Came an atheist, left a believer
By Aswathy Kumar
It was probably the first thing I saw as I exited the Yangon International Airport. I was nervous. I had bid farewell to my friends and my home back in DC and was stepping now into a mysterious land that I knew nothing about. But something about the 325 foot golden stupa that towered over the entire skyline of Yangon told me that I was going to be just fine. And as long as this gilded shrine stood watch, no harm was ever going to come to me in its land.
In the days that passed, I saw the Shwedagon Pagoda several times; from the glass window of my hotel room, every time I drove past it to reach downtown and even when I shifted into my new house, almost an hour away away from the Ar Za Nir street, where the pagoda was located. I saw it every single day and I could sense the strange feeling of guilt starting to rise within me. After all, it had been more than a month since I treaded it's very streets, a month since it welcomed me, embraced me and yet I had still not found time to pay homage to the shrine that epotimised the very warmth and serenity that defined the city of Yangon. I knew it was time, time for the much awaited divine rendezvous.
A Divine Intervention
Though the pagoda is open for tourists from 6 am to 10pm, it is best recommended to see the Shwedagon during sunrise and sunset. Because it is at these times one can see the golden pagoda glimmer in all it's glory, thanks to the 1800 carat (76 being the largest) diamond orb located at the top, comprising 4351 diamonds that captures the rays of the sun, reflecting it beautifully and making the entire stupa glisten in the light. So following my friend's advice and to save myself from Yangon's scorching heat, I arrived at its footsteps at 5.00 pm, almost an hour before sunset. I had waited too long and I wasn't going to miss seeing the shrine at it's very best; just before, during and after sunset.
Just like most temples back in India, here too, the very first thing we had to do was remove our slippers before entering. But unlike temples back home, here there were no angry guards to yell at me or discard me as a mere sinner when I accidently treaded into its premises with my slippers on. (Even after living here a whole month, the locals' lack of aggression and plentiful amount of patience still seem to amaze me). There was no shouting and no angry stares, but just a polite gesture to remove my slipper and place it in my handbag before I went in through security.
The locals' lack of aggression should never be misunderstood as a sign of weakness and it should always be remembered that the pagoda is a place of worship
Despite the lack of aggression, it must be noted that this place is sacred and must be approached with utmost respect. Though it is absolutely fine to wear jeans and t shirts, one is expected to dress modestly keeping their arms and legs covered and nothing short or disrespectful is permitted. The entry for locals was free, but we had to pay an entry fee of $5 (8000 kyat) each. What was amazing was that despite being one the most visited attractions in Myanmar, seeing over 1000 tourists every day, there were no long queues, unecessary security check points or chaotic traffic jams at the entrance, making the entry as peaceful as the tiled premises encircling the pagoda.
There are several entrances to the shwedagon pagoda. If you don't mind a bit of a climb, you can chose between the over hundreds of steps on the south, west, north or eastern entrance (south being the most preferred and having the least number of steps). Though the shopoholic in me, would have preferred to take the eastern entrance that houses a number of souvenir shops, tea stalls and interesting bazaars, the mommy in me decided to stick to the easiest option of taking the elevators at the southern entrance. And though I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on all the shopping, I was glad to find myself right at the footstep of the 150 year old Bodhi tree.
A total of five Bodhi trees planted all around as early as in the 1926 is regarded with utmost respect and reverence by the locals and the monks alike. And I couldn't help but consider myself lucky when one of the locals handed me a leaf from the Bodhi tree. It was only once I was handed the leaf did I realise that there were hardly any fallen leaf to be found lying around. Thankfully I was able to get just about three more for my friend, my daughter and my husband and couldn't help but think of it as a sign acknowledging and accepting my arrival.
Though one might need a guided tour to completely understand the significance and the story behind each of the innumerable gilded Buddha statues and hundreds of temples spread across the sprawling 114 acre sacred land, our little group of three chose to simply walk around to absorb the sanctity of this architectural wonder and grandeur of the several Buddha idols. But despite having a detailed map of the the Shewdagon and the entire evening, it was still not enough to offer our respects to the various Buddha images (The Padashin Buddha, Saetawmu Buddha, Sun-Moon Buddha, Shin Saw Pu's Buddha, Chan-Thar-Gyi Buddha, Dhamazedi Buddha, Shin Ma Htee's Buddha, and my personal favorite the Jade Buddha carved out of one piece jade and weighing a total of 324 kgs, to name a few) housed in the different prayer halls.
Just after sunset, one can see the thousands of oil lamps circling the shrine, glimmering to life
However what we did have time for, was to simply marvel the sight of the thousands of oil lamps circling the shrine glimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of the hundreds of monks praying in the the gigantic shadows cast by the golden pagoda that towered over them and listen to the bustling of devotees as they offered flowers and washed the statues asking for forgiveness for their past sins and wishes for a prospective future.
I was no devotee, my knowledge of the spiritual world rather limited to a few chants and rituals passed on from my grandmother and great grandmother, yet I couldn't help notice the feeling that had begin to well-up within me as I washed the planetary post that represented the day, my daughter was born. I wasn't sure how many times I was to wash the Buddha idol, the image of the guardian angel and the image of the animal that represented the day (I was only told much later that I was to do it 9 times). I wasn't sure which mantra I was to chant. All I did know was that something changed within me as I sat cross legged engrossed in the sheer beauty that stood in front of me. I knew right away...I may have treaded into its premises an atheist, but was leaving a believer.