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Bagan, Myanmar – The Land of Stupas and Temples

From Mandalay, I pushed on by bus to Bagan. This ancient city is a major historical and archeological site, and its land is covered by Temples and Stupas, as far as the eye can see. Truly a spectacular place, I spent two days here exploring and taking photos.


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My transport from Mandalay to Bagan was via bus – and although I try not to travel by bus whenever possible, to get to Bagan this was the only way. The day I departed it was raining, and women splashed around in the mud parking lot selling snacks and meals to travelers.

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Arriving in Bagan, I linked up with some other fellow travelers, and together we negotiated for a ride over to the Winner Guesthouse. The place was basic, but inexpensive and clean enough. Notably, it seemed like they were in the midst of a major renovation, and were building yet another building in the backyard. This was actually the vibe at most places I stayed at in Myanmar. Open for business, but rapidly expanding their operations. Tourism is new in Myanmar, but growing quickly, and with good reason – the country is absolutely beautiful, and the people are wonderful.

A bit about Bagan – it’s simply incredible. Everywhere you look, there are brick temples and stupas dotting the landscape. In peoples gardens and beside roads, there are small ones, as small as a few feet high. And looming in the distance are temples hundreds of feet high. There are stupas of every size, shape, and variety. Each one has a name, and a unique story to it. Walking around the area is bewildering, with so much packed into such a compact area.

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From Wikipedia:

Bagan (Burmese: ????; MLCTS: pu.gam, IPA: [b??à?]; formerly Pagan) is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region of Burma (Myanmar). From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.

Architecture
Bagan stands out not only for the sheer number of religious edifices but also for the magnificent architecture of the buildings, and their contribution to Burmese temple design. The Bagan temple falls into one of two broad categories: the stupa-style solid temple and the gu-style (??) hollow temple.

Stupas
A stupa, also called a pagoda, is a massive structure, typically with a relic chamber inside. The Bagan stupas or pagodas evolved from earlier Pyu designs, which in turn were based on the stupa designs of the Andhra region, particularly Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in present-day southeastern India, and to a smaller extent to Ceylon.[19] The Bagan-era stupas in turn were the prototypes for later Burmese stupas in terms of symbolism, form and design, building techniques and even materials.[20]
Originally, an Indian/Ceylonese stupa had a hemispheric body (Pali: anda, “the egg”) on which a rectangular box surrounded by a stone balustrade (harmika) was set. Extending up from the top of the stupa was a shaft supporting several ceremonial umbrellas. The stupa is a representation of the Buddhist cosmos: its shape symbolizes Mount Meru while the umbrella mounted on the brickwork represents the world’s axis.[21] The brickwork pediment was often covered in stucco and decorated in relief. Pairs or series of ogres as guardian figures (‘bilu’) were a favourite theme in the Bagan period.[22]

The original Indic design was gradually modified first by the Pyu, and then by Burmans at Bagan where the stupa gradually developed a longer, cylindrical form. The earliest Bagan stupas such as the Bupaya (c. 9th century) were the direct descendants of the Pyu style at Sri Ksetra. By the 11th century, the stupa had developed into a more bell-shaped form in which the parasols morphed into a series of increasingly smaller rings placed on one top of the other, rising to a point. On top the rings, the new design replaced the harmika with a lotus bud. The lotus bud design then evolved into the “banana bud”, which forms the extended apex of most Burmese pagodas. Three or four rectangular terraces served as the base for a pagoda, often with a gallery of terra-cotta tiles depicting Buddhist jataka stories. The Shwezigon Pagoda and the Shwesandaw Pagoda are the earliest examples of this type.[21] Examples of the trend toward a more bell-shaped design gradually gained primacy as seen in the Dhammayazika Pagoda (late 12th century) and the Mingalazedi Pagoda (late 13th century).[23]

Hollow temples
In contrast to the stupas, the hollow gu-style temple is a structure used for meditation, devotional worship of the Buddha and other Buddhist rituals. The gu temples come in two basic styles: “one-face” design and “four-face” design—essentially one main entrance and four main entrances. Other styles such as five-face and hybrids also exist. The one-face style grew out of 2nd century Beikthano, and the four-face out of 7th century Sri Ksetra. The temples, whose main features were the pointed arches and the vaulted chamber, became larger and grander in the Bagan period.[24]

Innovations
Although the Burmese temple designs evolved from Indic, Pyu (and possibly Mon) styles, the techniques of vaulting seem to have developed in Bagan itself. The earliest vaulted temples in Bagan date to the 11th century while the vaulting did not become widespread in India until the late 12th century. The masonry of the buildings shows “an astonishing degree of perfection”, where many of the immense structures survived the 1975 earthquake more or less intact.[21] (Unfortunately, the vaulting techniques of the Bagan era were lost in the later periods. Only much smaller gu style temples were built after Bagan. In the 18th century, for example, King Bodawpaya attempted to build the Mingun Pagoda, in the form of spacious vaulted chambered temple but failed as craftsmen and masons of the later era had lost the knowledge of vaulting and keystone arching to reproduce the spacious interior space of the Bagan hollow temples.[20])
Another architectural innovation originated in Bagan is the Buddhist temple with a pentagonal floor plan. This design grew out of hybrid (between one-face and four-face designs) designs. The idea was to include the veneration of the Maitreya Buddha, the future and fifth Buddha of this era, in addition to the four who had already appeared. The Dhammayazika and the Ngamyethna Pagoda are examples of the pentagonal design.[21]

As soon as I was checked into the guesthouse, I quickly changed clothes, and went out to the road to find a horse carriage driver to show me around a bit. Since I had just arrived, and hadn’t done a ton of research on the area, I figured that hiring a guy to take me around for a few hours was good. And it was great. My driver was a 28 year old guy who had lived near Bagan his whole life. He had bough his horse – Juliette – from his brother a few years ago, and he and horse had been giving tours of Bagan ever since. He seemed to really like his job, and was very knowlegable and fun to hang out with. For the afternoon, we went around to a bunch of the temples dotting the landscape. Some of the structures are Stupas, meaning they are solid brick. Most are protected, but a few are able to be climbed. Since tourism is new in Myanmar, it’s pretty much open terretory here – very little regulation means that nobody will really stop you if you climb on the structures – I’m hoping this will change in the future, to properly preserve them. But for now, climbing is mostly allowed and unregulated. I did climb to the top of one or two, and went on the roof of one of the hollow temples.

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Although the brick structures look old, and the place feels like an ancient archeological site, there are still new stupas and temples being constructed today. Going inside a brand new, under construction temple was an interesting experience – the architecture looked like the same historical architecture that the rest of the temples exhibited, however the brickwork, plastering, and everything else was brand new and nice. It was like a master-planned house built to mimic a classic american home – same same, but different.

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Exploring the interiors of the hollow temples was a transporting experience. Walking through the giant gates and into the cool, quiet interior was meditative and serene. The brick walls echoed back sounds, and when I was alone in the temples, the sounds of the plain were incredible. A light breeze swept through the interiors, and it was almost as if you could feel the process of time sweeping by. Occasionally a monk would silently turn a corner and walk past, on his way to the buddha statue in the interior.

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At the end of my first day in Bagan, a cool drink with a few of the temple guards.

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On my second day, I met up three other travelers, and the four of us decided to get a van ride over to the mystical Mt. Popa. On our way there, we also stopped by a homebrew palm whiskey distillery. Palm nuts are harvested from the trees, and then a bull is used to smash the nuts and extract the juices. It’s then all boiled down and distilled into a VERY potent mixture.

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Looming in the distance, Mt. Popa is a small mountain that juts out of the mostly flat landscape. Surrounding the mountain are more stupas, which spiral their way up the flanks of the mountain, giving way to a few cliff bands, and then reappearing in golden splendor at the top. Of course, we hiked our way up to the top, followed by monkeys and cats. We even got into the local culture and had some of the local women smear Thanaka face paint on us.

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Bagan was amazingly beautiful, and 2 days certainly was not enough time to fully explore the place. However, the next morning the four of us set out for the illegal teak harvesting camps outside of Taunggyi.

4 comments

  1. Great post! I really enjoyed my time in Bagan in 2012 – such a tranquil place. I posted a review of my time on mightytravels dot com. I hope it won’t be overrun soon and I can come back soon!

  2. Hi Jeffrey!
    My favorite was Bagan, and enjoyed reading your stuff as well.
    Ancient Bagan Temples, welcome Indiana Jones hope you enjoy :)

  3. It seems you have amazing trip to Myanmar.
    Oh I loved the scenery of Bagan.
    It truly was a magnificent view from the sky.
    Number of stupas and Buddhist temples were outstanding.
    Beautiful!! It is just too beautiful.

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