Having the day off suddenly, I didn’t have anything planned and decided I should visit my local pagoda and take in the atmosphere. As luck would have it, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a brief 20-minute stroll through the People’s Park from my house. What better pagoda to have as your local for the celebrations.
I paid my entrance fee and soon saw plenty of families enjoying their day by sauntering across the neat grass and lining up to take turns on the fairground rides that are in one corner of the park. All school children have this day off school and the majority of businesses close all day or half days so it’s a great opportunity for all the family to engage in some lifelong informal learning as well as build bonds with each other. It was very hot as I approached the mighty Shwedagon; people were dressed in the Myanmar equivalent of Sunday best and even the local dogs were lazily cooling off in the water. The pagoda was packed out, necessitating two policewomen to assist the hordes with crossing the road and alternatively allowing traffic to pass.
Once inside the cool hallway, which houses the escalators to get up to the main platform of the pagoda, it was clear just how many people were visiting! The atmosphere was light-hearted and jovial with people being good natured about lining up and using one side of the walkway to enter and one side to exit. the pagoda was full of people; and many offerings of flowers had been made to the Buddha images, many of which were draped in gold or orange cloth. There was an area designated for pre-made food offerings; with rows of plates laden with colorful dragon fruit to help with the blessing of the Buddha.
In the midst of the party atmosphere, there were a few workers with wide brimmed hats and yellow jackets collecting the dead flowers and transporting fruit from one area to another. They seemed to get through the crowd with impressive ease.
Children who were relishing their freedom from school laughed and skipped about near a beautiful silver and green tiled wall which looked fresh and inviting. Despite the overwhelming number of visitors, it was possible to find moments of peace alone; whether to check one’s smartphone or to offer a prayer.
Many of the local teenagers were bemused to see me and some even practiced their English skills to ask for a photograph. I saw a young girl with two older ladies hitting a bell, just as I had done with the supervision of my Thanlyin students on my final day when we visited two of the local Thanlyin pagodas. Just like me, the young girl needed a bit of direction on how hard to hit the wood against the metal.
I also found the Wednesday afternoon corner where a group of young girls were pouring cool water three times over the Buddha image and the elephant as per tradition. There were a few nuns and monks, but less than I was expecting.
After one complete walk around the pagoda and an hour in the sunshine I headed home. As I walked, I saw family groups sleeping off the midday heat, readying themselves for the later festivities. The only nod to modern influence was the selling of plastic shaped balloons, generally in the shape of Elsa from Frozen carried by small girls.
My day finished by watching a monastic procession from the balcony and being plunged into darkness as I am certain the pagodas needed all of the electric for their pretty fairy lights.
NEH Director of Operations and Teacher Trainer
Editor's Note: This post was originally posted on October 2015 and has been updated.
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