Published: January 10th 2006October 26th 2005
Bagan's archaeological zone encompasses more than 2000 recorded brick monuments
For those readers who do not follow our adventures on a regular basis, we are still in the Bagan Archaeological Zone, and about to write about less well-known monuments. This classification is by no means meant as a qualification, we just saw too much and have too many pictures that we would like to share, so we split our Bagan impressions into two blogs. There are definitely highlights in Bagan, which no visitor must miss, but other temples are equally worth visiting and often offer positive surprises.
One day we decided to cycle to several monuments situated further away from the beaten tracks, we started with the Dhammayangyi Temple
from the 12th century. It is almost impossible to overlook, being the largest temple at Bagan, dominating the plains southeast of the Walled City of Old Bagan. The sikhara
top of the temple tower was in ruins long before the quake in 1975, and it has never been restored, giving the temple a somewhat unfinished look. Its plan is modelled on a cruciform design, i.e. with four entrance halls of equal dimensions. Two concentric corridors were designed to surround the central core, but the inner core and the numerous passages leading
Temples, stupas and monasteries, stretch as far as the eye can see, up and down the Irrawaddy river and deep into the surrounding plain
to it were bricked up from the beginning for reasons which are still unknown, creating one of Bagan’s chief enigmas. Perhaps the engineers felt the temple would be unable to support the massive weight of the towers unless the inner corridor was filled with brick. The four entrance halls contain Buddha statues, whereas none of these figures belong to the original time of construction but were part of later refurbishing; in the west hall the most striking statues are to be found, a large double sided screen, the outer face contains two images, and the inner one has a recumbent Buddha. As the guidebooks note, ‘the Dhammayangyi is the only large temple at Bagan whose tower has not been fully restored.’ Maybe this is the reason why we liked the Dhammayangyi Temple a lot, it looks really old although it actually is one of the younger Bagan temples.
After the devastating earthquake of 1975, an incredible reconstruction frenzy
started, and its results are not without controversy, both among experts and tourists. Anyone who stayed in Bagan around 10 or more years ago, would hardly recognise the place as practically all the ruins have been reconstructed. The Burmese government decided
After the devastating earthquake of 1975, the Burmese government have done their best to reconstruct even smaller monuments
to refurbish the site for the sake of tourists, and has several times committed blunders, like the atrocious Man Myint Tower with an elavator inside to reach the lookout platform on top. From there you are supposed to have a marvellous view on the surrounding plain, after paying a hefty additional fee of $10, and we refused to pay, like most other individual tourists as well. Furthermore you only need a little time to find the pagodas which you are allowed to climb, and get an astonishing view from their roof - all for free if you feel fit enough and are not afraid of the height. Another example of Myanmar’s hapless ambition is the reconstruction of the King's Palace in Old Bagan, of which only the foundation walls were still standing, if at all. These buildings, and probably the Bagan Archaeological Museum as well, have caused concern and revolt among representatives of the UNESCO, resulting in Bagan not being inscribed into its list of world heritage sites. A real shame! The monks were not idle either and constantly collect donations from the local population in order to regild some pagodas or temples of special value to them, for example
There is still work to be done, some temple ruins remain, but probably not for long
the Dhammayazaka Pagoda from the end of the 13th century.
The glistening dome of the Dhammayazaka Pagoda
is a landmark to the south of the Dhammayangyi Temple. Numerous narrow dirt roads lead there, and it is impressive from every angle, especially in the early morning or late afternoon sun. Its golden stupa is not only a pleasure to the eye and every photographer’s delight, Stephan was thrilled by the possibility to climb the platforms up to its base. Five-sided stupas are found nowhere within the Buddhist world except in Myanmar and at Bagan. They are dedicated to the historical Buddha, his three predecessors and the Buddha of the Future. These five Buddhas are important in Theravada countries, but Myanmar is the only country to develop a five-sided monument to commemorate this grouping. This big pagoda was constructed in only two years in order to preserve precious relics which the ruling king received from the king of Sri Lanka. The Dhammayazaka is among the largest stupas at Bagan, weighing in at approximately six million bricks, based on estimates of the stupa’s volume. The pagoda also represents one of Bagan’s last vast building projects, since the 13th century saw few large
Walking home after work
monuments. The stupa was virtually deserted until it was completely renovated in the mid-1990s. The stupa sits within an enormous fifteen-sided walled compound; each entrance leads directly to five identical temples abutting onto the base of the stupa. A complete set of 547 jataka
stories (=the Buddha’s 547 former lives, in animal or human form) was planned for the three square terraces. Each of the first 537 jatakas
is represented by a single plaque, with a caption below listing its name and ordinal number in the standard series. The last ten jatakas
, the most revered in Myanmar, were placed on the higher terraces and each tale was accorded a number of tiles.
The Dhammayazaka Pagoda is not far from a newly tarred road linking New Bagan to Nyaung U on the compound’s eastern fringe, and more fascinating religious monuments are to be found along this road. So we cycled north of the Dhammayazaka Pagoda, and spent almost a complete day there. Despite the temples’ fascinating murals and stucco ornamentation, they are hardly on any tourist’s itinerary and we profited from their relative isolation and peaceful atmosphere. A fascinating specimen in this group is the Tayokpyi Temple
. We were the
Sandy road after the rainfall
On this one we managed to drive, but we once came across one that was completely blocked by deep puddles of water
only visitors, and Stephan rejoiced in climbing higher and higher up, even to the sikhara
top, while Klaudia stood on the ground and gazed upwards in wonder. Apart from that, this temple contains beautiful murals and displays wonderful stucco ornament from the 13th century. This eastern area of Bagan was densely populated with monuments, beginning in the late 12th century and peaking in the 13th century. The extent of this building boom can be appreciated from the terraces of the temple. Also, this area of Bagan is the best place to see unrestored monuments, inasmuch as the pace of rebuilding has been slower here. The plan is characteristic of later Bagan architecture, with wide and deep entrance halls on the rear and sides that intersect with the inner corridor. Roughly 60 percent of the stucco survives, especially impressive among the double-arched pediments in the middle of each wall and over the entrance. The foundation and the terraces are accented with small green and yellow glazed ceramic insets, creating a glistening profile. The entire wall surface is filled with figurative painting, unlike many later temples in Bagan whose walls were covered in a light tan coloured wash.
We cycled on
Bagan’s most massive shrine, well known for the mass and thickness of the temple. From far away it looks more like a pyramid than a classical Burmese temple
to the Thambula Temple
situated opposite the Tayokpyi Temple. This harmonious, late style temple was built in 1255 by Queen Thambula, the consort of King Uzana - one of the prominent Bagan kings. It is a square building with a circumambulatory corridor running round the central square pile sustaining the sikhara
above and is adorned with fine frescoes and mural paintings. The porches have ornate pilasters and pediments. The pilasters are decorated with scrolls and animals; the pediments have makara
(a mythical sea-creature, the head resembles a crocodile and it is often depicted with a foliated tail) motifs at the ends. We encountered few fellow travellers, the temple was normally locked and the last visitor present had to lock it again and carry the huge key back to a guardian who did not even stay on the temple compounds. There we met Peter, a New Zealander, finally someone who doesn't mix Austria with Australia and who shared Stephan's passion for photography. Later we found out that he and his girl-friend Charlotte also stayed in the New Park Hotel, the place for backpackers and individual tourists. As they were heading to Lake Inle we warned them against the bad road. However
Stucco at the Dhammayangyi Temple
Doorway with vertical, flame-like elements
this didn't bother Peter too much as he had been backpacking for more than five years in a row.
Another temple in this area is the Izagawna Pagoda
, another 13th century temple built by Monk Goat-Bull who practiced alchemy. The temple itself was not especially interesting, but we came right in time for a private religious ceremony. First we watched a group of monks with red lotus flowers in their hands singing and reciting Buddhist texts in the temple courtyard. The women were not present at the singing, but took care of the decoration and the food and drink. Later everyone joined under a tent for a sermon followed by a traditional early lunch. Everybody was exquisitely dressed and endowed with the latest electronic equipment, a lot of expensive cars were parked in front of the temple group (in a country with very few private cars). This event made us again believe that the Buddhist monks had found a compromise with the regime in order to be allowed to keep up with the religious practices, while the regime received their blessings.
After an impressive visit to more unknown treasures we were getting very hungry, but as this
Buddhas in the Dhammayangyi Temple
Although they do not belong to the original time of construction, we were impressed by this unusual group
was not a touristy site, we could not find anything to eat in the vicinity. That’s how we came to the Minnanthu Village
. Finally we spotted a place that looked like we would find something to eat and drink. Unfortunately the owners did not cook there but we could at least have a rest, get refreshing drinks and a white water melon (a complete one!) to eat. Soon we were joined by two other tourists who were also on the lookout for a restaurant. If these people did only cook, they could make good money out of starved individual tourists! The local people were very pleased about the presence of some tourists, this seems not to happen very often, and we were invited into the village. The villages in the Bagan area are very small, consisting only of a couple of houses. There are no real roads, only tiny footpaths of beaten soil with an irregular surface. During our tour we were shown the population’s daily activities, like cutting the animals’ fodder with a machine that consisted only of a small metal blade on a thin wooden stick. In another house, the women were spinning cloth to be sold for
Panorama with the Dhammayazaka Pagoda
The area to the east of Old Bagan witnessed a tremendous expansion in the late 12th and 13th centuries. The glistening dome of the Dhammayazaka Pagoda forms a landmark in this area
tourists, and we certainly bought something from them, and tried the spinning ourselves. Other people were rolling huge cigars, where the tobacco was rolled in sweet corn leaves. Everybody was asked to try, we did not like it since we are also normally non-smokers but we did not want to disappoint these nice people. Apart from that not much activity was seen, most of the people were glued to the TV screen although it was only early afternoon.
Anyway it was impossible to miss Bagan’s most famous handicraft product, lacquerware
. It is also offered in other parts of Myanmar, but Bagan is most noted for its production, and the tourist will find a wide range and array of products at different prices and quality levels. The people in the Minnanthu Village also asked us to watch the production process, which we did with pleasure as it really interested and fascinated us. Among the great artistic achievements of the Burmese people is yun
, the generic name for lacquer in Myanmar. Durable and beautiful items are produced by a time-tested method, the vital element of which is the sap from the Melanorrhoea usitata
tree. First the object to be lacquered is
Its pentagonal plan honours the historical Buddha, his three predecessors and the Buddha of the Future
constructed from either bamboo or wood. The lightest, most pliable lacquer wares are made of interwoven bamboo strips and horsehair. For bamboo, a dried bamboo trunk is cut into strips which may be coiled, woven or twisted, as the shape of the object requires. When the basic form is completed, it is sealed by a coat of lacquer mixed with fine clay. It is then put into a special cellar to dry for three to ten days. Afterwards, it is smoothed and polished with pumice on a simple hand lathe, whereupon another and finer sealing layer is added and the object is put back into the cellar. This process is repeated again and again until the item is completely smooth. Finally, it is given a coat of fine, glossy-quality lacquer. Several steps of sealing, polishing, drying and lacquering take place before the object is ready for final decoration. The lacquer which comes from the sap of the wild Melanorrhoea
tree is naturally black. Different colours are produced with the addition of different elements: red by the addition of cinnabar, yellow by orpiment, blue by indigo, and green from a mixture of yellow and blue. Blue was rarely used traditionally as
Stephan climbed all to the top and is to be seen on the picture on the left directly beneath the sikhara
a separate colour. More precisely, the term yun
is the name of a gloriously imaginative incised lacquerware. The style originated in China, and how it came to Myanmar and to be centred in Bagan is still debated. The technique demands skill and patience. An object already covered with a glossy coat of lacquer is encised sequentially with elements of an overall design to be presented in chosen colours. Supposing the background is black; the artist, working freehand, will first incise lines to be filled with red. The surface of the object is then entirely covered with the colorant, ensuring that the lines are also filled with red. It is then placed in a drying cellar for three or four days, after which the excess of red is removed by polishing on a lathe. The colour is sealed in by a coating of resin. When this is dry, the engraving of thy second colour begins, and the process continues through the next colour(s). Shwe-zawa
(gold-leaf design lacquerware) is less time-consuming to produce than yun
ware, but is just as demanding artistically. First, on a highly polished lacquer surface, the artist carefully blocks off the areas not to be gilded with a
Stephan on the Tayokpyi Temple
"From up here the view is just amazing, unfortunately Klaudia has the camera to take pictures of me...!"
covering of orpiment and the gum of the neem tree. By so doing, he creates a negative design for the application of gold. Then a coat of blank lacquer is placed on the blank areas and the entire surface of the object is covered with gold leaf. When the newly lacquered areas are almost dry, the surface is washed with water. Gold on then areas covered by orpiment is washed away, revealing a brilliant gold design on a shiny lacquer background. The object is then allowed to dry in a special cellar. This technique derives from Thailand, where it is called ‘design from washing’. When only small areas are gold-leaved, positive designs are made by drawing sketches at the desired places, lacquer is placed on them, and then gold leaf. When they are almost dry, the gold leaf is washed off. We were shown around many workshops and were quite shocked by the horrible working conditions. First of all, we spotted quite many children working on the production of lacquerware; then the craftsmen had hardly any daylight at their disposal, and as little space as needed for them to crouch on the ground. Nevertheless, not all workshops offer the same
This square temple is decorated with faded frescoes and was built in 1255 by Thambula, the wife of king Uzana - one of the prominent Bagan kings
dire conditions, and we were fascinated by the time-consuming ancient technique. As already mentioned, Bagan is the absolute centre for lacquerware in Myanmar, and the number of shops is almost unlimited. All of them, as well as innumerable vendors at the monuments, try hard to allure the relatively few tourists. We have to say that the independent vendors usually sell products of an inferior quality, and often they are so desperate that they even offer to exchange their products against anything that the tourist can offer. It seems that work outside of the tourism industry is almost impossible to find in the Bagan region. After several visits in shops of different standards, we did buy many items of lacquerware, as our trip will end shortly before Christmas and we started collecting Christmas presents. What you buy is in the end largely a matter of taste, and of price, but the pieces are so much cheaper than in Europe or America that it is always worth while to buy some. Individual tourists should nevertheless not forget some basic rules: never go in a larger group or with a guide/driver. When we came on our own with the bicycles, prices were automatically
Thambula Temple fresco
Although the frescoes are a bit faded, we were impressed by their beauty and execution
the half of what they had been the day before for a tour group! A basic knowledge of the language always helps, as well as a lot of patience. Like everywhere in Asia…
We profited from our long stay in Bagan and also visited a group of temples between Old Bagan and New Bagan, discovering more treasures that are known but rarely visited. For example the Mingalazedi Pagoda
(or Blessing Stupa) from the late 13th century. It was completed just ten years before the kingdom's collapse at the hands of the Mongols and is noted for its fine proportions and for the many beautiful jataka
tiles around its three square terraces. Excellent for a nice afternoon view, as it is one of the most westerly pagodas, but we were quite disappointed about the tiles’ quality, all of them were more or less damaged. From there it is not far to the Gubyaukgyi Temple
of Myinkaba (there is another namesake temple near the village of Wetkyi In from a later period). The Gubyaukgyi, which was built to enshrine a golden Buddha image, is a fine temple in the early style, square, with a vestibule in the east. Since it
On our way to the Izagawna Temple
Riding our bikes on the smoothly tarred main roads was sheer pleasure
is the earliest dated temple in Bagan (1113), it plays an important role in understanding the region’s development. The temple is also noted for the paintings, which cover the walls of the vestibule, the corridor and the sanctum; these paintings are among the earliest now existent in Bagan. The gem-like Gubyaukgyi Temple comes as a pleasant relief after many of Bagan’s overwhelming monuments and can easily be combined with a visit to nearby temples in the same village. The Nanpaya Temple
is one of these. Nanpaya is a riddle as it contains images of the four faced Hindu god Brahma, which is rather odd for a Buddhist temple and its date of construction remains unknown. Said to have once been the palace of a king of 11th century, it later was converted into a temple. The Nanpaya boasts elaborate stone carvings inside and out, making it the finest stone carving temple and it is the only temple in Bagan built in sandstone and brick, the stone used as exterior facing. The rich relief sculpture surrounding the windows makes a dramatic juxtaposition with the chaste walls and foundation mouldings. The windows are topped by intricate cusped arches each sheltering a
These monks were gathereed for a private religous ceremony on the compounds of the Izagawna Temple
vase from whose pinched rim emanates foliage. Spectacular aquatic creatures, or makara
, with frothy, foliate tails make up the end of the arches. After all the Buddhist monuments we have been seeing for a while now, we were quite astonished to find a reminder of India in Myanmar. Also part of the southern group are the so-called Sister Temples of Seinnyet Ama & Nyima
. The Ama Temple (its name means ‘elder sister’) and the Nyima Pagoda (its name means ‘younger sister’) are said to have both been built by Queen Seinnyet in the 11th century but the style of the Ama Temple is more recent (13th century). This impressive duo is the rare example of a stupa and a temple in a single compound and would be good for the new-comer to Buddhist architecture, as the two types of religious buildings stand side by side. The Ama Temple’s superstructure consists of four steep receding terraces, the lower three of which have medial stairways. Above these terraces rises a curvilinear spire. The triple pediments which once framed the entrances are now much damaged, but the stucco carvings which remain - decorative scrolls, ogre-heads disgorging flowers, bird and animal figures some of
In the Minnanthu Village south of the eastern group of temples
which are mythical - hint at the richness of the original ornamentation. The Seinnyet Nyima Pagoda is a stupa with three terraces and bell shaped dome. The bell shaped dome is ornamented with moulded bands and ogre-head pendants, between four pedimented niches facing the cardinal points. New Bagan
was next on our list, as we were already in the southern part of the archaeological zone. A settlement called New Bagan (very imaginative name giving, isn’t it) was formed by families who were forced out of their homes within the city walls by the military government in the early 1990s. The place boasts a number of middle-range hotels and restaurants as well as a high concentration of souvenir shops, but it seems somehow lost in the new geographical surrounding, like taken out of its historical context. As we are extremely fond of books, we tried to find what on the tourist map was called ‘Book Centre’. We knew it to be situated close to the Myathna Pagoda, and as New Bagan is not very big and made of streets that resemble a perfect linear grid, it should not be hard to spot. But we missed it. It was incredibly small,
Stephan at work
He was working while Klaudia was enjoying her free time...
offered actually hardly any books, photocopied copies at the outmost, and on entering we were simply ignored. The shop assistants were not idle, on the contrary, they busily arranged packages of postcards that you could buy at literally every monument. We had a quick look at some brochures and took our leave with a pinch of regret. In Myanmar itself it seemed impossible to find nicely illustrated books on Bagan’s fantastic mural paintings. Since we were there, we chose a restaurant in New Bagan, but there were no guests at all, so the meat of one dish was not fresh, and Stephan promptly fell ill, but fortunately he recovered quite quickly.
From New Bagan we cycled even further south to the banks of the Irrawaddy, for a visit of the Lawkananda Pagoda
. There we ate fresh, crispy tiny fish from the river as well as tasty shrimps and after our negative experience in the restaurant were gain convinced that it is sometimes better to eat food in the streets. On munching our ‘dessert’ we met a young Spanish couple who could only spend two days in Bagan. They envied us so much for the time we had at our
That's the name of the local Burmese cigars, heaven knows what is inside these leaves of sweet corn
disposal and we again felt very good being independent travellers. The Lawkananda is believed to have been built in 1059 by King Anawratha, the first influential Bagan king. Situated at the edge of the river, this large gilded Stupa is one of the prominent visual landmarks of Bagan and can be seen by all boats that pass along the Irrawaddy River. Today, the structure displays a columnar bell with vertical sides resting upon three octagonal terraces, two of which are connected by a short staircase. The exterior decoration or this stupa has been repeatedly refurbished and changed over time and has recently been encased in gilded metal plaques. The pagoda was built to shelter a replica of the tooth relic of Gautama Buddha sent by the king of Sri Lanka and is therefore used as a place of worship, being held in great veneration by the Buddhists of Myanmar. We had heard from the Spanish couple’s driver about a huge pond at the foot of the Lawkananda Pagoda and as keen naturalists we tried to find it as soon as we finished visiting the pagoda. When we approached it, a bunch of small children immediately gathered around us, trying to
Only relatively primitive tools are used in the Burmese villages
sell plastic bags full of suspicious looking, brightly coloured food to us that reminded us of marsh mellows. We refused to buy it until we discovered that it was food for the numerous fish and turtles of the pond, then we purchased two bags full of pink, yellow, green and blue chips. As soon as the animals heard the rustling of the bags, they hurriedly swam close to the wooden bridge. While we fed them, more and more came swimming and quarrelled for the best pieces, an unbelievable sight! What astonished us most was the fact that they even came when they only heard the bags, in expectance of food. We spent a lovely afternoon by the Irrawaddy River.
At first we wanted to spend only around five days in Bagan, but a period of bad weather foiled our plans. From the beginning of our trip in February we have tried to avoid the rainy season, but this time we could not completely do so and got caught in the last rainy days. There is no night life in Bagan apart from restaurants and the internet connections were extremely slow and expensive - if there was electricity at all,
that we decided to do some shopping. But we soon got bored and cycled to the temples again in spite of the bad weather. Several times we were obliged to look for shelter from the pouring rain, but met interesting people on the way. The temperatures were quite high and cycling in the rain would not have disturbed us so much, had the dust roads not gradually turned into veritable mud pits. On one of the last days Klaudia had a lot of problems with her bike, the chain kept getting loose and we had to repair it every couple of metres. Once some nice souvenir vendors were very helpful though not very efficient, and we felt obliged to buy some low-quality lacquerware and paintings from them. After all, these guys depend on tourists a lot… That day we were on our way to another fantastic temple, but the technical problems had kept us up, in the end we also got lost in the dark and stuck in deep mud. The roads were impossible to cycle, huge flasks of rain blocked the whole way and we were obliged to push our bikes through knee-deep mud, until we arrived bare-foot (we
Lacquerware production, step 2
A mold of small bamboo sticks is prepared
tried to keep at least our shoes clean) on the main road. What an adventure, and we still had not seen the temple!
Although we loved Bagan, it was time to move on after having spent nine days in the archaeological zone. Discovering the temples and pagodas by bicycle was very pleasant and also a bit sporty, each evening we came back exhausted. But this did not matter very much, since there is nothing to do in the region in the evening. We considered taking a public bus to Yangon, but they were fully booked for several days because of school holidays in Myanmar, only the worst seats on stools in the aisle were still available. Furthermore many travelers had told us bloodcurling stories about the long and tedious bus trip, so we afforded a luxury trip by plane, at the price of $76 per person. We arrived early in the morning at Bagan’s small provincial airport, where it seemed that all the flights depart around the same time, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. (The airport is not very busy, though, the number of flights is limited to domestic flights, mostly to Yangon). On our
Lacquerware production, step 3
The mold is sealed by a coat of lacquer mixed with fine clay and laid on a grille for drying. This process is repeated over and over again until the surface is completely smooth
way to the airport we passed a huge golf course, we had already seen one in Mandalay. Later we learnt from somebody who had worked in Myanmar that gambling is forbidden and the country’s military elite had developed a taste for golfing. Though we ourselves are not golfers, we believe that there are not many golf courses in the world where one can play in the closest vicinity of beautiful old temples.
There are more photos below