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Home > Myanmar Highlights > Bagan & Surroundings

Bagan & Surroundings

Temple of Bagan Mt. Popa Salay

The splendor that is Bagan

Bagan (Pagan) is, in many aspects, one of the most remarkable religious cities in the world. Today, Bagan’s glory days may be over, but what remain are the fantastic temple ruins, ranking as the most amazing sight in Myanmar and a genuine wonder of the world. The remains of the Bagan’s primetime, approximately around 2300 identifiable pagodas, monasteries, ordination halls, libraries, caves of all sizes and in a bewildering variety of shapes, mostly built between 11th & 13th centuries in a period of 250-year by bricks, woods, sandstones, and stuccos, are overwhelming in an area of 40-sq kilometers (16-sq mile). Bagan was reputedly founded by King Tamodaritt in AD108 by nineteen big Pyu villages, while the scholars mostly agreed the foundation of Bagan was from 1044 by a Burmese King Anawrahtta with a total of eleven kings throughout the dynasty. The conquest over Mon kingdom in 1057AD was a turning point in Bagan’s history, entering into the temple building era as the southern school of Buddhism was introduced by the Mon people and many of the skilled artists & architects were imported from India. In 1287, Kublai Khan’s forces invaded Bagan but it’s continued as an important centre of Buddhist faith and the culture of Burmese people well into mid 14th century, and then left deserted over centuries.

The Great Venetian traveler Marco Polo witnessed Bagan just before Bagan was succumbed to its Mongolian conquerors. In his evocative description: “The towers are built of fine stone, and one has been covered with gold a finger thick, so that the tower appears to be of solid gold. Another is covered with silver in a similar manner and appears to be made of solid silver. The King of Mien Guo [Myanmar called by the Chinese] caused these towers to be built as a monument to his magnificence and for the benefit of his soul. They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance”

Today, what Marco Polo has seen in 13th century may not be exactly the same but much of the glory that was Bagan still remains. One can stay in Bagan for days from leisurely marvel around the thousands of ruins by car or more preferably by a horse cart or on a bicycle, find your own temple for an unforgettable Bagan sunset as the sun drops, or relax over a cool drink by the bank of great Ayeyarwaddy River. There are also interesting places to make a day out like Mt Popa, the abode of Nat Spirits or the centre of spirit worshipping while discovering the typical Burmese villages and experience the dry zone, or visit to the another but smaller archaeological site in Salay that is unrivaled to Bagan but worth for an alternative. For those who acquainted with the temples can be visited to the nearby Burmese villages to study the life-style or chat with the locals and visit their home in surprise.

Nyaung U Market

A busy bustling place, best visited in the morning where hundreds of locals exchange their goods typically produced from central Myanmar including various shapes & sizes of woven bamboo baskets, cheroots made from both tree leaves and corn husks, stalks of Thanaka, palm sugar balls made from sweet toddy juice, packets of bean paste, trays of fresh vegetables & fruits, and all the materials & groceries for cooking of a Burmese family needs. Above all the most interesting are the vendor women with beautiful patterns of Thanaka pasted on their cheeks. And of course, there are a lot of souvenirs of tourists alike from inferior quality lacquer-wares, colorful outfits, and postcards to woodcarvings. And you need a lot of bargaining too.

Shwezigon Paya

A prototype of all later Myanmar styled stupas from 11th Century. The original builder was the great king Anawrahtta, but his son by law and the successor king Kyansit finished it. The materials used to build this monument were the sandstones transported in a long line of 20km from the quarry to the construction site with relay method. Actually, the king built this to house the holy relics he brought from China and Sri Lanka and also to mark the northern corner of his majestic city. The original stone inscriptions with Mon language erected by King Kyansit can be found at the western entrance. The 4-mit high Gupta styled bronze statues are housed inside the small temple of each four side. This paya is best visited in the morning to avoid the intense heat and warm marble-paved walkways. One can also see 11th century original Sakkar (the king of Nats), and reproduced Nat figures numbering 36 in total.

Kyansitther Cave

A cave in Bagan area is an ideal place for those who are practicing the meditation in a warm & dusty environment. The dark cells inside the caves provide coolness, serenity and cut the noises from the outside world so that one can concentrate. There are several caves like Kyansitthar in Bagan but this one is most accessible and a fine example. There are also interesting frescos using black and yellow pigments mainly, suggesting of its early age. Although the cave is named after famous king Kyansit of 1090-1113, archeologists suggest that it might have been built that of his pre-successor.

Gubyauk Gyi of Wetkyi Inn Village

Gubyauk Gyi or the “Great Painted Cave” may not be the original name. But this small, early period, Indian style corncob topped monument known to the locals as “kalar kyaung” or the “Indian Monastery” has rich polychromatic mural paintings of black & white pigments are rated first-class of Bagan’s murals. The access to the temple terrace has been banned from 2006.

Htilominlo Temple

Built in 1218, Htilominlo is the one of the biggest, multi-storied transitional style of the last period of Bagan. The name has various assumptions: The Blessing of the Three Worlds or the “favored by the King, favored by the Umbrella”; a story you should hear from your guide. It has fine exterior pilaster-carvings, while interior mural painting have demised by the temple dwellers of WWII period and impassioned Buddhists who white-washed some parts of the temple walls that they thought dirty-looking.

Upali Thein

This one is a fine example of an ordination hall in 13th century, made by the bricks to imitate the wooden style architecture, while most of those in Bagan period might have built by the woods. Theoretically, Theins should be built on an island on a river surrounded by the water, like the one built in the middle of Kalayni River of Sri Lanka. The brightly painted 17th century mural paintings on the interior walls depicted the renunciation of different Buddhas.

Khinminga Complex

The Khinminga temple stands in the midst of pagoda studded area. The temple terrace can be reached via narrow, dimly lit, and uneven steps. It’s worth a climb to see Bagan’s most famous monuments near and far.

Ananda Temple & Brick Monastery

Probably the most well-known monument in Bagan, the Ananda temple was built by King Kyansitthar sometimes around 1090 AD. The temple architecture is the achievement of apex of the first temple building period, from the single entrance east facing dimly lit single passage to the four-sided entrances, multi-passages, well ventilated & abounded light. There are some fascinating stories to be heard from your guide on this monument. The two 9.5 meters high 11th century original standing Buddhas with perspective effect on the faces can be found on the south and the north sides. The photo enthusiastic should see the works of award-winning photographer’s gallery at the northern entrance stall at least to get an idea of how to better compose the picturesque Bagan’s temples. The brick monastery lies at the northwest corner of Ananda. The brightly painted frescos depicting the daily lives of Bagan, the traders from 16th & 17th centuries, the kings and his armies etc… although the paintings are not that of Bagan period.

Tharabar Gateway

The last remain of original twelve gates, of some were disappeared during the war with Mongolians and some washed away by mighty Ayerwaddy river, is dated back to 849AD. There are also two most powerful and respected figures of Myanmar Nat pantheon inside the niches of the gateway namely Mr. Handsome and Sister Golden Face.

Pitaka Taik

Pitaka means the holy Buddhist canons, whereas the Taik is any form of masonry buildings. Thus, Pitaka Taik is a place where the Buddhist scriptures are stored or a Library. Originally built by the great King Anawrahtta after his conquest over Mon Kingdome to store the most-wanted holy scriptures that he brought back to Bagan on the back of 32 elephants. In 1873, King Bodawpaya, had it renovated. Due to the destructive 1975 earthquake, now the library is framed by the steel supportive and access to the inner chamber is prohibited.

Shwegugyi Temple

Literally means the Great Golden Cave Temple, unusually built on the raised platform was probably done so in order to magnify this holy site than to the king’s palace right beside the temple. The temple was built in 1131 & finished within six months by the widely travelled king named Alaungsithu, who was brutally killed by his own son inside this temple. It has remarkably scenic terrace and usually avoided by the group tours. Beware of the inferior quality lacquer-wares and fraudulent stone sellers particularly in this place.

Thatbyinnyu Temple

Another merit of King Alaungsithu, Thatbyinnyu temple was built in 1140AD to be the highest in Bagan with 61 meter. This completely white-washed temple has airy passages but ascend to the other three stories are banned. This temple is most visited by the Burmese pilgrims only. Some scholars suggest that this temple was never been consecrated or used by the monks as party monastery and a library. There is an interesting stupa called ‘tally paya’ built by the bricks of every 10,000 bricks that were used to build the big temple. Thatbyinnyu means temple of omniscience.

Nathlaung Kyaung

Probably the only Vishnu temple in Bagan, Nathlaung Kyaung was believe to be built around 930s AD, while others suggest to the early 11th century. Records have been suggested that many Indian labors or architects were import from India during the Bagan’s primetime, and this temple was supposed to be used by some of these people. With King Anawrahtta efforts to banish the worshipping of other beliefs than Theravada Buddhism, assumptions have been made that this temple was the place where all the Nat figures and statues from other religions were confined in this place following to the name Nathlaung kyaung, the place where the Nat spirits are confined. Another meaning of Nathlaung Kyaung is, the monastery where the Nat is reclining… as there is a figure of Brahma reclining on the cosmic serpent inside the inner sanctum. Most of the original figures have been restored here. There are 10-lifes of Brahma figures or the avatars inside the niches where Buddha is the ninth.

Pahtothamya

One of the oldest temples in Bagan, one can easily recognized its age from the outside. Feathering the first period of Bagan temple, the dimly lit corridors, curvilinear roofs to let the light in through domer windows, and straight-arched vestibule are something to wonder of this temple. It also has beautiful plaster works on the arch pediments and niches and beautiful frescos to be discovered on the walls.

Gubyaukgyi of Myinkabar Village

Another Gubyaukgyi temple with the same name as the one in Wetkyi Inn is actually located in different village. This temple is also known as the “Love Temple” following to a popular father & son story. Actually, Gubyaukgyi is also famous for a stone inscription written by four languages, where the first Burmese writing is first seen in the history. The temple featured the first transition period with curvilinear roofs often characterized as Mon architecture. There beautiful plaster carvings on the exterior walls but it is best known for colorful mural painting in the interior walls as the name comes… the great painted cave. The temple is dated to 1113, the year King Kyansit passed away and his grandson Alaungsithu ascended the throne.

Manuha temple

Named after the captive king Manuha of the Mon’s kingdom, this temple was built by the king himself to express his stress and discomfort being as a captive king in the hand of his own enemy. Although it looks unimpressive from the outside, this temple houses figures of Buddhas that are far larger than life or odd to the Buddhist iconography. There are three gigantic Buddha images placed uncomfortably inside the small sanctums and a dead Buddha with a smile on his face.

Nanapaya Temple

One of only four monuments built using sandstones. A small but worth a visit to see sandstone carvings of Hamsa birds on the exterior walls as well as carved perforated windows. The plinth, where one a free standing Buddha or a Hindu god, is now empty, which is the major cause of hot debates among the scholars, whether the temple was for Hindu gods or the Buddhists’. The carved pillars contain the finest sandstone bas-reliefs portraying Kitamuka figures (Hindu god of death).

Abeyadana Temple

Another merit of King Kyansit (1090-1113AD), Abeyadana temple might have built a little earlier than Ananda temple in late 11th century by characterizing its architecture. In fact, this small temple contains the first rated mural paintings on its interior walls. The paintings have wide-ranging figures from Hindu deity to Mahayana Buddhism, with partly tantric influence. The murals here were conserved by the UNESCO.

Damayazika

One of sixteen pentagonal-shaped monuments from Bagan period, where scholars suggest these are the earliest surviving five-sided buildings of the world. There are five small temples to house the images of four last Buddhas and the future Buddha, a clear concept of Mahayana Buddhism. This stupa was built around 1197 by King Narapatisithu, a period when the belief of Mahayana Buddhism should be terminated with the continuous efforts of kings of Bagan dynasty. It is best visited around 4:00pm with the sunlight from the west to the awe-inspiring eastward views of Bagan’s plain.

Sulamani Temple

The name Sulamani drives from the name of temple located in the Buddhist heaven, Tavasttitama. This temple was built by King Narapatisithu in 1183, and architecturally characterized as the achievement of Myanmar style with flat-roofs in sequences producing pyramidal effect. It has beautiful plaster works on the exterior walls, and the interior walls have mural paintings dated from 17 & 18th century, Inwa period.

Dhamayangyi Temple

The biggest temple in Bagan, and one can never wrong to orientate this pyramidal shaped temple from any accessible temple terrace. The temple was built in 1167 by the King called Narathu, famed for his bad deeds for killing his wife of an Indian emperor’s daughter, and his own father by smothering on his sickbed. The king ruled only for three years but he managed to finish this massive one in a short time. The temple is also rated as “best brickwork” as he often came to inspect the construction work and examine the brickworks by pushing a needle pin between two bricks. The punishment was awful. He cut the hands of masons if the pin went through! Later he was assassinated by eight Indians who where disguise as the Brahmans sent by the angry Indian emperor. Some also suggest that it was his temple builders as revenge. The temple was built on the same form of Ananda, with two passage ways. But the inner passage was blocked by the bricks and the rubbles without knowing the reason. It might be the payback of his workers or to support the heavy top by filling up the inner sanctum as a result of architectural faults.

Lacquer Wares

The art of making lacquer ware can be found throughout Asia, yet it has various techniques to apply, different type of products, and diverse beauties. The production of Myanmar lacquer ware, can be traced back to Bagan era according to the archaeological findings, was probably arrived from northern Thailand or south China. In Myanmar alone, you can find four kinds of product variation excluding recent techniques adopted from Japan, Vietnam and China. For the visitors to Myanmar, various lacquer ware items ranging from simple boxes, flower vases, to the blinds are probably the best souvenirs from Myanmar. Of course, it is best to hunt the ones you like from the production workshops based in Bagan, although you can find cheap items selling in the market and pagoda stalls. One should be aware that lacquer wares can be produced within three days to one week when it is necessary to make it cheap. The authentic lacquer wares need from at least five to six months depending on the number of colors used, design patterns, and the number of layers. The right type of bamboo or the wood & the amount of time for seasoning, the quality of lacquer (produce from a tree called Kusam, Melanorihia Usitatar), following the correct steps to produce, and the design workmanship can largely affect the price of a lacquer item.

 
 

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