- Copper Plaques of the Great Shwedagon Pagoda
The term “copper plaque” is the author’s creation. The originals under study have been called copper or gold bricks. They are neither gold nor brick. All of them are copper, 5 inches by 3 inches, and ¼-inch thick. They are not bricks in either form or texture. Hence the term “copper plaque” is used in this note.
It was the custom of Myanmar kings to incorporate gold, silver, ruby, emerald, and sapphire bricks, along with other other precious materials, into the foundation of their famous pagodas. This was a staple in how Myanmar chronicles described royal generosity, when sponsoring their deeds of merit in the form of the pagodas’ construction and dedication. In fact, however, genuine precious stones were not used and the grand foundations had more prosaic, less expensive base materials.
During the reign of King Myedu (Sinbyu Shin r. 1763–76), there was a great earthquake on June 12, 1768. The tremor brought down the entire topmost part of the highly revered Great Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, from the finial to the molding above the bell-shaped dome. Earthquakes are terrible for people and their revered structures, but sometimes a blessing in disguise for archaeologists and scholars. At the time of the 1768 earthquake, 804 copper plaques—146 with inscriptions and 658 with nothing inscribed upon them—were found among the debris. The king had them re-deposited, together with his donation of 3,538 gold and 5,000 silver bricks, as mentioned in the Konbaungset.
King Mindon (r. 1852–78) put up a new hti (finial) on the great pagoda in 1871. The installation of the new hti [End Page 399] followed renovations carried out in 1869. People from all places and walks of life visited the Shwedagon pagoda and donated copper plaques.
The place where the copper plaques were deposited is called Nat Kyi or Nat Le (). Nat Kyi is situated between the bell-shaped dome and the oval molding. It is a flat surface, about 18 inches wide. When renovations are done, the workers can tread on that surface and walk around the great structure. Nat Kyi cannot be seen from the foot of the pagoda platform. The copper plaques were embedded in layers of two on three and covered with cement. During the rainy seasons, the heavy rain, pouring forcefully from the finial, beats down against the Nat Kyi. Experts think that the copper plaques withstand the force of the rain, which otherwise would seep into the body of the great structure and damage the giant stupa’s content and stability.
The earthquake of 1972 tilted the revered pagoda’s hti after which the hti was repaired. These necessary ministrations were a lucky opportunity to record the inscriptions of the Se Le (), the tinkling little bells. Later in 1976, some renovations carried out at the top part of the pagoda also proved a golden opportunity to study the fascinating copper plaques, the existence of which had not been previously known.
The Pagoda Trustees informed the Burma Historical Commission that they had unearthed numerous inscribed copper plaques, whereupon scholars rushed to the scene to examine the exciting finds.
They found numerous plaques piled up in the corner of a room. The plaques were dirty and discolored with verdigris. The writings on the plaques were visible, but most of them were difficult to read and decipher. We are indebted to the Pagoda Trustees who willingly saw to the plaques’ cleaning. They now shine with golden hue.
During this project, 5,962 copper plaques were studied and their inscriptions recorded. Almost all the plaques measure 5 inches by 3 inches and ¼-inch thick. Some of the plaques mentioned the weight as 100 ticals, which is a little [End Page 400] more than ½ a viss (1 inch = 3.6 lbs.); some recorded the cast as priced at 2 or 3 rupees each. The date and the name of the donors were inscribed, recording that they had donated the copper brick, or, as some claimed, the gold brick. They also inscribed their devout wish to be freed from all dangers and calamities and to attain Nirvana at the...