Stunning ruins of pagodas and temples on the Irrawaddy plains, Myanmar attracts tourists, writes UDAY K CHAKRABORTY
There are a few more perfect places in the world to watch the day start or end than from a temple terrace looking out over the plain of Bagan. With the lugubrious Irrawaddy River meandering in a giant loop in the distance, the light softened the air cool and still, and the flat land all about studded with the ruins of countless ancient pagodas, temples and monasteries, this is a place and a moment for quiet contemplation. Then suddenly, more than three dozen hot air balloons slowly rise up over the horizon and starts slowly floating over the temples, as if announcing new era’s arrival over this ancient heritage site. I am wonderstruck!
The sun’s rays create a new mood for the rugged plain. The shapes harden with lights and shadow picking out angles and profiles. Colours briefly become more vivid, until the harshness of the midday sun flattens everything to the monochromatic dust-brown of the dry season in Bagan. An occasional golden spire glitters, magic in the sunlight!
March of time
Between 1057, when King Anwarahta defeated the ancient Mon capital of Thaton, whose ruins can still be seen east of Yangon, across the Gulf of Martaban, and until Bagan was overrun by Kublai Khan’s forces in 1287, some 13,000 temples, pagodas, Kyaungs (monasteries) and other religious structures were built on this vast plain. Today only 2,217 remain standing. Others are little more than piles of rubble.
Magnificent temples and pagodas of Bagan are precious gifts from magnificent predecessors to the mankind. The ravages of time, the elements and natural disasters have contributed to the disintegration of this most marvelous of ruined cities. A couple of big earthquakes (in 1975 and 2015) severely jolted Bagan causing fears that the city would be flattened. Thankfully, Burma’s Directorate of Archeology, aided by UNESCO funds, has repaired and restored the buildings and has done what it can to safeguard and reinvest them with the dignity of their original purpose.
Splendid in isolation
As the air lightens and the sun rises in molten brilliance above the horizon, the Bagan plain comes to life. An occasional small tour bus arrives. A cheery young couple in a tonga drawn by a droopy-eared, thin pony with the look of a creature that knows all about the heat and discomfort of working in the midday sun.
The best place to start is at Old Bagan which is small enough to walk around on foot. The oldest part here is the city wall and moat which date back to 849 AD. Stand anywhere in Old Bagan and you will see around 30 ancient pagodas of all sizes. The Gawdawpalin Pagoda is 80 meter high, painted white with a golden spire atop it. The Mahabodi Pagoda (1215) which has a Hindu-style central tower with niches containing hundreds of statues of the Buddha must have been used by the Indian living in the city.
Apart from small shops selling gifts and bric-a-brac, there is no disturbance for enjoying the whitewashed splendour of the elegant Ananda Temple, an 11th-century replica of a mythical, snow-covered cave envisioned by eight Indian monks and transformed into a masterpiece of Mon architecture by King Kyansitha’s builders. The base of this pagoda is decorated with over 250 small, green-glazed ceramic panels depicting animals, dancing figures, mermaids and soldiers.
Besides visiting the large temples, it’s exciting to explore the smaller ones. Some of them have secret staircases which take you to their terraces offering magnificent views, hidden icons and statues. You can come across all sorts of things – an intricately carved teak porch, terra-cotta owls, a metal bird, a plaster crocodile above a door, a statue of a monk with a begging bowl, a beautiful Buddha…
Everyone has their own favourite buildings. I liked the Manuha Guphaya in Myimkaba village which was founded in 1059 and has a 30 meter Reclining Buddha with fingers as big as a man. However, the building that really took my fancy was the Sulamanai Pagoda built in 1183 with its huge and varied wall paintings that are in amazing condition considering its age.
Using brown, black, hit and green colours, one mural shows a pagoda-roofed boat being pulled by the boats of rowers across a sea that is alive with fish, crabs, crocodiles, lobsters and turtles. There are also scenes of domestic life – women playing music, dancing, combing their hair, playing with children, and feeding babies. Then there are myriad animals in all forms and combinations. The artwork is marvelous and provides a wealth of information about life in Bagan 800 years ago.
…and the bargain
Before sunset, tourists climb up the tallest pagoda to view the sunset from the top and take photographs of the hundreds of glowing red-brick monuments. Just below, there was that occasional character quietly inviting a likely gullible tourist “Wanna buy a ruby?’ Sapphire? Emerald?” An irresistible bargain is hard to ignore, but there is heavy irony to the situation: man emerging into the penumbra from behind a spiny cactus; light too dim to see the merchandise; penniless backpacking tourist with only enough cash to get back to the village hotel. But they look so innocent. Perhaps the stones are real (for which Myanmar is famous) and not the coloured glass that tourists are warned against?
Thus from the early dawn to the sunset, Bagan never fails to mesmerize by its beauty and slow moving life. Despite the damages done over the years, enough remains in this wonderful town to inspire any visitor.