History Of Rangoon (Yangon) And The Shwedagon Pagoda

The origins and genesis of Rangoon, at the time of this writing since 26 years called Yangon, are a mixture of legend, mystery and proven historic reality. The Yangon of today is in a manner of speaking a completed puzzle the pieces of which come from different times, different political situations, different political and religious events and different places. These ‘pieces’ that were essential to Yangon’s coming to be in both legend and reality are the Mon Kingdom Suvannabhumi, the Mon King Okkalapa, the small fishing village Okkala (later Dagon), the holy Singuttara hill, relics of 4 Buddhas including those of the present Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, the merchant brothers Tapussa and Bhallika from Okkala, Taninganway Gyo Min, king of the celestials also called Thagyamin, Sularata, also called Sule nat (guardian spirit), the Mon queen Shinsawbu, the Burmese King Alaungpaya and several other successive Mon and Burmese kings of different eras, the Shwedagon Pagoda and, of course, most importantly the British.

The histories of Rangoon/Yangon and the Shwedagon pagoda are inseparably intertwined and the coming into being of one required and/or made possible the coming into being of the other. It is safe to say, that without the Mon, Yangon and the Shwedagon pagoda (just as so many other things) as we know them would not exist in Burma and without the British, Yangon (the original beautiful British Colonial Rangoon part) would certainly neither have its present townscape nor its importance as port city and economic hub.

OK, let me now travel back in time, get more specific about the ‘puzzle pieces’ and put them together by telling you the following amazing story that has its beginning long before the Pagan dynasty emerged in the late 9th century under the Pyu king Thamudarit.

As legend has it, it all began way back in the mists of history and legend of the 6th century BC, more precisely around 585 BC, with the small settlement of Okkala founded by the western Mon who at that time had already established earliest southeast Asian civilisations, cultures and kingdoms in the areas of present times Mon State as well as along the southern border between Burma and Thailand and in south Burma’s fertile delta region, namely, the Bago Division, Yangon Division and Pathein District (Ayeyawaddy Delta) with their later main centres being Thaton and Bago. Assuming that Siddhartha Gautama was born between 563 BC and 483 BC and further assuming that he became Buddha at the age of 35, which would be between 528 BC and 403 BC, a year between 590 BC and 580 BC can be the correct period in which our story begins. Back then the area where Okkala was built was – like most of the south coast area – low lying and often swampy land.

The Mon king Okkalapa lived at the time in question in close vicinity of the 58 meter/ 188 ft high Singuttara hill, which – as legend goes – was already at that time a for Buddhist sacred hill because somewhere hidden on its top were relics of the 3 Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha. These relics were the ‘taunghmwedaw’, walking staff of the 25th Buddha Kakusandha, the ‘yesittaw’, water filter of the 26th Buddha Konagamana, and a piece of ‘yethanauttaw’ the bathing robe of the 27th Buddha Kassapa, enshrined. By the way, the hill’s name Singuttara goes, again according to legend, back to a giant centipede that lived here and whose staple food were elephants the tasks (in Pali ‘singa’) of which he used to pile up high (in Pali ‘uttara’) atop the hill, thus, the name Singuttara is derived from ‘singa uttara’. OK, back to the story.

King Okkalapa now had 2 big problems that caused him quite some headache. Firstly, he had despite his intensive searching for the Buddha relics no idea where exactly they were hidden and, secondly, he knew that the Singuttara hill would lose its sacredness if not soon a new Buddha would appear and add a gift from him to the relics of his predecessors. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do but to sit on the hill and pray that the next Buddha would not come into existence too late and that he would find the place where the relics of the former Buddhas were hidden in time.

One day when king Okkalapa was again meditating and praying on top of the hill Siddhartha Gautama, who had just attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Lumpini park (North India) miraculously appeared in front of him telling him not to worry. He promised to fulfil king Okkalapa’s wish for a gift from him and disappeared to meditate for 49 days under the Bodhi tree. After that – at the end of the 49th day – he gave the brothers Tapussa and Bhallika – merchants by profession and from Okkala – who had come to meet him 8 ‘hsandawshin’ (sacred hairs) from his head (four hairs for each of them) in exchange for the first gift he accepted as Buddha: honey cakes.

So, now the first problem, the missing present from the new Buddha, was solved and the brothers who were now Gautama Buddha’s first 2 lay disciples had to bring them safely and as quickly as possible to their village Okkala in order to hand them over to their king. However, their journey back home did not go as well as hoped for; on the contrary it was pretty adventurous and in the true sense of the word they lost same hair. When they, finally, arrived back home they had been robbed of 4 of the originally 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha; 2 were robbed by Nagarajah, the king of the water-dwelling Nagas (identical with Varuna, the Indian Vedic god of storms) and 2 by an Indian Madra king of Aryavrata, which – when we try to lend some reality to the legend – could have been either king Karmapala or King Vikramapala (the latter succeeding the former) since they were in this period reigning one of the kingdoms in the north-east of India.

Be that as it may, Tapussa and Bhallika reached Okkala with only 4 hairs of Gautama Buddha left – or so they thought. The brothers were already eagerly awaited and welcomed in grand style by their king Okkalapa and a multitude of people. But the casket with the hairs was not opened immediately. First, the second problem, the finding of the place where the relics of the 3 Gautama Buddha preceding Buddhas were enshrined, needed to be solved. Although Gautama Buddha had given the brothers some information as to where this place would be by telling them to find a tree trunk balancing on a peak in such a way that neither end touched the ground this was not an easy thing to do because the hill was covered with dense forest. Now help from supernatural beings was urgently needed. Thagyamin, the king of the celestials was asked. He quickly cleared much of the forest and reduced the possible place where the legendary Buddha relics were buried to a smaller area but the exact spot they were searching for he could not find. The decisive clue was, finally, provided by the oldest of the nats (spirits), Sularata, the Sule nat, and there was great joy amongst the nats, Mon king Okkalapa and his people when the place with the relics of the previous Buddhas was, at long last, discovered.

If you think the pinnacle of unbelievable wondrous events has now been reached you are wrong; just wait and hear what else legend has in store for you.

A big feast was prepared and took place for the enshrinement ceremony; now the right time for opening the casket had arrived. The very moment the casket with Gautama Buddha’s hairs was opened incredible miraculous things happened. Oh, wonder, all 8 hairs (and not only 4) were in the casket and emitted light rays that lit up the earth. There was a rumble, the ground was shaking, Mount Meru shook, all trees in the Himalayan exploded prematurely into full bloom and bore fruits, while lightning flashed and a downpour of gems started. All of sudden the deaf could hear, the lame could walk, the dumb could speak and the blind could see. Wow, just imagine – with the a.m. in mind – how many problems it would solve when the casket would be opened again for just a short time. No, I do not mean to be funny and I am not quite sure whether this was a fitting remark either; it just came to my mind.

So, now I am approaching the end of this more mysterious part of the early history of today’s Yangon and the Shwedagon pagoda. With great pomp and circumstance Buddha’s hairs were enshrined and the first some 8 meter/some 27 ft high multi-walled Pagoda was built over the shrine.

It is nowadays accepted that it is almost certain that – even though there is no proof of it – the Dagon was completed in early 588 BC. at a time were Buddhism was (in the area of today’s Burma/Myanmar) practised only in the Mon kingdoms (long before king Anawrahta of Bagan made it state religion sometime around 1050 AD). At the time of completion the Dagon Pagoda was very modest, of relatively small size and the outer wall of the pagoda was made of iron bricks. The gilding of pagodas began much later around the year 1453 AD with the Mon queen Shinsawbu; more about this later. For this reason the first Dagon Pagoda did certainly not leave the impression that the later Shwedagon pagoda is leaving and which e.g. Rudyard Kipling described as “… a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun” or today’s majestic Shwedagon Pagoda but it was, is and will always be Burma’s first and most revered pagoda.

Soon after the first Dagon Pagoda (later Shwe Dagon or Shwedagon Pagoda) was built king Okkalapa changed the village name Okkala to Dagon. Here is why; The word ‘Dagon’ that is used only for a pagoda that is placed over portions of Gautama Buddha’s body such as his flesh, teeth and hair is derived from the Sanskrit terms ‘dhatu-garbha’ or ‘Dhagoba’, meaning ‘relic shrine’ and since the Dagon Pagoda, erected over Gautama Buddha’s hair relics, was part of the village he named not only the pagoda but also the entire village ‘Dagon’.

There is no doubt that the history of the Shwedagon has its beginning around 585 BC but all that is known about this stems from hearsay and oral accounts for which reason it is as mentioned before at this point in time not provable that the first Dagon Pagoda was completed in 588 BC; it can as well have been a few years earlier or later. However, from the earliest reliable record of the Shwedagon pagoda’s existence from the 11th century when king Anawrahta of Bagan visited the Dagon Pagoda on, to stone inscriptions from 1485 (written in Mon, Pali and Burmese by order of Mon king Dhammazedi) and later records, the fog of early mythical origin legends that was till the 11th century obscuring most of historical reality is gradually beginning to clear and give way to later factual history, which will now make up the second part of my story about the history of present days Rangoon/Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Let me continue with the first half of the 1300s AD. In this time it gets quieter about the Dagon Pagoda and the pagoda is not maintained well. But from 1362 on the Shwedagon Pagoda irrevocably takes first place in degree of prominence and importance amongst Burma’s pagodas.

1362 Mon King Banya U of Pegu renovated and raised the Dagon Pagoda to a height of 20 metres/66 ft.

1436 Mon queen Shinsawbu starts to renovate and enlarge the Dagon Pagoda. She terraces the Singuttara hill, paves the top terrace with flagstones, gives the pagoda its present shape, raises it to a height of 40 metres /131 ft and begins to gild the stupa with gold leaves made of an amount of gold equalling her body weight of 40 kg/88 lbs. From this time on the Dagon Pagoda becomes the Shwe Dagon or Shwedagon Pagoda (Shwe means gold, Dagon means relic shrine, thus, Shwe Dagon). In 1460 the queen retires from Pegu to Dagon to a place opposite of the pagoda. She has the northern stairway leading up to the Shwedagon built, and in 1471 she dies.

1472 Mon king Dhammazedi continues queen Shinsawbu’s work. He once again raises the Shwedagon Pagoda’s height to 66 m/217 ft and donates an amount of gold equalling 4 times his body weight plus the weight of his wife to further gild the stupa. He completes the work in 1485 and has three stone inscriptions on the Shwedagon Pagoda’s eastern stairway erected. The inscriptions are describing the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda since the time of Gautama Buddha and a list of the works done at the pagoda from 1436 to 1485. The inscriptions are written in three languages, namely Mon, Pali and Burmese.

1612 Self-appointed Syriam king (actually mayor of Syriam) Philip de Brito y Nicote, a Portuguese mercenary, raids the Shwedagon Pagoda and steals Dhammazedi’s great bell.

1756 Burmese king Alaungpaya captures Dagon adds some nearby settlements (Alone, Pabedan, Kyauktada and Botataung) to it, changes the name Dagon into Yan-Koun Mrui (meaning ‘End-of-strife’, ‘Run-out-of-enemies” or ‘The-end-of-war’) and also makes Yan-Koun Mrui – at this time still a small village – his principal port in preference to Syriam on the other side of the river in the shadow of which Dagon had so far stood.

1757 Yan-Koun Mrui is after the destruction of Syriam and its port by king Alaungpaya beginning to very gradually gain importance as sea port.

1768 King Hsinbyushin of Ava re-builds the entire stupa of the Shwedagon pagoda that was brought down by a heavy earthquake and raises it to a height of 99 metres/325 ft.

1779 King Singu Min successor and son of king Hsinbyushin donates the 23-ton Maha Gandha Bell to the Shwedagon Pagoda.

1824 British troops occupy Yan-Koun Mrui and the Shwedagon Pagoda after winning the ‘Battle of Rangoon’ in the first Anglo-Burmese War from 1824 to 1826. The Shwedagon is during the period from 1824 to 1826 used as a fortress and the Singuttara Hill as military encampment.

1827 Rangoon is returned to Burmese administration after the Treaty of Yandabo.

1841 Yan-Koun Mrui, with houses composed of the cheapest and frailest materials such as wood and bamboo is almost completely destroyed by a devastating fire. The village is rebuilt with the same materials that are peculiarly liable to destruction by fire, and King Tharrawaddy Min of Ava donates the 42-ton bell ‘Maha Tissada Gandha’ and 20 kilograms/44 lb of gold plating to the Shwedagon Pagoda. His chief queen, Min Myat Shwe, has the western stairway leading up to the Shwedagon built.

1850 Yan-Koun Mrui, still comprising only wooden buildings, is again almost completely destroyed by fire. King Pagan Min, son and successor of king Tharrawaddy Min, builds city walls (actually just stockades) as defence against British troops.

1852 British troops again occupy Yan-Koun Mrui, the Shwedagon Pagoda and the whole Pegu province during the second Anglo-Burmese War, annexing Lower Burma after winning the war and make Yan-Kon Mrui (at this time still a swampy, scattered settlement), now Rangoon, capital of British Burma. The Shwedagon Pagoda is again used as a fortress by the British troops. The pagoda becomes the central stronghold for the defence of the town and the Singuttara Hill a military encampment.

1853 British establish the port of Rangoon. Since much of the old city is destroyed they do now – after draining and dredging the sinking, swampy land – start to construct a new city (actually the very first settlement that deserves to be called city) along completely new lines with the Sule Pagoda being the exact centre based on a longish east-west stretching geometric grid plan and a block system, design by army engineer Lt. Alexander Fraser of the Bengal Corps of engineers, each block 800 ft by 860 ft/244 by 262 metres intersected with regular streets running east-west and north-south.

There are 4 types of roads and streets; broad roads, wide broad roads, mid-sized streets and narrow streets. The broad and wide broad roads are given names, such as Montgomery Road and the mid-sized and narrow streets are given numbers such as 37th Street. Rangoon’s development is executed under the guidance and supervision of the Public Works Department.

The conceptual sketches for Rangoon are prepared by William Montgomery who has a certain experience from the planning of Singapore. These sketches are then further elaborated by Alexander Frazer. The city development’s underlying guideline is the classical idea of architecture, which is that symmetry gives order, order gives harmony and harmony gives beauty. The period of a very rapid and unprecedented economic growth of Rangoon is beginning.

1871 King Mindon Min of Mandalay, capital of the still independent northern part of Burma (kingdom of Burma) donates a new hti (umbrella) for the top of the Shwedagon Pagoda’s stupa. The ceremony is attended by a multitude of people. In my opinion his donating the hti was less motivated by gaining merits than by openly demonstrating his disregard for the British authority.

1874 Rangoon municipality is constituted by the British.

1879/80 Rangoon is detached from the main ‘Hanthawaddy District’ and formed into a separate district. At this time British colonial Rangoon has (beginning in 1824) been developed in not even 30 years from a scattered settlement of minor significance, at best, into a thriving and buzzing economic hub as seaport of British India surpassed only my Calcutta and Bombay.

1885/6 British troops occupy all of Burma (now including the remainder of the Burmese Kingdom in Upper Burma with capital Mandalay) after winning within about 2 weeks the 3rd Anglo-Burmese war. They rename it Burma and it becomes part of British India. Rangoon is made capital of the Province of British India. This means that the provincial government of Burma in Rangoon is administratively bound by instructions from the central government in Calcutta (India), which, in turn, is directly administered by the imperial government in London.

1922 The City of Rangoon Municipal Act as part of the Burma Act is enacted.

1929 On 29 March the control over the Shwedagon Pagoda is returned to the Burmese by the British.

1930 Shwedagon Pagoda is slightly damaged by earthquake with centre at Pegu.

1931 Much of the Shwedagon Pagoda area is severely damaged by a serious fire that starts at the foot of the western stairway and quickly spreads upwards to the structures on the upper terrace.

1933 Mingaladon Aerodrome Rangoon is built.

1937 Rangoon is made capital of all Burma that is separated administratively from India and given a good measure of self-government.

1942 Rangoon is occupied by the Japanese.

1945 Rangoon is retaken by the British and American Forces.

1947 Rangoon International Airport is completed.

1948 Rangoon is after gaining independence from Britain capital of the now independent Union of Burma and almost all English names of streets, parks, lakes, etc. are changed into Burmese names. Burma’s was released into independence as agreed upon in a contract negotiated between Bogyoke Aung San (who is, although still subject to British veto, already de facto Prime Minister of Burma) and the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee during a meeting in 1947 in London.

1989 Rangoon is named Yangon by the Burmese government and the country is named Myanmar without the consent of the Burmese people.

1999 Shwedagon Pagoda stupa gets a new hti (umbrella).

2005 Rangoon (now called Yangon) is losing its status as capital of Burma (now called) Myanmar when the government is moving into the new capital Nay Pyi Taw.

2012 Shwedagon Pagoda has 2.600 years anniversary festival

From 1853 to 1937 the British have built a completely new Rangoon (now Yangon proper) comprising streets, roads, avenues, bridges, culverts and surface drains, a sewage system, water reservoirs, water supply pipeline net, pump works, electric cable cars, hundreds of colonial masonry buildings (198 of them being on the Yangon City Heritage List) composed of administrative government and state buildings as well as buildings from significant mostly foreign enterprises and religious buildings such as churches, office buildings, government offices, general post office, central telegraph office, banks, embassy buildings, a museum, theatres, cinema, clubs, warehouses, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, prisons, hotels, banks, schools, colleges, universities, courts, markets, departmental stores, city hall, residences, railway stations, harbour, ship-building yards, engineering works, canals, zoological garden, horticultural garden, golf course, rice mills, slaughter houses, burying grounds, etc. interspersed with parks, lakes, cricket grounds, horse racing course and tree-lined streets with electric lights British Colonial Rangoon had at the beginning of the 1900s also a fully functional infrastructure and public services comparable with that of European capitals. Colonial Rangoon was an architectural masterpiece also called ‘The Garden City of the East’ and its population has grown from some 40.000 in 1853 to some 450.000 in 1937.

The British made Rangoon a key player in the network of international commerce and finance thus Rangoon was Burma’s most sophisticated and important city as capital, financial and economic centre and hardly distinguishable from most of the port cities in Asia and elsewhere. Most of Rangoon’s inhabitants (about 2 third) were foreigners, namely, British, Indians, Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, French, Germans, Americans, Jews, etc. but not Burmese. Today’s Yangon is still a hotchpotch of different nationalities and races for which reason neither the past colonial Rangoon nor the present Yangon could and can be seen as part of the real Burma. However, British Colonial Rangoon has played a decisive role in and for Burma’s history and has become integral part of it.