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On a hot dusty plain of Myanmar more than 2,000 Buddhist pagodas and temples of the ancient city of Bagan form one of the most extraordinary sights in Southeast Asia. Some languages use the expression ‘as countless as the stars in the sky’ to convey a huge number: the Burmese say ‘as countless as the pagodas of Bagan ’.

Each day as the morning sun separates the sky from the earth and lights with silver a broad coil of the Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s greatest river, spires, pinnacles and conical domes can be seen spiking the air like giant cacti and thorns made of stone. As far as the eye can see, sacred shrines, some almost a thousand years old, stretch away for eight miles along the east bank of the river and for about two miles inland. They cover the ground so densely that it is said it is impossible to move without touching something sacred.

Some shrines are dilapidated, their bricks mounds of rubble, their spires toppled. But others, such as the great Ananda, Thatpyinnu, Dammayangyi and Gawdawpalin temples are like mountains rising from the flat plain. A few resemble snowy peaks, their icy facades unmelted by the heat of the sun.

Bagan was traditionally founded in 849 by King Pyinbia of the Burmese people, who, during earlier centuries, had migrated to Myanmar from the region of Tibet. At this time, Burmese power was concentrated in the north of the country, while in the south, a people known as the Mon were supreme.

These power lines changed irrevocably after the accession of Anawrahta (1044-77) to the Bagan throne in 1044. A Romantic figure who gained the crown by winning a duel, Anawrahta united Myanmar for the first time, and with him the country’s history properly starts. As well as a strong king, Anawrahta was also known for his religious piety. At the time of his ascension to the throne, the people of Bagan were exchanging their native religion based on spirits known as nats for the form of Buddhism  known as Theravada (prevalent in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka) – a process instigated by the king’s conversion by a charismatic Theravadan Buddhist named Shin Arahan.

Shin Arahan was to alter the political balance of Myanmar when he asked Anawrahta to petition the Mon king of Thaton (in the south of the country) for a copy of the extensive Buddhist Tripitaka scriptures that he had in his keeping. Anawrahta duly requested a copy, but was rebuffed. Instead, he took Thaton by force and transported back to Bagan thirty thousand Mons – monks, scholars, masons, goldsmiths, carpenters, and artists – as well as the Mon king himself, bound in gold manacles, and his court. The scriptures were borne on the backs of thirty-two white elephants and a special library was built for them.

The influx of Mons was a turning point in Bagan ’s history. Mon craftsmen passed on their skills to their Burmese counterparts, and Mon scholars taught the Pali language of the scriptures and the Mon alphabet, so that the oral Burmese language could be written down. Shin Arahan organized the Mon Theravada monks and sent them out to spread the word. For the next two hundred years, the city was the hub of a kingdom roughly the size of modern Myanmar, connected to other parts of the country by an extensive road network. Rice cultivation improved with the building of irrigation canals, and commerce flourished with Sri Lanka, India and other countries in the region. Bagan ’s lacquerware in particular was a prized commodity.

Theravada Buddhism – still the dominant religious and social force in the country – prevailed among the people, although spirit worship was not eradicated. Shin Arahan thought it better to assimilate the nats into Buddhism than root them out of the people’s affections. Indeed, on the lower terraces of Anawhrata’s great Shwezigon Pagoda, in the northern part of Bagan , the king placed the wooden images of the thirty-seven traditional nats as bait to attract recruits to the new faith.

The Shwezigon, like other pagodas, or stupas, is essentially a reliquary mound. It is said to by an unseen light source that cloaks the head and shoulders in glowing tones. The temple is also girdled by two concentric galleries whose walls are covered in 1,500 plaques illustrating incidents from the legendary jataka tales of the Buddha’s previous lives.

Kyanzittha was succeeded by his grandson Alaungsithu (1112-67), a skilled archer and horseman whose Buddhist piety had been nurtured by Shin Arahan himself. Alaungsithu was famous for his extended journeys abroad to Malaya, Sri Lanka and Bengal as well as for the number of shrines he raised in Bagan . His greatest achievement was the Thatpyinnu Temple, completed in 1144, whose pinnacled mass resembles in silhouette the Mont-St-Michel in France.

Standing about 500 yards southwest of the Ananda, the temple rises more than 200 feet and is the highest shrine in the city. From a solid base and square-shaped superstructure a bell  dome and spire reach heavenward. Windows and arched openings allow light and cooling breezes to penetrate the interior, a feature of Burmese, rather than Mon, architecture. Monks lived in the bottom part of the temple. Above them were Buddha statues for meditation and a library for their studies. From the top, the best views of the city show the Irrawaddy sliding south toward Rangoon and the plain of Bagan erupting with shrines, like a moonscape of small extinct volcanoes.

Alaungsithu was murdered by his son Narathu, whose short rule from 1167 to 1170 was marked by unrest. To atone for his crimes he built the Dammayangyi Temple, the largest in Bagan , situated about a mile southeast of the Ananda. The Dammayangyi also has the plan of a Greek cross but lacks the Ananda’s finesse and airy elegance. Its fame rests on the quality of its brickwork, perhaps because Narathu threatened to execute the masons if he could poke a needle between two adjoining bricks. But the temple failed to bring the king good fortune: he was assassinated by agents, disguised as priests, sent by an Indian prince whose daughter had become Narathu’s wife and had been executed by him. Narathu’s son, Naratheinkha, ruled for the next three years and he was followed by his brother Narpatisithu (1173-1210). He, too, built many shrines, including the pyramidal Gawdawpalin Temple. Adorned with small, bud-like pagodas, the temple is dedicated to the dynasty’s ancestral spirits. The British engineer Captain Henry Yule, who saw it in 1855, described it as ‘gleaming in its white plaster, with numerous pinnacles and a tall central spire… rising like a dim vision of Milan cathedral’. In 1975, having survived centuries of neglect after Bagan ’s decline from the late 13th century, the temple’s central structure was cracked like an egg. Since then, careful restoration work has mended its fractures.

The Gawdawpalin was completed by Narapatisthu’s son Nantaungmya (1210-34) with whom Bagan ’s golden age of temple building ended. The energy and resources devoted to so many sacred monuments had taken its toll, summed up in the wry Burmese proverb: ‘The pagoda is finished and the great country is ruined.’ In the event, it was an external force that eventually finished Bagan .

The end came with Narathihapate (1254-87), the last of Anawrahta’s dynasty, who is remembered for his despotism and his strange boast of being ‘the swallower of 300 dishes of curry a day’. in 1271 he sealed Bagan ’s fate by refusing to pay tribute to Kublai Khan, the great Mongol leader who had made himself emperor of China. War ensued and, in 1283, the Khan’s Tartar army invaded Burma.

Narathihapate, the great curry eater, lost his appetite for the fray and fled Bagan , earning the soubriquet Tarokpyemin, ‘the king who ran away from the Chinese’. In 1287, the cowardly monarch was killed by his son and, in the same year, Kublai Khan’s grandson, Prince Ye-su Timur, occupied Bagan , later setting up a puppet government under one of Narathihapate’s sons. Bagan ’s kingdom quickly dissolved, and the city never regained its former prestige. In the following century, its wooden buildings disintegrated, leaving the temples and pagodas to litter the terrain like a dinosaurs’ graveyard. In the history of the world, it is doubtful whether any city has expended so much creativity and toil on raising sacred shrines as Bagan did. Perhaps it was a vision of Bagan as a holy metropolis, a city of salvation with its man-made mountains set beside the sinuous Irrawaddy, that lay behind the prayer of King Alaungsithu, inscribed on one of his pagodas: ‘But I would build a causeway over the river of Samsara [the cycle of birth, death and rebirth], and would drag the drowning people across it to the City of Eternal Peace….’