One of the most prominent symbol of Burma and landmark of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is also known as the Shwedagon Paya, Golden Pagoda and its official name is Shwedagon Zedi Daw.
The Shwedagon Paya is 98m tall bell shaped stupa gilded in gold leaf and houses the sacred relics of 4 previous Buddhas making it one of the most sacred sites in Burma. It is believed to be 2500 years old although archeological evidence suggests that it was constructed between the 6th and 10th century. However, there is certainly a possibility of an earlier structure and related to local folklore of its existence before the time of the Buddha.
In 1824 during the first Anglo Burmese war, the British used the Shwedagon Paya as a fortress and inflicted much damaged during their two years occupation. During the Second Anglo Burmese War in 1852, the British captured Shwedagon Paya again and this time, the western side of Shwedagon Paya was used by the British military till 1930.
As a Burmese Buddhist institution, Shwedagon Paya reflects Burmese Buddhist art and Burmese cultural beliefs. It has been built and rebuilt many times and the current style dates to the 1786 reconstruction. Mythical beings from Burmese culture decorate many of the entrances and building structures. Around the main structure are shrines of 9 planets where people can pray to the one that corresponds with their day of birth.
Many Burmese contributed gold to gild the main stupa and also money, time and effort to expand and to maintain the place.
Shwedagon Paya is also a showcase of world Buddhist culture. There are many stupas and shrines around the main stupa. These are maintained by Buddhist of different traditions and cultures and reflect the architectural styles of these traditions.
At the southwest corner are 2 temples managed by Chinese Buddhists. One of them is related to the Chinese Merit Association and has a Jade Buddha inside. There other one has a Buddha in a typical Chinese monastery style complete with a pair of lions guarding the entrance and a pagoda for burning of offerings.
Shwedagon Paya is a major tourist attraction and is a must see in Yangon. However, the less obvious aspect of Shwedagon Paya is its showcase of diverse Buddhist culture. It is another example of how Buddhism expanded across cultural domains with a set of objective and not rules and how different Buddhist traditions developed in response to their local culture while embracing the common central teachings of Buddhism.