The Golden Kingdom
Just like the church spires of New England," Ann Judson thought as she gazed over a Burmese landscape dotted with bell-shaped, golden pagodas. And just as the churches of her native Massachusetts announced Christianity's dominion, so the pagodas and temples that seemed to be everywhere underscored Buddhism's centrality in Burmese life.
No pagoda, however, spoke of Buddhism's importance quite like the monumental, gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda that towered over Rangoon. In an 1817 letter home Ann tried to convey a visitor's experience: "After having ascended a flight of steps, a large gate opens, when a wild, fairy scene is abruptly presented to view. It resembles more the descriptions we sometimes have in novels, of enchanted castles, or ancient abbeys in ruins, than anything we ever meet in real life. … Here and there are large open buildings, containing huge images of Gaudama; some in a sitting, some in a sleeping position, surrounded by images of priests and attendants, in the act of worship, or listening to his instructions. Before the image of Gaudama, are erected small altars, on which offerings of fruit, flowers, &c. are laid. Large images of elephants, lions, angels, and demons, together with a number of indescribable objects, all assist in filling the picturesque scene."
Located on a rise of land near the city's center, the Shwedagon offered a commanding view of what Ann described as "one of the most beautiful landscapes in nature." From the hilltop, "the polished spires of the pagodas, glistening among the trees at a distance, appear like the steeples of meeting-houses in our American seaports. The verdant appearance of the country, the hills and valleys, ponds and rivers, the banks of which are covered with cattle, ...