BAGAN: AT THE BEGINNING
The land of 13,000 temples is Myanmar’s ancient answer to Angkor Wat.
The land of 13,000 temples is Myanmar’s ancient answer to Angkor Wat.
The bricks are warm beneath my bare feet as I stand on the steps of a Buddhist temple and look out across the dusty plain to the low mountains to the west. A thin blue haze brightens to yellow as the sun slips lower, sending the occasional beams across the vault of the sky. Just before the sun actually sets, a thickening cloud cover reduces it to a glowing red orb, dim enough to stare at as it fades in a bluish-gray overcast. The spectacle is made even more remarkable by the darkening silhouettes of towering exotic temples spread out toward the horizon, a magical skyline that until only recently remained almost unheard of except to the most intrepid travelers.
This is Bagan. When travelers talk about Asia’s mysterious ruined temples, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is what comes to mind. Unlike that famous temple complex tangled in the greedy roots of a tropical jungle, Bagan’s pagodas still rise in triumph over the land. If you turn in place you can see the endless stretch of temples that surround you. In less than two centuries, as many as 13,000 religious structures were built in a roughly 26-square-mile area situated along the east bank of a shoulder-bend in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River, an hour’s flight north of Yangon.
Under King Anawrahta, who rose to power in 1044, a simple city here became the capital of what would be known as the Pagan Empire and set the foundation for the modern Burmese nation. The king’s reign united the Bamar peoples of the river valley and brought the neighboring Shan States under his rule. At the same time, he held off the advance of the Khmer from the east.
In 1057, Anawrahta conquered the Thaton Kingdom, an ethnic Mon state to the south. Legend has it that Shin Arahan, a monk in Thaton, grew dismayed by the declining standards of Theravada Buddhism there, and when called to prostrate himself before Anawrahta, instead boldly sat in the throne to proclaim the true law of the world was the teachings of the Buddha. Rather than execute him for
THE LARGEST IN BAGAN, DHAMMAYANGYI TEMPLE’S SIX RISING TERRACES WOULDN’T LOOK OUT OF PLACE IN EGYPT.
the offense, the king agreed. Regardless of the veracity of that story, the king did indeed make Theravada Buddhism the religion of his empire. Many of his subjects already practiced Ari Buddhism, which included some Hindu elements and the worship of nature spirits, called nats. When Anawrahta’s reforms failed to eliminate the spirit element, he instead declared a list of 37 official nats and disseminated the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism.
Subsequent kings used pagoda- and temple-building as a means to “earn merit,” something that would help them when they left this life and moved on to the next. So began four generations of monarchs who seemed nirvana-bent on covering the land with religious structures. Of those 13,000 buildings, about 2,200 still remain.
The last of the Pagan monarchs, King Narathihapate, built the Mingalazedi Pagoda, which resembles a large step pyramid with a pot-shaped stupa — a bell-shaped dome containing statues or relics — set atop it. The project bankrupted the city and he would become known as “Taruk-Pyay Min” — the king who fled from the Mongols. In 1287, Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes descended on the weakened kingdom, bringing the glory days of the Pagan Empire to an end.
You’ll find a proper paved road surrounding the Bagan Archaeological Zone while simple sand and packed-dirt roads crisscross the plain. The area is too expansive to make much headway on foot, but bicycles — pedaled or electric — are abundant. A horse-and-cart with a friendly driver
are also popular, though when the temperatures climb into infernal numbers, an air-conditioned tour van is nothing to be ashamed of. Finally, you’ll enjoy the best view possible in a hot-air balloon ride, while adding another dimension to the landscape views for those still on the ground. Travelers might take a siesta or seek shade during the heat of midday, but no matter how many nights we stay here, everyone wants to see each sunrise and sunset.
WHAT TO SEE
Bagan’s temples and pagodas range in size from small shrine-like structures to massive fairy-castle buildings that are red-bricked, whitewashed or even gilded in gold, and topped by stupas.
As all of these temples are still considered sacred, visitors must take off shoes and socks in order to enter. Once inside, you find shadowy halls and niches filled with Buddha images, and in some cases murals or glazed terracotta tiles depicting the Jataka stories, a collection of poetic tales about the previous lives of the Buddha, a portion of the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. Temples designed in the Mon style are square and have deep corridors which get dim light from perforated windows. Colorful frescoes with Mon script adorn the walls. Bagan-style temples tend to be lighter inside with wider spaces but taller in construction. Many temples draw upon elements from both styles as well.
Surrounded by a gated wall, Old Bagan, along the river, is the center of the old city and the only portion that is walkable. Several popular points of interest can get crowded at sunset, although some lesser sites might let you enjoy the view in solitude. Climbing some of the more dramatic structures can give you a breathtaking perspective on the whole area, but those tall spires are just as dramatic when seen from ground level, as part of the skyline.
Dhammayangyi Temple — The largest in Bagan, this temple of six rising terraces wouldn’t look out of place in Egypt. King Narathu commissioned its construction in 1170; legend has it he built it to gain merit to offset the crime of murdering his father and brother.
Ananda Temple — Tall and sharp, this 170-foot-high temple is topped by what looks like a golden corncob. Built around the turn of the 11th century, Ananda has 554 Jakata-scene tiles around its base and terraces. Four 31-foot Buddha statues face out from the center.
Gawdawpalin Temple — With its spire reaching 180 feet, this two-story temple is one of the tallest structures in Bagan. Two large, white lion statues guard the entrance, and various nat statues share space inside with seated Buddha images.
Sulamani Temple — Completed in 1183, this Bagan-style temple is topped by a spire similar to Ananda’s but ungilded. Frescoes and murals decorate the halls and outside are 547 glazed terracotta pieces with Jataka scenes on them.
Shwezigon Temple — Almost painful to look at in the bright sun, this 11th-century gold-plated stupa is one of the oldest. At night, spotlights illuminate it. Containing several Buddhist relics, the pagoda complex is an important pilgrimage site for the faithful.
Shwesandaw Pagoda — Built by King Anawrahta himself in 1057, this impressive white pagoda is comprised of five rising terraces topped by a large round stupa that is believed to protect a hair of the Buddha acquired when the King conquered Thaton.