Sunday, December 29, 2019

Bagan’s Sea of Pagodas

                                      by Jim Goodman

Shwesandaw and Dhammayan Gyi
       For a country long used to negative reports in the international media, this year Myanmar drew the world’s attention for a very felicitous reason.  On 6 July 2019 UNESCO recognized the ancient capital of Bagan as a World Heritage Site.  It was a long time coming.  Myanmar’s government had first nominated Bagan for the award in 1995.  But Myanmar was a pariah country then, under the military-led State Law and Order Restoration Council (the notorious SLORC).  Western governments discouraged their citizens from making it a tourist destination.  And members of the UNESCO committee objected to some of the restoration work.
the gilded stupa of Shwezigon
       Time passed.  Eventually a civilian government came to power.  Tourist arrivals have been burgeoning for at least fifteen years, with Bagan one of the most popular excursions.  Despite the original qualms, UNESCO could no longer deny the site its due recognition. 
       It certainly deserved it.  The Bagan Archaeological Zone, with over 3000 pagodas and temples, comprises 104 square kilometers, making it the world’s largest.  Founded in the mid- to late 9th century, capital of the country’s first Burmese Empire from 1044-1287, the plain around it once held over 10,000 religious monuments.  Bagan’s religious tradition followed that of their Pyu predecessors, a Tibeto-Burman people occupying several city-states in the Ayerewady Valley, heavily influenced by their trade links with India.  It encompassed both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, plus Tantra, Hindu cults of Shiva and Vishnu, as well as the indigenous spirit (nat) beliefs.
stupas on the way to New Bagan
      Wars with its neighbor Nanzhao, in contemporary Yunnan, China, from 750-830, destroyed Pyu political power.  In this power vacuum rose the Kingdom of Bagan, founded by Burmese people (Bahmar), who would by two centuries later extend their control over the whole Irrawaddy Valley and its periphery.  Under King Anawrahta, who ascended in 1044, the state became an empire.  He extended the rice cultivation area, especially to the east, with weirs and canals, which encouraged the immigration of ever more farmers.  He made Theravada Buddhism the state religion, though tolerated other beliefs, and sponsored the formation of a script for the Burmese language.
Thatbinniyu (right), the tallest pagoda on the plain
      His able successors Kyinsuttha (1081-1112), who patronized Mon scholars and artisans, and Alaungsithi ·1112-1167), who constructed more irrigation systems and standardized weights and measures, presided over a long period of peace and prosperity.  The empire had no real rivals and grew quite wealthy.  And with both kings and commoners religiously pious, much of that wealth became devoted to building temples and pagodas.  Their palaces, houses and walls have disappeared, but their spectacular array of religious monuments remains as a legacy that draws visitors from all over the world.
pagodas on the Bagan plain
       People can fly to Bagan’s airport, but a more interesting way there is to go by boat from Mandalay, to the north.  The fastest boat takes about eight hours, though one could take cheaper, slower ones that arrive well after dark, or even the next morning.  The journey by road also takes the entire day and is basically a boring succession of farms and villages.  The river route can also be tedious for long stretches, but at least one can walk around on deck and enjoy food and drinks.
sunrise view from Shwesandaw
       After departing Mandalay in early morning, the boat soon passes slowly by the former medieval capital Sagaing.  The town lies on the west bank and morning light from the east on the two long, temple-studded hills that make up the town keeps the passengers’ cameras clicking.  After Sagaing the scenery is monotonous until the junction with the Chindwin River, and then relatively boring again until just before the landing at Bagan, where the northernmost stupas are first visible.
       I made the trip on a sunny day in December 2006.  The monsoon had ended less than two months previously but already the river was rather shallow.  The boat zigzagged its way downriver to avoid getting stuck on a sandbar.  It made brief stops at a village south of Sagaing, where children waded out from shore to sell bananas and other snacks, and at the confluence with the Chindwin, where a few passengers disembarked.  Until approaching Bagan scarcely any other vessels were in the river, with a surprising dearth of fishing activity.
Sulamani Temple

      The boat pulled into the pier at Old Bagan next to Bupaya Temple, reputedly the oldest monument in the city.  Unfortunately, a devastating earthquake of 6.3 magnitude in1975 completely leveled the building and what stands there now is a reconstruction.  Most of the main temples remained standing, though some lost a few spires.  Bagan suffered periodic earthquakes throughout its history and it’s a tribute to the skills of the planners and architects that so many major temples and pagodas survived them relatively intact.
       Reconstruction commenced soon afterwards and by 2006 even the smaller temples and stupas had all been restored.  Some had plaques placed in front listing the names of those who sponsored the restoration and others had newly installed Buddha images.  Because they used new bricks it was easy to tell which spires or other parts had been damaged and some were completely rebuilt from the base up.
typical bell-shaped stupa
       We arrived late in the afternoon when the waning light enriched the colors of the monuments, enhancing the 40-minute hike to New Bagan, where I stayed in a moderately priced hotel for four nights.  Clusters of pagodas along the way gave me a foretaste of what to expect come morning.  Rich visitors stayed in luxury hotels in Old Bagan and backpackers headed for cheap guesthouses in Nyaungthu village.  But wherever one lodged, wonderful temples and pagodas were just a short walk away.
gilded stupa atop Dhammayazika
      For the most majestic view of the archaeological zone one could take an expensive balloon ride over the plain.  The government had also erected a 60-meter-tall viewing tower on the northern side. Most people were content to explore the area on foot, by bicycle or by pony-cart.  I did all three.  About a dozen temples have interior staircases enabling visitors to reach the upper levels, provided you can find the groundskeeper to unlock the door. 
       A notable exception is Shwesandaw, southeast of Old Bagan, which has exterior stairways on three sides, with handrails.  It’s the most popular spot to watch the sun set behind the mountains west of the river.  Perhaps because guests did not want to miss the free morning breakfast in their hotels, hardly anyone showed up for the sunrise, which I found even more enchanting.
severed Buddha head on the ground
stone carving on a temple facade
       Climbing up to the fifth level of this whitewashed temple and looking west I could see groups of pagodas at intervals, with the distant mountains in the background.  The nearest cluster stood about a hundred meters away.  The first sun rays bathed the fronts of the buildings, while wispy, low, skinny clouds lay between the trees in nearby groves.  When the sun rose higher, the clouds dissipated and it was time to move on.
stone frieze on Abeyodana Temple
       Scholars divide the buildings into three periods.  The early period, 850-1100, reflects Mon and Pyu influence, with small perforated windows and dark interiors.  The middle period, 1100-1170, features bigger windows, taller stupas and a vertical emphasis.  Those of the late period, 1170-1300, are more elaborate, with more sculptural embellishments.
       The majority of the buildings are individual stupas, both simple small ones and big ornate ones.  The earliest were often cylindrical or like mounds, but from the 11th century the bell shape dominated.  A few are whitewashed, others gilded, but most are of brick.  Some have smaller stupas at the corners of each of the pagoda terraces and some are completely gilded.  All of them are supposed to contain relics, indicating, from the sheer number of such stupas, just how prevalent the collecting and preserving of relics was to the religious-minded people of the Bagan era.
temple and stupas
       Stupas also rise above the tops of the temples, which have extended hollow chambers at the base, generally one or four, used for meditation and rituals.  They may also have large Buddha images from the original construction or smaller, modern ones installed during restoration.  Several temples feature interior frescos.
       UNESCO sponsored restoration of the biggest group, at Abeyodana Temple, mainly Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist imagery, but including lots of secular everyday life activities.  Nandamannya Pahto’s set of Mahayana panels is in less good condition.  Its most famous scene, the Temptation of Mara, with its bare-breasted beauties, is covered with glass and difficult to see.  Those at Ananda Ok Kyaung and Updi Thein depict daily life activities from the 17th-18th centuries, when they were painted.  Frescos in the Kyanzitthi cave temple, 800 years old, are too worn to see well, though they include panels of Mongols.
interior Buddha images
       Compared to the sculptural paradise of Angkor, Bagan doesn’t have many extant carvings.  Here and there one comes across a toppled Buddha head on the ground.  A few stone panels of deities, mythical animals and dancing apsaras exist, like the set at Abeyodana Temple.  A couple others have standing Buddhas or well-worn elephants.  Dhammayazika, with a recently re-gilded spire, has panels of Jataka scenes, stone sculptures around the base and protruding, stone makara-headed drainage pipes on the terrace levels.
       Among the most picturesque temples are three from the early period:  Shwesandaw—the sunrise/sunset viewing favorite, Thatbinniyu—the tallest on the plain, and Ananda Pahto—the biggest and most complex.  All three are whitewashed.  For its 900th anniversary in 1992, Ananda Pahto had its spires gilded  
Manuha Temple, built by a captive Mon king, 11th c.
       Besides Abeyodana and Dhammayazika, other Bagan temples draw much visitor attention.  Sulamani has the most classic shape, with small stupas lining the sides of the multi-tiered base.  Mahabodhi is an exact replica of the ancient one in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment.  Dhammayangyi is the largest in volume, though its spire has toppled.  The Sein Sisters pair are in completely different styles from each other. Seinnyet Nyima resembles a smaller version of Sulamani, while Seinnyet Ama is a large, bell-shaped stupa.
       Bagan reached the zenith of its prestige and power in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, under Kings Narapatyi Sithu (1174-1211) and Htilominlo (1211-1235).  These rulers enlarged the borders, prevented Khmer expansion out of central western Thailand, codified the law, established a standing army and extended Burmese cultural influence beyond its boundaries.  The capital’s population then is estimated as anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000.  Yet this heyday was not to last much longer. 
everyday life in ancient Bagan
       Piety had become a problem.  Kings and nobles granted much of the agricultural land to temples and monasteries, which were exempt from taxation.  Falling revenues meant less money for state administration, especially in the furthest away border provinces, building canals to open new farmland, and equip the army.  The religious spirit, which had inspired so much architectural grandeur, was undermining the state. 
       Conflict began in the south and Bagan lost territory to Arakan and Martaban.  Later in the 13th century Bagan faced Mongol invaders.  While the Mongols apparently never occupied the city itself (they usually destroyed every city they captured), their campaigns successfully terminated Bagan’s power.  By 1287 Bagan’s empire was history and its population reduced to several thousand.  The Myinsaing Kingdom to the south became the pre-eminent state in the country, though neither it nor any of its successors for the next few centuries held sway over Myanmar as much as Bagan had.
UNESCO-restored frescos at Abeyodana
Mahabodhi Temple
       Though it was no longer important politically, Bagan continued to attract pilgrims from all over the country.  They concentrated on Ananda Pahto, Shwezigon, Sulamani, Htilominlo and Dhammayazika.  The other monuments fell into decline.  When the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885) took control of Burma, holding territory even greater than the Bagan Empire, its government sponsored many restorations in Bagan, though not necessarily following the originals.  Nevertheless, the ancient site’s prestige, with its importance to Burmese culture, endured. 
Winido Temple, near the viewing tower
       Pilgrims continued to journey to Bagan throughout the colonial period and in the first few decades after independence.  With a slightly improved political situation, tourism began taking off in the 21st century.  It did not draw anywhere near the numbers that visited Cambodia’s Angkor, but it was a less congested, more relaxing experience.  Like Angkor the main sites had their local hawkers, selling souvenirs, bric-a-brac and snacks, plus the ubiquitous painters.  But they were never very persistent.
       In 2006 the entry ticket was a mere US$10, valid for however long you stayed.  Unlike Angkor, where the nearest hotels were in urban Siem Reap, the lodgings were all inside the quiet archaeological zone.  Right after you left your hotel you were in the vicinity of ancient monuments.  You could even walk among them by moonlight.  Many travelers explored the zone on their own.  Groups in buses were not so numerous and didn’t stay long at any particular site, other then the sunset viewing pagodas.
       Visitor numbers have increased since my 2006 excursion, and are likely to grow more now that Bagan is a recognized World Heritage Site.  No doubt more people will be taking the balloon flights over the plain, but the area is too vast to get very congested.  And for an example of what religious fervor can do for architecture, Bagan remains one of the world’s most outstanding,

Seinnyet Nyima and Seinnyet Ama

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