Friday, December 11, 2015

Bagan: The Ancient Capital of the Burmese Empire

Bagan in central Myanmar is one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but, for the time being at least, without the deluge of visitors. The setting is sublime. A verdant 26 square-mile plain, partly covered with palm trees and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Irrawaddy river framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains. Rising from the plain’s canopy of green are thousands of temples, built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, until their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan with his invading army of Mongols. Some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples have survived, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit. Many are superbly preserved or have been restored by Unesco, and many contain original frescoes, carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small. Only a handful are regularly visited, and although tourist numbers are increasing, Bagan is still, by the standards of sites of a similar beauty and stature, a gloriously unsullied destination. Escorted by our guide Santo, a Bagan native and expert on the art, history and architecture of the archaeological zone, we were privileged to be guided on a private tour of Bagan's glorious past.

Htilominlo Temple, built during the reign of King Htilominlo 1211-1231

One of four entry gates to Htilominlo 

One of the original 13th-century carvings of a demon who protects the temple

Constructed with brick, Htilominlo was originally plastered with white stucco, some of which is still in place, like this carving with a louis bud motif along the base

Original ceiling paintings inside the temple are over 800 years old

Facade of the 3-storey buddhist temple

Ornamental spire of the temple, the style of which originated in northern India

Farmers with oxen are a common site among the temples of Bagan

Gubyaukgyi Temple

Built in 1113 AD, Gubyaukgyi Temple is notable for two reasons. First, it contains a large array of well-preserved frescoes on its interior walls, the oldest original paintings to be found in Bagan. All of the frescoes are accompanied by ink captions written in the old Mon, providing one of the earliest examples of the language's use in Myanmar. Secondly, the temple is located just to the west of the Myazedi pagoda, at which was found two stone pillars with inscriptions written in four, ancient Southeast Asian languages: Pali, Old Mon, Old Burmese, and Pyu. The inscription on the pillar displayed by the Myazedi pagoda has been called the Burmese Rosetta Stone, given its significance both historically and linguistically, as a key to cracking the Pyu language.

Detail of the Myazedi stone inscription, called the Burmese Rosetta Stone, given its significance both historically and linguistically, as a key to cracking the Pyu language

Gold chedi atop the Gubyaukgyi Temple

Wonderful old temple beside the more noteworthy Gubyaukgyi 

Nanpaya Hindu Temple means 'King's Temple' and was built in 1059 AD

 Reminiscent of a four-aisled Russian church, the layout has allowed for a system of lighting the central space through perforated screens in the windows

Interior bas-relief carving of the three-headed Brahma

Built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, Ananda temple is considered to be one of the finest surviving masterpieces of the Mon architecture. Also known as the largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples, Ananda suffered considerable damage during an earthquake in 1975 but has been totally restored. This perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period. In 1990, on the 900th anniversary of the temple's construction, the temple spires were gilded, and the remainder of the temple exterior is whitewashed from time to time.

Ananda Temple

Roof detail with Naga, a protective serpent guarding the temple

One of 554 rare glazed green tiles showing jataka scenes — life stories of the Buddha

Original glazed pieces are very rare in Bagan, given the age of the temples

Demon guarding the temple

Devout Buddhists burnish gold leaf on buddhas to show respect, often masking the original details of the sculpture with layers of gold leaf

The Buddha is thoroughly covered in gold leaf

Facing outward from the centre of the Ananda Temple, four 30-foot high standing Buddhas represent the four Buddhas who have attained nirvana

One of two the original 12th-century Bagan-style Buddhas with a hand position symbolising the Buddha's first sermon — the dhammachakka mudra

Queen Restaurant in Bagan's Archeological Zone, where we stopped for lunch

The courtyard of Queen Restaurant, with our guide fabulous Santo on the left

The perfect start to lunch — a cold Myanmar beer

Tiny tasty Myanmar peanuts

Queen traditional Myanmar cuisine menu

Prawn spring rolls 

Country Style Chicken Curry with tomato and onion gravy, served in a lacquerware box
with steamed rice and mixed salads

Irrawady River Prawn Curry

Large river pawns in a tomato curry with green peppers

Sliced watermelon for dessert

The golden Shwezigon Paya in Bagan is one of the most significant religious buildings in Myanmar, for it served as a prototype for later stupas built throughout the country and marked an important development in the relationship between traditional Burmese religion and Theravada Buddhism. Built in the 11th century by King Anawrahta, a recent convert to Theravada Buddhism, the king built Shwezigon to be a massive reliquary to enshrine a collection of relics, including the Buddha's frontal and collar bones, a copy of the tooth relic at Kandy, Sri Lanka, and an emerald Buddha image from China. The king had completed three terraces of the Paya when he was killed by a wild buffalo in 1077, however the shrine was completed between 1086 and 1090 by King Kyanzittha, Anawrahta’s successor who was arguably Bagan’s greatest king and certainly one of its greatest builders: it was under him that Bagan became known as the "city of four million pagodas." The Shwezigon Paya has retained to this day the essential shape it assumed on completion in 1090, which became the architectural prototype for many other stupas across Myanmar. Another significant aspect of Shwezigon's history is that it marked the first royal endorsement of the 37 nat or spirits, a central focus of Burmese religion before the arrival of Buddhism.

The golden Shwezigon Paya in Bagan is one of the most significant religious buildings in Myanmar

Closeup of the Paya

Series of gold urns topped with flowered parasols

The Shwezigon Paya Buddha

Ornate mirror, coloured glass and gold interior detail 

Little boy outside the Paya

At sunset, the white Shwesandaw Pagoda becomes a beacon for visitors who gather to take advantage of the fantastic views over the temples of Bagan. Shwesandaw has five terraces, with a stairway on each of the four sides leading right up to the top terrace from which rises a dramatic bell-shaped stupa. Constructed in 1057, this pagoda of the 'golden relic' was one of the first to be built by Anawrahta, in order to enshrine a hair relic of the Buddha that had been given to him by the ruler of Bago. Following an ancient Pyu tradition, the stupa is situated outside the city walls, where along with four other pagodas, including the Shwezigon, provides spiritual protection for Bagan and offering spectacular views over hundreds of temples suffused with an orange glow as the sun sets over the historic plains.

At sunset, the white Shwesandaw Pagoda becomes a beacon for visitors who gather to take advantage of the fantastic views over the temples of Bagan

Two small lovely temples beside Shwesandaw

View from the first terrace of Shwesandaw

View over the plains of Bagan

View of the impressive Htilominlo Temple at sunset

Built in 1165, Dhammayangyi Temple is the largest of all the temples in Bagan

View with Ananda Temple in the distance

 The magnificent Thatbyinnyu Temple towers above the other monuments of Bagan

Temples framed by the hazy silver-grey distant mountains

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