Bagan was once the capital of a great civilization dating from 849 AD to 1287, when it was believed to have been destroyed by Kublai Khan’s Mongol army. At its height, it was a mighty city, as is evidenced by the THOUSANDS of archaeological sites still remaining. Over 2 000 temples dot the plains by the banks of the river Ayeyarwady. There is an old and new Bagan. Old Bagan is the former site of the village that moved to 2 miles south to the New Bagan in 1990. The government forced the villagers to relocate due to “treasure hunting” around the ruins during the 1988 street protests when the authourities attentions were distracted by the unrest. Between the two is Myinkaba, a village renowned for its lacquer ware tradition. The two towns are connected with a paved road but the “old” Bagan is a network of bumpy dirt roads and paths that we cycled across.
Marco Polo apparently once visited Bagan along his travels saying it is “one of the finest sights in the world”. This plain of temples is one of the most stunning and unforgettable sights I’ve seen because one sees temples and pagodas far
off into the horizon for as far as the eye can see. These temples were built over a 230 year period up until 1287 and the Mongol invasions. Bagan’s king commissioned over 4 000 Buddhist temples to be built. This period coincided with the region’s transition from Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs to the Theravada Buddhist beliefs. King Amawrahta who had recently converted to Buddhism ordered the temples built; he wanted them to venerate the Buddha so it was that they built continuously and this is how what is called the “First Burmese Empire” was built.
The best way to visit so many temples is on foot but since this is the hottest time of the year we did a half day by bicycle and in the afternoon after lunch and a siesta we ventured out by horse cart, a popular way of seeing the temples from a shaded and padded bed.
We explored Bagan by bicycle wandering its dusty tracks visiting magnificent temples and towering pagodas with ancient and beautiful painted murals dating back over a millennium. We visited an umbrella workshop and a lacquer ware workshop where we were shown the long process of making bowls
and trays that often take months to complete.
The temples we visited are too numerous to mention but one of the most important and stunning is Ananda Pahto. Inside it houses four standing 31ft Buddha statues. The north and south facing buddhas are original and have bodies made of solid teak covered in gold leaf. Both buddhas display the khammachakka mudra, a hand position symbolizing the Buddha teaching his first sermon. The other two buddhas are replacements since the originals were destroyed by fire in the 1600s. Shwesandaw Paya is Bagan’s most famous sunset-viewing spot with a 360 degree view atop a circular stupa. Shwesandaw means “golden holy hair”. It is believed that the stupa houses a Buddha hair relic presented to King Anawrahta by the King of Ussa Bago in thanks for his assistance in repelling an invasion by the Khmers. Another famous sunset temple is Pyathada Paya which we reached by horse cart on a dirt road, it has a giant open terrace. This golden spot however is frequented by almost every coach bus tour and one needs to jockey for a spot to catch fleeting glimpse of the Bagan sunset.
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