Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rangoon: Extracted from Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma (3)


In a town like Rangoon, never the seat of the native Burmese Government, and a capital established by the British, where at the present day only about one-third of the inhabitants are Burmese, it is natural that there should be fewer structures dedicated to religious purposes than in say, Mandalay, or any of the more ancient capitals of Burma. This, accordingly, we find to be the case ; Rangoon can show but few great Buddhist shrines, monasteries, or temples, whilst the number of monks and novices resident in such few monasteries as exist, are in nothing like the large proportion we find in Mandalay, Sagaing, and every more purely Burmese town. But if, for a Burmese city, Rangoon is deficient in religious buildings, in one pre-eminent respect it far outshines them all; in the possession of the greatest and holiest of all Burmese shrines, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, renowned and revered thoughout the whole of India, China, and indeed throughout the Buddhist world at large.

The term pagoda, probably a corruption of the Sinhalese Dagoba (Pali Dhatu-gabbha, relic-shrine), is commonly, though incorrectly, applied by Europeans to the innumerable cone-shaped structures with which the whole of Burma is studded, and share with the monasteries the function of foci in the religious life of the people. The correct designation is the Pali Cetiya or Thupa, and the vernacular title, Tsedi, is a corruption of the former word. The Thupa originated, of course, in India, where, in the time of the Buddha, it was customary to erect such a structure over the remains of any very powerful ruler or very holy personage. It is probable that this custom arose from the still more ancient cairn, a rough pile of stones erected over the graves of great men in the earliest ages of the history of humanity, but however that may be, the Thupa has now come to represent for all Buddhist peoples, the tomb of the Buddha, and hence the symbol of Nirvana; whilst its more modern form has been explained to synthesise the five fundamental forms symbolic of the five elements—the cube for earth, or rather for solidity ; the sphere for the air, or rather mobility; the cup or lotus-bloom, the crescent form emblem of undulating water or fluidity; the pyramid of fire, or heat radiant vibration ; and the surmounting ovoid of the matrix of all things, typical of the akasa, the space element or ether, the ''vast emptiness" wherein the lower four elements exist in ceaseless flux of being or becoming. Over all is set the seven-tiered canopy of dominion, the symbol of the lordship in, the truth of him whose passing away the Thupa commemorates, itself the emblem of the mind attained, the conscious wisdom dominating all the universe.

From the primordial form, synthesising these five elements with mind as the sixth, the beauty loving and artistic-Burmese mind has evolved a national and distinctive type of which no better instance than the Shwe Dagon exists, a type in which predominates throughout, not the harsh outlines of sphere and, pyramid and cube, but those graceful open curves, parabola and hyperbola, which enter so largely into eyery product of Burmese art. The pagoda, it will be understood is a solid mass of masonry or brickwork, but somewhere along the axis of the cone, generally somewhat raised above the level of the ground, there is built a small hollow chamber, the true Dhatu-gabbha or relic repository. In this chamber are placed various religious objects, such as bodily relics of the Buddha, or other sanctified personage, books sometimes composed of inscribed leaves of gold and silver, portions of the Buddhist scriptures being thus preserved for so long us the Thupa shall remain inviolate and lastly, images of the Buddha, jewels and other precious objects, offered as votive gifts by the constructor of the shrine.

Shwe Dagon owes its especial sanctity to the circumstance that it is supposed to contain, in its interior shrine, relics of all four of the Buddhas of the present aeon: the alms-bowl of Kakusandha, the robe of Konagamana, the staff of Kassapa, and eight hairs of Gotama, the Buddha of history. The tradition of its foundation, remarkably supported by no less an authority than the Pali Scripture itself, runs to the effect that, in the time of Buddha Gautama that is, of the historical Buddha—there lived in Ramannadesa, now called Lower Burma, two merchants, brothers, who in past lives-had been devout lay-; followers of the past Buddhas. At the time when, by the supreme enlightenment ot Gautama-Buddha, the way of peace was once more opened for humanity, these two merchants—Taphussa and Bhallika by name-came trading into the middle country, and on the very day of the Buddha's enlightenment, they found him seated beneath the Bodhi tree. To him they made offerings of cakes and honey, of which the master having partaken, they offered themselves as followers of the two precious things the Buddha and his Dhamma (for the Sangha had not yet come into existence). Thereupon the teacher gave them the hair-relic, and instructed them to carry it wherever they went, until a sign' should be given to them that the spot on which they were to enshrine it was high. Obeying him, they presently returned to their native land ; and the predicted sign indicated to them the Singuttara Hill, the site of Shwe Dagon as the place in which the relic was to be enshrined. This spot was selected by reason of its sacred associations with the three previous Buddhas; and, having duly enshrined the hair-relic, together with those of the previous Buddhas, they built over them the original Thupa, which the story tells us was hut eighteen cubits high.

The structure of the Thupa permits of successive additions to the covering shrine being made without altering anything but the size, and in this manner the small original Cetiya of the merchant-brothers was added to by various subsequent rulers of the land, notably the queen Shin-Saw-Bu and the king Shin-Byu-Shin, until it attained its present colossal height of 324 feet, with a perimeter at the base of 1.355 feet. In 1871 a new hti, the canopy of dominion crowning the whole structure, was made by the then King of Burma, the great and wise Mengdon Min at a cost of seven lakhs of rupees, and was mounted in the time-honoured Burmese fashion amidst immense enthusiasm. This hti, which in illustrations of the pagoda appears so trivial in size, consists of a framework of successive riggs or crowns of iron, diminishing in size to the uppermost, each of them, as well as the "lotus-bud" and vane which surmounts the whole, being thickly covered with gold-plate and studded with gems, the whole hti being 47 feet high. It is further hung with a great number of gold, and silver bells, arranged so as to ring when stirred by the wind, never lacking at that high altitude; and, as the author of "The Silken East" has well observed: "No gleam of their jewels ever reaches the human eye. And one cannot but recognise the nobility of sentiment which underlies this matter. ... It is only in Burma, often accused of superficiality, that men put a great ransom in jewels where no eye can testify to their splendour."

The whole fabric of the Thupa is gilded, by public voluntary offerings, once in a decade or two; and the last important addition to the decoration in this kind occurred only a few years ago. It had been found that the surmounting ovoid cone, which bears the hti, exposed as it is at that great height (it is the highest point for many miles around) to the constant action of wind, and in the rains to that of water as well, would lose its covering of gold leaf, and stand out black and giltless against the sky long before the rest of the pagoda required re-guilding: whilst its position rendered it impossible of access save whilst the bamboo scaffolding, set up for the general re-gilding of the pagoda, was in use. The trustees of the pagoda therefore issued an appeal to the people, and within nine months sufficient gold and funds had been collected to cover this structure-about the same height as the hti and much larger in surface with beaten plates of solid gold, attached by a network of metal strip.

The pagoda stands on a slight eminence the outlying peak, really, of one of those parallel mountain-ranges, which run from north to south of Burma to the north of the modern city, and the summit of this hill has been carefully levelled into a wide square platform, on which the lavish generosity of Burmese Buddhists has erected a whole small city of religious structures resthouses for accommodation of the monks, who here, on holy days, are invited in great numbers to receive the offerings of the laity and to preach the law; others, where the laity assemble on the Buddhist "Sabbath-days," to spend their day in meditation and devotion at their holiest shrine; small Thupas, each with its own history: great sweet-toned bells, the larger each in its own housing chapel, which the visitor strikes with a deer-horn or wooden billet when his devotions are completed; tall ta-goun-daigns great posts, bearing on the summit the wooden figure of the garula, a mythologic bird which in the Burmese legends takes the place of the roc of Arabian story; models, built up of rock and stone, richly coloured, of several of the more renowned of Buddhist sanctuaries; and numbers of little shrines, glorious in gold or mirror-work mosaic, or ornamented with the beautiful moulded plaster-work, characteristic of Burmese art, from the interior of each of which the white alabaster sedent figure of the great teacher sitting as beneath the bodhi-tree, in the first ecstacy of supreme enlightenment-smiles inscrutably through the shadows on his thronging worshippers without. Last, but not least, the four cardinal points are marked by four great chapels, wherein lights and incense-stick are always burning before gigantic Buddha-rupas, where devotees assemble to testify their devotion to him, whom all these glories commemorate that greatest teacher of the Aryan race, "who never spoke a harsh or an angry word;" who passed, nigh on twenty-five centuries ago, into the final peace, the incomparable surety of Nirvanah, whereto he had shown the way. Even in the whole of ornate Asia, there is nothing to compare with this city of the great pagoda for lavish splendour, and yet perfect harmony and taste. The countless buildings, splendid in the warm brown of the teak-wood, or flaming with choice vermilion and gold, softened into harmony by the intense sunlight of the East; the wonderful carvings, each delineating some scene from the great teacher's life, or other story dear to Burmese hearts from childhood's days; the graceful tall ta-goun-daings, vying with the palm trees, which the truest shall point heavenwards; the sweet tones of the great bells, the exotic scent of the great piles of rare flowers offered by the worshippers ; the utter calm, the certitude of knowledge hid behind the smiling mystery of the master's images ; and, beyond all, background to it all as death is background to all life, and if the law here taught be true, as the great peace is background even to life and death alike the vast gold fabric of the Shwe Dagon, its faultless upward-tending curves, standing out clear and sharp against the deep blue sky. All this constitutes a picture which the visitor to Rangoon does not soon forget.

When one has depicted Shwe Dagon so far as so significant a structure can be pour-trayed in space of a brief article one has described also almost every other shrine in Burma, for Shwe Dagon unites and synthesises all. Beyond it also, as has been said, Rangoon is ill-provided with religious structures, so little here remains but to give the names of such few others as are of renown. Next to Shwe Dagon comes the Cula-Cetiya (Burmese Sule) commonly termed by Europeans the Sule Pagoda. This structure stands in the middle of the modern township, forming the decorative centre of Fytche Square; the legend of the Shwe Dagon indicates the site of it as the spot where the two merchant-brothers bearing the hair-relic landed, for in those ancient days the sea spread over the low-lying land. There are several great kyoungdaiks, or groups of monasteries, within the town limits; besides these, there is the Wingaba, or sacred lake, and the colossal image of the Buddha, known as Nga Dat Gyi.

to be continued...

Source: Twentieth century impressions of Burma: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources by Wright, Arnold (1910)
Digitized and Rekey by NLS


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