Kyaiktiyo Pagoda

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda: Sacred Boulder Teeters Terrifyingly on Cliff Edge

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Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (known also as the ‘Golden Rock’) is a Buddhist pilgrimage site located in the Mon State, an administrative region in the southern part of Myanmar / Burma. The site consists of a small pagoda resting on top of a giant granite boulder which is covered with gold leaves. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is considered to be one of the three most important Buddhist sites in Myanmar / Burma, along with the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and the Mahamuni Buddhist Temple in Mandalay.

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. (Public Domain )

Legend of the Pagoda Carried on the Hermit’s Head

The name of this pagoda may be translated into English as the ‘pagoda carried on the hermit’s head’. The rather unusual name may be explained by a legend associated with this site. According to this legend, there was once a Buddhist hermit who had received a strand of hair from the Buddha himself.

The sharing of the relics of the (Buddha). Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, 2nd 3rd century AD.

The sharing of the relics of the (Buddha). Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, 2nd 3rd century AD. ( Public Domain )

The hermit decided to give this relic to a king. In return for this gift, the king offered to build a small pagoda, where the relic was to be enshrined, on top of a boulder shaped liked the hermit’s head. In another version of the story, it was the hermit who requested the king to have the strand of hair kept under a rock shaped like the hermit’s head.

In any event, the king did what he promised / what he was told to do. As his father was a Zawgyi (a sort of shaman / magician), and his mother a naga (a legendary serpent-like creature), the king was able to complete the task at hand. Using his magical powers, the king found the desired boulder at the bottom of the ocean, and brought it up to dry land. He then had the boulder transported to the mountain, and balanced on top of the strand of hair from the Buddha. In another version of the legend, the hair is placed in the pagoda built on top of the boulder.

Drawing of Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (1921).

Drawing of Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (1921). ( Public Domain )

There are several other legends connected to this boulder. For instance, one legend states that the king used a boat to transport the boulder from the ocean to the mountain. When the boulder was put into place, the vessel turned into stone. A stone in the shape of a boat can be found at the site, and it is said that this was the actual boat that transported the boulder.

Another legend states that the rock is not actually resting on the mountain, but actually hovering over it. Initially, there was enough room under it for a chicken to pass. Then, it sank a little, and only partridges and creatures smaller than it could walk under it. When the rock sank further, leaving a space small enough only for sparrows to pass. Today, the space between the rock and the mountain is said to be so small that it cannot be seen. 

Side view of the base of the Golden Rock.

Side view of the base of the Golden Rock. (Johannes Zielcke/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

Maintaining the Precariously Placed Golden Boulder

Despite the legends, the fact that the boulder has remained on its precarious position for centuries may be said to be an amazing thing in itself. Perched on the edge of a mountain, the boulder and its pagoda look as though they could slide down the mountain at any given time. For the pilgrims, the fact that they have remained in their positions thus far is due to the power of the relic being kept there.

The Golden Rock from below.

The Golden Rock from below. (dany13/ CC BY 2.0 )

The boulder is 7.6 m tall, and the pagoda on top of it is 7.3 m tall. The boulder is covered in gold leaves, which have been placed on it over time by pilgrims visiting the site. Today, pilgrims can still place gold leaves on the boulder, although there is a fee for doing so. In addition, some pilgrims place banknotes on sticks (so that the money would not be blown away by the wind) between the boulder and the ground. This money contributes towards the maintenance of the site.   

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