Caroline Courtauld has been visiting Bagan and Myanmar for over thirty years. Here she describes how special it is and picks her favourite monuments
Sunset over Bagan (photos © Caroline Courtauld and used with kind permission of the author)
Bagan is a magical place, a place of great mystery and wonder even though today many of the monuments have been over-restored and are adorned by unattractive neon lights. The remains of the old capital Pagan, modern-day Bagan, are scattered across a vast plain and they positively exude antiquity.
One visits individual monuments and each has its own special qualities, but it is the whole that is magnificent. In the early morning mist the pagodas seem to ‘loom, huge, remote and mysterious, like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream’, as Somerset Maugham wrote in 1930.
Approaching midday the sun burns the colour from the landscape, leaving the red-brick pagodas stark and desolate. A column of dust marks the passage of an occasional ox-cart across the dry plain. With the declining day the colour creeps back, the trees and scrub turn from dull grey back to lively green. The sun sets behind the hills on the far side of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), filling the sky with a reddish glow.
The pagodas recall an age of former greatness. Once a vast and populous city, it became a straggling village living off sales of lacquer ware and the steady trickle of tourists. The peace of the village was shattered one morning in 1990 when, to their surprise, the Bagan villagers were given notice to move their houses and shops immediately. Some of the village houses were thought to be built over the site of the old palace where excavations were about to start. So with a Government hand-out of building materials, some 6,000 villagers were forced to move to the new site located in the south of the Bagan area, near the beautiful Lawkananda Pagoda. At the start, the loss of the village in among the monuments was upsetting, but now everything seems to have settled down. The village of New Bagan feels well established and the scar of the old village has long since disappeared.
Another significant change to the landscape in recent years has been the ‘greening’ of the Bagan plain. Gone is the dry desert feeling as trees have been planted and allowed to grow – in fact it is not permitted to cut branches off the trees when they get in the way of the farmers. Nowadays at night the pagodas and museum are ablaze with fairy lights. Thus some of the serenity and tranquillity of the Bagan plain has been lost forever – but the magic is still intact.
History of Bagan
View from the top of one of the pagodas
To go back to Bagan’s history, the Burmese (Bamar) ethnic group founded the Kingdom of Pagan in around CE 849, but it was not until King Anawrahta ascended the throne in 1044 that Pagan entered its golden era. By 1056 Anawrahta had unified the country and had given it the national religion of Theravada Buddhism.
From the moment that Anawrahta returned from his victorious campaign in the south against the Mon people the building frenzy began. Anawrahta carried back with him the vanquished King Manuha, along with his architects and artisans (we are told numbering an incredible 30,000) and finally 32 copies of the Buddhist Tripitaka scriptures.
First he built a library, the Pitakat Taik, to house the scriptures, and then, soon after, the fine Shwesandaw Pagoda. The style of Anawrahta’s early buildings was influenced by the Mon architects whom he had brought back to Pagan following his victory at Thaton. These square, squat constructions with arches and complex patterns of brickwork—temples rather than pagodas—belie the Indian origins of the faith that inspired them.
Perhaps Anawrahta’s most famous monument is the Shwezigon Pagoda. By the time this pagoda was started, towards the end of his 40 year reign, a distinctly Burmese style had evolved. The stark power of the earlier buildings had dissolved into softer, more fluid lines, complexity into fantasy, with the golden stupa apparently weightless and ready to float up to the heavens.
Pagoda and temple building continued with unabated enthusiasm for the next two centuries. There is no record of the actual number of religious monuments built during this period, the height of Pagan’s power. King Narathihapati, the last King of Pagan, allegedly tore down 10,000 buildings in order to defend his capital against an imminent Mongol invasion. At the approach of the great Khan’s army in 1287, the king left the capital, earning himself the ignominious title of ‘The king who ran away from the Chinese’.
Today most visitors will have only a couple of days in Bagan and must therefore be selective. If you are not travelling with a group, hire a pony cart, jeep or bicycle. If you arrive by air, go straight to the Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U near the airport, and then spend the remainder of the day around the central Bagan area.
This article was first published in the Summer 2014/Issue 1 of Timeless Travels magazine
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