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Bagan

Bagan

There is a saying amongst the Burmese, ‘If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan’.

Bagan (Pagan) is one of the most stunning and sacred temple complexes in the world, it embodies the spirit of Myanmar, this magical and mysterious place rising through the landscape. The Bagan Archaeological Zone is a must see on any trip to Myanmar. Around 2500 of the original 10,000 temples remain.

Bagan-02

Photographs Courtesy of Charles Ansdell, Electra Gillies & Ken Spence

Story

From the 9th -13th Centuries this was this Kingdom of Pagan that unified all the kingdoms that would become modern day Myanmar. According to myth and legend there has been sacred sites here since the 2nd Century but modern history says it was founded in the 800’s. Located on the great Ayeyarwady River there were strong trade links to the ocean and other kingdoms in Siam, Khmer and beyond to Ceylon.

From 1044 – 1287 it was the Capital of the Pagan Empire politically, economically and culturally. Throughout this period over 10,000 temples and monasteries were built over a hundred square kilometres. The city expanded and became a centre for scholarly studies, philosophy, alchemy and Buddhist studies. Buddhism flourished here and the religion of Bagan was fluid, symbiotic and a little unorthodox. It was largely a continuation of religious trends in the Pyu Era where Theravada Buddhism co-existed with Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism as well as various Hindu animistic religions.

The downfall of the empire came in the 13th Century from repeated attacks from the Mongol Empire. However many temples survived through to the 20th Century as places of pilgrimage and settlement. Donations maintained the monasteries and major places of worship throughout time. In 1975 a huge earthquake flattened many of the temples of Bagan leaving 2226 temples remaining.

In the 1990’s the military junta starting restoring many of these temples for tourism purposes, a move that drew huge criticism from the international archaeological society for using modern materials and not following the ancient building methods, installing a golf course and a revolving restaurant in a brick watchtower. Although Bagan more that qualifies for UNESCO World Heritage status, it has not been awarded it due to the modern renovations. It is hoped this will happen in the near future and some of the damage can be reversed. It is still however a place of breathtaking beauty.

 

Bagan-03

Photographs Courtesy of Charles Ansdell, Electra Gillies & Ken Spence

Sacred

Amongst the thousands of temples there are some that are more revered than others – the main one being the Ananada Temple. This is the personification of religious symmetry in terms of architecture and is a museum in itself showcasing some of the best examples of art, stone carving, stucco and a variety of artisanal skills of this era. One of the best examples is the original huge wood carving of the Kakusanda Buddha facing north. The ground plan is in the form of a cross with four devotional halls, each on one side, facing four cardinal directions, and the main structure in the center. In Bagan there are’ only two Temples with such a ground plan.

One architectural wonder of Ananda Temple is the natural ventilation system created by rows of windows built inside the thickness of the walls. There are light wells in the very high ceiling through which beams of light fall directly on the faces of the four, gigantic statues of Buddha in standing posture facing four cardinal points. On each side of the structure are eight light wells through which light comes, passing through the three tiers of wall for a distance of 108 feet and falls directly on the Buddha images inside the niches. These light wells also serve as ventilator since fresh air constantly enters through them into the whole structure.

Another incredible temple is DhammayanGyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan, that is a little reminiscent of a Central American Mayan temple structure it rises up in all its majesty from the earth. It was actually never completed, as King Narathu, who built it was assassinated. Folklore says one of his wives, a princess from India, was conducting Hindu rituals so the king had her executed and in revenge her father sent eight guards to kill the king. It is an amazing site, which follows the same Greek cross layout of the Ananda Temple with six oriental exterior terraces. Strangely two of its passageways were filled with rubble before completion too, although no one knows the reason, it is said to be because of the wickedness of the king.

 

Sunrise

One of the most incredible experiences in Bagan is sunset from a hot air balloon overlooking the endless plains dotted with the historic temples of Bagan glistening in the morning sun. Balloons over Baganoffer an unforgettable flight over this beautiful landscape, floating amongst the clouds with glimpses of how the gods see this sacred landscape and its intricate symmetry. Joined by the fleet of deep red hot air balloons this is a truly beautiful and ethereal way to watch the temples rise through the mist, hues subtly moving from gold to deep red in the rising sun. Complete the journey with champagne and a memory of something truly miraculous.

www.balloonsoverbagan.com

 

Bagan-04

Photographs Courtesy of Charles Ansdell, Electra Gillies & Ken Spence

Shop Lacquerware

The beautiful and intricate lacquer that is found throughout Myanmar is mainly made in and around Bagan. With its roots in China, this ancient artisanal craft has blossomed around the plains of Bagan. These incredibly detailed pieces are handmade by taking thin strips of bamboo and shaping them. The strips are then ‘glued’ together with the sap and resin of a lacquer tree.

Mass produced pieces can be made with around seven layers, but some of the more expensive pieces can take up to twenty five layers to complete. It takes a craftsman around three years to master the techniques. The piece is then painted and embossed with fine filigree like designs, or even with additions of metal such as brass or silver.

This area is famous for this ancient art and there is the BaganLacquerwareMuseum where pieces rescued from the temples can be viewed and date back 12th Century. This rich history has been passed down to today and many pieces are available from moderately priced souvenirs, up to thousands of dollars for bigger pieces and antique pieces. It is well worth visiting one of the workshops to observe this incredible process and one of the best buys on a trip to Bagan.

www.baganhouse.com

 

Bagan-06Scoot

Tourists are not allowed into the main temple complex in motorised vehicles, so the options are horse drawn cart, bicycles or electric bicycles. The latter are widely available and come in an array of flamboyant colours imported from China. Amazingly easy to drive and by far the least laborious way to get around it is worth hiring one for at least a day as you can explore not only the archaeological attractions but Old Bagan’s fading colonial beauty and New Bagan’s foray into creeping commercialism. However although it is slowly and inevitably coming into this area, it is the lack of mass commercialism that makes Myanmar so enchanting. A quick scoot around on an electric bike is a reflection of a truly modern way to see the beautiful sites in beautiful Bagan.

 

Savour

There are plenty of little cafes to eat around the outskirts of the main temple complex but one of the most charming a little into Old Bagan is The Black Bamboo. Set in a quiet garden and designed like a traditional Burmese house it is a lovely little place to quietly pass a few hours and contemplate the adventures of the day and try a fusion of Burmese and European food. Their homemade ice cream is a definite attraction as is the pleasant green garden. Bagan can get hot and dusty so this offers a little quaint oasis to pass a few hours.

Bagan-07

Photographs Courtesy of Charles Ansdell, Electra Gillies & Ken Spence

Stroll & Cart

Once in the main archaeological zone with the main temples it is a very easy area to navigate. Take a horse and cart into the area you would like to explore and then take a stroll around the temples at sunset. The drivers of these horses and carts are limited to 200 and it is a tradition passed down by families. It is a relaxed and slow romantic way to weave by the riverside, visit stunning wooden monasteries and then meander amongst the temples.

The MyoeDaung Monasteryis a stunning set of two monasteries adorned in the most intricate and incredible wood carvings from the mid to late 19th Century during the Kon – Baung period. A delicate fairytale structure that lies in the middle of the village and is a picturesque glimpse into the past before vehicles and people started visiting this incredible site. It is worth a visit in golden dusk light before heading into the complex for sunset.

At sunset the drivers will generally leave you to go and pray. Instead of climbing one of the main temples, take in the view from a minor one and explore historic wall paintings, alabaster Buddhas and secret stairways to equally beautiful views. As the amber light of the sun illuminates the tops of temples peeking through the trees sunset is a truly magical time.

Every temple has a ‘keeper’ be it a child or an old man who will light you a candle to show you some old stone reliefs or shine a torch up a stairway. Always be sure to give a small donation and take your time to immerse yourself in the silence and stories that lie amongst the myriad of ancient edifices. The list of must see temples is vast but a good guide will cover the biggest and then you can explore the area easily by yourself. Don’t miss the Shwezigon, Minyeingonand Gawdawpalinamongst others.

Bagan-05

Photographs Courtesy of Charles Ansdell, Electra Gillies & Ken Spence

Sleeper

Taking the sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan or Bagan to Mandalay is a definite adventure and alternative way to see the countryside in a more authentic way. It is not the most luxurious train but the upper class cabins offer a big sleeping berth and a private toilet that is basic but clean. Once aboard there is no access to the dining car from these cabins or the rest of the rain so the trick is to order before climbing aboard and during the stops dinner and breakfast will be carried down the platform to you by cheerful bustling white jacketed porters who have been travelling the trains for as long as they have been around.

Soak in the rural scenery and the amazing unspoilt countryside of Burma. Children running along side the train, sleepy villages, men shimmying up coconut tress and cows, vegetables and flowers being transported to and from markets. Beauty is everywhere but no more so than the golden stupas and pagodas scattered through the scenes and hugging hilltops as you go dashing through villages whose loveliness is conveyed through curvaceous Mingalese scripture.

At every stop rice paste faces smile through the windows offering tea, cakes, biscuits, coffee and curry; chattering away as language is of little significance to the unaffected warmth of the Burmese. Trains give glimpses into the lives of people going about their business and lives in a country and with the rising of the moon and the fires dotting the landscape to the brightness of day and rattling into the shrill sounds of the city, Myanmar is a beautiful country on this slightly chaotic yet efficient train journey.

www.go-myanmar.com

 
 
© 2014 The Eco Gypsy - Ethical Exploration.
   


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