It is said that one of the most breathtaking sunsets in the world occurs over the misty hills of Bagan. The soft orange light slowly creeps over tout tips of pagodas and temples, and long streams of shade blanket beautiful architecture and ancient, crumbling history. Evenings like this inspire artists to create on a monumental scale, historians to lament all they wish they could have witnessed, and any tourist to close their eyes and take a step back from the chaos of modern life. This boisterous city is a peaceful and spiritual retreat, sure to please the eyes and soothe the soul.
Bagan, Myanmar was founded in the second century CE and later fortified by King Pyinbya in the 9th century. Not long after its fortification it was coined as the Capital of the Pagan Empire, and remained as such between 1044 and 1287. During this time, prominent leaders and wealthy citizens began constructing what is estimated to be more than 10,000 temples, stupas, and monasteries.
These structures scattered all along the Bagan Plains - which still span over 40 square miles (104 sq km) - made this city a hub for religious studies, attracting monks and students from India and beyond. Theravada Buddhism was the prominent religion in this area. This branch of Buddhism revolves around teachings from the Pāli Canon which is a collection of the oldest Buddhist texts ever recorded. Secular studies were also pursued in Bagan, including the study of language, grammar, alchemy, astronomy, and legality.
This massively Buddhist culture and Bagan’s innovative ideology spawned the thousands of religious monuments that still remain to this day. But as with most great cultures, disrepair soon fell upon Bagan, and its temples were severely compromised. In 1287 the Pagan Empire collapsed after the Mongols invaded. Even though historians are uncertain that the Mongols ever made it to Bagan, the anarchy that ensued after the fall of the Pagan Empire caused the bustling city to be reduced to a mere murmur. The previous 50,000 to 20,000 residents soon became a small community, and as centuries passed many of the temples were left to the elements.
The few prominent temples popularly visited by those on spiritual pilgrimages remained in good condition, but many temples, pagodas, and monasteries were never restored. The Irrawaddy River consumed one third of the main city center, looters and thieves damaged hundreds of temples in search of treasures, and years of erosion and earthquakes have claimed handfuls of monuments. In the Konbaung Period, between 1752 and 1885, rudimentary repairs were issued by the state to save some of the most popular temples such as the Thatbyinnyu and Ananda. The repairs were ill-conducted and seemingly unfinished, leaving some temples completely whitewashed. As if Bagan had not learned it’s lesson, again in the 1990’s poor repairs were conducted. Modern materials were used for construction and novelty tourist attractions like a golf course and a paved highway were added.
Despite the numerous modern tamperings and lack of upkeep, Bagan, Myanmar is still one of the most culturally rich and beautiful historic destinations of our time. Described once by Marco Polo as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes", we can only imagine the peace and wonder encased in Bagan’s expansive history.
Places to See
Known as “the Westminster Abbey of Burma”, the Ananda Temple is possibly the most famous temple in Bagan. It is named after one of Buddha's first cousins who also acted as his personal secretary and devout follower, but can also be translated as “endless wisdom” or “bliss”. This Temple was built under the reign of King Kyanzittha, and as legend has it, the eight monks tasked with building this temple were murdered by the King after it’s completion so nothing as beautiful could ever be built again. It is home to four large golden Buddha facing to the North, South, East and West, and it’s Indian architecture is famous for brilliant terraces, stone sculptures, and terracotta plaques.
Standing as one of the oldest temples in Bagan, the Manuha Temple is a rectangular structure with multiple layers. Three Buddha are situated at the entrance, all said to seem too large for their enclosure. This was intended by King Manuha who “was allowed” to build this temple in 1059. Held captive by King Anawrahta, King Manuha used this temple as a depiction of his sorrowful, uncomfortable captivity. There is an incredibly large and beautiful reclining Parinirvana Buddha (nirvana-after-death) in the upper room, built to symbolize Buddhisms theory that only death will end all suffering. Parinirvana Buddha usually wear smiles on their faces. The Glass Palace Chronicle says that after sculpting this Buddha he prayed “‘Whithersoever I migrate in samsâra, may I never be conquered by another!’”
First erected in the 9th Century, this large stone entrance is the only remaining testament to the reign of King Pyinbya, the King who fortified Bagan. It marks the East wall and was one of 12 similar walls which have since been washed away by the river. Carvings of ogres still remain despite some deterioration. This wall is considered to be guarded by spiritual beings; colored statues of the brother and sister spirits called “Lord of the Great Mountain” and “Golden Face” can still be seen on the wall.
Have you ever been to Bagan? Is this somewhere you could see yourself traveling to? Let us know in the comments below!