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Read This Before You Go to Bagan

People of Myanmar are happy people. The reasons could be many. But lately they got one more reason to add to their happy quotient list making them even happier. Bagan, known as Myanmar’s ancient capital, has been included on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Lying on a bend of the Ayeyarwady River in the central plain of Myanmar, Bagan, which unfortunately does not figure in most tourists’ itinerary, is likely to be a boon to Myanmar’s tourist industry after the announcement.

The site of thousands of red-hued temples and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries, Bagan is a sacred landscape which has finally been recognized by the UNESCO. Though Bagan is known as Myanmar’s sleeping city but its unparalled beauty makes tourists wide-eyed awake. The ancient city bears spectacular testimony to the peak of Bagan civilization when the site was the capital of a regional empire. This ensemble of monumental architecture reflects the strength of religious devotion of an early Buddhist empire. Bagan has eight components that include numerous ancient temples, stupas, monasteries and places of pilgrimage, as well as archaeological remains, frescoes and sculptures.

Since Bagan features an exceptional range of Buddhist art and architecture, UNESCO chose it this year despite the fact that in 2016 a magnitude 6.8 earthquake had damaged its more than 200 temples. It has been suggested that perhaps over 13,000 temples, pagodas and other religious structures originally were built in this 26 sq. mile (42 sq.km.) area during the height of the kingdom between the 11th and 13th centuries. The region clearly stands with Angkor and Borobudur among the most significant archaeological sites of Southeast Asia and indeed of the world. Nearly a quarter of a century ago also, the complex of Buddhist temples was first nominated for listing but didn’t qualify for the status. But Myanmar renewed its efforts to list the site since a transition from military rule began in 2011.The International Council on Monuments and Sites recommended Bagan, noting that Myanmar had adopted a new heritage law and had formed plans to reduce the impact of hotels and tourism developments around the temples. Now over 2000 monuments of various sizes remain, in varying states of repair.

Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries, a period in which some 50 Buddhist kings ruled the Pagan Dynasty (During their period of colonial dominance the British spelled it ‘Pagan,’ and that name is still commonly used). Most recommended to the visitors are Shwezigon Pagoda, Gu Byauk Gyi temple, Ananda Temple, Mingala Zedi Stupa and a group of Khay Ming Ga temples. These and many other sacred sites possess heart-touching beauty. Ananda temple built in the early 12th century is known as the finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples.  During earthquakes of 1975 and 2016, Ananda Temple suffered considerable damage but was totally restored. It looks stunning in the light of the setting sun.

Two major historic types of architectural structures are found in the Bagan Archaeological Zone. The pagoda or stupa (in Burmese a zeidi or zedi) is one of the primary Buddhist monuments. The term Paya is often also used in English interchangeably with pagoda. Many zedis also were built to honour a notable person, or even bring lasting remembrance to an important family. The zedi is a bell-shaped brick structure set on a square or octagonal base; it usually rises to a gently tapering peak gilded metal and jeweled finial topped with a sacred parasol-shaped decoration. Although there is fine brickwork, the stupas often were covered in stucco and adorned with fine carvings. 

The other major surviving architectural form at Bagan is the temple (pahto), which can also take on a variety of forms. The pahto is often a massively built square or oblong structure with outer terraces representing Mount Meru, the symbolic home of the gods, and surrounded by a thick wall to separate its sacred realm from the outside world. The temples (gu) were inspired by the rock hewn caves of Buddhist India. They were larger multi-storied buildings and places of worship that included richly frescoed corridors with sacred shrines and images. Unlike the corbelled arches at Angkor, Bagan temples widely employed both barrel vaults and pointed arches. 

The temples were often built around a zedi and included a variety of other buildings such as living quarters for monks and ordination and assembly halls. Examples of the pahto-style architectures include those of Dhammayangyi, Gawdawpalin, Htilominlo. Shwegugyi, Sulamani and Thatbyinnyu temples.  The Gawdawpalin Pahto is one of the largest temples and, the second tallest temple in Bagan. It is a must-see when in Bagan. Mahabodhi Temple is unique among Bagan structures. The temple is a two-storey structure about 43 meters high which was built in the 13th century. It is the only specimen of its structure among thousands of surviving monuments in Bagan. In fact, this temple is a replica of the famous Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, Bihar  in India. Its uniqueness lies in its extensive exterior ornamentation. Its numerous niches enclose over 450 Buddha images not only on the tower but also on the corner stupas.

Most of the Bagan monuments are important from the conservation point of view because they contain valuable mural paintings with captions in Pali, Old Mon or Bamar inside them. The themes of the wall paintings are from Jataka tales and various episodes from the lives of Gautama Buddha and other buddhas. The paintings also depict evil beings with bearded Indo-European faces and ordinary snakes instead of the classical dragons. Even the mythical creatures were of species unknown to traditional Myanmar art. In a few temples, the Zatar or horoscope can be seen somewhere in a corner. Horoscopes are made on a person’s birth but in a temple they mark the ‘birth’ of the temple. Another unique style of art can be seen on the walls of the Sulamuni Temple. They were presumably painted in the 14th century Pinya period or later, for the arched eyebrows and small mouths are typical of that era’s art. Due to absence of light, most such paintings still remain as nearly as the original ones, though some have been damaged badly due to natural calamities and other circumstances. 

One of the criteriafor selection to be included on the World Heritage List is to be of an outstanding example of a landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history and Bagan truly qualifies the criteria and deserves to be a UNESCO Heritage site.