The Legend of the Rangoon Pagoda (Mythical Depiction of Shwe-Dagon Seti)
“Neither the shrine itself, nor the relics, nor images are the objects of the adoration of the pious. The Burman, it cannot be too much urged, is not an idolater. He worships neither relic nor image. The pagoda and the figure only supply him with a seemly place to utter the praises of the great Buddha, and to form resolutions to imitate, as far as he can, the charity and the sinless life of the great model.” – Sir. J. George Scott (Shwe Yoe)
At the end of the last world-period five lotus-buds sprang up on the Theinguttara Hill, where now the Shwe Dagon pagoda stands. They opened their leaves and disclosed each of them within its chalice a thengan, the holy yellow robe of the monastic brethren. Then a huge bird settled on the top of the hill and laid an egg, and from this was presently hatched the kalawaik, the carrying bird of Vishnu, which sized the sacred garments and flew up to the heavens. This was an omen foretelling the appearance of five Buddhas in the present world cycle, and accordingly the universe which had existed in the preceding kalpa was shortly afterwards destroyed, with Mount Meru, the enclosing Set-ya-wala hills, the six heavens of the nat-dewas, and many of the lower seats of Byammas. Then followed myriads of years of chaos; then myriads more while the present world called Badda was being constructed atom by atom, and at last the earth was ready and prepared to receive the first Buddha, Kaukkathan. He left his staff on the Theinguttara Hill; his successor Gawnagong deposited his water-filter beside it, and the third Buddha, Kathapa, added a portion of his robe.
In the time of the fourth Buddha, Gautama, there lived on the Theinguttara Hill a gigantic scorpion, so huge that it devoured every day an elephant, and the tusks of its many victims were set up in a great ring fence round about its den. One day seven foreign ships passed along the coast. The sailors saw the white glimmer of the ivory from far out at sea, and landed to ascertain what it was. They began loading their ships with the precious treasure; and were working their hardest, when suddenly they saw the giant scorpion coming straight at them. They rushed on board, cut their cables, and stood out to sea. But here a new danger awaited them. A monster crab reared two gigantic claws out of the waters and threatened to crush anything that passed between. But there was no retreat, and, overwhelmed with terror, they drove before the wind. The vessels just managed to pass through without touching the claws with their yards or masts; but the scorpion, following in hot pursuit, rushed up against both pincers with its bulky body, and they closed in an instant, crushing and rending the monstrous prey. The crab itself died of the poisonous food, and the neighbourhood of the holy hill was thus freed from its terrors.
Not long afterwards another ship sailed in these waters. Near Twante, a town about twenty miles from Rangoon, lived a pious Talaing merchant, who had two sons named Pu, or dove, and Tapaw, or plenty. These young men heard that there was a famine in the western lands, and set sail thither with a shipload of rice. They landed at the mouth of the Ganges, and having procured five hundred wagons, loaded them with their grain tand travelled into the Wethali country. There one day their wagons were suddenly arrested, and as it were chained to the earth. While they were seeking for the cause, a nat, who is in previous existence had been their mother, appeared to them and asked: “Desire ye store of gold and precious things, or rather desire ye heavenly treasure?” They answered, “Heavenly treasure.” Thereupon the nat bade them go to where Shin Gatama, the embryo Buddha, was sitting beneath the yaza-yatana tree in the seventh period of seven days’ meditation, which immediately preceded his becoming perfect. They laid a sack of rice reverently at his feet, and in return received four hairs each. The Buddha renamed them Tapot-tha and Palika, and enjoined them to deposit the hairs on the Theinguttara Hill, beside the relics of the three preceding Bhdhs. The place was to be determined by “takun,” a felled wood-oil tree “lying athwart,” so that neither the top nor the roots touched the ground.
The brothers, happy in the possession of such inestimable relics, enclosed them in a golden casket, hastened back to their ship and set sail. But they visited many a distant shore without gaining any tidings of the whereabouts of the Theinguttara mount. In vain they besought tha nats, the bilus, and yekkathas, good genii, ogres, and demons, of whom there were many upon earth in those days. The spirits knew no more than the men. At last the king of the Tha-gyas took pity upon them, came down from the heavens, and appearing before the seekers in the guise of a nat, told them to return to their own native land. There, not far from their birthplace, Twante, was the hill they sought for, and the only being who could point it out to them was the guardian spirit of the hill, the aged Sule nat. But his guardian nat had lived so long upon earth that his eyelids had become weak and heavy and had fallen together, so that he was stone blind. Before he could help them at all it would be necessary to restore to him his eyesight, and this could only be done by hoisting up his eyelids with two great wooden props. The Sule nat was of gigantic stature, and the two brothers sought about in the forest for the tallest oil-palms they cound find, cut them down, lopped them into shape, and they went out in quest of the aged guardian spirit. At length they found him so thickly vovered with ancient moss and lichens that it was difficult to recognise as living creature in him. When he was asked there the Theinguttara Hill lay he became suspicious, and brought forward his blindness as an excuse for not being able to indicate its situation. But the two brothers were prepared with their remedy. They got their two gereat beams into position, and after much trouble managed to hoist up his heavy lids so far that the light fell in a narrow streak on this pupils. Sule then indicated with a wave of his hand in what direction they were to go, and Tapot-tha and Palika set off again on their search. But here they encountered a new difficulty. Instead of one hill they found three, with a lake in the middle of them, and thre was nothing to show where the staff, the filter, and the bathing robe of the pervious three Budhs lay buried. They were in despair, but the king of the Tha-gyas again came to their aid. He descended with his subject dewas during the night and united the three peaks into one. The next day the brothers felled the tree on the summit and it fulfilled the required conditions. “It remained poised on its centre on the peak. Its top touched not the ground, and its root touched not the ground. Therefore the place was called in the Mon language, Takun.” A pagoda was built twenty-seven feet high, and all the land round about on which its shadow fell between sunrise and sunset was consecrated to it for ever. The dewa king prepared a golden boat to hold the casket containing the haris, and thi vessel circled about perpetually on the lake, and was protected by water-wheels, whose spokes were prolonged into great swords and knives that struck out in all directions and turned without ceasing, except for a moment at midday, when they halted for the space of time during which a woman might draw out a thread from her spinning-loom.
Long after, the royal elder brother of China, King Udibwa, during his wars with the Burmans, was exceedingly anxious to carry off the sacred relics which are deposited in the Rangoon shrine. He prepared a magic figure in human form and despatched it to steal the Budhs’ remains. The creature crawled all the way down the Irrawaddy on its stomach until it arrived at the suburb of Rangoon called Kemindine (“the looking-post”). There it raised its head to look for a moment, and was so overcome by the splendour of the shrine that it delayed too long, and when at length it stretched out its hands to steal the relics, the favourable moment at noon was passed, and whirling swords cut it in pieces. Since then the whole of the treasures have been walled up in the relic-chamber, whence nothing but the entire destruction of the paya could remove them. The marvellous wealth of the shrine has been a fruitful source of wonder and speculation to many. Nevertheless the statement of Sonnerat that the spire, which has now risen to the height of nearly 370 feet, has a narrow funnel descending from the top down to the basement, and that down this shaft princes, rich men, and the religious of all nations cast gold and sliver and precious stones, has a foundation only in the imagination of the Gallic writer. The crown or “umbrella” at the top is known to be crusted thick on the upper ring with precious stones, and from it hang scores of jewelled gold bells, placed there in recent times, but to the mysterious relic-chamber no one has penetrated for hundreds of years, nor probably ever will. Neither the shrine itself, nor the relics, nor the images, are the objects of the adoration of the pious. The Burman, it cannot be too much urged, is not an idolater. He worships neither relic nor image. The pagoda and the figure only supply him with a seemly place to utter the praises of the great Buddha, and to form resolutions to imitate, as far as he can, the charity and the sinless life of the great model.
Notes: The following article is taken from The Burman: His Life and Notions, Chapter (XVI). It is a sole work of Sir. James George Scott (legendary Shwe Yoe).