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Relic chamber of Shwedagon

The story of old Armenian

One of the greatest excitements in contemporary times happened in March 1968, when a news item in the Myanmar newspaper Kye Mon featured an interview with a 73-year-old Armenian gentleman, domiciled in Myanmar. Mr. Aparame was his name. He told the newsmen that he, as a boy on nine years had once entered the tunnel under the great pagoda and seen the Relic Chamber of Shwedagon Pagoda in the year 1914. Mr. Aparame drew a plan of the route to the Relic Chamber as he had seen it and presented the plan to the Trustees of the Pagoda. The Trustees asked him to show the opening through which he had entered. Aparame led the Trustees to the North-East corner of the pagoda. There a new shrine had been built and it was surmised that the opening would be under the Buddha image in the shrine. The trustee, fearing some unduly curious people might molest the shrine locked the gate. They declared that steps would be taken to verify the gentleman’s statement.

There is an opening on the northern side of the pagoda, known as the Hair Relic well. It was, as the legend goes, the well that supplied water for washing the relics before enshrining. The depth of the well is on the level of the river and the water rises and falls with the tide. It has a tiered roof built-in 1870.

According to Mr. Aparame’s account, he entered the Relic Chamber with four young friends, guided by an old hermit. Along the tunnel pathway, they saw seven hermits standing in a single file about 9 feet apart from each other. Then, they had to go down by stairway that took them to a large space under a domed roof, which had not a single pillar to support it. Space was divided into 36 sections which surrounded a water hole that rose and fell with the tide. On the surface floated a bejeweled golden barge shaped like the mythical bird Karaweik. On this barge rested the Hair Relics on a bed of precious gems. The chamber was mysteriously illumined even though there was no opening for light.

This account became the big news of the day. Pagoda Trustees, antiquarians, and researchers joined together to discover any evidence to verify the story. They did not discover altogether five openings to go down under the great pagoda. In January 1970, a group of devotees went down and followed a tunnel, through which they could walk quite comfortably. After they had walked around for 30 feet, they came up against a brick wall. It was impossible to go further. Some said that the tunnel might be the work of the occupying British forces of 1824; an attempt to use the great pagoda as an arsenal is on record.

Many devotees took Mr. Aparame’s account to heart and did not give up the hope that one day they might be privileged to view the Relic Chamber, if not in this life, in one of the innumerable lives to come.

The story of the great Shwedagon Pagoda began with an ethereal maid of the woodlands and her celestial lover, no less than Thagyarmin, the illustrious son King Ukkalapa. Then came the advent of the Hair Relics brought by the merchant brothers from India, and later the search for the Singuttara Hill as a sacred place to build the shrine. The story lives on in songs, plays and paintings, and sculptures. U Win Pe in his book Shwedagon says:

“To the Myanmar people, the Shwedagon is many things. It is their premier religious edifice which enshrines the Hair Relics of Buddha and a glorious monument to their beauty of spirit which inspires loving kindness for all living beings. It is their source of strength in good times and poor. It has given them political and cultural unity of purpose and will. It has infused them with courage and resourcefulness. It is an essential base of their outlook and experience.

…..The founding legend provides a glimpse of the deep spirituality which is Shwedagon’s. The history of its construction shows how men and women were inspired to memorable acts of creation and fabrication”.


But for Shwedagon and a few other pagodas, Yangon is rather a disappointing place. A concrete and asphalt jungle with much too thick a veneer of modernism; there is but little that represents real Myanmar life. It is mostly in the pagoda precincts and monastery grounds that one can have a glimpse of life as lived by the Myanmar people. For that reason, going around the pagodas is rewarding.

Even though the opulent edifices in Yangon are now encased in modern structures, life around them goes on as of old; traditions are cherished, customs maintained, and rituals revered and observed. Pagodas, however much they might have changed in form, retain their splendor and sanctity. They stand today as they have always: symbols of the glorious past.


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