Pilgrims circled Shwedagon Pagoda, their voices hushed. I walked with them. The tiles were still warm from the heat of the day’s sun, which has now set. The air smelled of incense, frangipani and jasmine flowers—all a part of the religious rituals being performed at altars and mini-temples surrounding the base of the pagoda. The golden pagoda towersed hundreds of feet above us, making me feel insignificant. There was a soft chanting. A faint bell chimed nearby.
Shwedagon Pagoda is both the geographical heart and religious soul of Yangon, the capitol of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Theravada Buddhists—who make up 89% of the population of the country. Its golden spire can be seen from all over the city. I had come to join the pilgrims and experience Shwedagon at sunset. Every day at dawn and at dusk thousands of pilgrims visit the pagoda, walking in a clockwise direction around its base, praying, burning incense, and taking part in religious rituals.
Around the base of the pagoda, small altars with statues of the Buddha inside are light up with what look to me like disco lights. At regular intervals, corresponding to the directions, were shrines dedicated to astrological animal symbols representing days of the week—elephant (Wednesday), snake (Saturday), rat (Thursday), guinea pig (Friday), owl (Sunday), tiger (Monday), and lion (Tuesday). In Myanmar astrology is very important—everyone knows what day of the week they were born on and which animal they need to pay tribute.
It was here at Shwedagon Pagoda, in 1988, that Aung San Suu Kyi—now the iconic symbol of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, known affectionately as “The Lady”— held her first political rally. On August 8th of that year pro-democracy marches turned violent as the military government cracked down on protesters. Many died over the course of several weeks of rioting. Accurate death counts are difficult to find or verify because of the government’s censorship laws. The Lady had just recently returned to Myanmar after decades in the UK. She is the daughter of General Aung San, who contributed to Burmese independence from the British and was a national hero. The story goes that on August 26th, after the violence had dragged on, she paid an unannounced visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. As she circled the pagoda along with hundreds of other pilgrims people recognized her and began following. She addressed a rally of hundreds that day, calling for a democratic government. However in September the military seized control again in a coup détat and in 1989 they put her under house arrest, forbidding her from running for any kind of government office. Many feel that the seeds of democratic reform were planted that summer in 1988, known as the 8888 Uprising—numerology is very popular among the Burmese and the significance of the date was important. The democracy movement would see another two more bloody decades to see the fruition of its efforts.
I found the shrine of the guinea pig, which is Friday’s deity, the day I was born. I tried to do what others were doing: I poured water from the large basin over the heads of the two Buddha images, one was gold and one appears to be made of wax. Then I poured water over the head of the guinea pig statue below the basin. No one laughed at me, but I later learned later that I was supposed to do this eight times for each statue.
“Have you seen the diamond?” asked a monk in a crimson robe as I stand contemplating the now illuminated spire of the pagoda.
“No” I said, a bit confused.
“Come here” he said and took me to an un-marked spot on the ground. “Stand here and look up”
I looked at the pagoda and see a tiny, shimmering light. If I moved to one side I could no longer see it. Emma Larkin, in her book Everything is Broken, writes about how the wives of the military generals would have their priceless jewels inlaid into the pagoda tower because it was such a holy place. Many were blown off during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, a storm that killed thousands in Myanmar. She describes how the grounds around Shwedagon were littered with diamonds. This must be a diamond that remained intact.
“Where are you from?” the monk asked me.
“My grandfather lived in Seattle. He was born there but returned to Myanmar”
I thought to myself how even as recently as a few years ago this conversation would have been illegal. This monk could have gone to jail for talking to a foreigner. Recent political reforms have eliminated such restrictions. However the people Myanmar seem to be waiting and watching: holding their breath to see if the changes are going to stick. The most frequent response by our guide, Win, when asked about democratic reforms, was: “We will see.”
I thanked the monk for sharing the diamond with me and head out of the pavilion from the West gate, near where The Lady held her speech in 1988. The future appears bright for Myanmar, although many say that much more democratic and economic reform is needed. Economic will also bring economic globalization—Western food chains and mass tourism—both of which will alter the country indelibly. Whatever happens in Myanmar, Shwedagon will endure.