Early history of the Pagoda

The history of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda starts over 2.500 years ago shortly after Prince Siddhattha Gotama had attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. The life and teaching of the Buddha are recorded in the Tipitaka. These  texts were memorized and shortly after the Passing Away of the Buddha written down. Hence their great historical value.

Sitting under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (close to the present city of Gaya) the Buddha had just attained Nibbana and thus made an end of all suffering. The Compassionate Master was about to set out to Varanasi (Benares) to expound the Dhamma (Teaching), summarized in  the Four Noble Truths, viz:

  1. The Truth of Suffering: everything in life, all our experiences are intrinsically unsatisfying
  2. The Truth of the Cause of Suffering: attachment to anything we experience is the root cause of all suffering
  3. The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: by understanding life as it really is the end of all kinds suffering can be attained
  4. The Truth of the Eightfold Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering

Around that time Tapussa and Bhallika were doing business in the vicinity of Gaya. Coming from the Mon town of Asitanjana in Suvannabhumi (present day Myanmar), they had arrived by sea and headed a large caravan of some 500 carts.

As they passed by the place where the Buddha was preparing for his journey to Varanasi they were deeply impressed by the Compassionate Master and offered him honey cakes.

After the Buddha had eaten the cakes, the Buddha taught them the Dhamma. As a result, the brothers expressed their wish to become followers of the Buddha. After Taking Refuge to the Buddha and his Teaching they requested a gift to remember him by and to take home. The Buddha passed his hand over his head and offered them eight hairs. After bidding their farewell to the Buddha they returned to their homes. So far as it is recorded in the Tipitaka, the Buddhist Scriptures, which were orally transmitted by expert (enlightened) monks and a few centuries after the passing away of the Buddha written down.

This is what happened after that, according to The Great Glass Palace Chronicle (Mahayazawindagyi), which was compiled around 1830. This Chronicle contains historic facts that were handed down throughout the centuries.

“The two brothers, carrying the Sacred Hairs in a ruby casket, made their way home. On the way, they met with the king of Ajjhatta. After relating him their encounter with the Buddha, the king requested and received two of the Sacred hairs from them. While sailing home they encountered king Jayasena from Bhumintara and offered him also two of the Sacred Hairs.

“Finally they arrived home and placed the ruby casket with the remaining 4 hairs within a pile of pearls in the shape of a pagoda. They informed the king of Ukkalapa of their precious treasure. Immediately the king came with his full army to pay his respect. While walking around clockwise around the pagoda of pears and the ruby casket containing the Sacred Hairs, he made a vow to build a real Pagoda for the Sacred Hairs. As a result of his vows, the Eight Hairs were restored!

“It was then decided that the pagoda was to be built on the Singuttara Hill, east of the town of Asitanjana. The enshrinement took place on the Full Moon Day of Tabaung (March-April). They created a 44 cubits square and high relic chamber, filled it with all kinds of jewels and placed a jewelled ship carrying the Sacred Hairs on top. A stone slab all covered with gold was placed of the relic chamber and on it was erected a golden pagoda 44 cubits high. The golden pagoda was encased in a silver pagoda, then in a pagoda of gold and copper alloy, then in bronze pagoda, then in iron pagoda, then in a marble pagoda, and finally in a brick pagoda.”