The great Shwedagon Pagoda (or the Shwedagon Zedi Daw ([ʃwèdəɡòʊɴ zèdìdɔ̀]) or Great Dagon Pagoda) dominates the skyline of Rangoon. It glows gold in the sunlight and can be seen from miles around. According to legend, it may be 2,600 years old, but archaeologists believe it was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. It is one of the most profound Buddhist sites in Burma because it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama. As such, it attracts the devout from throughout Myanmar and other Buddhist countries. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and the organization that runs it has modernized and runs a web page
The Shewadon is built on a broad platform on Singuttara Hill. The hill is north of downtown Rangoon but easy to reach. There are four main approach entrances, with long stairs leading up to the temples. In the old days, you removed your shoes at the base of the stairs and climbed up barefoot.
This is an interesting 13 May, 1945 photograph showing British soldiers at one of the entrances (public domain photograph SE 4108 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, taken by No. 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wackett, Frederick (Sergeant)). Note back then they left their boots but they took their rifles. Times have changed! Today, the south entrance has a modern lift, and you have to go through an X-ray machine and have your bags scanned, similar to an airport. No rifles this time.
The Great Dagon is immense. It is hard to appreciate the scale until you walk around. My father took these Kodachromes in 1957 with his Leica IIIC rangefinder camera with a 5cm ƒ/2 Summitar lens. Most of the palm trees blew over when Cyclone Nargis crossed the Irrawaddy delta on May 2, 2008. This was one the most devastating weather disaster to ever strike the country, and at least 146,000 people are believed to have been killed. Today there is only one palm tree left on the summit plateau.
As of November 2014, the Shewadagon was being re-gilded. Craftsmen, who come from Mandalay, set up bamboo scaffolding. Then they coat the stone and brick with natural lacquer from the Thit-si tree. The lacquer may be mixed with ashes. It waterproofs the stone, resists insects, and forms a base for the gold leaf. The bamboo is better then steel because it is light, flexible, grown locally, and quick to erect and take down. They use nylon rope or ties at the bamboo junctions. The pagoda needs to be re-gilded about every 5 years.
One of the tasks that the devout perform is washing Buddha every evening, as well as washing the slippery marble paving.
The expanse of marble is slippery and hard on the feet for us soft Westerners.
Now for the topic of this essay: everyone, but everyone, takes selfies or portraits today. "Hi folks, look, here I am in front of Buddha, in front of the Shwedagon, next to a dragon."
Despite the crowds, you can find a quiet spot and take a nap. Well, maybe you need to be a monk. Regardless, this is one of the most profoundly sacred sites for Buddhists in Burma, and is a premier tourist site as well. Go at dusk and watch the changing of the light.
The 1957 photographs are from Kodachrome film with a Leica IIIC. The 2014 photographs are digital from Panasonic G3 or Fuji X-E1 cameras, with RAW files processed in PhotoNinja software. I drew the map with ESRI™ ArcMap software.