Every pagoda has its own distinctive history and legends, but some capture the imagination more than others. A case in point is Yangon’s Botahtaung Pagoda, located beside the Hlaing River.
The story of the founding of Botahtaung begins 2500 years ago when Yangon was known as Okkala. Two trader brothers, Tapussa and Bhalika, journeyed to India, carrying their goods on 500 bullock carts. There they encountered the recently enlightened Guattama Buddhaand offered honey cakes and reverence.
In return, the Buddha gave the brothers eight strands of his hair, which they carried back to the Yangon River and presented to King Okkalapa, who promptly built Botahtaung Pagoda and enshrined the hairs inside its relic chamber.
There the story ends-at least for several thousand years, until, on November 8, 1943, the pagoda was destroyed in a bombing raid. Rebuilding work began shortly after the end of World War II and workers miraculously found the sacred relics, contained in the centre cone-shaped caskets, in there centre of the pagoda.
Reconstruction work at Botahtaung Pagoda was completed in 1953, with the new structure built to the original height of 132 feet, or 39.6 metres.
Unlike most other shrines, the pagoda does not have a solid core instead, visitors can center a large internal cavity. A hole in the centre of the pagoda shows the site of the ancient relic chamber, which is kept open. Accordingly, Botahtaung is one of the more well-known pagodas in Yangon, if no the country, says U Aung Su from the pagoda’s board of trustees.
“History tells us that Botahtaung is the first pagoda to house a sacred hair relic of the Buddha,” he says. “Its story is no less attractive than that of Shwedagon Pagoda.. we are very proud that we have reconstructed and maintained the pagoda since the war because it is a landmark in the introduction of Buddhaism to Myanmar.”
He said the number of foreign visitors to the pagoda is increasing each especially popular.
“We recorded nearly 1000 (foreign visitors) during the festival. The number of arrivals significantly increased in 2010 and I think it will be even higher in 2011,” U Aung Su said.
While a homage-paying ceremony is held at the pagoda each year around the full moon of Nadaw, which falls in either Novenmber or December, organizers also held a nine-day pagoda festival-including the requisite zat pwe troupe-for the first time in a decade, from December 27 to January 4.
“Pagoda festivals always attract many visitors but they are so boisterous, with activities going on until dawn, and we have to take responsibility for preventing any incidents, like fights and fires,” he said. “We hosted festivals in the past but haven’t done so for the past 10 years.”
Despite the headaches for organizers, U Aung Su said pagoda festivals are important because they allow visitors to enjoy aspects of Myanmar’s culture and customs, including zat pwe and traditional snacks. “The tradition of hosting these festivals should be preserved but we can’t say when the next one will be.”
Even without a raucous festival there is plenty to keep visitors occupied at Botahtaung, such as the Nan Oo image, which was among the hundreds taken back to Britain after Myanmar’s annexation in 1886. The majority were returned to the country after independence and the Nan Oo image has resided at Botahtaung since then.
Another popular point for four guides is the shrine of Daw Mya Nan New, who donated a large amount of jewels to the pagoda after its reconstruction. Her donation was so generous that she is often considered to be a guardian spirit of the pagoda, assisting with its upkeep.