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Land of Pagodas

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Sunday Herald Travel on June 21, 2015

I had seen along my travels monasteries and pagodas quite a few and had a lukewarm response to the plan to visit Bagan… I could not have been more wrong. The 55 kings of the Myanmar dynasty ruled over a period of 12 centuries. The kingdom towards the latter half shifted its capital to Bagan in 874 AD at the time of King Pyinbya, who also erected the city walls of Bagan with 12 gates and a moat. King Thamudrit founded the dynasty in 108 AD and by the end of the 13th century, the kingdom was fading from the pages of history… devastated and destroyed by Chinese invaders… the king himself dismantling some of the structures to build the fort walls for security.

Beginnings of Buddhism

The story goes that King Anawrahta (1044-1077AD), the illustrious, ambitious and the most powerful ruler of this dynasty, upon being told about the vital importance of the Tripathakas being initiated into Buddhism by a holy man, was so inspired to instill the message and learning in his own people that he conquered the city of Thaton in 1057 AD (Manuha, the king there, having refused to part with the Tripathakas) and carried away on troops of white elephants the Tripathaka scriptures, learned Buddhist monks, numerous artisans and builders. And set them to work in his own kingdom of Bagan.

And from that period in history started the most vigorous building of thousands of these wonderful monuments of Therawada Buddhism of all shapes and sizes, and going by the structures standing now, the most beautiful and awe-inspiring. They were supposed to be some 4,000 in number, of which a mere 2,000 remain now.

His people were initiated into alphabets, religion and the scriptures by the Mon monks. Buddhism, according to tradition, seems to have been introduced into Suvannabhumi (identified with Thaton) around the 3rd century. There is also evidence of Buddhism by the 1st century AD itself. However, with the effort and religious fervour of Anawrahta, Buddhism flourished in Bagan. His votive tablets with images of Buddha and his teachings and the innumerous pagodas built during his reign (and after) stand testimony to that.

Of the pagodas sprinkled across the landscape (each of which hold you mesmerised and you have to tear yourself away, literally, to move on to the next), there are some that are truly outstanding. Both by way of their architectural differences and peculiarities as well as their religious significance. The ancient Mon structures stand out for their square base and long corridors with brick inlaid windows to let in sunlight and the walls intricately worked from floor to ceiling with frescoes.

Of these are the Ananda constructed by King Kyanasittha, who on his consulting eight arahat (saints) was directed to shape the structure based on the sacred Nanda Mula cave of the Himalayas (which apparently gave rise to its name Ananda). The architecture, the stucco work, the woodwork as the terracotta here is of stunning magnificence and is a sight for sore eyes and weary souls. One comes out of the structure pretty much dazed.

The Shwesandaw pagoda with a wide base of majestic dimensions holds five levels approachable by steep flights of stairs afore rising into a cylindrical stupa. Constructed during the reign of Anawrahta, it is the loftiest of all, supposed to contain the sacred hairs of the Buddha, and gives a spectacular view from above, also serving as the sunset view point.

The Shwezigon pagoda is the most highly venerated by Burmese Buddhists as it is supposed to contain a tooth and a bone of the Shakyamuni, and its gold-leaf gilded stupa is of unique splendour.

Vision in gold

The Dhamayangyi has the most impressively imposing presence. The evening sun has gone down on the horizon by the time we make our way to this magnificent pagoda standing away from the rest like a forlorn giant. Maybe the story that King Narathu who built it was assassinated within the temple while it was still under construction has something to do with it. Which, therefore, came to a halt. The outer corridor of this massive pyramidical structure is alone viable, as the inner corridors as well as the central sanctum has been bricked in. There is many a story about it, but the strangest ones being that it was walled in to prevent the king’s ghost from escaping the premises, and that one of the monks was sealed in live to fight the demons.

King Narathu, who is supposed to have usurped the throne after poisoning his brother, the heir apparent, and his father, with killing one of his queens who was a Hindu princess, is said to have been of an angry and violent disposition and cruel and unpopular with his subjects.

The beautiful and massive Dhammayangyi pagoda, which he is supposed to have built in order to atone for his sins (though his acts of cruelty continued as he would cut off the hands of the workers if he did not find their work perfect), has elements of Hindu architecture to it, wears an abandoned and a rather desolate look.

My several attempts to get some good twilight shots of it fail, and when I get back to my room and go through its history I feel an air of mystery and melancholy that surround it. I also feel (or like to believe) that there was perhaps some reason to the camera failing to get satisfactory shots of it and that sends a slight chill down my spine. The air is a tad solemn and quite subdued and as our tonga clip-clops its way through the winding dark mud path back to the warmth of our hotel, the air of solemnity remains.

The Irrawaddy, also known as the Ayeyarwaddy, the largest river of Burma, flows languidly from north to south irrigating huge tracts of land, and acts as the main commercial waterway of the country. Climbing up one of the ancient steep steps of a pagoda, I get a thrilling aerial view of it as it meanders along. Bagan thus forms the cultural and religious mainstay of its ancient civilisation.

As one travels down towards New Bagan, one comes to the village of Myinkaba that holds small workshops working on lacquer ware products made using the black sap extracted from the lacquer tree. Woven wickerwork, bamboo or teak wood forms the base on which black lacquer sap is applied and then the craftsperson works with sharp-edged implements to carve figures of dancers, floral patterns, kings, queens of yore, scenic panorama and more, on it. Usually, the background is black, the natural hue of lacquer, but it can also be rust, ochre, sepia etc.

Bagan is also known for its sand paintings, mostly of temple frescoes, the water festival, the ancient Bagan women, Buddha’s foot etc. that are painstakingly drawn and painted by hand on a background of a mat of fine sand. These, along with the puppets and lacquerware, are must-buys. They are sold at the local pagodas at Bagan and come at reasonable prices. The money goes directly into the hands of artisans which is preferable. Bagan also offers the experience of a ride on the hot air balloons that give a bird’s eye view of the land speckled with hundreds of pagodas as you sail serenely along.

Fact file: Travel: Yangon to Bagan is an approximate distance of 625 km and overnight buses are available. Flights to Bagan, Nyaung U, are by Yangon Air, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, Air KBZ etc and the flying time is about an hour and a half. These have to be booked sufficiently in advance, especially during the tourist season.

Best time September to March is the ideal time as the weather is pleasant. Summers can be hot.

Stay: There are excellent places to stay and the hospitality is good.

What to buy: Sand paintings, puppets, lacquerware products etc.

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