Bagan, Myanmar

  • Date
  • 12 March 2001

Jim and I spent the day touring Bagan, home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world – much dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. At one point 4000 holy structures existed, but today just 1000 stand. We visited only 12 of the remaining holy places and left feeling overwhelmed by their history, architectural feats and aesthetics and on-going religious significance today, almost 1000 years after inception. Our visit included:
1.  Ywa Haung Gyi – 12th century
2.  Alo daw Pyi – 11th century
3.  Shwe zi gon – 11th
4.  Hti Lo Min Lo – 12th
5.  Ananda Temple – 11th
6.  Ananda Brick Monastery (extraordinary painting restored by UNESCO)
7.  That Byin Nyu Temple – 1144AD
8.  Nat Klaung Kyaung (Hindu)
9.  Ma Nu Ha Temple (cramped Buddhas built by captured King allowed only a small kingdom)
10.  Gu Byauk Gyi Temple – 1113 AD
11.  Mya Zedi (pillar, stone)
12.  Dhamma Yan Giyi Temple (bricks intricately close)

Standing atop Ywa Haung Gyi temple, I overflowed with awe and told Jim, ‘Everywhere we look there is a temple or stupa.’ The architectural styles influenced by Hinduism show adaptation over time with stupas shaped differently at the base. Many of the structures consist of brick packed tightly without mortar holding them together, although some say honey was used to solidify. Other temples are brick with plaster layered over the exteriors. And since the 19th century with the discovery of gold in Myanmar, many Buddhas and stupas are now covered in gold and gold leaf, adding another layer of beauty to the land of temples.

Mankind and earthquakes have destroyed much of the murals inside the holy places. Over the centuries, people living and cooking inside the temples caused black smoke to discolor the detailed, centuries-old paintings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, officials whitewashed over the areas discolored by smoke, thus, destroying the murals for posterity. The whitewashing can never be removed to unearth the original paintings. At Ananda Monastery, no whitewashing took place and UNESCO spent six years in the 1980s and 90s restoring the murals, which show the hundreds of creations of Buddha and scores of women wearing little.

The temples of Bagan are mostly void of tourists; we saw fewer than a handful of air-conditioned, tourist buses during an entire day. The year-long, oven-like temperatures (near 37 C [100 F] during our visit) make it necessary that all sightings and exploring be done slowly and perhaps more thoughtfully as a result. The lack of sultry humidity made the heat tolerable for us.

Outside of most temples, persistent children and women offer cold drinks, postcards and not-so-high quality lacquer ware at only slightly inflated costs. Also available at every turn is thanaka, a paste made from bark (used throughout Myanmar as a sunscreen for all and a beautifier for women and girls of every age). Outside a temple a man, who calls thanaka the ‘Myanmar Max Factor,’ generously applied the light beige paste to our faces, which became tight instantly. At one temple I bought a necklace of jasmine flowers, which a girl pinned in my hair. (The flowers, adorning many ladies’ heads, are often bought and placed in the temple as an offering.) The intense fragrance of these jasmine flowers made me want to plant them in my garden immediately. I don’t ever remember jasmine smelling this overwhelmingly powerful.

All in all – the temples, stupas and pagodas of Bagan are the single most impressive man-made collection of structures we’ve encountered in 87 countries.