Shwedagon: A site for Burmese nationalism, but a product of transnationalism.

‘Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire… Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?’[1]


These words and their following remarks, written by Rudyard Kipling regarding his three-day visit to Rangoon, emphasise the role which the Shwedagon Pagoda played in the mind of the European in defining the Burmese and their landscape. Such a defining role is reflected in the prominence which the pagoda tends to take in the town’s postcards which I have seen, but the importance of the pagoda in defining Rangoon was not just a European construction but was also held by the Burmese themselves. For instance, it was at the Shwedagon that the rebellious students at Rangoon University set up a counter higher educational institution, simultaneously protesting the attempts by the British colonial government to impose imperialist ideas onto Burmese education and also their military occupation of this prominent Burmese symbol.[2]


However, reading Arthur Waldron’s “The Problem of the Great Wall of China”, his use of alternative historical narratives to question both the European construction and nationalist adoption of such architectural symbols influenced me to take another look at the history of the Shwedagon.[3] It is the South Entrance to the complex that intrigued me because it undertook such vast changes in appearance over the course of British rule, transforming from a traditional gate structure in the 1850s to a much more expressive representation of Mount Neru with a tower covered by a façade of nat figures and flanked either side by chinthes in the 1890s.[4] In the modern day, this sense of movement and life in the structure has been replaced by a more ordered and geometric representation of the pagoda’s mandala.[5] My readings following up on this matter have suggested that the dramatic changes to this entrance over its lifetime reflects more than just the changing nature of Burmese architecture or the political impact of British colonial rule.


Instead, an alternative explanation for this evolution was the introduction of the Shwedagon into a wider transnational culture of Buddhist architecture under British rule as more pilgrims from South and East Asia were able to travel, and donate, to the pagoda. It is this transnational nature that has granted the pagoda UNESCO World Heritage status, but the development of the South Entrance is a physical manifestation of this.[6] As Elizabeth Howard-Moore argues, the architecture of the south entrance, as well as the rest of the pagoda, diverged from the original traditional Burmese style as it began to reflect wider Buddhist architectural styles, the introduction of the chinthes and the Bengali roofing between the 1850s-1890s being a part of this new artistic input.[7] Such a narrative of this site cannot be found in Burmese or British sources at the time, as both of them claim that the Shwedagon represented the Burmese people in one way or another, but it is only through analysing the photographs of structures such as the south entrance that allows us to see that a more complicated history of cultural input is at play here, and by identifying the transnational nature of the site’s architecture we can start to look at other transnational connections between Burma and the rest of the Buddhist world.

[1] Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel (New York, 1899; 2010), <> [accessed: 27/02/22], 203.

[2] Carol Ann Boshier, Mapping Cultural Nationalism: The Scholars of the Burma Research Society, 1910-1935 (Copenhagen, 2018), 233-234.

[3] Arthur N. Waldron, “The Problem of the Great Wall of China”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 43: 2 (1983), 643-663.

[4] “Shwedagon, South Entrance”, Yangon Time Machine, <> [accessed: 27/02/22].

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Shwedagon Pagoda on Singuttara Hill”, UNESCO, <> [accessed: 27/02/22].

[7] Elizabeth Howard-Moore, “Patronage and Place: The Shwedagon in Times of Change”, Buddhism Across Asia: Networks of Material, Intellectual and Cultural Exchange, Vol. 1, ed. Tansen Sen (Singapore, 2014), 386.