Legend has it that there's been a stupa on Singuttara Hill for 2600 years, ever since two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Ballika, met the Buddha. He gave them eight of his hairs to take back to Myanmar, a land ruled by King Okkalapa. Okkalapa enshrined the hairs in a temple of gold, together with relics of three former buddhas, which was then enclosed in a temple of silver, then one of tin, then copper, then lead, then marble and, finally, one of plain iron-brick.
Archaeologists suggest that the original stupa was built by the Mon people some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. In common with many other ancient zedi in earthquake-prone Myanmar, it has been rebuilt many times. During the Bagan (Pagan) period of Myanmar’s history (10th to 14th centuries), the story of the stupa emerged from the mists of legend to become hard fact.
In the 15th century, the tradition of gilding the stupa began. Queen Shinsawbu, who was responsible for many improvements to the stupa, provided her own weight (88lb) in gold, which was beaten into gold leaf and used to cover the structure. Her son-in-law, Dhammazedi, went several better, offering four times his own weight and that of his wife in gold.
In 1612 Portuguese renegade adventurer Philip de Brito raided the stupa from his base in Thanlyin and carried away Dhammazedi's 300-ton bell, with the intention of melting it down for cannons. As the British were to do later with another bell, he accidentally dropped it into the river, where it remains.
During the 17th century the monument suffered earthquake damage on eight occasions. Worse was to follow in 1768, when a quake brought down the whole top of the zedi. King Hsinbyushin had it rebuilt to virtually its present height, and its current configuration dates from that renovation.
British troops occupied the compound for two years immediately after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. In 1852, during the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the British again took the paya, the soldiers pillaged it once more and it remained under military control for 77 years, until 1929. Prior to the British takeover of southern Myanmar there had been defensive earthworks around the paya, but these were considerably extended by the occupiers. The emplacements for their cannons can still be seen outside the outer wall.
In 1871 the provision of a new hti (the umbrella-like decorative top of a stupa) by King Mindon Min from Mandalay caused considerable head-scratching for the British, who were not at all keen for such an association to be made with the still-independent part of Myanmar.
The huge earthquake of 1930, which totally destroyed the Shwemawdaw in Bago, caused only minor damage to Shwedagon. The following year it wasn't so lucky, when the paya suffered from a serious fire.
After another minor earthquake in 1970, the zedi was clad in bamboo scaffolding, which extended beyond King Mindon’s 100-year-old hti, and was refurbished. The stupa also had to be repaired following the 2008 Cyclone Nargis.
During recent centuries, Shwedagon Paya was the scene for much political activity during the Myanmar independence movement – Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to massive crowds here in 1988, and the temple was also at the centre of the monks’ protests in 2007.