Present day Sule Pagoda from the distance
Sule Pagoda in Colonial times
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All of us who live in Yangon know where Sule Pagoda is. But as we say in Myanmar language ကပ္ေက်ာ္ ေစတီ( bypass pagoda) because we usually go around the Sule traffic roundabout and seldom visit it. Even few know about the interesting history behind this ancient pagoda.
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According to legends King Thiha Dipa who was king of neighbouring Thiha Dipa Kingdom(now Thanlyin) commanded one his ministers to build a pagoda where the Sule Pagoda now stands. The name of this minister was “Ah Thoke(အ သုတ္)” and hence this pagoda was called Kyaik Ah Thoke(က်ိဳက္ အ သုတ္). Kyaik in the Mon language is pagoda and Ah Thoke being the name of the minister who built it. But some scholars says Ah Thoke really translate as “Buddha’s Holy Hair” and call it “Holy Hair Pagoda”
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Others say that this was a place where King Okkalapa( of ancient Okkalapa Kingdom) gathered with his ministers to search for a place to place the Holy Hairs of Buddha before deciding on the Sangguttara Hill where the Shwedagon Pagoda now stands. As it was a place of gathering it was call စု ေဝး ေစ တီ (pagoda where all gathered). However there are also many scholars who say that it was a place where the 4 Guardian Nats of the Universe gathered and should be called ေလးဆူ ေစ တီ(Laysu Zedi) which later evolved into ဆူး ေလ ေစ တီ(Sule Zedi). But whatever the history now we see the Sule Pagoda glittering on a small hillock right in the middle of Yangon Central Business District.
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The compound of Sule Pagoda is 2,181 acres: 322 feet from east to west and 291 feet from north to south. The height to the top of the diamond bud is 151 feet. The Sule Pagoda has a unique shape. It is octagonal, i.e the plint has eight pointed sides in the 8 directions of the compass meaning the Noble Eight-fold Paths To Enlightenment (မဂၢင္ ရွစ္ပါး) plus many symbols on the pagoda that shows the way to Nirvana.
In ancient times Sule Pagoda was said to be outside the actual Yangon city established by King Alaungpaya in 1755 and surrounded by mud flats and muddy water prone to regular flooding from the nearby river. And many Buddhist monasteries surrounded the solitary hillock.
According to ancient text the western entrance reached up to present day Bo Ywe Street(ဗိုလ္ ရြဲ လမ္း). And numerous small islands dotted around in what now is the Maha Bandoola Park until the end of the 1st Anglo-Myanmar War of 1824. There was also a bridge made of rock to access the pagoda across the waters(the township where the Sule Pagoda stands is still being call Kyauktada which means rock bridge). There was supposed to be another pagoda by the name of Kyaik Myat Than Cho(က်ိဳက္ ျမတ္ သံ ခ်ိဳ) to the southwest of the pagoda too and the place was always crowded with pilgrims.
But after the 2nd Anglo-Myanmar War of 1852 the victorious British colonial powers seized Yangon(Rangoon at that time) and decided to make it the administrative and commercial capital of British Burmah and made plans for extending the city. The Commissioner of Yangon(Rangoon) Sir Arthur Phayre then commissioned Lt. Fraser of Bengal Engineers and Surgeon Montgomerie to come up with a master plan. The British started by levelling the ground, filling up the low-lying areas and also evicted many monasteries around the Sule Pagoda. About 50 of them were relocated to mango forest to the west. This area is now known as Thayettaw Kyaung Taik (Mango Forest monastery) which is opposite the present day Institute of Medicine(I) on Bogyoke Aung San Road. The British demolished the nearby Kyaik Myat Than Cho(က်ိဳက္ ျမတ္ သံ ခ်ိဳ) Pagoda but left the Sule Pagoda intact as a focal point and a landmark of downtown Yangon.
One famous pavilion on the compound of Sule Pagoda is the Pavilion of the Sule Bo Bo Gyi(Grandfather Nat of Sule). According to legends this nat is said to be so old that he had been able to pay homage to all four Buddhas that had appeared in this world. It was siad in the Shwedagon Pagoda chronicles that he was the one who directed the Sacred Hairs of Lord Buddha to be buried at Sanguttira Hill where the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda now stands.
Many Myanmar people believe that he has powers to help them in their actions and commercial enterprises and his pavilion is always crowded. Others says that he is one of the guardians of Buddhism and is entitled to receive homage from the devotees.