This centuries-old golden stupa looms over Pathein like a glittering beacon. The hti (stupa pinnacle) consists of a topmost layer made from 14lb of solid gold, a middle tier of pure silver and a bottom tier of bronze; all three tiers are gilded and embedded with thousands of precious and semiprecious stones.
One legend says the paya was originally built by India’s Buddhist King Ashoka in 305 BC. Standing just 7.5ft tall, this original stupa supposedly enshrined Buddha relics and a 6in gold bar. Another legend goes that a Muslim princess named Onmadandi requested each of her three Buddhist lovers build a stupa in her honour. One of the lovers erected Shwemokhtaw, the other two the less distinguished Tazaung and Thayaunggyaung Paya.
Whichever story you choose to believe, Bagan’s King Alaungsithu is thought to have erected a 46ft stupa called Htupayon over this site in AD 1115. Then, in 1263, King Samodagossa took power, raised the stupa to 132ft and changed the name to Shwemokhtaw Paya, which means Stupa of the Half-Foot Gold Bar.
The southern shrine of the compound houses the Thiho-shin Phondaw-pyi sitting-buddha image, which, the story goes, floated to the delta coast on a raft sent from Sri Lanka during ancient times. According to the legend, an unknown Sinhalese sculptor fashioned four different buddha images using pieces from the original Bodhi tree mixed with cement composite. He then placed the images on four wooden rafts and set the rafts adrift on the ocean. One landed in Dawei (Tavoy), another at Kyaikkami (Amherst), another at Kyaiktiyo (this one is now at Kyaikpawlaw), and the fourth landed near Phondawpyi, a fishing village about 60 miles south of Pathein, from where it was transferred here.
A marble standing buddha positioned in a niche in the fence running along the western side of the stupa marks a spot where Mon warriors once prayed before going off to battle. In the northwestern corner of the compound is a shrine dedicated to Shin Upagot, the Bodhisattva who floats on the ocean and appears to those in trouble. Turtles swim in the water surrounding the small pavilion.
Also in this northwest corner is an unusual golden Ganesh shrine, dedicated to the elephant-headed god worshipped by Hindus as the deity of wisdom and removing obstacles.