Perhaps the most famous landmark in Burma, Shwedagon Pagoda has been a focal point for life in Yangon for a very long time – it has reputedly existed in some form or other for the last 2,600 years. It reached its current height of approximately 114m in the late 1700s after the most recent rebuilding as a result of multiple earthquakes. It is thought of as the most sacred location for Buddhists in Burma, with the relics of multiple past Buddhas housed within: the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa and eight strands of hair from Gautama – the one traditionally thought of as Buddha. An exact replica exists in Naypyidaw (the new capital of Burma).
The pagoda and surrounding areas are bustling with life at all times of the day; there are about as many devout locals coming to pray and make offerings as there are tourists with cameras and visiting monks. They then stay, meet friends, watch the world go by – it’s important to remember that until very recently, Myanmar didn’t really have much in the way of entertainment. All four approaches to reach the Pagoda proper from street level take the form of grand covered sets of stairs, flanked with stores and stalls. The stairs are kept clean by teams of volunteers who sweep on a regular basis: this is important because from the lowest stair, shoes are forbidden. You can carry them with you, but not wear them. Despite the large number of people, it’s a quiet, respectful place and feels peaceful. Photography is of course allowed, and there are roaming teams (packs?) of photographers who will snap your portrait in front of the pagoda and then sell you a print for a not-so-reasonable price. Interestingly, though the plaza bakes in the sun all day, the white marble tiles stay cool; avoid the black/ gray slate, as these will roast your feet to a crisp.
From a photographic perspective, almost all images of the pagoda are in color to capture its gold color; in bright sunshine, this is blindingly bright as the entire thing (plus a lot of the surrounding statues and sub-temples) are gilded with real gold leaf. I wanted to try something different: to see if the atmosphere of the place could be captured in monochrome, and perhaps evoke feelings of an earlier period. All images were shot during my January 2013 trip to the city with a Leica M Typ 240 prototype (review here), the 28/2 Summicron-M ASPH and 50/2 APO-Summicronn ASPH (reivew here). As you can see, it may not have the dedicated B&W-only sensor of the M Monochrom, but the files it produces still hold the potential for great tonality. Enjoy! MT
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