The Shwemawdaw Pagoda is best known in Myanmar as the country’s “Great Golden God Temple”. It is also called as Shwemawdaw Paya or spelled Shwe Maw Daw Pagoda. With a height that is more than 98 meters, Shwemawdaw is the tallest pagoda in Myanmar, a significant title since this Southeast Asian country has thousands and thousands of pagodas, temples, stupas and shrines. It is about 14 meters taller than the important Shwedagon Pagoda. It is so tall that it is visible from as far as 10 kilometers outside Bago city. Passengers traveling from Yangon to Bago can already get a glimpse of it before entering the city or when traveling from Yangon to Mandalay. Along the Kyaiktiyo and Shwedagon pagodas, Shwemawdaw is one of the three important pagodas built by the Mon people.
According to legends, the Lord Buddha personally gave two strands of his hair to two Mon merchants named Mahasala and Kullasala who went on a pilgrimage to India. The Mon merchants constructed the pagoda for the specific purpose of creating a shrine for the hairs. It was just a small stupa back then, and grew physically and in significance through the years. In 982 and 1385, tooth relics were also enshrined in the pagoda.
The temple began to rise as early as the tenth century, but was destroyed several times due to earthquakes. Bago is an earthquake-prone area, and ironically it is home to more than 2,200 ancient Buddhist structures that are in constant danger of being destroyed by the quakes. The most significant damages on Shwemawdaw from the many damages through the years were caused by the 1912, 1917 and 1930 earthquakes. The 1917 earthquake destroyed the spire, while the 1930 quake almost destroyed the Shwemawdaw completely. The old broken spire still lies on the ground on the northeastern side of the pagoda today. After the Second World War, locals volunteered to restore and rebuild the pagoda, and as a result, the structure grew taller yet again.
Other additions through the years were constructed by King Dhammazedi, King Bayinnaung and King Bodawpaya. King Dhammazedi put up a bell on the Shwemawdaw’s main platform in the 16th century; King Bayinnaung made an important addition by giving up his own crown to be used in crafting the pagoda’s new umbrella in 1796. The new umbrella raised the height of the pagoda to 90 meters. In April 1954, a new, sturdier and earthquake-proof, diamond-studded bell-shaped “hti” or umbrella was constructed.
The pagoda shares a number of similarities with the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is known as Myanmar’s most revered temple. Both Mon pagodas have four entrances, huge “chinte” or mythical lion-dragon images guarding the entrances, four main stairways, a terrace that features eight planetary prayer areas and statues symbolizing legendary Burmese “nat” spirits. Inside Shwemawdaw is a small museum that holds ancient bronze and wooden Buddha images that were salvaged from the ruins brought about by the 1930 earthquake.
The best time to visit Shwemawdaw Pagoda is in April during the Shwemawdaw Pagoda Festival when the area gets packed with visitors, devotees and pilgrims.