Shwedagon at Dawn
By Khin Khin Lay
Photos: Sonny Nyein
The doors of the Shwe-dagon pagoda opens at 4 am and as soon as you step on the pagoda platform under the deep blue velvet sky, it seems as if you have been suddenly transported to a palace out of a fairy tale. The lights on the Shwedagon, donated with public funds and individuals, throw into high relief the gold stupas, the gold images, the gilded carvings, and the tapering spires of the roofs that disappear into the dark sky. All is quiet; the early birds are hardly awake yet and there are only a few uncertain chirps to be heard here and there. The gold bells on the umbrella tip of the pagoda's spire tinkle in the wind and the sounds drop to the floor in sweet music.
The few rare pilgrims step softly on the cool marble floor, carrying flowers or prayer beads or even fruits to offer to various images. Some are already busy at family pavilions built by ancestors, and they sweep out the shrines, change the flowers of yesterday to fresh ones, dust the image with a soft towel or to polish a bronze one to a yet higher sheen.
New shrines or pavilions had not been allowed to be built on the Shwedagon platform for many
decades, so as to preserve what walking space there is for devotees so it is a great prestige to have a shrine on the Shwedagon, harking back to firm roots in the religious and social scale of one’s forefathers. Some shrines with no family left to care for them do not go into decay, as the pagoda trustees make sure that every nook and cranny and every single image is cared for properly.
There are nooks and corner galore on the Shwedagon. Some shrines are almost hidden in caverns that you reach only through a narrow door, or some images are placed in niches high up on a wall. All are properly maintained and it is a common sight to see lone mediators sitting in peaceful isolation in front of these hidden shrines to seek their truth undisturbed. Grandmothers mediate in a corner of a pavilion while sleepy grand daughters keep them company.
The pavilions that lie behind the main shrines that line the pagoda platform are amazing halls full of huge and small images, or they are just tiny stupas with a hollowed niche wherein one could hardly see the golden image enshrined inside. The decorative motifs of the shrines, pavilions, arches, entrances and thrones are a diverse wonderland of ogres, dragons, lions, tigers, celestial beings, magical Zawgyi, the forest dwelling healer in their red robes, Keinnari bird people look in the eerie glare of the lights as if caught frozen in mid step.
By 5 am the platform is almost busy with pilgrims. A group of men dressed in white and women dressed in dark brown make a round of all four main pavilions set at the four points of the compass, carrying the early dawn food offering called Ah Yon Soon, which is also offered to the members of the Sangha. Here, the fruits and rice cakes are in honour of Buddha, as they follow a man in their group blowing on a conch shell. The deep vibrating sounds of the conch shell waft over the heads of the devotees already kneeling in prayer in front of their particular birth corner.
The eight cardinal points of the compass make up the eight planetary positions symbolising the days of the week. The number is eight and not seven because Wednesday has two symbols, one, the tusked elephant for those before noon and the elephant without tusks, considered a gentler creature, for those born after. Other days of the week have their own symbols such as the Garuda bird for Sunday, Tiger for Monday, Lion for Tuesday, Hamster for Thursday, Mouse for Friday and Dragon for Saturday. People pray at the planetary posts for the day of the week they were born upon, offering water for peace, candles for intelligence and flowers for a sweet life. The candle flames flicker and sway in the cool morning breeze.
Slowly the sky lightens. Birds are wide-awake and calling frantically to each other. More devotees arrive, but all stepping slowly, without the happy chatter one hears at midday. The magic of the dawn seems to have worked on them, so that even the lone woman sweeping the already sparkling marble floor look wrap-ped in her own thoughts. The stars fade as the sky turns Wedgwood blue, increasing pale by the minute until it is a mere aquarelle wash of cobalt blue with streaks of white clouds as thin as silk. Against the changing colours of the sky stands the lit spire of the Shwedagon shining like a beacon over the awakening city. Once again another day dawns and yet again Shwe-dagon Pagoda casts a spell on all who come to worship and wonder at its glory.