Naypyidaw’s Synthetic Shwedagon Shimmers, but in Solitude

By Simon Roughneen 13 November 2013

NAYPYIDAW — While the entry fee for foreigners visiting Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda has been jacked from US$5 to US$8—coinciding with the tourist high season—accessing Naypyidaw’s Uppatasanti Pagoda costs no more than whatever a visitor wants to donate to the giggly ladies who watch over pilgrims’ shoes, which must be removed inside the temple gate before taking the lift up to the pagoda promenade above.

There’s supposedly a $5 entry fee for Naypyidaw’s smaller-by-a-foot facsimile shrine, but nobody asked for money during The Irrawaddy’s temple tour, a two-hour traipse during which about 40 others visited the temple. Similarly absent were the white elephants—deemed auspicious in local lore—that are kept near the pagoda, though the giant beasts usually shelter indoors and away from the glaring sun during daytime, before emerging for visitors at dusk.

Uppatasanti looks impressively gilded from the highway a half-mile away, and more so at night, when Shwedagon-like, the four-year-old pagoda glimmers alone above Burma’s sparse administrative capital. There’s not much else to distract attention, given Naypyidaw’s far-flung spattering of government buildings, villa-style hotels roofed in traditional Burmese architectural style, and vast and wide highways linking the city’s scattered outposts.

What from distance looks to be Uppatasanti’s glittering gold is more disheveled up close, however, pockmarked with white blotches, over which sun-blasted maintenance workers splash gilded Potemkin touch-ups as they clamber up and down scaffolding.

The pagoda sits on a platform overlooking the capital of this nation of perhaps 60 million, though after taking the elevator to the summit, the view is more rural than urban, with a golf course to one side and a military base a half a mile away. It’s a full 15 kilometers to Naypyidaw’s main hotel zone and 10 kilometers to Burma’s massive Parliament complex. There’s not much by way of buildings in between, save for the color-coded roofs of identikit apartment blocks housing Naypyidaw’s press-ganged government workers.

Inside Uppatasanti, maroon-clad Buddhas sit regally on thrones, all back-to-back around a central pillar, like multiples of the seated Saint Peter inside the Vatican. The central area is ringed by signs marked “No Lighting Candles” and “For Gents Only” in front of the icons. And while nobody flouted the pyrotechnic prohibition during The Irrawaddy’s visit, the handful of ladies worshipping inside the pagoda didn’t seem put off by the gents-only warnings—bowing hands-clasped before the Buddhas regardless of the injunction.

Ringing the interior perimeter of the pagoda—again a bit like the Stations of the Cross inside a Catholic church—runs a series of inscribed murals depicting various scenes of Buddhist and Burmese myth and history, such as a rendering of King Anawrahtra, the 11th century ruler of the ancient kingdom of Bagan, mounted on a war elephant and carrying Buddhist scriptures.

And should a devotee look to the heavens above the Buddha, he or she will read ceiling explanations of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, explaining the cause and nature of suffering—something that Burma’s long-oppressed citizens are familiar with.

Uppatasanti was completed in 2009, four years after Burma’s capital Naypyidaw, which means “Abode of Kings,” was unveiled to an unsuspecting world. The pagoda was intended to polish Naypyidaw’s faith and fatherland veneer, evoking Burma’s Buddhist and royal history, though it all seems a bit incongruous given the subsequent renaming of the country to The Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

The Uppatasanti Pagoda contains a Buddha tooth relic from China, an artifact said to have been sought in vain by Anawrahta, the first monarch to assert Burman dominance in the land and across an area roughly equivalent to the modern state. Anawrahtra’s better-resourced successor, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, got one up on the Burmese king by managing to procure the tooth a millennium later.

Burma has had numerous capitals throughout its history, with rulers seeking to burnish their legacies by building new administrative centers they could call their own.

Modern Burma’s military rulers were thought to want a capital in the country’s interior and away from coastal regions vulnerable to on-paper invaders. They opted for a greenfield site close to Pyinmana, where Burma’s modern founding father, Gen Aung San, housed the Burma Independence Army, the precursor to the modern Burmese Army and which was backed by the invading Japanese during World War II.

Naypyidaw’s vastness and scattered layout make regime-challenging political protests pointless too, another advantage over Rangoon for the opaque junta that ruled Burma until early 2011.

Burmese rulers have also sought to bring good karma on themselves by building Buddhist shrines. Gen Ne Win, modern Burma’s first military dictator, had the Maha Wizaya Pagoda built in Rangoon, while his elected predecessor U Nu commissioned the Kaba Aye Pagoda, another prominent temple landmark in the old capital.

But Burma’s last military dictator, for now at least, topped them all, not only with his vast and grandiose new capital, but with an almost-as-large-as-life replica of Burma’s best-known shrine.

Uppatasanti seems to be a stab at giving Naypyidaw a spiritual hub to emulate Burma’s old capital. But Rangoon remains Burma’s commercial and cultural center and by far the biggest city in the country—a noisy, dirty and vibrant Yin to Naypyidaw’s sparse and sanitized (Pyong)Yang—dynamics that seem unlikely to change any time soon.