Shoe Question

   As in other Asian countries, it is the custom in Burma for people to doff their shoes before entering a house; on pagoda platforms and other sites associated with Buddhism, neither footwear nor stockings may be worn. These customs became issues in relations between the Burmese and British on two occasions in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the last years of King Mindon's reign in the 1870s, the British Indian government ordered its resident in Mandalay to refuse to take off his footwear when attending royal audiences, on the grounds that this was humiliating. As a result, the king refused to see any British envoys in person, as did his son and successor Thibaw, greatly hampering diplomatic communications. The shoe question emerged in a different form in the second decade of the 20th century when the Young Men's Buddhist Association and other groups called for strict observance of the ban on footwear in pagodas; a respected member of the Sangha, the Ledi Sayadaw, wrote a treatise on the issue, "On the Impropriety of Wearing Shoes on Pagoda Platforms," which generated nationwide support for the ban. After a violent incident in which monks attacked shoe-wearing European visitors in Mandalay in 1919, the colonial government recognized the authority of pagoda trustees to exclude such persons. An exception was made for policemen and soldiers on duty, which was much resented by the Burmese.
   Many British held the opinion that because they had previously been allowed to visit pagodas with their shoes on, the ban was simply a way of humiliating them; the matter stirred up considerable bitterness between British and Burmese, and before independence in 1948, most Westerners avoided such sites as the Shwe Dagon Pagoda that had previously been major tourist attractions. For the Burmese, success in getting the government to recognize the ban was a moral victory against the seemingly all-powerful British Empire. SHWE DAGON PAGODA. Although it is not the tallest Buddhist pagoda in Burma, a distinction enjoyed by the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Pegu (Bago), the Shwe Dagon is regarded as the country's holiest Buddhist site, a place of pilgrimage and devotion for millions of people who congregate at its base each year. It is located on Singuttara (Theingottara) Hill, the southernmost elevation of the Pegu (Bago) Yoma mountain range, north of the central business district of modern Rangoon (Yangon) and west of Kandawgyi Lake. According to legend, Gotama Buddha gave eight of his hairs to two traveling merchants from a country known as Ukkala or Okkala, identified as the region around Rangoon. When they returned home from India, they located the hill and built a chamber to enshrine the holy relics with the assistance of nats, and discovered relics of the three earlier Buddhas of the present era: the staff of the Kakussanda Buddha, the robe of the Kassapa Buddha, and a water filter belonging to the Konagamana Buddha.
   Devotees believe the relics of all four Buddhas are still housed within the pagoda, giving it unmatched religious and devotional significance. Another legend relates that the Indian Emperor Asoka visited the Shwe Dagon in the third century BCE and sponsored its repair. A small Mon fishing settlement, Dagon, grew up around the site of the pagoda as early as the 11th century CE, giving the pagoda its name ("Golden Dagon").
   Over the centuries, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda received generous donations from both Mon and Burman (Bamar) monarchs. The 15thcentury Mon queen Shinsawbu was the first to gild the pagoda, offering her weight in gold and also donating a hti or umbrella to the pagoda's summit; her successor, Dhammazedi, carried out further renovation and donated a series of stone inscriptions that relate the pagoda's history. Both kings Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, Burman rulers who established their capital at Pegu (Bago) in the 16th century, carried out extensive renovations. After the pagoda was damaged in an earthquake in 1768, King Hsinbyushin repaired it, donated a hti, and raised it to its present height of 99 meters (326 feet). King Mindon donated a new hti for the pagoda in 1871, but the British authorities refused to allow him to come down to Rangoon to present it in person because this might indicate recognition of his sovereignty over Lower as well as Upper Burma. The State Peace and Development Council carried out extensive renovation of the pagoda in 1999, including replacement of Mindon's hti.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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