded spire remains visible from many vantage points.

Approaching it from almost any direction you just know this is indeed the centre of Burmese Buddhist life. Sheer size is where it achieves its presence, as well as the ornate work which adorns everything from ceilings to walls. A lot of people with a lot of time on their hands clearly spent a great deal of that time engaged in enriching the tapestry making up the internal attractions of the Shwe Dagon.

The pagoda was lucky to have survived the ravages of the Second World War. When the British prepared to flee Rangoon in early 1942, they were determined to deny the invading Japanese anything of value.

So, while the defeated British governor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith and his aide-de-camp hurled billiard balls through the portraits of past governors in Government House, other British and Anglo-Burmese troops, officials, and businessmen were intent on a more constructive form of denial, setting fire to much of the city. The religious buildings around the Shwe Dagon went up in flames and the pagoda itself barely escaped the arson.

Unlike the British, the Japanese occupiers attempted to curry favour with the Burmese and, in particular, the monks, by making generous donations to the Shwe Dagon during their period of occupation.

The Shwe Dagon is not just a magnet for tourists, who are charged US$5.00 for the privilege of entering the main centre of the shrine, but is still the main place of worship for many local Buddhists.

At the south entrance my friend and I sat on steps off to the side to watch the late afternoon visiting parade. Also sat on the steps was an attractive Burmese lady eating a strawberry ice-cream in a cone.

I smiled. She smiled, and proffered the half-consumed treat. I declined with a smile. I’m not much for ice-cream at the best of times, especially half-eaten ones.

The lady asked, in halting English, from where we came. We told her and then I asked her name.

“Thiri,” she replied.

“How old are you,” I asked.

“Twenty-eight.”

Thiri was dressed in the conservative Burmese fashion: a long, figure-hugging, floral skirt, and blouse firmly buttoned up.

I asked if I could take her picture. She seemed pleased and replied in the affirmative.

When I showed her the picture, she decided it wasn’t a very flattering result and insisted I take a second version. Thiri arranged her hair and smile and was pleased with my second attempt.

A Burmese man appeared before us. Thiri smiled and said, “My boyfriend.”

He didn’t look especially impressed at finding his girlfriend chatting amiably with two foreign men old enough to be her father.

He didn’t quite scowl, remaining passably civil, although I suspect Thiri was in for a stern lecture on the predatory potential of aging foreign male tourists. Perhaps it’s fortunate he didn’t see her trying to entice us with an ice-cream.

Another man joined them and he became the chief interlocutor; probably because he had no need to feel a threat to his masculinity.

Thiri and her boyfriend and friend soon bade goodbye and moved off into the depths of the pagoda.

By the time we left, a number of traffic police were on duty directing the numbers of people making their way in and out of the southern entrance of Shwe Dagon. I imagine in a few years the locals will almost be outnumbered by tourists, but for now we visitors are very much in the minority.

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