Bagan sits on an arid plain between the banks of the Irrawaddy River and the Shan hills, between Yangon and Mandalay.
From the 11th to the 13th centuries AD it was the capital of Pagan, an early Burmese kingdom. And what a capital it must have been. A building frenzy went on here for a couple of centuries, with more than four thousand temples built by the Kings of the time.
It was about more than just buildings. All this activity coincided with the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religion in the region.
Looking across the plain it’s easy to see why Marco Polo is said to have been impressed. In its hey day Bagan was a thriving metropolis, famous for its wealth and beauty.
Eight hundred years later only the stone temples remain. They’ve survived in large part because the dry climate has helped to slow decay. Nevertheless, they only hint at their former glory. In addition to gilt many were covered in colourful mosaics and frescoes.
The first temple we visited was the Ananda Pahto. It’s a working temple and is one of the most famous in the archeological zone. The Sulamuni Paya in Taunggyi is modelled on it.
Built in the 11th century it has three hallways, the outer for the ordinary folk, the next for royalty, and the inner most hallway was only accessed by the monks.
Tourists are required to remove their shoes and to behave with decorum while visiting.
Sentries guard the Buddhas, their extended hands warning you to stop unless you have permission to proceed .
Our guide told us the Buddhas face to the North, South, East and West and that one is made from teak, one from sandalwood, one from pine, and one from magnolia.
Along with different hand positions, the one below has a teaching posture, the Buddhas have different facial features representing Burmese, Chinese, and Indian ethnicities.
Each was protected by a huge set of doors. They’re carved from teak and weigh more than one metric ton each (at least, I think our guide was talking in metrics).
They operated on a socket and ring system, which has now seized in place so that they are permanently open, which is surely a relief for whoever is responsible for security. Moving them must have required herculean strength.
Frescoes like those in the photo once covered many of the walls and arches but over the centuries they were lost to soot from fires and then white washed. Now, they are slowly being brought back to life as part of a restoration project assisted by aide from the government of India.
The restoration of the temples and the archeological exploration of the region has its share of controversies. The methods applied in the past haven’t met international standards and some say they have done more harm than good. Although the cultural and historical significance of this region is undeniable it has yet to be awarded UNESCO heritage status.
Nevertheless, for me, visiting Bagan’s plain of temples, steeped as it is in history and culture, was a pinch-me-because-I-can’t-believe-I’m-here experience.