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Singuttara Hill

Shwedagon Pagoda

Singuttara Hill

It was an occasion for the Thagyarmin‘s downy couch to harden like a stone. He looked down on the human abode and knew that his help was now required. His trusty servant Visakkama and other nats cleared the untamed jungle around the city of Dagon so that the Singuttara Hill stood prominent for all to see.

That night the merchant brothers dreamed that they saw the Singuttara Hill. At dawn, guided by good nats, they went to the place and sure enough, they could see the hill. They joyfully sent word to the king, who could not believe that clearing of the jungle had been done in one night by the nats. It would take centuries if done by human hands. 

The king rode his white elephant round the hill clockwise three times as a mark of reverence. He had been told by the good nats that Singuttara Hill was a distinguished hill sanctified by the praise of the three former Buddhas. The hill had seven names; and each name bespeaks of some wonder, like for instance, the abundance of grain, flowers, and treasures. The most hopeful and cheering name of all says that bitter enemies chasing each other for a kill would be loving friends, once they come upon the hill, and that nothing prevails but peace and loving-kindness. The personal possessions of the three former Buddhas were buried on the hill and they had to be unearthed, to be enshrined together with the Hair Relics of the Gotama Buddha. Again it was beyond human effort. Thagyarmin did come to help but this time he could do but little.

Though Thagyarmin’s lifespan runs into millions in terms of human life, he had not been, around long enough to remember the Three Buddhas; the only thing he could do was to make enquires among the goodly company of nats who had come for the great occasion of the building of the stupa and paying homage to the Hair Relics. Even among nats, it was no easy thing to find someone old enough to have seen the preceding Buddhas, and more important than that, to have remembered them.

Sule nat

Finally, Thagyarmin came upon four very ancient nats; one of them was Sule Nat whose likeness one sees on the precincts of Sule Pagoda in the center of Yangon, a pagoda named after him. Sule Nat was a powerful ogre in the time of Kakusanna Buddha; his daily fare was a live elephant. Once hunting for his food, he came upon the Buddha, who he thought would have to do for his meal that day.

Exhausted after an uncommonly hard day hunting for an elephant, the ogre was impatient for his meal. The quiet, calm human who was in front of him would be easy prey. But he found that he could not come within arm’s length of the Buddha. The ogre found himself up against someone he could not approach, let alone overcome. Not that his adversary put up any resistance, that figure of an ascetic, clad only in his worn robes of jute, and with nothing in hand but a staff. The ogre thought that it must be some uncanny power in the staff which prevented him from coming near the Buddha. So he expressed a desire to have that staff.

The Buddha told him that he must keep five precepts for seven years if he wanted that staff. Among the five percepts was taking life from which the ogre did not have any inclination to abstain. He said seven years was too long for him to go without food. He wanted the staff, so he bargained. The Buddha did not give in too easily. It was only after a long parley of arguing and protestations, which the ogre had to bear on an empty stomach, that the Buddha agreed upon the ogre’s abstinence for seven days.

The ogre kept the precepts for seven days, at the end of which he became well established in the teaching of the Buddha. His enormous fangs fell to the ground and with them his ferocity. The Buddha gave him the staff as promised, but the tamed ogre received it as a relic to be revered and not as something he could use to hunt for his food.

Yohani and other Nats

Next in seniority of age was Yohani Nat, who during the time of Kanagunna Buddha was an ogre. He too was likewise tamed, and he received a water dipper from the Buddha. The third one, Dekkhina Nat, was an ogre during the time of Kassapa Buddha, and he, in the same manner, became a devotee of the Buddha. He was given the Buddha’s bathrobe. The three ogres, now very good nats commissioned the fourth nat, Hmawbi Nat, to look after the relics. So he took them and buried them on the Singuttara Hill.

All the nats and men were wonderstruck by the news. Now that Thagyarmin knew where to look for the relics of the former Buddhas, he directed his nats to dig a tunnel on top of the Singuttara Hill. The tunnel was 66 feet in depth, length, and breadth. The staff, the water dipper, and the bathrobe were discovered and brought out for nats and men to see and revere.

More rejoicings followed; it was not every day that people could see the relics of the three Buddhas in one place at the same time. Thagyarmin brought six slabs of stone; one was of diamond color and sheen; others were of the colors silver, pearl, gold, and sapphire; they were for walling; and the last, the ruby-colored one was reserved for the final touch the closing on the top.

The creation of the pagoda

Jubilant days followed as nats and men filled gems knee-deep in the tunnel. Solid gold pillars were planted on the bed of gems; they formed the support for a gold couch. Four smaller gold couches, each with a ruby-studded couch on top, were put on it to form a base for the gold ship, which was the exact replica of the one in which the merchant brothers carried the relics.

Onboard the ship were four pavillions studded with rubies; and each was fitted with a tiered roof, relics of the former Buddhas were placed one in each pavilion. The fourth pavilion was for the Hair Relics of the Gotama Buddha. The centerpiece in the fourth pavilion was the ruby casket holding the Hair Relics; it hung on a solid gold pole carried on the shoulders of the figures of the merchant brothers. Around them were gold figures of King Ukkalapa, his mother Mai Lamu, Thagyarmin, and lords and ladies of the court.

Then Thagyarmin took out the Hair Relics. That moment the Hairs rose up into the air to the height of seven times the height of a palm tree. The scintillating beams from the Hairs surpassed all the gems and jewels. Then the Hair Relics descended again on the casket. Thagyarmin reverently poured cleansing waters from the well specially dug on the Singuttara Hill.

Nats and men poured jewels into the tunnel, now the relic chamber. Thagyarmin gave his bejeweled crown, and queens, princes, and princesses, and commoners gave their jewels and ornaments. Thagyarmin had the Relic Chamber fortified on four sides with revolving swords and spears and fire wheels always in action. He placed layers of impenetrable iron meshes over the chamber. Then he dosed the top with the stone slab of ruby color.

On the stone, the slab was laid the foundations of the stupa. The first stupa was of gold, which was enclosed by a silver one, then layer upon layer of tin, copper, lead, marble, and iron was built, one swallowing the other. Lastly, the structure was superimposed by a stupa built of bricks of gold, alloy, tin, copper, iron, marble, and clay, strengthened with lime, glue, mortar, and plaster. The final edifice was 66 feet high.

Today, the figure of King Ukkalapa stands on the northwest corner of the great pagoda; on the South West corner stand the figures of the king’s parents, Thagyarmin and Mai Lamu. Their story lives in songs new and old, on stage and in films, and in the hearts of the people.

Such is the legend of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The line of 32 kings continued to revere and take care of the pagoda. Then followed a period of neglect, and the shrine was almost lost among trees and bushes, until 300 B.C., the time of King Asoka. Among many good works for the cause of Buddhism that followed the Third Buddhist Council under Asoka’s patronage was the clearing of the jungle and the repair of the Shwedagon pagoda.

Then historical records began to mention the pagoda as it resumed its former eminence as a center of Buddhist activities patronized by Mon and Myanmar kings. Repairs were made and the original structure was raised by one king after another until it reached the present height in the time of the reigning Mon Queen Shin Saw Pu (14th Century A.D.)

AUTHOR: KHIN MYO CHIT, BOOK NAME: A WONDERLAND OF PAGODA LEGENDS, CHAPTER THREE: YANGON: GATEWAY TO THE WONDERLAND

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