Deep in the heart of Burma, the Bagan complex displays its 3,000 temples, pagodas and stupas in an enchanted setting, a blend of grandiose and rustic, sacred and profane. A stroll through the site…
Passengers alighting at dawn from the previous evening’s train from Mandalay often have to shake themselves out of a stupor. Between the aching memory of saggy seats and scars inflicted on faces by the vegetation behind the closed windows through the eight hours long journey, the longed-for adventure has finally become a reality. At this point it is highly tempting to leave the modest station in Bagan hurriedly behind and crash in one of the guest houses in the nearest village Nyaung Oo. However, in this context, the promise of dawn is more than just the title of a novel by Romain Gary: for those who forego the pleasures of sleep for a morning walk among the temples, Bagan offers riches in abundance.
Temples by the thousand
You need to get on a bike and away from Nyaung Oo to penetrate the magic of this immense plain, enwrapped at dawn and twilight in an enchanting ceiling of mist, pierced by the ghostly spires of a thousand stupas. The 42 square miles of Bagan are a thousand-year-old marriage of mineral and plantlife: 2,834 temples, pagodas and stupas of brick and stucco, first developed by Pierre Pichard of the École française d’Extrême-Orient – tucked away in a gentle landscape of trees and cultivated fields on the left bank of the Irrawaddy.
Built at the same time as Angkor, this assumptuous archaeological site is a direct legacy of the Kingdom of Bagan and its 42nd monarch, the Burmese King Anawratha. Having sacked the capital of the Mon royal family, Thaton, in 1057, it was to this other Mon city that the king carried his artworks and sacred text, along with the many relics of the Buddha brought back from his military campaigns. To house these treasures, he launched one of the biggest construction programmes of religious buildings in history. From the 11th to the 13th century, temples, pagodas and stupas of all kinds rose out of the ground, while the neighbouring forests were depleted, disappearing into the kilns in which the millions of bricks required to build this gigantic open-air sanctuary were produced.
The construction programme came to an abrupt end in 1287, when Bagan was taken by force by the Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of the bloodthirsty Genghis Khan. The town was spared but sank into an oblivion lasting several centuries. A slow disintegration set in, punctuated by the floods of the Irrawaddy and earthquakes. In 1975, the most violent of these tremors inspired UNESCO to restore the monuments. Today UNESCO supports the local cultural authorities but still refuses to inscribe the monument on the World Heritage List, a request for which was first submitted in 1996, citing the government’s negligence of the site. However, the country passed the million-tourist mark in 2012 and the new Burmese political climate might relieve the situation.
Under an already scorching sun, the walk soon takes on the feel of an initiatory journey. Bagan offers a truly sumptuous display of the Buddhist art of sublime monotony. The stupas and temples stretching from one end of the site to the other seem genuinely to belong to one single family. Simple commemorative monuments with no entrances, the former house relics of the Buddha. The depths of the latter conceal statues of Buddha, glittering with the fine leaves of gold appended by the faithful, while pilgrims close their eyes and visitors look on wide-eyed amazement.
Near the historic village of Old Bagan rises the temple of Ananda. With its 60 m circumference and its five terraces rising to 56 m, it is one of the largest and oldest on the site. Built in the early 12th century by king Kyanzittha, it was fully restored after the 1975 earthquake. On the inside, four sanctuary niches, each featuring a nine-metre high statue, correspond to the four temple entrances. Gold-plated teak statues portray the Buddha standing – the position in which he attained nirvana. Further on, an army of countless smaller Buddhas tucked in the walls of the two corridors accompany a series of terracotta bas-reliefs and a sumptuous multi-coloured openwork door. Elsewhere, the depths of the temple of Patothamya, probably built in the 10th century, of Dhammayangyi, haunted by bats or of Gubyaukgyi, rich in Hindu influences, conceal further treasures. Fumbling your way along, a figure suddenly emerges from the darkness. It is only the guard, however, coming to illuminate the blackened walls with the fading light of his torch. From the greenish aura cast by the torch emerge delicate paintings representing scenes from the life of the Buddha – the jatakas – but also swarms of slender dancers or festive and dance scenes which seem to have arisen out of a dream.
The secret of Bagan
Visits to Bagan are random and haphazard by their very nature. At every twist in the path, the redness of a brick wall glimpse behind a thicket or through the foliage of a sugar palm tree simply demands a pause. You get off your bike, look around, and take off again. The scenery may be constantly changing but the principle remains the same.
As the evening descends over the temples, the visitors gather in a tight huddle around the Shwesandaw pagoda rising up in the centre of the site. Enticed by the spectacle described by their travel guides in carefully identical terms, they all prepare, cameras and tablets ready, to celebrate the universal rite that consists of watching the sun set from a high vantage point. While the ritual inevitably calls to mind the drawbacks of mass tourism, it is difficult to blame anyone. It is a glorious moment, and the breathtaking height of Shwesandaw delivers fully on its promise of a feast for the eyes.
Having climbed the dizzying steps leading to the summit, the eye is suddenly drawn to an indescribable scene. On the horizon, a descending sun pours its colours into a sea of mist, wrapped around stone statues. Then the scene fades and another reality appears. Here and there, an intimate and little-known life carries on down on the plain. Dressed in a traditional longyis, a peasant makes his way across his freshly ploughed field at the feet of a venerable temple. Further afield, an ox-drawn cart jolts along a sandy path. These poems of rural Burmese life, undisturbed by the passing of the centuries, are reminiscent of Virgil and Hubert Robert. And aware that tourism could bring the end of such idylls, you savour their magic, even if unable to stave off a vague anxiety. But as this world sinks into night, you leave with a light heart, delighted to have come so close to the secret world of Bagan.
Article by Geoffroy Caillet. Originally published in the Enfants du Mekong Magazine.