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Shwemawdaw Pagoda

The Shwemawdaw Pagoda (also written Shwemawdaw Paya) in Bago is the tallest pagoda in Myanmar. The Shwemawdaw is 14 m higher than the Shwedagon of Yangon. The name Shwemawdaw means Great Golden God. The Shwemawdaw can be seen from as far as 10 km outside the city, a fact which I could verify when I saw the Shwemawdaw from the window of the train for a long, long while, as we travelled passed Bago from Yangon to Mandalay.

According to legend, the Shwemawdaw was built by two merchant brothers, Mahasala and Kullasala, after they returned from India with two hairs personally given to them by Gautama Buddha. They built a small stupa to enshrine the hairs. Since then, the shrine had been enlarged many times, including once by Bago's founders, Thamala and Wimala. Sacred teeth relics were added to the collection in 982 and 1385.

King Dhammazedi installed a bell on the pagoda's main platform. Dhammazedi's inscriptions can still be seen today, though what was written by the king is indecipherable. In the 16th century, King Bayinnaung gave his own crown to be used to make the hti (sphire umbrella) for the pagoda. Then, in 1796, King Bodawpaya donated a new hti and raised the pagoda to 90 m (295 ft).

The Shwemawdaw has been rocked by earthquake many times in its long existence. In the 20th century alone, three big earthquakes hit the Shwemawdaw. The 1917 quake broke off its spire which now lay on the ground on the northeastern side of the pagoda. The Shwemawdaw was almost completely destroyed in the last major quake which happened in 1930. After World War II, unpaid volunteers began restoration work to rebuilt the pagoda. The restored pagoda stands 114 m (374 ft), taller than it ever was. By 1954, the Shwemawdaw was given a new diamond-studded hti.

Just like the Shwedagon, the Shwemawdaw is entered through four main stairways. There is a small museum that contains ancient wooden and bronze Buddha statues salvaged from the ruins of the 1930 earthquake. Like the Shwedagon, the terrace of the Shwemawdaw also features planetary prayer posts - eight all told - as well as statues honouring nat spirits. The stairways leading to the pagoda are guarded by huge white chinthe, mythical beasts which are half lion and half dog.

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