Shwedaung blends faith with development
By Sann Oo
FARMERS are ploughing their fields with cows and bullocks, while goats graze along the roadside. Nearby, a woman is selling steamed sticky rice wrapped in teak leaf. And behind her is a modern textile factory producing fabrics of all styles and colours.
The town of Shwedaung is about 170 miles (270 kilometres) north of Yangon and 7 miles (11km) from the regional hub of Pyay. It is a fascinating crossroad where history and modernity meet and religion and business peacefully coexist.
Most visitors to the town are likely to take a highway bus from Yangon’s Aung Mingalar terminal. However, potential visitors should be warned that ticket sellers sometimes swarm around you like seagulls and thrust tickets in your face.
It is best to ignore the gaggle of loose ticket sellers and find the sales office.
Travellers can be assured of the always-soothing sound of music blasting out through the television and sound system on the trip too.
Trees of all types and sizes line the highway to Shwedaung and provide shade for travellers, while green rice paddy sways in time with the breeze from beyond the trees.
On arrival, one of the first things a visitor is likely to notice is how clean the town is. There are no garbage piles at street corners and plastic bags do not float along in the wind.
But just as in Yangon, the roads are in dire need of repair.
Motorcycle taxis are a convenient way to see the town’s sights but riding on the highway that runs through the middle of the township can be a harrowing experience.
Highway buses and trucks carrying heavy loads roar down the road, leaving motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws in their smoky wake.
Ko Aung, who is in his early 20s, is one such motorcycle taxi driver.
“Accidents frequently happen here,” he said as he pointed to one intersection. “Speeding motorcycles suddenly move onto the highway and into the traffic but they are often hit by other vehicles. Most die on the spot.”
Sitting on the back of the motorbike, a chill passes down your spine whenever a truck, bus or car sounds its horn in warning as it approaches slower-moving traffic.
With luck you might arrive at the pagoda that houses the town’s famously bespectacled Buddha image, which can reputedly improve bad eyesight.
The image’s eyeglasses were added during the Konbaung era when a nobleman offered them in an attempt to stimulate local faith through curiosity. Rumours quickly spread that praying in front of the image could cure bad eyesight and people from all over the country began flocking to the pagoda.
The image’s popularity is evident in the many sets of eyeglasses in a box beside the image, which have been donated by the people whose eyesight has been repaired.
Locals believe the Buddha image is the only one in the world that wears eyeglasses and its name – Shwe Myet Hman – means “golden glasses Buddha image”.
Near Shwedaung is an ancient Buddhist ordination hall that is currently being rebuilt.
“In the past, this place was covered with bushes and when townspeople cleared it to build a new pagoda, they found the remains of the hall,” Ko Aung explained.
A wall that runs around the compound is topped by a number of fascinating statues.
“These 80 ancient Arahat statues were also discovered when the area was cleared,” he said. An Arahat is a Buddhist monk who has overcome the three poisons of desire, hatred and ignorance and attained Nirvana.
Some of the statues have been restored to their original splendour, while others remain looking slightly worse for wear.
Religious conviction in Shwedaung is strong and many pagodas and shrines are dotted about the township. But do not be surprised if while visiting these the electricity suddenly cuts out. Locals said the natural gas fuelled power station ensure that the rare blackouts are short. For businesses in town, including a government garment factory, this steady power supply is good news and means that production is reliable.
The success of businesses in town is evident in the continuing restoration work on religious structures and shows that development need not come at the expense of culture.