As the city in its current form, Yangon is a relatively young one. However, much like many others around the country, there is a more ancient version which sat relatively idle before its re-emergence.
In 1755, King Alaungpaya, founder of the Konbaung Dynasty which ruled the country from 1752 to 1885, built a new city called Dagon on the site of present day Yangon. The history of Dagon is tied very closely to a rather shiny, beautiful pagoda which dominates today’s Yangon skyline.
According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda has existed for more than 2,600 years. It is said that two brothers were travelling in the region in the 6th century BC when they met the Gautama Buddha, who gave them eight relics of his hair. The brothers returned to their homeland where they met local ruler King Okkalapa and granted him the hairs, which he enshrined at the site.
What happened next is, frankly, rather incredible.
“There was a tumult among men and spirits… rays emitted by the hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell… the blind beheld objects… the deaf heard sounds… the dumb spoke distinctly… the earth quaked… the winds of the ocean blew… Mount Meru shook… lightning flashed… gems rained down until they were knee deep… all trees of the Himalayas, though not in seasons, bore blossoms and fruit.”
One other explanation was that the Shwedagon Pagoda was built by Mon kings sometime around the 8th century. When the British took over what was then Burma, they recognised the benefits of Yangon being located close to the sea. Renaming the town Rangoon (presumably because they couldn’t quite work out how to say Yangon), they turned it into their capital, using Sule Pagoda as the official centre-point and building the city in a grid-like structure around that.
Although the government moved the capital up-country to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005, Yangon has continued to prosper as the country changes. The mighty river still acts as a useful trading point and the downtown area remains one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in Southeast Asia, with historic buildings ranging from Pagodas, to Mosques, to Hindu Temples, to Churches and even a Synagogue.
This article was first published in MYANMORE’s survival guide KnowIt, first edition.