"A golden mystery...a beautiful winking wonder" is what Rudyard Kipling called this Buddhist shrine topped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires, and other precious gems. Domed like a bell, the Buddhist shrine, or stupa, is literally gold plated, using 8,688 sheets of the precious yellow metal.
Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist site has a mystical aura that attracts some 10,000 pilgrims annually. Shwedagon Pagoda, it is said, houses eight hairs from the head of the Buddha. When these were installed in their chamber, remarkable things reportedly happened: "Rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell...the earth quaked...the winds of the ocean blew...lightning flashed...gems rained down until they were knee deep...all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit."
The pagoda radiates from 60 tons of gold
pounded into thin leaves.
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Begun in the fifth century B.C., Shwedagon Pagoda has been rebuilt and enlarged over the centuries, with treasure added regularly. Bells of pure gold and silver (1,485 of them) hang on the hti, or umbrella portion of the stupa.
After a queen donated her weight in gold, her successor raised the ante to four times his weight, and these gifts were beaten into gold leaf to apply to the stupa. On each of the eight sides of the base stand eight smaller stupas, for a total of 64 swirling about the golden shrine. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed that the pagoda has a "merry-go-round style of architecture." He also said that it serves the throng of pilgrims as "a sort of sacred fun fair."
Four stairways lead to the stupa's upper terrace. After seeing the sight, Somerset Maugham said of the Shwedagon Pagoda that it was "glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.