The archaeologically rich city of Bagan sits on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady River. What greets me upon debarkation from our boat is a loudspeaker blasting Rod Stewart singing “Young Turks” and thousands of ruins. Here is a region to compete with Angkor Wat; there are 4446 sandstone and terra cotta pagodas and temples dating from the 11th to 13th centuries. I can only hope we do not attempt to see them all.
Our arrival to Bagan is met with a festive parade through its streets. Colorful costumes, loud music, floats, horses, papier-mâché elephants, and “Nat mediums” parade past. Celebrations begin for a festival to replace the umbrellas on one of their most important stupas.
We follow these festivities with a stroll through Mani-Sithu, a colorful, and fishy, local market. Vegetables and fruits are less appetizing than those I have seen elsewhere. The meat definitely is a no-no. My Western sensibilities fail to ignore the smells and concentrate on the product. There are stands selling Areca nut, or betel nut. Using a betel leaf ‘mama’ spreads some white slaked lime-paste and shavings of betel nut before wrapping. The chew lasts a few minutes and men chew many a day. Judging by their rotten teeth it has more effect than a momentary charge of energy. Almost all women use a liquid concoction of bamboo and water called Thanaka on their faces. This is considered a way to soften the skin and to protect them from the sun. Both sexes smoke big handmade cheroots.
Then we start our pagoda pilgrimage.
Shwezigon Pagoda was built by King Anawrahta, a convert to Theravada Buddhism, in the early 11th century. A prototype of all stupas built throughout Myanmar, Shwezigon consists of a gigantic circular gold leaf stupa surrounded by smaller pagodas and shrines. Construction was completed in 1102 during the Pagan Dynasty. (Pagan was the earlier name for Bagan.) The pagoda is believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Buddha. I am told of the symbolism for the different positions of Buddha’s hands, of learn Buddha’s teachings and his steps to Enlightenment and Nirvana. After a month of repetition, I almost begin to grasp some of this complex philosophy.
King Anawrahta was Theravada Buddhism’s first major advocate in Myanmar and the first of the great builders of Bagan. The number of temples in the area would indicate scores of builders. The king had completed three terraces of his pagoda when he was killed by a wild buffalo. He intended Shwezigon to be a large reliquary to enshrine a collection of relics, including the Buddha’s frontal and collar bones, a copy of the tooth relic at Kandy, Sri Lanka, and an emerald Buddha image from China.
Legend says the site of Shwezigon was chosen by a white elephant. Stories about the white elephant, bone pieces, and signs from Buddha sound familiar. I am beginning to recognize the same legends told throughout Southeast Asia. But, I have difficulty with the collar bone story as Buddha was cremated.
Shwezigon Pagoda is oriented to the east and built of sandstone blocks. A golden bell tops the traditional jeweled Hti (umbrella spire) symbolizing sovereignty. The umbrella spire tops all pagodas and a great festival is scheduled tomorrow when Htis are being replaced. The pagoda soars 160 ft. with a square base 160 ft on a side and three square terraces. Probably the most unique aspect of Shwezigon is that it represents the first royal endorsement of the 37 Nats, or spirits, a major focus of Burmese religion before the arrival of Buddhism.
Ananda Temple, considered the “Westminster Abbey of Burma,” features four standing Buddha images facing each cardinal direction and plaques depicting the life of Buddha from birth to death. Ananda was built in 1105 AD by King Kyanzittha, King Anawrahta’s successor. While its architecture is Mon of Burmese origin, it was strongly influenced by Indian temples. The total length of the temple from end to end is about 290 ft.
King Kyanzittha was Bagan’s greatest king and temple builder. Under his rule Bagan became known as the “city of four million pagodas.” Looking out over the flat plains, I believe I can see that many on the horizon. Like all Bagan monuments, this great pagoda was damaged by earthquakes over the centuries, the last earthquake shaking the area in 1975.
Built with bricks and plaster, Ananda is highly revered. The name Ananda is derived from the Venerable Ananda, Buddha’s first cousin, personal secretary, and a devout attendant. It was fully restored after the 1975 earthquake and is well maintained by frequent whitewashing.
The legend associated with building this temple ended in tragedy to its architects. Eight monks approached King Kyanzittha and gave a description of a temple in the Himalayas where they had meditated. The king invited them to replicate the temple in the Bagan plains. After the temple was completed, in order to protect its uniqueness, the King had the monks killed. That one act had to set his Karma back several lifetimes.
Along the passages are wonderful frescoes, called Jataka scenes, which depict the life of Buddha from birth to death. The four entrances are guarded by massive carved-teak doors. Each of four 31′ standing Buddhas are also solid teak and adorned with gold leaf. Out of the four images, those facing north and south are said to be original and depicting the dhammachakka mudra, a hand position symbolizing Buddha’s first sermon, while the other two images are new, replacing originals destroyed by fires.
We pause in our temple tromp with a stop at a lacquerware craftsmen’s workshop to see how the stuff in Pier One and World Market is made. Using bamboo and horsehair, it is amazing what can be created then covered in lacquer. Prices are twenty times higher than what is out on the streets.
And our temple tromp continues in the afternoon.
We visit Manuha Temple, built by Mon slaves for King Manuha in 1067. The Mon are an ethnic group living mostly in the Ayeyarwady Delta and along the southern border of Thailand and Burma. One of the earliest peoples to reside in Southeast Asia, the Mon were responsible for the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Indochina and a major influence on the culture of Burma. After 1000 AD the Mon were under constant pressure and killed in wars, transported as captives, or assimilated into new cultures. In 1057, King Anawrahta conquered the Mon, who were readily absorbed by the Burmese.
Manuha Temple contains three images of seated Buddhas and an image of Buddha entering Nirvana. It is one of the oldest temples in Bagan. Much activity surrounds Manuha Temple as the festival begins tomorrow for its new gilded Hti, or umbrella, to be replaced. The Hti, and gold leafing, are replaced about every five years. There is a reclining Buddha in a small building in back, purposely made cramped by the king to show respect to the Buddha. The Buddha is about 90 feet long and has a white plaster face, different from what I have seen on other Buddhas.
Bagan was founded in the 3rd century. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify what would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s pinnacle between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed, of which the remains of 4446 temples and pagodas still survive. We head out for our second day of trying to see them all.
From 1044 to 1287, Bagan was both capital and political, economic and cultural center of the Pagan Empire. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed approximately 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries in an area of 40 sq mi. The empire collapsed in 1287 due to repeated Mongol invasions. However, it took a 6.5 earthquake in 1975 to collapse a major portion of their pagodas.
The vast majority of the thousands of Bagan pagodas are terra cotta brick. Though once covered in plaster and whitewashed or covered in gold, today many are left unrestored. Some damaged pagodas underwent restorations by the military government in the 1990s, which sought to make Bagan an international tourist destination. However, restorations paid little attention to original architectural styles and used modern materials. A government golf course and a 200-foot tower raised critical eyebrows. As a result, the city has not been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly because of the restorations.
Dirt roads lead to the sandstone pagoda of Shwe San Daw to watch the sunset over the Bagan plains and Ayeyarwady River. The size and beauty of the Bagan Archaeological Zone can be appreciated after a steep climb; views to the horizon are peppered with pagodas of all sizes and styles.
The plain is incredibly dusty and dry, receiving less than 10″ of rain a year. Red clay soil is perfect for bricks but terrible for dust. Motorbikes and carts pulled by Brahmin oxen-teams dot the landscape. There are scrub and acacia trees everywhere and I almost expect to see a giraffe walk by. It is a surreal scene caught in a former time, little changed over the last 100 years.
But changing it is. If you want to see Myanmar, fly here quickly. Today, garbage is everywhere but the “Plastic Free Zone” street posters indicate an awareness of what makes a tourist environment. New hotels and resorts are opening every month. Land values have skyrocketed, making it near impossible for a local to purchase a lot or house in the city. Given another 5 years and rustic Myanmar will change beyond recognition.
Our evening ends at a very touristy restaurant which features a marionette program. The puppeteers are quite skilled and put on a good show. Don’t know what they sang, but most scenes I could figure out. The music, cymbals, drums, whistles and singing was a little shrill and chaotic, but fun.
A new day – a new group of temples.
We missed some temples. Our second day we visit the sites of Pyathat Gyi, Tayoke-Pyay, and Phaya Thone Zu. These pagodas are notable for their murals, mostly done in the 13th century. Lots of restoration is needed to preserve these priceless artifacts. There is just enough light coming in doorways to appreciate what remains of the paintings. I also see more plaster-faced Buddhas. They are very appealing with their chubby bellies, coy eyes, and Buddha smiles. A brief stop is made at Lay Myet Hnar, a recently whitewashed pagoda glaring under a clear blue sky.
The Bagan Archeological Museum displays countless Buddha images of bronze, silver, gold, stone and lacquer. It is a nice museum and their paintings of area temples are excellent. There are endless statues of Buddha and wonderful displays of bronzes. The best part is I don’t have to remove shoes and socks. In Myanmar, all Buddhist sites, and more, require me to enter barefoot.
Min-Nan-Thi is a fascinating peek into the farming villages surrounding Bagan. Houses are made of bamboo and thatch. Open to the elements, inhabitants use mosquito netting for sleeping, which is on a wide, flat bamboo bed. I see no linens. The floor is dirt. The community well is perhaps a 1000 yards away; women weighing no more than 120 pounds are carrying two five gallon cans of water using the traditional bamboo pole across their shoulders. There is no electricity. I watch women dry grain, weave, spin cotton, sell peanuts, and roll cheroots. One young girl makes bamboo picture frames which she sells for $3. The raw bamboo costs a dollar a picture and she makes one frame a day. That gives her little profit for her labor. The village is proud of their beautiful Brahmin oxen which cost about $1000 and used in the field and for transportation.
Min-Nan-Thi is just one small village among hundreds where life is hard and one must work long days to survive. With an average earning wage of $100 a month for most Burmese, the farmer is closer to subsistence level. Villagers craft for extra money, making cheroots, picture frames, or earrings. Women quickly age as a result and average lifespan is about 55-60. Men work their land and feel fortunate to have five or six acres to plant. Tough life – tough people.
And these funny-dressing Westerners are always welcome to peek in Burmese doors and ask questions. “Welcome to the country with a smile.”