RANGOON, Burma — Burma may be among the world's poorest nations and getting poorer, but its magical Shwedagon Pagoda, which British poet Rudyard Kipling called "a beautiful winking wonder," is still deluged with donations.
The value of the gold shimmering from the pagoda's towering Stupa and myriad other images is greater than the country's current foreign exchange reserves.
One of Buddhism's greatest shrines soars above this capital city and serves as a womblike retreat from woes, a picnic spot and playground, the place where investing some money in this life will ensure, according to Buddhist belief, a better deal in lives to come.
The donations dropped into just its collection boxes amounts to about $308,000 each month. This in a country where the annual per capita income hovers around $180 and which by most yardsticks is currently in one of its lowest economic troughs since embarking on a ruinous path of socialism, isolationism and military rule 25 years ago.
One Burmese involved in the pagoda's affairs notes that donations tend to be more generous in times of trouble.
"The more we suffer, the more we think we have not done enough good in our previous existence," he explains. Thus, Burmese Buddhists will try harder to "make merit"--often in the form of donations to temples--to gain happiness in their next reincarnation.
To date, nobody in this nation of fervent Buddhists has even hinted that the pagoda's five to six tons of gold be used to shore up the country's financial position, despite the fact that it's worth some $65 million, while foreign exchange holdings in 1987 fell to as low as $24 million--barely enough to run the country for two weeks.
Gold Dust, Chips Auctioned
Gold completely blankets Shwedagon's central, bell-shaped Stupa, which rises the equivalent of 30 stories above a grand circular walkway ringed by chapels, statuary and a forest of lesser spires. The upper portion of the Stupa is covered by 21,000 gold plates, which are repaired or replaced every five years, while thin sheets of gold leaf are affixed to the lower section in four-year cycles.
Rain, wind and pecking birds cause the off-flow of gold dust and chips, which are retrieved in special tanks and drains and auctioned. The offering price for the current bagful is $385,000.
In addition, there are gilt statues and golden bells as well as a treasure-trove of precious stones at the uppermost reaches of the Stupa, which includes 5,449 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.
The care and administration of the Shwedagon requires a miniature government. There are nine trustees, a permanent staff of 150 and some 65 volunteer associations whose members sweep floors, polish images, provide drinking water and handle the gilding.
Survived Quakes, Wars
Burmese are drawn to the Shwedagon because of its sacred relics and its long history.
Legend has it that the pagoda was founded 2,500 years ago after two brothers obtained eight hairs of the Lord Buddha and brought them back from India. These and the relics of three earlier Buddhas are said to be enshrined in secret chambers within the shrine.
Over the centuries the temple survived earthquakes, wars and British colonials, some of whom refused to follow the rule of taking off one's shoes when entering. It also grew higher, peaking at today's 326 feet.
Burma's beloved 15th-Century Queen Shin Saw Bu was the first to gild it, contributing her own weight--90 pounds--in gold. The next century an English traveler described Shwedagon as "the fairest place as I suppose that is in the world."