According to legend, Shwedagon Pagoda was built more than 2,500 years ago during the time of Lord Buddha. The two merchant brothers from then Okkalapa (now Yangon) met with Gautama Buddha shortly after he attained enlightenment, and became the first disciples of Lord Buddha. Gautama Buddha gave them eight hair relics which they brought back to their country. In Okkalapa, they built the first pagoda in the history of Buddhism, Shwedagon on the holy Singuttara Hill. Although there is no archeological evidence to support this official story, most Buddhists in Myanmar and around the world believe in this story and Shwedagon becomes one of the most important centers of Buddhism.
Many archeologists believe Shwedagon was built between 6 and 10 century AD by Mons. Although the true history of Shwedagon pagoda is shrouded in mystery, it was already well established when Burmese in Bagan dominated the central Burma in 11 century AD. King Anawrahta of Bagan visited Shwedagon during one of his excavation into lower Burma. In 1372, Mon King Banya U renovated Shwedagon Pagoda. In late fourteenth century, famous Mon King Rajadhiraj, when he was a prince, fled from Hansawaddi to Dagon (now named Yangon) to revolt against his father. He went to Shwedagon Pagoda and prayed for a successful revolt. In early 15th century, King Banya-yan raised the pagoda to 295 meters height. His successor, Queen Shin Saw Pu renovated Shwedagon Pagoda again and is renowned for giving the pagoda current shape and form. She donated gold equal to her body weight (40 Kg), made into gold leaves and plates and offered to the stupa. Her successor, King Dhammazedi donated four times his body weight in gold.
In 1485 King Dhammazedi erected three stone inscriptions on the Shwedagon Pagoda’s eastern stairway. Written in Mon, Burmese and Pali, it described the history of Shwedagon Pagoda since the time of Gautama Buddha. These inscriptions can still be seen near the eastern stairway. (Just recently, these stones were removed to a small building in the North East corner of the Shwedagon terrace).
King Dhammazedi also donated a large bell weighing approximately 30 tons. This bell was plundered in 1608 by a Portuguese mercenary Philip de Brito y Nocote who based in Syriam (Thanlyin). Unfortunately it fell into Rangoon River and was never recovered. Many Burmese still believe this bell goes up to the surface of Rangoon River on full moon days, and the sound of the bell can be heard during the time. The military government in 1990s tried to find and salvage the Great Bell of Dhammazedi with the aids of French experts but failed to find it.
Another Bell donated by King Singhu of Ava weigh 23 tons and was also plundered by British during their occupation of lower Burma during the First Anglo-Burma War (1824 – 1826). They tried to carry the bell to Calcutta but bell fell into the river. Later, it was salvaged by Burmese and was returned to Shwedagon Pagoda. King Tharawaddy also donated a third bell weighing 40 tons to the Pagoda in 1841 and can still be seen in north east side of the pagoda.
Since 1852, Shwedagon was under British military control, but Burmese were still allowed to visit the pagoda. In 1871, King Mindon of Mandalay sent a new diamond studded hti (umbrella) to be installed at the top of Shwedagon. The delighted Burmese celebrated with a festive procession, with more than 100,000 people coming to greet and pay homage the new hti.
During 1990s, current military government tried to renovate the stairways donated by King Tharawaddy of Ava. However, the engineers found that the infrastructure was beyond repair and decided to construct a new stairway instead. Current stairways seen at Shwedagon are the new ones constructed during that time.