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Shwedagon Pagoda on Singuttara Hill

Date of Submission: 06/12/2018
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture
State, Province or Region:
Bahan Township, Yangon Region
Coordinates: N16.798356 E96.149705
Ref.: 6367
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Description

The Shwedagon Pagoda, situated on Singuttara Hill in the center of Yangon (Rangoon), is the most sacred Buddhist stupa in Myanmar and one of the most important religious reliquary monuments in the world. The proposed property includes the hill atop of which the main stupa is located, the hill-top reliquary stupa and associated religious buildings and sacred statuary, bells, and other emblems situated on the hill, as well as the hill’s surrounding sacred perimeter.  The proposed property comprises a total area of 46.3 hectares.

According to local chronologies dating from the14th century CE, the Shwedagon is believed to enshrine the bodily relics of the historical Buddha, Gautama, as well as artifactual relics purported by long tradition to be associated with the three other most recent previous Buddhas of our present era (kalpa).The enshrined relics include: eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama Buddha, as well as a piece of the robe believed to have belonged to Kassapa Buddha, a water filter attributed to Konagamana Buddha, and the staff of Kakusandha Buddha.

The formal name of the Shwedagon Pagoda is ShwedagonZedi Daw, which translates as The Great Golden Mountain Stupa.

The stupa's plinth is made of bricks covered with genuine gold plates and the main stupa itself is entirely covered in gold, adorned with a crowning umbrella encrusted with diamonds and other jewels. Following a tradition began in the 15th century by the Queen Shin Sawbu (BinnyaThau), who donated her weight in gold to the pagoda, Buddhist devotees from all walks of life and all regions of Buddhist Asia, as well as monarchs throughout Burma’s history, have donated gold to the Shwedagon in order to maintain the monument, and in so-doing gain merit in this life and in future lives.

There are four covered monumental stairways leading from the four cardinal directions from the base of Singuttara Hillup to the main stupa. On the ascent to the main stupa, these stairways give access to three intermediary terraces, or platforms (pisssaya).On these platforms are located circumambulatory walkways around the hill punctuated with Buddhist monasteries and community lecture-cum-prayer halls (dhammayons). The main golden iconic reliquary stupa is located on the fourth, uppermost terrace/platform, surrounded by numerous pavilions and shrines, large bronze bells, and other decorative features related to Hindu-Buddhist iconography. The spatial siting of the attributes within the site is organized following a system derived from Hinducosmology, indicated by cosmic pillars surrounding the central main reliquary stupa, which mark the planetary positions within the zodiac.  The design of the site is an intentional recreation of the Hindu-Buddhist cosmos, reflected on earth.

Buddhist devotees circumambulate the hill and its stupa in a clockwise direction, beginning at the eastern directional shrine, which houses a statue of Kakusandha, the first Buddha of the present era (kalpa.) Next, at the southern directional shrine, is a statue of the second Buddha, Koṇagamana. Next, at the western directional shrine, is that of the third Buddha, Kassapa. Finally, at the northern directional shrine, is that of the fourth Buddha, Gautama.As the devotee circumambulates the stupa, s/he recites sacred prayers either silently or aloud, there by “turning the wheel of the law” and contributing to the propagation of the immutable, unchanging laws of the universe (dhamma) as revealed and taught by successive Buddhas.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Shwedagon Pagoda on Singuttara Hill is an outstanding example of the transformation, over time, of the funerary reliquary stupa (tumulus) enshrining relics of the Buddha(s) into a center of pilgrimage and cult veneration.

According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Currently scholarly research by historians and archaeologists indicate that the pagoda was first built between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. 

Subsequently, the stupa fell into disrepair until the 14th century, when King Binnya U (1323–1384) rebuilt it to a height of 18 meters. A century later, Queen BinnyaThau (1453–1472) raised its height to 40 meters. She terraced the hill on which it stands, paved the top terrace with flagstones, and assigned land and dedicated hereditary workers for its maintenance. Her son-in-law undertook a series of significant repairs and renovations to the Shwedagon. An in-situ inscription catalogues a list of repairs beginning in 1436 and finishing during Dhammazedi's reign. By the beginning of the 16th century, the Shwedagon Pagoda had become the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma, and one of the most frequented pilgrimage destinations among the wider Buddhist community of South and Southeast Asia.

A series of earthquakes during the following centuries caused some damage to the pagoda, the worst of which was a 1768 earthquake that brought down the top of the stupa, but King Hsinbyushin (1763-1776) later raised it to its current height of 99 meters. A new crown umbrella was donated by King Mindon Min in 1871 after the annexation of Lower Burma by the British, increasing the height of the monument to its current 112 meters.

Over time, many shrines have been added to the site. The stupa atop Singuttara Hill is now surrounded by hundreds of monasteries on three terraced platforms (pissaya), imparting to the site the form of a three-dimensional mandala (representation of the cosmos). The property contains the hill, its encircling levels and monasteries, covered staircases, a uppermost platform with pavilions, bells, planetary posts and astrological directionality, upon which the central stupa accessed through four devotional halls (ayongantazaung), oriented to the cardinal directions.

With a traditional history dating to the time of the historical Gautama Buddha (ca 6th century BCE) and a recorded history since the 14th century CE, the Shwedagon on Singuttara Hill has sustained and evolved a unique expression of the timeless Buddhist teachings inspired and energized by the cosmological significant of the hill as a sacred place.The numerous structures on the hill, notably the reliquary stupa, but also includingthe directional devotional halls (ayongantazaung), monasteries, pavilions and donation halls on the ascending terraced platforms (pissaya) have stimulated and sustained the distinctive and outstanding repertoire of artistic expressions, the intent of which is to propagate, through tangible, didactic expressions of devotion, the sublime, ageless teaching of the Buddha(s).

Criterion (i): TheShwedagon Pagodaon the summit of Singuttara Hill is a unique masterpiece of Buddhist architecture, adapting a natural hill, imbued with sacred significance since time immemorial, into one of the most iconic historic Buddhist stupas of the world. The four broad covered staircases rise across three intermediary platforms lined with hundreds of monasteries and donation halls encircling the ascending levels of Singuttara Hill. Emerging onto the white (45 meter-wide) marble curve of the upper platform (5.66 hectares in area), the tall spire and sky open out to frame the pathways and the shrines that surround the iconic golden stupa (112 meters high). The integration of the hill, the monasteries, the stupa and the art and architecture of the platform pavilions embody the creative genius of Buddhist teachers in the design of public space where pilgrims can participate in communal rituals, chanting sermons and silent prayers, connecting the physical icon and the intangible experience.

Criterion (ii): The traditional history, the architectural development and the artistic features of Shwedagon Pagoda demonstrate an important interchange of Buddhist architecture, art, and iconography with South Asia over several centuries. From the time of overland journey, recorded in traditional chronicles, of local merchants to India and their return by sea to deliver the hair relics of Gautama Buddha, the stupa has been the focus of domestic and international pilgrimage. Decoration, design and spatial arrangement embody the design debt of the Shwedagon to South Asian prototypes, fused and embellished with locally significance repetitive reliquary endowments (gifts of buildings, statuary, and other material) intended to enhance the veneration of this traditionally sacred place. The decoration of the pavilions on the ascending platforms (pissaya) on the approach to the topmost stupa narrate numerousAsian religious texts, notably those depicting the life and previous lives of Gautama Buddha, in his search for enlightenment – a spiritual journey re-enacted by all devotees who visit the Shwedagon.

At the Shwedagon can also be seen marks of conflicts and conquest Upper and Lower Myanmar in the 15-16th century, during British occupation of the hill in the 19th to early 20th century, and the Independence movement before and after World War II. These are indicative of the prominent role of the Shwedagon in the region’s inter-twined political and cultural narrative.

Criterion (iii): The Shwedagon Pagoda bears an exceptional testimony to a continuing religious and socio-cultural tradition integrating Buddhist teachings and a traditionally sacred place. The Singuttara Hill is located on the southern tip of the lateritic BagoYomarange-- an elevated site in the seasonally flooded delta bordering the Gulf of Mottama. This location imparted to the site a special significance from earliest pre-Buddhist times. The symbolic as well as physical importance of this place is reiterated and reinforced in the cardinal and sub-cardinal division of the terraced platforms (pissaya) that have been constructed to modify the hill for religious use. Planetary posts to the Sun and Moon, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, and the mythical planet Rahu ring the 432.4-metre perimeter of the central stupa with additional directional and astrological significance found in all areas and corners of the uppermost platform. Other spiritual dimensions are embodied in cult statues such as that of the comforter figure of Bo Bo Aung, which demonstrate the provision of individual as well as communal spaces on Singuttara Hill.

Historically, the hill and stupa embody the inseparable relationship between royal and religious priorities, arising in the 15th to 16th century battles between Burmese and Mon kings with the victor traditionally placing his crown on the upper terrace/platform of the Shwedagon to signify rule of the nation.

Criterion (iv): The form of the Shwedagon has become the prototype for stupa design within Myanmar and abroad. It is the direct descendant of the Shwezigon stupa of 12th century CE Bagan, keeping the basic form of the bell and lotus leaves while modifying the form of the upper octagonal and circular terraces and the ornamental umbrellas on top (hti)and replacing the staircases with satellite stupas on the first square terrace. The spatial experience of the Shwedagon space is intensified by the ascent up the shaded covered stairways onto the wide top-most platform on which the main stupa is located, open to the sky. The movement of pilgrims and visitors on the circumambulatory walkways around the central stupa and in front of and inside numerous shrines defines a meaningful and fluid architectural space that separates the stupa from its surrounding spatial envelope. The outer rim contains over a hundred religious structures, numerous bells and other devotional objects, and many sacred trees. On the northwest edge of the platform is a chute to discard and re-cycle offerings (of flowers, candles and incense) into new images sold in aid of the pagoda’s sustenance. The development of many architectural norms such as the tiered roof (pyat-that), wooden sculptural reliefs, glass-mosaic work and the art of bell-casting have been stimulated and enabled by the continuous patronage of the Shwedagon.

Criterion (vi): The activities at the Shwedagon Pagoda express tangibly the living tradition of the veneration of relics, a specific cult tradition that has early origins in the history of Buddhist devotional practice, and since the 14th century has held a central and widespread role in Buddhist worship throughout all regions of South, Central, East, and Southeast Asia. In terms of global correspondence, comparison may be made with contemporary Christian and Islamic devotional practices related to veneration of relics of saints.

At the Shwedagon, the individual and communal Buddhist practices of the devotees are incontrovertibly associated with the monumental expression of the stupa situated atop the Singuttara Hill. Pilgrims choose their route, typically circumambulation, veneration of the images of the four Buddhas of this era (kalpa), wish-offering at planetary shrines and obeisance to cult images. The ensemble illustrates the seamless mixture of the propagation of canonical teachings, the practice of meditation, devotion to popular cults, and belief in numerology and astrology.The multiple, fluid pathways of each pilgrim over centuries have created and sustained an intangible heritage unique to the Shwedagon Pagoda on Singuttara Hill.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Integrity

The boundaries of the property, which correspond with the historic Singuttara Hill, containing the encircling terraced platforms, focused on the central stupa, surrounded by monasteries, numerous pavilions, significance structure indicative of the site’s cosmological orientation, four covered staircases oriented to the cardinal directions, and a circumambulatory platform have preserved their original integrity and all essential characteristics of the pagoda as originally conceived and construction, as well as its evolution, expansion and embellishment over the centuries. The exceptional combination of a natural hill imbued with both symbolic values and geographical significance, combined with the iconic architectural built form of the Buddhist stupa provide a convincing in-situ re-creation of a sacred mandala (representation of the Hindu-Buddhist cosmos) with the sacred Mt. Meru located at its center.

Successive enlargements and embellishments in form and design, added throughout the Shwedagon’s long and continuing history as a center of Buddhist veneration, devotion and pilgrimage, invariably maintain the highest standards of artistic quality and Myanmar traditional workmanship, building an organic ensemble of unparalleled harmony. While having lost some of its earlier uncontested dominance on the skyline of Yangon due to construction of modern high-rise towers in the distance, the Shwedagon retains command of the viewpoints in all directions afforded by the Singuttara Hill. In order to protect the integrity and to ensure a higher level of conservation, the buffer zone and a larger setting area includes the Shwedagon Pagoda Environ Protection Area already designed by Yangon City Development Committee. This area is bounded by Dhamazedi Road to the north, the railroad on the south, Baho Road on the west and incorporates Kandowgyi Lake on the east.

Authenticity

The nominated property meets the required conditions of authenticity as it has maintained its cultural value for centuries. Form and design are still preserved, notwithstanding the restorations and additions which have occurred over time.  The main stupa, encased repeatedly over time, has maintained the form attained in the 15th century enlargement  Repeated gilding has ensured the material conservation of the original brick structures, while strengthening the pagoda’s capacity for expressing and communicating its intangible religious and spiritual values. The history of these historical renovations are meticulously recorded in on-site inscriptions that give dates and other details about various important donations to the pagoda, intended for its upkeep and maintenance.

All of the intact features of the property are well-preserved and have maintained their original use and intended function as places that enable the religious veneration and devotional practices of the site, These practices continue in a unbroken, uninterrupted tradition since the foundation of the pagoda, thereby ensuring the original spirit and feeling of the place is still truthfully expressed at present.

The continuous management and preservation of the original geography of the pagoda’s location on Singuttara Hill and, importantly, the protection of the pagoda’s setting and prominent location within the landscape (including protection of visual sightlines from the far distance in all directions), ensure the traditional cultural values attributed to this sacred place are retained and continued to be credibly expressed and communicated to Buddhist devotees and pilgrims, as well as to the larger community of inhabitants of present-dayYangon city.

Comparison with other similar properties

The World Heritage List and various Tentative Lists of countries within the same geo-cultural region contain various categories of properties of Buddhist religious significance that could be compared to Shwedagon.  An indicative table of possible comparative sites include:

TABLE OF COMPARATIVE PROPERTIES

Stupa

Location

Reliquary

Hilltop

Date (approx..)

WH Status

Shwedagon

Myanmar

yes

yes

14th c. CE

proposed for Tentative List

Ramagrama

 

Nepal

yes

no

6rd c. BCE

Tentative List

Sanchi

India

yes

no

2nd c. BCE

Inscribed

Sri DaladaMaligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic)

Sri Lanka

yes

no

18th c. CE

Inscribed (as part of Kandy)

Swayambhunath

Nepal

yes

yes

16th c. CE

Inscribed (as part of Kathmandu Valley)

Bauddhanath

Nepal

yes

no

16th c. CE

Inscribed (as part of Kathmandu Valley)

That Luang

Lao PDR

yes

no

16th c. CE.

Tentative List

Phra That Phanom

Thailand

yes

no

14th c. CE

Tentative List

PhraPathommahachedi

Thailand

yes

no

6th c. CE

---

Phra That DoiSuthep

Thailand

yes

yes

14thc.CE

Tentative List (as part of Chiang Mai Lanna)

Wat PhraMahathatWoramahavihan

Thailand

yes

no

13th c. CE

Tentative List

MahaBodi

India

no

no

5th c. CE

Inscribed

Borobudur

Indonesia

no

yes

8th c

Inscribed


Notwithstanding similarities to other properties, the Shwedagon Pagoda stands out for several reasons:

The Shwedagon is a Buddhist reliquary stupa that presents a very distinctive architectural form and purports by tradition to enshrine relics not only of the historical of Buddha, Gautama, but also relics associated with three previous Buddhas, making it distinct from other Buddhist reliquary stupa that contain relics of only Gautama Buddha, or mark locations associated to specific events in the life of Gautama Buddha.

Furthermore, differently from many well-known stupas (e.g. Sanchi and Borobudur) that have already been inscribed as World Heritage properties, the Shwedagon Pagoda is still part of an active living Buddhist community that continues since the time of its founding with subsequent architectural enlargements over time reflecting the sustained faith of Buddhist and other practitioners.

Finally, the Shwedagon Pagaoda presents a mature stage of stupa design that also carries distinctive cosmological significance coming from Indian tradition but evolved into an original local manner. This particular relation between the architectural ensemble and the practice of veneration allow the Shwedagon Pagoda to stand out in comparison with other stupas still in use both in the region (Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR).