Published: January 2nd 2006October 21st 2005
Enjoying the sunlight of Bagan
From some temple roofs you have a glimpse of the over 2000 pagodas and temples of Bagan
To say it straightforward: we absolutely loved the area of Bagan and stayed there for nine days! Whatever other sites in Myanmar you visit, Bagan is undoubtedly the cultural climax that no visitor should miss, no matter how little time they have at their disposal. The numerous religious monuments (over 2,000 still standing) near the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River (better known as Irrawaddy River), in a plain crossed by few major roads but many paths, in the middle of fields and trees constitute one of the most fabulous archaeological sites in the world.
King Anawratha (1044-1077) was the true unifier of the Burmese kingdom by stopping the Khmer invasion; he brought forth numerous Buddha relics from the military campaigns for which a suitable setting had to be built, considering their holy status. This is the period that encompassed the ambitious building frenzy of temples, pagodas and sanctuaries that we can still behold today. Shortly before the 13th century, the area contained the amazing number of 10,000 monuments of all sizes and styles. Naturally, such apogee cannot last forever, first came the invasion of the Mongols under Kublai Khan, Djingis Khan’s grand-son. Although the monuments were not destroyed by
Typical Bagan panomara
Located on the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) river, the whole space is thickly studded with pagodas of all sizes and shapes
the Mongolian armies, the city was abandoned and given over to all sorts of natural disasters like earthquakes and several floodings caused by the Irrawaddy, which finally led to the destruction of about one third of the temples. Over the centuries, further natural calamities followed, but in the 1970s the Myanmar government wished to inscribe Bagan into the UNESCO world heritage list. After a devastating earthquake in 1975, much reconstruction and preservation work has been undertaken. Unfortunately, the regime did not follow the UNESCO's recommendations and thus the organisation withdrew its support. Nevertheless the overall result is impressive despite some architectural glitches, like a disgraceful observation tower.
When individual tourists approach Bagan, they have to get off their vehicle before entering the area and pay an entrance fee of $10, which are valid for the whole region for unlimited time and offer the huge advantage that you are never controlled when roaming the temples and pagodas. After having paid, the traveller can rejoice in good roads, smoothly tarred and relatively broad. So our first impression of Bagan, when we arrived by local bus from Lake Inle, was a very positive one. Furthermore the bus driver was so kind to
This golden pagoda from the 11th century has served as the prototype for later pagodas all around Myanmar
take the foreigners (there were only three) to their hotel of choice. We had decided for the New Park Hotel in the village of Nyaung U
and without knowing it had chosen the most popular place among backpackers or individual tourists. As we had not come to Bagan to spend much time in the hotel, we soon set off to explore the little village and its main attraction, one of the country’s most beautiful monuments, the Shwezigon Pagoda.
The Shwezigon Pagoda
can only be reached through long galleries crammed with souvenir stalls. As most of our local money had been used up, we seized the opportunity to exchange dollars there, even if the rate was around 10% worse than in Yangon. Somebody had told us that shwe
means ´gold´ and indeed we were not disappointed by the abundance of gold on this monument. The pagoda is not only one of the most fascinating but also one of the oldest, its construction was started in 1059. We were glad to have come there in the early evening hours when the fading light brought forth the monument’s plentiful decoration, especially the imposing cylindrical stupa covered in gold and the multitude of
Praying at the Shwezigon Pagoda
This beautiful pagoda is one of Myanmar’s most significant religious structures
golden turrets endowed with numerous small bells, while the surrounding buildings were already in the dark. The Shwezigon Pagoda is set onto a kind of square, surrounded by stupas, shrines and meditation halls, where monks and devotees gather for offering and praying. At this hour of the day there were hardly any other tourists present, the place exuded a serene and peaceful atmosphere, so we stayed around quite long, circumambulating the pagoda and admiring the golden stupa shining warmly in the well-done illumination. The access to the stupa had been barred but we could enter several prayer and rest halls built in the traditional Burmese style with cascading roofs and beautiful wood carvings. In one of these halls we found statues depicting the prince Siddharta and the famous illustration how he decided to become a monk trying to defy old age, sickness and death by means of meditation. Finally, between the two main entrances, a hall containing 37 nats
, a kind of protective spirit, whose animistic cult derives from India and is based on the following principle: each being, animate or inanimate, is governed by a spirit, and these spirits are rather soothed by offerings than worshipped. Although Buddhism tried
Arched entry to medial stairway
To protect it against delapidation, the entry to the upper terraces has been blocked
to eradicate these practices, they were too deeply rooted in the local population and so they were integrated into the Buddhist cosmos. The nats
were ordered under the sovereignty of a king and given the Shwezigon Pagoda as a new abode, which makes it play an essential protective role in the Burmese life. There are nats
for practically everything, for the sea and fishermen, for every region of Myanmar, for prosperity, for commerce, the guardian of the house. To be honest, the Shwezigon Pagoda should become one of our favourite places.
It was our first evening and we did not really know Nyaung U yet, so we tried to find a place to eat for some time, until we finally found a typical restaurant offering original Burmese food. Eating in such places is extremely interesting, whatever you order, the table will always be set with bowls of tasty soup, small plates full of different vegetables, sauces and pickles that taste excellent and fill you up even if the main dish is not very big. One of Klaudia’s favourite dishes was the pickled tealeaves salad, it may sound strange but it tasted wonderful, you have to try in order to
Satellite temples of the Shwezigon Pagoda
The pagoda is surrounded by many small temples with outstanding multi-tiered Burmese roofs
know. On our way back to the hotel we then found the main restaurant street where we met Florence and Luc again. We had not seen them on Lake Inle although all of us had been there for the Phaung Daw U Festival, but they had indulged themselves in a little luxury in a hotel on the lake. They were very enthusiastic about the site of Bagan and really sorry that they had to leave the magical place soon. Having stayed already for five days, they would have loved to linger on and advised us to prolong our stay as long as possible, since Bagan is unique in the world. We followed their advice to the letter and enjoyed every single minute we spent exploring the temples and pagodas. What a nice discovery that Florence and Luc stayed in the same hotel as we! The following evening we spent together, then we had to say farewell once more, but hoped to see Luc again in Angkor Wat where he should be around the same time as we.
Bagan is paradise for photographers, especially if the light conditions are good. As the weather was constantly changing due to the end
Breath-taking roof decoration
These wood carvings in their natural state form an attractive counterpart to the gilded examples on many other temples
of the rainy season, sunshine and blue sky were not guaranteed. Several times Stephan woke up shortly after sunrise and quickly pulled back the curtains to check whether it was worth getting up and indeed left Klaudia in her sweet dreams more than once, only to come back beaming for breakfast. There are several advantages of rising early: the light conditions are excellent, a detail of utmost importance to photographers, morning light makes the sky light blue and a bit transparent and gives monuments a rather cool look, a nice contrast to the warm sepia colours of Bagan’s brick pagodas. Then you witness certain things that happen at no other time of the day. Like the long processions of novice monks and she-monks who leave their monasteries around 6 a.m. in order to collect their food for the day. They walk the streets barefoot, sometimes singly but mostly in groups, going about their chores in an energetic tread, chatting happily or protecting their heads against the sun with umbrellas or very decorative fans of cloth that are always matched in colours to their frock. They line up outside of restaurants, where each of them usually gets one spoonful of rice.
Roof decoration at the Shwezigon Pagoda
Roof with repetitive, flame-like decorations at the peak of rooflines and carvings on the bargeboards covering the ends of gables
The novices store it into their alms bowls, while the she-monks carry it on their head in huge bamboo plates. Occasionally they also receive fruits and small bills, not from restaurants but rather from the local population. As this forms the monks' "income" and every Buddhist may become a monk, giving to the monks is actually a deep-rooted part of daily life in Buddhist countries. For tourists, this is a colourful and enjoyable sight and a welcome motive for pictures.
In the beginning we had not yet decided how long we would stay and tried to figure out the best way to go on from Bagan to Yangon. Our initial idea was to take a boat trip on the Irrawaddy, as we wanted to avoid the bus and had missed the classical boat route from Mandalay to Bagan. Information was very hard to come by, so we decided to cycle to the river bank where the jetty was supposed to be. The bike is perfect on the tarred roads (there are not many in Bagan), but the dust roads are always good for a bumpy rid and quite bruise your bums. We did our best to find the jetty,
Votive trees and shrines on the left side, satellite temples on the right side
thereby crossing a number of small wooden houses and smiling and waving children, but no jetty. We did find a place with a higher than usual concentration of shops and restaurants and also some ships, but no official place that could be called an office or anybody speaking English. Since our Burmese was not perfect yet, communication proved somewhat difficult and we gave it up by the river and headed towards the Office of Inland Water Transport, which we hoped would be the right place. Once again, it was not easy to find but we insisted. In then end we had got the information we required but gave up our plan because the boat to Pyay (about halfway between Bagan and Yangon) would have taken three days.
As we were north of Nyaung U and did not know whether we would go there again, we started our visit of Bagan with a group of minor temples, giving us an easy start. There was no tarred road, once we hit upon a horse and its foal, the little one seemed fascinated by Klaudia and headed towards her, which made it quite difficult for her to find her way on then
...at the corners of the terrace of the Shwezigon Pagoda
execrable road that seemed to consist merely of potholes. Actually the Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi temples are very hard to find, even with the map we used. We had to ask our way several times, in the end a man preceded us on his motor bike, and we tried hard to keep up with him. The first temple was interesting, among others because it was still being used (the uncle of our guide was an important monk there), and this way we got a chance to behold how Bagan may have looked in its heydays, with lofty wooden houses on stilts all around the temple for the monks. First we met our guide's uncle, he gave us to eat and to drink, then we entered the temple, where we were greeted by monks and she-monks who asked us many questions in astonishingly good English, showed us how to make correct reverence to Lord Buddha - by putting your hands flat on the ground towards the statue and touch the ground with your forehead. There we were also given sweets and drinks and were overwhelmed by these people's hospitality.
The Thetkyamuni Temple
was built in the early 13th century, it is
Top of a votive tree
The Shwezigon Pagoda displays a sheer 'forest' of votive trees
a square structure with a porch projected on one side. Above the main square block are three receding terraces on which stands the sikhara
(a spire of North Indian type) and a stupa finial. The flame-like arch pediments over the doorways, the pilasters and friezes are adorned with stucco carvings. The interior walls are covered with panels of painting which depict scenes from the life of Asoka, Convenor of the third Buddhist Council and of the introducer of Buddhism to Ceylon. The Kondawgyi Temple
appears to belong to the same period as the Thetkyamuni Temple. Unlike Thetkyamuni it has a stupa spire above the terraces. The interior walls are adorned with paintings of fine floral patterns and jataka stories (stories depicing the life of Buddha) with lines of Myanmar's writing identifying them. Our unofficial guide was very zealous and showed us more pagodas close to the afore- mentioned, to reach them we had to climb a small hill in the burning heat on a small path through high withered grass. The temples on top were not particularly interesting, but were worth the climb after all due to the nice view on the Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi temples.
The fabulous monuments
Statues of nats
The Shwezigon Pagoda is the abode of Myanmar's protective spirits
of Bagan are spread over a considerable surface and thus are impossible to explore on foot. But there are other means of discovering, one of them being the bicycle which you can rent at most of the backpacker hotels. The New Park Hotel offered two types of bikes, one at 500 Kyats and the other at 1000 Kyats a day (less than one EUR). We tried to get the more expensive version most of the days because they offered the undeniable advantage of two working brakes and a more comfortable saddle. For tourists who are less adventure minded or lazier, there is the possibility of renting a horse-cart with a driver who will also act as tour guide. Some tourists also use a taxi for visiting Myanmar (those usually have less time at their disposal) and we met many tour groups travelling by bus. We always chose the bicycle because it was more fun and we felt free to deviate from the main roads and get lost in the middle of pagodas and temples. The monuments we have visited so far were isolated pagodas and we were keen to experience Bagan's magic atmosphere constituted by a huge amount of religious
Procession of novices in Nyaung U
Novices on their way back from their daily morning food collection, protecting themselves against the first sunlight
monuments in a limited area. We are now going to describe the main roads leading from Nyaung U to Old Bagan and the pagodas we visited on the way. That means we are not describing the buildings in a chronological order because we visited them on several days, but stick to a geographical order. Between Nyaung U and Old Bagan, there are two parallel tarred roads in perfect condition, and many of Bagan's most famous pagodas and temples are to be found in their vicinity. Although Bagan boasts of 2217 Buddhist monuments and is the best-known site in Myanmar, you do not get the feeling of tourist masses, especially if you stay longer than the normal groups. The fabulous pagodas and temples exude an indescribable atmosphere of serenity, peace and calmness that only enhances their unique beauty.
The first well-known and big monument we went to see was the Htilominlo Temple
. This is a two-storey brick temple built by King Htilominlo around 1211, one of the larger temples of Bagan, reaching 46 metres. There is an ambulatory at the base - the arched doorways and windows of which catch the morning and evening sunlight - and on the upper
Each female novice gets one spoonful of rice from the restaurant
level, from which there are excellent views of the plain, but now it is prohibited to go upstairs. There are good examples of the original stucco decoration on the exterior, for which this temple is especially noted. When you catch the first glimpse, it immediately appears very big, almost like a large cube with a stupa on top, and we did not find it very elegant. Before entering each Buddhist monument, the visitors have to put off their shoes, and the temples of Bagan are no different. We usually walked around the pagoda from the outside to get a first impression and to possibly find interesting details on the exterior walls, which we did find on Htilominlo Temple, namely some beautiful plasterwork. We also met some old friends again, whom we had not seen since India, the squirrels which used the temple walls as their extended playground. We were happy to see these cute animals again! Another feature which struck us and which we should not find again in Bagan were artistically crafted iron gates protecting the four entrances which led to four halls each containing a huge Buddha statue, all of them were renovated and we did not find
Typical temple which includes both the shrine that houses the main image of the god and the tower that is built over the shrine
them very beautiful.
Around the Htilominlo Temple we also visited several other, smaller and less known temples, which are built according to the same principles, with an almost square floor plan but with only one entrance and therefore one huge Buddha statue, and in some of them we discovered nice murals on the life of the Buddha. The most impressive of these was the Gubyaukgyi Pagoda
. We did not have this one originally on our plan, but discovered it accidentally while we were on the lookout for another pagoda which we found only with some problems after several attempts. The same goes for other small temples that did not even have a name but were only given a number (e.g. Pagoda 2100). These temples are almost unknown and rarely visited which often has the advantage that you are still allowed to climb to the roof, which is now forbidden in most of the well-known monuments. Every pagoda usually has a staircase hidden in one of its walls with incredibly dark and steep stairs and when we climbed them we were extremely happy about our headlamp that turned out to be very useful in the pagodas and temples, also to
Thetkyamuni roof stucco
One of the few roofs which survived the 1975 earthquake and therefore displays its original stucco decoration from the 13th century
see the badly lit murals in smaller temples. As a matter of fact, the murals are another of Bagan's attractions, scientific research shows that all the temples must once have been gorgeously adorned with murals, thus constituting evidence that painted ornamentation was a fundamental part of the sanctuary, giving its real meaning to the temple. One of the problems in Bagan is that it is often not allowed to take pictures of the murals, but no postcards are sold either, and good books on Myanmar are extremely hard to find. This time we were lucky and discovered a wonderful book, "The Buddhist Murals of Pagan" by Claudine Bautze-Picron. We do not usually mention such a thing in our blog, but found this book of excellent quality containing many beautiful pictures that we could not take.
Our usual eagerness to see each monument of a region in detail proved unfeasible in Bagan, given the sheer amount of temples. So we had to find a system how to detect the temples most worth visiting. A good guidebook and a tourist map will help a lot but we discovered another indicator for a monument's touristy interest: the number of souvenir vendors at
Temple roof architecture
The two towers in the foreground display the typical North Indian style, while the rear one is an example of the southeast Asian stupa style
its doors. The more of them and of so-called painters who sell replicas of the murals are to be found in a temple's vicinity, the more beautiful and impressive the monument will turn out. This method proved right in practically all the cases, also with the Upali Thein
, a good example of a sima
or ordination hall. There are many temples and pagodas left around Bagan but only a few ordination halls (Thein), because these were generally wooden. This one was built of bricks sometime around 1250 and named Upali to honour a famous monk who lived during the reign of Htilominlo (1211-1234). This unique rectangular building is situated across the road from Htilominlo Temple and has a small spire on the middle of rooftop. The ill lit hall has frescoes on the whole surface of walls and ceilings, painted from the late 17th to early 18th century. We later learned that the use of certain colours and their luminosity is a good indication for the murals' age, since the green colour for instance was artificial and not used in Bagan's zenith between the 11th and 13th centuries. The early period is characterized by mainly illustrations of the life of
The Htilominlo is a huge two story red brick temple from the beginning of the 13th century
the Buddha, while in Bagan’s second heyday also prosaic themes, like animals or palace scenes, are depicted on the murals. In this monument we heard about the devastating earthquake of 1975 for the first time and could see some of the damage. The whole hall was supported by huge iron grids that reminded us of bent railway rails and were meant to protect the murals from falling off the walls. Upali Thein is very well-known being a rare building, so it is visited by many tour groups and we had some trouble to find the leisure to admire the wonderful frescoes. For each monument in Bagan there is a guard and it is often forbidden to take pictures of the murals, also in case of Upali Thein. But we stayed very long and were really interested in the paintings, so he looked the other way and some present helped him with it, and we got nice pictures.
One souvenir seller we came to talk to told us about a festival taking place in his village, the Taunbgi Village
. As we are always interested to experience how people live in a country that we visit, we set out to Taungbi
Htilominlo Temple stucco
Originally covered in carved white stucco, some of its exquisite finely detailed plaster still remains
Village on the afternoon of the festival. This did not prove very difficult because the village is not far off the main road. Upon entering the village, we saw some monks sitting, and Stephan went there to take some atmospheric pictures while Klaudia stayed by the bicycles. But it did not last long until Stephan called to Klaudia to follow him, it seemed that he had discovered another unknown treasure. There stood a small white-washed temple with a wooden porch, it did not look spectacular from the exterior, except a very lovely marble Buddha by the entrance. Once the doors were opened for us by the guardian, the omnipresent figure for lesser-known pagodas taking care of the monument, we stood in awe. The temple was tiny - we did not even find out its name - but filled with exquisite and well preserved wall paintings, especially on the ceiling. These are moments we especially appreciate when travelling, when we discover beautiful things that not so many other tourists have visited. After the cultural part we decided to watch the festival going on only a couple of metres from the temple. Many people were gathered on a square around another temple,
Huge cactus tree
Bagan is situated in an arid plain, this is why cacti thrive in the region
they were laughing and playing games. We were the only foreigners present, the locals welcomed us in a friendly way and also smiled a lot. For some time we followed men running with huge braided trays that are normally used for sieving rice, or women carrying candles on their heads, they all had to cover a distance as quickly as possible without losing the objects on their heads. Beside the running contest, there was a theatre and pantomime performance, which we also watched for some minutes. The general atmosphere was very relaxed and jolly and we were glad to see the Burmese people acting that way. When we left it was already dark and our bikes did not have a light, so were once again very happy about our headlamp. With it we managed to find our way without street lightning and despite many motorized vehicles that also drove without lights. What the headlamp unfortunately could not help us with, were the numerous nocturnal insects that started crawling out by nightfall and we avoided opening our mouths too often in order not to get an extra portion of proteins. But we arrived safe and sound in Nyaung U and treated
Upali Thein Ordonation Hall
Upali Thein is one of the few Ordination Halls still standing and derives its name from a well-known monk named Upali
ourselves to some nice dinner.
Finally we moved on to the area containing most of the region's famous pagodas, Old Bagan
. ‘Old Bagan’ is the name currently given to the historic capital of the Kingdom of Bagan. From the 11th to the 13th century it ruled over vast areas of modern central Myanmar and beyond. Both within its walls, probably dating from the 9th century, and outside its walls were filled with most unique and lasting Buddhist architecture that remains a marvel today. The walls have crumbled into nothingness or some scattered ruins. Since the royal palace, monasteries and housing were usually made of wood, those also have disappeared. By the late 13th century, its era of greatness had passed, and the centre of power in the region eventually moved elsewhere. But many of its great temples and stupas remained within the old wall. But the great city itself became a veritable village, perhaps indistinguishable from hundreds of others, except for its temples and stupas, and for the thousands of others on the surrounding Bagan plain. Two relatively recent events have also dramatically affected the Bagan Archaeological Zone and Old Bagan itself. The region was damaged extensively by an
Painting inside Upali Thein
Inside Upali Thein are beautifully painted frescos from the late 17th century
enormously devastating earthquake that struck the region on July 8, 1975. More than half of the important structures were damaged and a number were destroyed. Most of the major temples and pagodas were carefully restored by 1981, although some evidence of the devastation can still be seen. In 1990 a sudden controversial but peaceful military operation cleared most of the Old Bagan temple quarter of the local housing that had grown up in the area. The villagers were moved to a new site, some five miles south of their former location, which is unimaginatively called ‘New Bagan’. Old Bagan within the confines of the remaining city walls consists now primarily of some temples and pagodas. Additionally there remain a few historic hotels and the new Bagan Archaeological Museum. Old Bagan has lost its soul and New Bagan is still struggling to find its, so most individual tourists prefer the village of Nyaung U, the place with the biggest concentration of guesthouses and restaurants and where also the local buses drive to.
There used to be a wall around Old Bagan from the 9th century on, small remnants are still to be seen, for example the Sarabha Gateway, the ruins
Minochantha stupa group
Stupas built by a pious king in the hopes of curing his illness
of the main gate on the east wall. Originally the city wall had 12 gates, one for each month of the year, built by King Pyusawhti in 850 A.D. Only three sides of the fortified city consisted of walls, though, the fourth one is made up of the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River. The Bupaya Pagoda
offers a picturesque view on the river, its banks and the fishing boats all around. It is not clear when the original pagoda was built. Tradition suggests it had its origin in the 3rd century AD, yet most authorities date it from around 850, or about the same time as the old city walls which it adjoins on the north, still others suggest a date in the 11th century. As a result of the disastrous earthquake of 1975, however, the controversy perhaps is moot concerning the structure itself, since the old Bupaya fell into the nearby Irrawaddy River and was totally destroyed. The former brick masonry construct has since been replaced by a hollow reinforced concrete structure that differs in significant ways from the earlier pagoda. Unlike its predecessor, it also is fully gilded. The name Bupaya comes from its bulbous resemblance to
Taungbi village temple
Small inconspicuous temple in the traditional village of Taungbi, with a beautiful wooden porch
or gourd, while paya
means pagoda. According to tradition, its builder was able to rid the riverbank of a huge gourd-like plant that infested the area.
Quite close to the Bupaya Pagoda stands the Mahabodi Pagoda
. It was built at the beginning of the 13th century after the model of the temple at Bodhgaya in India, and is the only specimen of its class in Myanmar. The basement is a quadrangular block of no great height, supporting a tall pyramidal spire, the finial is a small slim stupa. The sanctum, facing east, occupies only a portion of the quadrangle, but with the projections of the side walls towards the east a spacious prayer hall could be accommodated in front of the sanctum. The whole structure is covered with niches bearing seated Buddhas and interspersed with ornamental panels and moldings. Although we spent more than three months in India, the cradle of both Hinduism and Buddhism, we admit shamefully that we did not manage to see the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. We had regretted this until reaching
In a niche close to the entrance of the small temple in Taungbi
Bagan, where we were happy to discover a model of the holiest place for Buddhists.
Our next destination was the massive Gawdapalin Pagoda
, begun at the end of the 12th century and completed around 1230, Bagan’s second tallest and among its most imposing temples. The Gawdawpalin is a large eastward-facing two-story temple set on a low platform in the center of a walled enclosure with four gateways. It is a brick masonry structure with stone reinforcement, its exterior dimensions are 65 x 52 m, with a solid inner core on the ground floor of almost 28 x 28.5 m. The ground floor corridors around the central core are almost 2.2m wide, containing an entry shrine on the ground floor, and for the first time in Bagan architecture the primary shrine is on the second story. Barrel and diaphragm vaults cover the shrines and corridors. Despite its huge outside dimensions, the inner core is almost completely taken up by huge Buddha statues so that you can hardly feel the huge size and feel rather oppressed inside. Close to this temple, big hotel resorts are situated, with wonderful views both on the Irrawaddy River and on the impressive religious sites around.
Interior of the small Taungbi temple
Golden Buddha surrounded by lovely murals
They are mainly used by tour groups and are of a price category that we could not afford during our extensive trip, but we guess that it would be nice to stay there.
Just to the south of the Gawdapalin Pagoda, the new Bagan Archaeological Museum
is located, opened on 17 April 1998. Originally we had not intended to visit it due to an additional entrance fee of $3, but a day of heavy rain made us change our minds. Although the museum has only existed for a couple of years, it is already falling apart due to building material of inferior quality, water is leaking (very practical if you look for shelter from the rain) and the floors are void of expansion joints, which leads to structural cracks. To us the three-storey building had a very Chinese look, quite megalomaniac, with clumsy pillars that take up a huge part of the surface. We will not enumerate the different halls and their exhibits, only tell our readers how we felt about them. This is a personal impression and not meant to give scientifically correct descriptions! The ground floor displays illustrations of life in Bagan during the region’s zenith, which
Wall murals in Taungbi
Dating from the 18th century, recognisable by the murals' vivid colours, especially the green
all seemed more to have flowed from artists’ fantasy, people on the fields were clad in beautiful clothes and the women all wore marvellous jewellery. The different instruments they used on he fields did not differ from the ones you can see today, and if this depicts reality, we are very sorry about the Burmese people’s medieval living conditions! Only some exhibits on the upper floor saved us from despair, namely beautiful Buddha statues from different eras and showing all possible positions of hands. The most impressive piece from the artistic point of view is a metal lotus bud, which can be closed, with awesome miniature carvings. Unfortunately the showcases were hardly illuminated, and you had to wake one of the guardians up and hope that he would turn the lights on for you.
Certainly there are many more pagodas in the area of Old Bagan, some of them we visited, the most important of them being the Thatbyinnyu Temple
, similar in style to the Gawdapalin Pagoda, but offering a nice change to the brick temples due to its whitewashed exterior. Its name means ‘omniscient’ and it represents one of the finest legacies in the Bagan region from the
Painted ceiling in Taungbi
Wonderfully preserved and displaying awesome geometrical patterns and floral motives
middle of the 12th century. Located just inside the southeastern corner of the old city wall, Thatbyinnyu is Bagan’s tallest temple at almost 61 m and represents a transition from the Mon period to a new architectural style that would soon be followed at the Gawdapalin and at Htilominlo. Constructed during one of the high points of Bagan political power and during a period of rededication to Theravada Buddhism and religious scholarship, it reflected that era’s innovative architectural and artistic creativity. Thatbyinnyu is a brick masonry building covered in white stucco and with stone in pavements, thresholds and as reinforcing elements. The temple is set on a platform that formerly was at the center of a walled enclosure (only the north gateway remains); the complex served also as a monastery and stupa, as well as a temple.
The Ananda Temple
, built in 1091, was the first of Bagan’s great temples, and remains one of the finest of Bagan’s architectural complexes. Located just to the east of the old city walls, its square-based beehive-like sikhara
crown, gilded to mark the temple’s 900th anniversary in 1990, and expansive whitewashed temple structure dominate the surrounding countryside. From far away, the golden top
A small stupa setting on a polygonal platform made up of a series of crenulated semi-circular terraces overlooking the river
glitters in the sunshine, especially during the late afternoon hours and the temple is beautifully illuminated at night, offering a very attractive sight. The Ananda is surrounded by an enclosing wall and four integrated arched gateways containing guardian deities in the seated position. This temple is a perfectly proportioned Greek cross structure and beautifully symmetrical in form, including its vestibules and gabled portico entryways with stupa finials. Four smaller stupas mimic the central sikhara
crown at each corner of the second main level, and several tiers of windows help illuminate the inner corridors. The central cube houses two parallel ambulatories around the central core containing arched niches in the wall which display images of the Buddha; over 80 instructional sandstone relief scenes in the outer corridor depict the life of the Buddha from his birth (from the hip of his mother Maya) until his enlightenment. Four impressive gilded teak standing Buddhas of 9.5 m, facing the four cardinal directions, represent the Buddhas who have attained enlightenment in the present world cycle. Although the inner walls are mostly whitewashed, there is evidence that originally they also contained a number of murals. Religious life in Myanmar evolves around the pagoda or temple,
The Mahabohdi temple is modeled after the namesake temple in Bodhgaya, India, a site sacred to all Buddhists
many of which contain a small treasures trove of Buddhist relics (Buddha bone, teeth or hair, or holy objects). A more visible cache of treasures can be found in the long, straight walkways radiating outward from the temple toward the four compass points. In the largest and most venerated pagodas and temples, like the Ananda, these walkways have evolved over the centuries into sizeable enclosed passageways with vaulted ceilings. Vendor stalls lining the sides of such passageways carry on an ancient trade in Buddha images, temple souvenirs and folk art, as well as everyday items, and more and more cater for the foreign tourist and less and less for the local pilgrims. At the end of one passageway at Ananda an unimposing small red brick building is to be found, and we had to wait for someone to unlock it for us. This is the Ananda Okkyaung
, literally ‘monastery of the brick‘, an 11th century monastery housing vivid 18th century wall paintings depicting the lives of the Buddha and elements of the history of Bagan. Unlike Bagan's earlier temple painters, these painters made much more use of color combinations, light, shadow and perspective. When we left the Ananda after an
Mahabodi Temple overview
The Mahabodhi is special for its extensive exterior ornamentation; its numerous niches enclose over 450 Buddha images not only on the tower but also on the corner stupas
exhaustive midday visit, we discovered local farmers preparing cattle and carts with colourful decoration, supposedly for a festival. Our limited knowledege of the Burmese language did not allow us to elucidate the meaning of the decorations, but we nevertheless admired it and the farmers were happy and proud to show it to us.
After all we were normal tourists and often behaved like this, among others by visiting the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda
, aka Sunset Pagoda among foreign visitors. This graceful pagoda was built in 1057 and has a strong Mon influence. The stupa has a more cylindrical bell, topped by molded rings. The five receding terraces are accessible on all four sides by long flights of extremely steep steps. There are also two octagonal bases immediately below the bell, which is believed to enshrine some sacred hairs of the Buddha. We were clever enough to climb the stairs before the run to the upper platform started, and could that way observe the breath-taking view on the surrounding forest of pagodas at leisure and take nice pictures in the best afternoon light. Later we experienced the place’s notoriety, bus loads of tourists climbed up with many difficulties and almost clogged
Bagan’s second tallest and most imposing temple
the four staircases. Actually, a visit of the Shwesandaw Pagoda is a must for all Myanmar tour groups, but when we were there, the sunset was less than magical, with too many clouds in the sky. Later on we discovered smaller, less well-known temples that we climbed and got an even better view from there almost on our own. The only problems we encountered with our bicycles, a punch, fortunately happened there, we had no problems to find a horse-cart that took Klaudia and her bike on board and drove her to the hotel.
Bagan is the most important architectural complex in Myanmar. It is here that the Buddhist religion took deep root, strengthening and broadening the outlook of the whole of society. It is in Bagan that art and architecture attained a peak of achievement, creating a treasured and enduring heritage for the people, and fascinating visitors from all over the world. As we stayed in this cradle of Burmese devotion for nine days, we also visited temples and pagodas further away from the usual circuit. This entry is already far too long, so we decided to talk about other monuments in a separate blog. All those who
Lesser-known brick pagoda, with staircases on all sides, a stupa finial and small stupas in the corners of each terrace
have not despaired about the article’s length, we can promise more wonderful pictures and informative text.
There are more photos below