Yangon was earlier known as Dagon when the Mon, who dominated Lower Myanmar founded it in the 6th Century A.D. Dagon at the time, was only a small fishing village spread around the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was King Alaungpaya who in 1755, conquered Dagon and renamed it “Yangon”. The British subsequently captured Yangon during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) but returned it to Myanmar administration after the war. The city was destroyed by the great fire of 1841. Yangon’s main claim to fame was the renowned Shwedagon Pagoda,
Yangon became the commercial and political hub of British Burma after the British Empire seized the city in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852. Based on army engineer Lt. Fraser’s grand design, the British constructed a new city on a grid plan on delta land. The city was bounded on the east by the Pazundaung Creek and to the south and west by the Yangon River. By the 1890s Yangon’s increasing population and commerce had given birth to prosperous residential suburbs to the north of Royal Lake (Kandawgyi) and Inya Lake.
Colonial Yangon, known as “the Garden City of the East.” was proud of its spacious parks and lakes and mix of modern buildings and traditional wooden architecture. By the early 20th century, Yangon’s public services and infrastructure were so advanced that they could be compared with that of London.
Since the independence of Myanmar, Yangon has been rapidly expanding outwards. Successive governments have built satellite towns such as Thuwana and Okkalapa in the 1950s to Dagon Myothit (New Dagon) in the 1990s. Currently, Greater Yangon encompasses an area covering nearly 400 sq. mi. (1000 sq.km) and remains the largest city and also the most important commercial center of Myanmar.
North of Yangon, a votive of the Bagan period at Tadagale, shows that the laterite ridge at the end of which Shwedagon lay was a scene of activity during the Bagan period. It is probable that the ridge served as a road southwards to the Shwedagon Pagoda and Dagon Village beyond. After the collapse of Bagan in the 13th century and the subsequent rise of Mon power in the 14th, with their capital at Bago, Dagon gained some importance as a centre of religious life but not as a commercial port. It is known that once Dagon reportedly contained thirty-two ordination halls. Here Binnya U (1348-83), Mon king of Bago created a pagoda that was 18 m. (60′) tall. For those princes who could not find safety in Bago, Dagon became a place of refuge. Binnya U’s son, Binnya Nwe, who later became King Rajadarit, fled to Dagon when he ran away with his half-sister Talamidaw. Dagon at the time was not a walled city but a fort of logs.
Successive Mon Kings of the 15th century raised the height of the Shwedagon Pagoda by encasing the earlier pagoda and embellishing the new. King Binnyayan (1426-46) had the hill cut down and the base enlarged to five terraces to support the weight but died before the completion of the work. His successor, Binnyawaru (1446-50) completed the work and was helped by his mother, Queen Shin Saw Bu, the only regnant queen of Myanmar. She was ably aided by the commander of the army who had the support of his soldiers, attendants as well as the common people. They raised the height of the Pagoda to 90.6 m (302′) and Queen Shin Saw Bu was the first to gild this pagoda. She stepped on the scales and let them take her weight which was about 40 kg. She then donated her own weight in gold. She dedicated a vast expanse of glebe lands which virtually covered the whole of modern Yangon. Her successor King Dhammazedi, created the stone inscriptions seen standing on Pagoda Hill. He also donated a large bell which a Portuguese adventurer is said to have taken away. But it fell into the river and has not been seen since. In 1539, Tabinshwehti, who had conquered Bago, placed a bejeweled finial on the Pagoda. Casper de Cruz, a Dominican priest, who was in the country between 1550-1560 said that “the Brames (Burmese) were a great people, very rich of gold and precious stones, chiefly of rubies; a proud nation and valiant. They have very rich and gallant shippings garnished with gold which they sail in the rivers; they use vessels of gold silver; their houses are of timber and well wrought. The kingdom is very great.” In 1572, Bayinnaung rebuilt the Pagoda to 360′ and had it re-gilded. The earthquake in 1564 had reduced the shrine to rubble. Bayinnaung arrived from Bago in a golden barge taking the form of the mythical Hintha bird, surmounted by a golden spire. Accompanying the barge was a large fleet of 300 golden canoes and 1000 war boats which filled the Bago River as far as the eye could see. The enormous fleet went all the way to Dagon. The whole journey was repeated by Bayinnaung in 1581.
The Shwedagon Fair became so popular that by the end of the 16th century, people not only from Myanmar but also from neighboring countries like Laos and from as far away as Cambodia began arriving. The Dagon Fair became one of the chief markets for overseas trade rivalling that of Bago and Thanlyin. The region was going through yet another change. At the same time, the Bago River was clogging up with silt off Thanlyin, making it difficult for sea-going vessels to navigate their way up the river. Inevitably, Dagon became the port of choice. In the history of Dagon, Alaungpaya’s conquest of lower Myanmar is considered the second most important event after the actual founding of the Shwedagon Pagoda. That day in May 1775, when Alaungpaya changed the town’s name from Dagon to Yangon (meaning “Enmity Exhausted”) to commemorate his victory, marks the beginning of the modern era of the town.