BA­GAN: AT THE BE­GIN­NING

The land of 13,000 tem­ples is Myan­mar’s an­cient an­swer to Angkor Wat.

Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Kevin Revolinski

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.

EX­PLOR­ING BA­GAN

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.

TIME­LESS TEM­PLES

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.

Htilominlo Tem­ple

Sh­wezigon Tem­ple

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