Located In Yangon, Burma’s former capital Rangoon, are the three very first pagodas of what is nowadays called Myanmar. They were built by the Mon and the first of these three pagodas is the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s best known and most visited pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda was followed by the Botataung Pagoda and the Sule Pagoda. The histories of these three ancient pagodas begin sometime in the 6th century B.C.This was a long time before the first Burman/Bamar appeared in this area.
Today I will visit the Botataung Pagoda, which is arguably Burma’s second oldest pagoda and you are heartily invited to accompany me.
Here we are now, in front of the Botataung Pagoda at Botataung Pagoda Road in Yangon, the former Rangoon. To our right is the Strand Road from which we have come and to our left is the Yangon River its banks lined with jetties (the closest is the Botataung jetty), wharfs, warehouses, etc.
This pagoda’s history goes like the Shwedagon Pagoda’s and Sule Pagoda’s back to the early times of the Mon kingdoms; the times of the small fishing village Okkala (the later Dagon), Mon king Okkalapa and the merchant brothers Tapussa and Bhallika. I am sure that no one who has so far written about this pagoda can justifiably claim to know when exactly the Botataung Pagoda was built, by whom exactly it was built and why exactly this spot was chosen as location. Much too little is known in order to unearth the truth. It is all speculation what explains that there are various legends and stories about the origins and genesis of the Botataung Pagoda in circulation. Some of them seem to be more credible than others but this does not necessarily mean that they are true. As always, the answers to the a.m. questions (when, who, why) will most likely remain were they are; hidden behind the a curtain of myth and legends. Maybe that is better because facts are by far not as interesting as legends. Here is the story of the Botataung Pagoda as far as it is known to me.
Some 2.300 years ago a mission of 8 monks from India came to Dagon and brought some relics (one hair and two body relics) of Gautama Buddha with them. They were received by the Mon in grand style and a guard of honour comprising 1000 (tataung) military officers (Bos) escorted the monks with the relics to the place where the relics were enshrined and the Botataung Pagoda built. This is essentially all that is known about the early history of the pagoda. Then the curtain closes and nothing further is known about what happened in the period of time between the completion of the Botataung Pagoda and the year 1943. It is to be supposed that nothing happened beyond the usual, which is that people came to worship and perform devotional acts.
On 08 November 1943, however, this changes dramatically and the curtain in front of the Botataung Pagoda opens again with a mighty bang; bhooommm! After the smoke has dispersed and the dust has settled nothing but rubble is left of the old Botataung Pagoda. What has happened is that during an air raid of the RAF aimed at the wharves in direct neighbourhood of the pagoda the Botataung Pagoda fell victim to a direct bomb hit.
However regrettable it may be that the old (original?) Botataung Pagoda was destroyed the fact remains that the findings made in the course of the removal of the debris and the following excavations have most likely more than compensated for the loss of the old stupa structure. What most probably would never have been found without the pagoda’s being destroyed by the bomb was an ancient relic chamber over which the stupa had been built. According to records the relic chamber contained a golden casket shaped like a stupa that, in turn, contained a small golden pagoda on a silver stand housing the hair and the two body relics of Gautama Buddha, a large number of precious stones, some 700 gold, silver, brass, marble and stone Buddha statues, numerous miniature pagodas, stupas, shrines and pagoda htis of various sizes, and a large number of terra-cotta plaques. Some of these plaques have as it is said historically significant inscriptions in Pali and Mon language that do beyond all doubt prove that it was the Mon who built this beautiful pagoda. What else these inscriptions say I do not know. Maybe they could tell us more about the genesis and early days of the Botataung Pagoda when it was known as Kyaik-de-att in Mon language.
The new Botataung Pagoda stupa, the one standing behind the wall in front of us, is said to be built in the style of the one that was destroyed. However, three significant changes were made to the reconstructed stupa. One of them is that this pagoda stupa is made of concrete (and not brick or stone), the other one that the stupa is hollow (and not solid like the original one) and the third one that a large part of the treasures found is, including the Buddha hair relic, now displayed inside the stupa so everyone can see them. The other part of the treasure, the most valuable part of it, such as the two Buddha body relics and precious stones are locked away and cannot be seen by the public.
In 1960 another ancient relic was added to the Botataung Pagoda treasures. This is said to be a tooth of Gautama Buddha. The one king Alaung Sithu of Pagan failed to get from the former Nan-chao kingdom, now China’s Yunnan Province, in 1115 A.D. The Buddha relic was presented to the Botataung Pagoda by the Chinese government. This tooth, too, is locked away. In 1981 the Botataung Pagoda got yet another treasure, king Mindon’s Royal Palace Buddha Bronze Image. More to this later.
The construction work for the new pagoda started the very day Burma gained independence, on 04 January 1948. The wall to the right of the entrance is protected by a huge naga lying on top of it with her long body stretched over the entire lengths of the wall. The naga’s head is raised and the mouth is open. Ready to attack in defence of the pagoda. Oooooh, so frightening. The same over there with the wall left to the entrance.
OK, we go first into the small building in front of the wall of the pagoda compound to the right of the main entrance. There we have to pay our entrance fee and to leave our slippers. We have entered the pagoda compound now and in front of us is the entrance to the main stupa.
The pagoda platform is spread over a total area of some 221.830 square feet/20.608 square metre and the Botataung pagoda comprises the main stupa and a total of 18 pavilions surrounding the stupa. The pavilions are housing many Buddha statues of various sizes, eras and in different mudras.
The new stupa is resting on a square platform with a side lengths of 96 feet/29 metres and is 131 feet/40 metres high. As for the design pattern it is like the Shwedagon Pagoda. 1. The base of the Shwedagon stupa, a cone-shaped structure that gradually tapers towards the top, is a flat supporting block called plinth. 2. On top of this follow rectangular terraces (paccayas). What follows are 3. octagonal terraces (shit-mhaungs), 4. the bell (khaung laung pone), 5. the turban band (baung yit), 6. the inverted alms bowl (thabaik mhauk) with lotus petals, 7. mouldings (phaung yits), 8. the Lotus throne (1 row down-turned lotus petals, kya mhauk, and 1 row up-turned lotus petals (kya lan), 9. the banana butt (nga pyaw bu), 10, the umbrella (hti), 11. the cone, 12. the vane and 13. the diamond orb (sein bu) on top of the vane.
Before we go inside the main stupa we turn left and go over to the large artificial lake (well, actually it is an oversized pool/pond). Now we are standing in front of the ‘lake’ and you can see that there is a superstructure comprising a bridge and an island-like platform built over the surface of the water. There is a water fountain to the right of the bridge and in the water are hundreds, maybe thousands of small turtles and fishes constantly fed by the visitors of the pagoda for good luck. At festival times you can here at the beginning of the bridge buy small fishes (young catfish) to set them free in the pool what will also bring you good fortune. The bridge is covered with a tired roof (pyatthat) that is embellished with decorative bargeboards. The same goes for the Botataung Pagoda Guardian Nat Shrine on the platform.
After having crossed the bridge we have now arrived at the nat shrine. In front of us in one part of the shrine we see the life-sized Botataung Bo Bo Gyi and in the other part the female nat Mae Daw. Every Buddhist Pagoda in Burma has a Bo Bo Gyi guardian nat but here in Yangon the three most revered Bo Bo Gyis are the one of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the one of the Botataung Pagoda and the Sule Pagoda Bo Bo Gyi. These nats are very important not only for protection of the pagodas but also for the devotees.
You can see many worshipping people here because Bo Bo Gyi nats can as you already know fulfil wishes and make dreams come true. From the mountains of flowers, pagoda umbrellas, fruit baskets and other gifts as well as the banknotes (in the hand of the fully extended right arm) donated to and arranged around Bo Bo Gyi by devotees you can see how much they venerate Bo Bo Gyi and how deeply they believe in this guardian nat and his supernatural forces.
It is time to return to the main platform and continue our Botataung Pagoda circumambulation. Leaving the bridge we see to our right a Bodhi tree guarded by nagas that are placed on the octagonal walling around the foot of the tree, behind that the Hamsa Prayer Pillar and behind that in direction entrance a smaller stupa. I am not sure what it is but it could be a scaled down model of the main stupa.
We continue our walk clock-wise around the stupa along the structures to our left. The Buddha statues they are housing are of course worth being looked at but we will go to see the what I believe to be for Burmese Buddhists most precious Buddha Image here; and that is Buddha’s Bronze Image of the Royal Palace in Mandalay. The statue is in the building on the northern side of the platform. And that is exactly where we are going now. While we are walking please look to the right in direction of the main stupa. There you can see the planetary posts placed at the cardinal points around the stupa with people performing their cleaning ritual for good fortune.
We have almost reached the building with the Royal Palace Buddha Bronze Image and on our right hand side you see the pagoda bell hanging between the two whitewashed pillars. The bell was completed on 05 May 1913 and has survived the bombing without damage.
Here we are inside the building and over there is the Royal Palace Buddha Bronze Image. The hall has beautifully with mirror glass mosaic decorated walls, ceilings and pillars throughout.
Now you want to know what it is that makes this Buddha image so special for Burmese Buddhists, right? Here is the answer. By order of king Mindon this Buddha image was cast in his palace in Mandalay. The material used was a mixture of gold, silver, bronze, iron and lead. It is said that some not further specified sacred relics of Gautama Buddha were consecrated by king Mindon and then enshrined in this statue that became known as the ‘Royal Palace Buddha Bronze Image’ also called ‘Royal Glass Palace Bronze Image’.
Following the annexation of upper Burma by the British in January 1885 and king Thibaw’s and queen Supayalat’s being exiled to India the British took the Buddha Image to London and exhibited it in the Victoria and Albert Museum were it was kept for some 66 years. After being granted independence by the British effective 04 January 1948 the Burmese government requested the restitution of the Royal possessions taken from the Mandalay Palace by the British. The British government fulfilled the Burmese request and on 17 June 1951 the Buddha image arrived in Rangoon. From 16 May 1981 on the Botataung Pagoda is home to the Royal Palace Bronze Image.
Now we leave this building through the vestibule and walk back to the main stupa in order to take a close look at the interior where a part of the Buddhist treasures unearthed during the excavation after the bombing of the old Botataung Pagoda is displayed.
We have reached the main entrance to the interior of the stupa and walk through the door at the top of a short flight of steps. And now we are in a maze of narrow walkways with very high ceilings. All walls and ceilings are completely covered with intricately carved and gilded floral and Buddhist motifs. It is truly amazing. The matt glossy gilded surfaces of the walls are protected with glass panes.
A few yards into the hollow inner of the stupa we stay in front of a donation box and the walkway is parting into one leading to the left and one leading to the right. We take the left one and turning constantly left right, left right we follow the zigzack course of the walkway. Although the air-condition is running noisily at full blast the air in the stupa is warm and stuffy. To our right are many small triangular bays for private prayer and to our left (the outer wall of the stupa) glass showcases in which the Buddhist treasures are displayed.
In front of the glass showcases are century-old and ugly rolling-and claws grids covered with generations of paint coatings. These grids are providing protection and security. Another problem is that the glass panes in front of the exhibited objects are often not clear. My personal opinion is that this is not the most attractive way to display these ancient treasures Buddhists are so proud of to the visitors but maybe others see nothing wrong with it. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the feeling triggered by looking at these ancient Buddhist treasures is very hard to describe; awesome may be a fitting term.