A profusion of gold

You would not want to skip the Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan. After all, it is one of the most important pagodas in the country: said to hold two relics of the Buddha, a tooth and the frontal part of his skull. The 11th century pagoda in the shape of a cone rising over five levels of square terraces, is also the architectural model which is emulated by many of Burma’s pagodas.A view of the terraces below the Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan You can see the terraces in this photo. The niches which run around the wall behind the strange lion in the photo contain tiles which illustrate tales from the jatakas. Apparently king Anawrahta, the founder of Bagan and the one who started the construction of this temple, had placed statues of pre-Buddhist spirits called nats in these niches. They were later moved to a separate chamber inside the temple complex.

Some parts of the complex are modernThe first impression that one has of this temple is that it is full of gold. It is a little misleading, as you can see in the featured photo. Most of the shiny bits are actually lovely wooden carvings covered in gold leaf. The masonry walls are painted yellow to enhance the effect, as you can see in the photo here. Note also the date on the wall: July 1940. Some parts of the complex are really modern.

The central spire of the Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan is surrounded by golden treesThe impression of gold is heightened by these lamps in the shape of flowering trees which surround the pagoda and separate it from the rest of the buildings in the quadrangle. The pagoda is supposed to have been completed by Kyanzittha, the king who followed Anawrahta, and the central dome is covered with copper slabs. The hti (umbrella) over it is said to be made of gold. On the day I went there the dome was being repaired from the damage to it due to the last two earthquakes and the inept restoration which followed the previous one.

Wooden man in the Shwezigon complex in BaganThe complex of buildings around the central pagoda was a mad museum of statuary. Buddha statues from a millennium of artistic styles were scattered through these buildings. But there were also other interesting art works. In a large building abutting the main
pagoda were several wooden figures placed high up near the rafters. One of them was this figure of a starving man. The longyi which he wears and the long pole he carries reminds me of the boatmen of western Myanmar, near the Bangladesh border.Wooden warrior in the Shwezigon complex in Bagan Nearby was a mounted figure. The long ears of the chubby horse made it look like one of the traditional horse figures of eastern India. If it were not for the conical hat, the long white kurta and the dhoti could be mistaken for traditional Indian attire of the 19th century.

Visitors to the Shwezigon pagoda in BaganMost visitors to the temple complex were locals. Watching them one learns that temple bells are to be struck thrice: once for the Buddha, once for the Sangha, and once for Dhamma. As you strike the bell you are supposed to share your merits with the world by chanting “ahh mya”. If you happen to be within earshot, then you show your appreciation of the sentiment by replying “sadhu”. I found that the number of people praying is much larger than the numbers who ring bells.

Wooden stautes depicting the Buddha leading the sangha in the Shwezigon temple complex in Bagan

In a building behind the pagoda I came across an intriguing collection of many wooden sculptures. The only one I recognized was what you see above: the Buddha leads a line of bhikkhus, the mendicant monks, who represent the sangha. I had a tougher time interpreting the rest of the figures. In a mahayana buddhist temple I could have thought of some of the figures as powerful celestial beings. However, Myanmar follows Theravada buddhism, and this was one of the first Theravada pagodas in the country. Perhaps the figures are those of the nats which king Anawrahta placed at the base of the pagoda and were later moved here.

A buddha icon in one of the brick pagodas inside the Shwezigon complex in BaganThis was the first major temple complex I visited in Myanmar and I was struck by the differences between various images of the Buddha one finds here. Old brick structure in the Shwezigon temple complex in BaganThe serene image you see on the right can be found inside a red-brick temple (see the photo on the left) off to one side of the complex of shrines surrounding the central pagoda. This iconography of the Buddha is common in the whole geographic range from Afghanistan in the west to Japan in the east. The serene smile, An imposing later representation of the Buddha inside the Shwezigon complex in Baganthe long ears and the hair piled above the head is retained in the statue you see in the photo below. However, the facial features are clearly different: they are typical of the local features. The change from the north Indian to the Burmese face of the Buddha would place these two statues apart by at least a couple of hundred years. The one on top is likely to be from the early period of Bagan; perhaps it was established soon after the main pagoda was built. The other statue is at least two hundred years older, and could be even more recent.

A gilded bhikkhu in one of the shrines in the Shwezigon complex in BaganThe Buddha is certainly very well represented in the temple in Bagan, but the Sangha is not left out either. On the right you see a photo of a monk, probably high up in the hierarchy of the Sangha, if you go by the confidence in his body language. He could very well be sitting in judgement, or giving his opinion on a subtle point of religious doctrine.Statue of a bhikkhu with an alms bowl in the Shwezigon complex in Bagan The gilt on statues of monks is something special to Myanmar. You can see it again in this image of a monk holding his bowl of alms. I like the scaled model down near the monk’s right knee: it gives it a very modern look, as if someone was beginning to construct a fractal. I’m sure that this statue is something special, since it is surrounded by a little moat and the whole thing is fenced off. I only saw two children at the statue. Although they smiled at me and wanted their photos taken, they did not have enough English to tell me what the statue signified.

Standing Buddha statue inside the Shwezigon complex in Bagan

Dhamma is often represented by a mudra, one in which the palm and forefinger of a hand are joined together, and the other fingers are held straight, in statues of the Buddha. A statue of a man at prayer inside a small pagoda in the Shwezigon complex in BaganIn other places I have seen paintings of the sermon in the park at Sarnath; you can see the Buddha teaching with his right hand in this mudra, his disciples seated in front of him, while spotted deer (always deer) and birds look on. Nowhere in the complex of shrines around the Shwezigon pagoda did I see these depictions. The closest was the statue of a man praying which you can see in the photo here. Could it be that the country considers itself to be so steeped in Dhamma that it does not need to be shown in images?

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Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan

The 61 meter tall Thatbyinnyu is the tallest of the temples of Bagan. On the day we visited it wore a blue plastic bandage to indicate that it is due for repairs after the earthquake earlier this year. The name of the temple means the omniscience of the Buddha. I wondered whether the name is due to its height.

It was built in the mid 12th century CE by King Alaungsithu. It has the standard cross form of corridors inside, but is a two story temple, with a massive seated Buddha on the upper story. Detail above the eastern entrance of Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan, MyanmarWhen we approached it from the south, it seemed that the east-west faces was much broader than the north-south faces; but this was an optical illusion. we entered the temple from the very impressive eastern portico. From here one can see the Ananda temple. The road between them is lined with stalls. I saw someone walk past selling a dish I’d noticed before: it looks like a flat vada made with prawns.

The eastern face is ornate. You can see a detail above the main arch in this photo: it seems to show the Buddha in abhaya mudra. The temple was quite full of people: locals praying and tourists gawking.Corridors inside the Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan are narrow We looked at the large Buddha dominating the entrance, and walked on. The corridors are narrow, and you get a feel of the incredible width of the walls required to support the tall structure, as you can see in this photo. In spite of this, there is much more light than in the Ananda temple because of windows set into an upper storey. The thick walls contain the stairs which run up to higher storeys. One set of stairs is visible as soon as you enter; it is flanked by two androgynous guardian statues. I missed the second flight of stairs: a lesson to either give yourself lots of time or to take a good guide.

Buddha statues in the corridors of Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan are caged

As we walked along the corridor we saw gilded statues lining the corridors. These have clearly evolved to take on Burmese features, as we’d already noticed in the Dhammayangyi temple. We couldn’t figure out why bases of the statues are enclosed in boxes. The Family speculated that it was meant to prevent you from cutting the statue free of the base. It could have a more mundane explanation, but we didn’t play more guessing games.Paintings on the vault of one of the chambers in the Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan Beyond the end of the corridor where there are people, you can see part of a seated Buddha. The scale shows how large it is.

We didn’t see too many paintings. At two spots we saw paintings which had rubbed off, leaving so little that you could not imagine it into a whole. The only place where we saw a reasonably whole painting was the geometrical design on the vault which you can see in the photo above. Writing on the wall of the Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan But one of the walls had a long inscription in Burmese. The attempt at uniformity of size of the lettering made me think that this was not graffiti. I wonder how old the inscription is.

An interesting fact I read after our visit is that there is a small pagoda to the north-east which served as a tally of the material used for construction: for every 10,000 bricks used in the main temple, one brick would be given to the smaller one.

Thatbyinnyu from inside is less impressive than the other major temples of Bagan which we saw, but it really stands out when you see it from outside. There is a claim that the temple was never finished and consecrate. The evidence quoted for this claim is that the outside of the temple contains space for tiles showing scenes from the Jatakas, as in the Ananda temple, but these tiles were never installed. If this claim is true, then it could explain the feeling of incompleteness one has inside.

Manuha is about captivity

The Manuha temple is one of the earliest in Bagan. Tradition says that it was built at the behest of Manuha, a king taken captive by the founder of the Bagan kingdom, Anawrahta.Seated Buddha in the Manuha temple in Bagan The most memorable thing about this boxy-looking temple is how cramped all four Buddha images are. There is space for just about one person to move in front of the images.

There are three images of the seated Buddha facing the entrance. For some reason we walked to the back first and saw the image of the reclining Buddha shown in the featured photo. The perspective makes it look enormous. Near the foot of the statue is a flight of stairs which takes you up to a point where you are supposed to get a good view of the face. On this day, having come across so many broken stairs, we were not inclined to climb.

We walked to the front to see the other images. These look even more imposing: you stand right at the feet of the Buddha, with no space even to throw your head back. The story is that the architecture is designed like the prison the captive king found himself in. The temple is so closely associated with captivity in the Burmese mind, that the first thing which Aung San Suu Kyi did after her release was to come here to pray.

Images of the king and queen in the Manuha temple in Bagan

It is easy to miss two small but well-dressed statues in a little alcove off to the side. These are images of king Manuha and his wife, queen Ningaladevi. Manuha was the king of the Mon kingdom Thaton. It is said that he was captured because he refused to give Anawrahta a copy of the Tripitaka, a book of Buddhist teaching. His defeat and capture brought to Bagan many Mon crafsmen and artisans and was important in the development of the Bagan style of architecture. It is likely that the temple structure is small because the captive king had no money to pay for a grander structure.

Sula Mani Guphaya Temple in Bagan

Sula Mani quite literally translates into the Jewel in the Crown. This exquisite temple was one of those that I most wanted to see. It is said that this late-12th century temple combines the best aspects of the Dhammayangyi and the Thatbyinnyu temples. So it was a big disappointment when we arrived there to see that the recent earthquake had so badly damaged it that it was completely off-bounds to anyone. In the featured photo you see a big sign and the plastic wrapping to prevent bricks from falling.

Details on the porch of Sulamani Guphaya temple in BaganWhat we could see from the outside was remarkable. The Family and I inspected the external mouldings such as the one you can see in this photo. The temple was built to the order of Narapati Sithu (king Sithu) at the height of the Bagan period of Burma’s history. These mouldings are a good indication of how beautiful the temple could be.

A  mural in the Sulamani Guphaya temple in BaganWe pushed a little at the instructions posted for tourists. They said that it is unsafe to climb on to the porch: perhaps some of the bricks could fall. We saw that the plastic sheets wrapped around the damaged spire of the temple were quite comprehensive and ventured as close as we could. In the massive eastern entry arch we found this mural: damaged but still impressive. We couldn’t explore more: everything was cordoned off. The Family and I loved Bagan, and realized that one can easily spend a week there. If we go back in a few years this temple will be on the top of our list. The crowning jewel, how can one not visit it again?

A medieval Hindu temple in Bagan

As we walked about the impressive Thatbyinnyu temple a craftsman who spoke a little English recognized us as Indians and told us about a Hindu temple just outside and to the west.Unusual statue of Vishnu with six arms We walked up to the temple and found that it was being restored. We saw the bandages sported by temples damaged in the recent earthquake. Of course, part of the damage is also due to long years of neglect of the Bagan temple complex.

This Vishnu temple was one of the oldest temples in Bagan, perhaps built during the reign of Bagan’s founder: king Anawrahta. Since we could not enter, we walked around outside and saw statues in niches; you can see one of them in the featured image. They were avatars of Vishnu. On the southern wall we saw an exquisite statue of the Varaha avatar (Vishnu as the boar) and a slightly damaged but still quite brilliant Narasimha (the man-lion) avatar in the act of killing the king Hiranyakashipu.

A statue of Vishnu in Nat Hlaung Kyaung temple in BaganThrough open windows we could see in the gloom inside the temple some statues. Since I was carrying a superzoom, I tried to take some photos. The one at the top is a rare image of Vishnu: I’ve never seen him represented with six arms. I assumed it is Vishnu, because in three of them he carries the chakra (wheel), the mace and a lotus. Strangely he also carries a noose, usually associated with the Vedic god Varuna. He does not carry a conch shell. However I also saw a four armed statue, the second photo, which has a trident in one hand instead of the conch shell.

After restoration this would be a very interesting temple to visit for several reasons. For one, it is the only Hindu temple in Bagan. But also because the iconography of Vishnu is different from the one we are used to.

Dhammayangyi temple

Entrance to the Dhammayangyi temple in BaganI really liked the temples of Bagan, so I’ll keep coming back to them. The temple which charmed me most was the Dhammayangyi temple. You see a photo of it from the entrance archway here. It has been damaged in the recent earthquake, but not too badly. One can still explore this temple. The layout of the temple is like a cross, with the main Buddha images facing the cardinal direction, just as the older Ananda temple.Detail on an entryway arch to the Dhammayangyi temple However, the effect is completely different, it feels lighter and more airy. The plaster work over arches is lovely, although not in good repair any more (see the photo here). Most of all, the Buddha images have changed from the distinctly Indian looks in the Ananda temple to the more Burmese faces and bodies shown in the featured image.

Paintings on the walls of the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

There are paintings on all the walls. They are faded and details are hard to see, as you can tell from the photo above. But when I could make out details and colours, they looked wonderful. I hope there is an effort to restore them.A Buddha statue in the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan We noticed paintings on the wall behind several of the statues in the main alcoves, and more around those in niches inside the corridor. The first Buddhas we saw (featured image) are partially gilded. However, I liked the one shown here. The white face and the red robe look more serene. However, gilding statues of the Buddha are so ingrained in the local culture that I’m sure when the temple is restored, these statues will also be gilded. Today, with the temple in its somewhat neglected state, the number of tourists is not large. There is a sense of quiet and peace in the temple. We sat in an airy window looking at the greenery outside for a while before moving on.

Puppets for sale outside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan

The lack of tourists translates into a smaller number of shops outside the temple. Although the numbers are small, the handicrafts I saw on display were lovely. I liked some of the wooden masks on display, and even enquired about the price, but forgot to buy any.Zaw Zaw the painter inside the Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan Inside the outer wall of the temple there were spreading banyan trees. A large number of puppets hung from the lower branches of the tree. It was interesting to walk among these puppets and try to figure out the differences between these traditional characters. Inside the temple there were people who had paintings on display. The first person we came across spoke just enough English to negotiate a price. He could not tell us too much about the paintings. The next person (photo alongside) was called Zaw Zaw, and he could communicate better. He explained that the paintings are made with sand stuck on cloth and then coloured. The paintings were traditional designs, although he would vary the colours.

The temple of unending happiness

As we came to the Ananda temple in Bagan, Zaw Zaw, our guide for the day, told us that it meant endless in Burmese. The Sanskrit word Ananda means happiness, and the word has come unchanged in sound and meaning into most modern north-Indian languages. The word for endless in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages is Ananta. I was happy to note that the Wikipedia article on the temple comments on this etymological confusion.

Ananda temple: the south facing Kassapa BuddhaFrom Zaw Zaw and others I learnt of the Theravada Buddhist belief in five Buddhas in the current kalpa (era), of whom Gautama, the historical Buddha, is believed to be the most recent. One is yet to come. In many temples in Bagan the remaining four Buddhas face the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. These temples have a symmetric cross shape, with a corridor which goes around the cross so that you can see all four by simply following the corridor. From the outside one sees four porches, surmounted by terraces, leading to a pagoda and an umbrella above it called the hti.

Statue of king Kyanzittha in Ananda temple, BaganThe Ananda temple is built in this style, and is more than 50 meters tall. The first impression is of a temple from Orissa, but differences are visible as one nears it. We entered from the south, and saw the immense, almost 10 meters tall, statue of the Kassapa Buddha in front of us (photo above). At its feet was a small statue (photo alongside), probably of the king Kyanzittha, who caused the temple to be built in 1105 CE. The height of the statue makes the space look much smaller than it is.

Corridor of the Ananda temple in BaganWe walked around the corridor. The temple had been damaged in the 1975 earthquake and has been restored with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India. We’d seen beautiful glazed panels running at chest height along the outside (featured image) which recount stories from the Jatakas. The inside was more mixed: there were parts which were painted and gilded, like this arch set into the corridor. Other parts were barer, but had niches running from head height up to the top of the corridor, with a gilded sculpture sitting in each niche.Sculpture inside a niche in the Ananda temple in Bagan The one here is a typical example. I liked the look of serenity in the face of the Buddha. Notably, the faces look Indian. By the end of our perambulation we realized that we had run counter to the designed sense of the corridor, because we began to recognize the story of the birth of the Buddha in the sculptures. I guess if we had gone around in the right sense we would have followed the story of the Buddha in more detail. There were very few paintings visible: the corridor walls were white washed, and what little was visible was restricted to the walls behind the large Buddha statue.

The Ananda temple is one of the biggest sights in Bagan. I was impressed, but later I visited other temples which I found more beautiful.

An ambiguous sight

Myanmar had existential problems for many years. Now with the new government trying hard to create a modern state within its existing borders, different ethnic groups are perhaps coming together. That’s a long-winded way to lead in to the featured photo.

I saw this old lady selling fruits at a temple in Bagan, famous for being the first temple which was visited by the newly freed Aung San Suu Kiy a few years ago. I thought that the lady looked like she had an unusually long neck. Perhaps she was Kayan, one of the group of Karen people who were displaced in the 1980s due to an ethnic uprising against the government of Myanmar. A large fraction of Kayans became refugees in Thailand.

The most well-known fact about Kayan people is the neck rings which the women wear traditionally. This pushes down their collar bones and is supposed to give them a longer neck. Without the rings, it was not clear whether this lady was Kayan. I strongly suspect that she is, but I did not want to ask.

Lack of development gives rise to many conflicts. A far-sighted leader can sometimes end these conflicts by a mixture of pragmatism and generosity. We have seen this work in parts of India (and not work in other parts). As we travel in Myanmar and meet so many extremely friendly and generous people, we hope that Myanmar is now about to get lucky.

Burmese Days

Its not hard to whip up a recipe for a quick trip through Myanmar. Take a couple of days in Bagan to see some of the 2000 temples. Add a little cruise down the Irrawady if that’s to your taste. Fold in a dose of Mandalay in order to visit the Mahagandayon monastery, and the few remaining teak houses and bridges in this last imperial town. Perhaps a pinch of Maymyo, once a colonial British hill station, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin; somewhat like Myanmar’s Abbotabad. Cross over the central highlands, perhaps stopping for a quick look at the numerous statues of Buddhas left by visitors at the Pindaya caves, and then on to a day or two of relaxed boating around Lake Inle, looking at the floating gardens, visiting the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, famous for its jumping cats, and the Indein pagoda complex. Before flying out of a Yangon in slow decline from its colonial glory days, like a lesser Kolkata, visit the Shwedagon pagoda and the sleeping Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi. Allow plenty of time for the mixture to settle into your soul. Add a dash of other sights which are accessible, and its food.

That is the easy part. The flavour of the whole is hard to anticipate before you travel. The hard part is to get a feel of what the country is like before leaving home. The military dictatorship which lasted from 1962 has slowly ceded space to an elected government. I looked for books on Burma. There are many books with deal with the events before the recent elections. A graphic travelogue called "Burma Chronicles" by Guy DeLisle was published in 2009. It is about his experiences in Myanmar as an expatriate. "Burma’s Spring" by Rosalyn Russell is almost a companion volume, talking of her time in Myanmar as an expat a little later. Both authors were journalists living in Myanmar with their spouse who worked with an NGO.

Now, in the last year, and half a decade after these books were written, the situation seems to have changed. Myanmar has had high-profile government-to-government meetings with its neighbours. It is looking for ways to defuse the ethnic violence of the last decades [Note added: Alas, hopes]. There is a little a lot more news about Myanmar on TV now, and Burmese newspapers are available on the web (at least Myanmar Times and Mizzima are.

I wanted to know a bit more about Burmese history than the oral history told and retold in the family, histories of the Japanese advance and retreat during the war, and oblique references from the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The book "The River of Lost Footsteps" by Thant Myint-U fills this niche. It is a very readable popular history which takes you from the early years of the Burmese state to modern times.

What remain are the practical things: hotel bookings, choosing travel options, and obtaining visas. Also, one has to take time off to learn more than the simple, all purpose greeting, "Mingalabar".

Earthquakes and travel

It turns out that we often travel in one of the most earthquake prone parts of the world: the plate boundary between India and Asia. This includes the Himalayas, much of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and large parts of western and southern China. Large earthquakes are infrequent enough that travelling is fairly safe. However, we have often been saddened by news of the destruction of places we loved. A year ago it was Kathmandu. This year, just as we begin preparations for a trip to Myanmar, there is news of a second serious earthquake in that country.

Learning about Myanmar is hard. It has cut itself off for so long that the world’s media pretty much ignores it. On the day of the quake there were reports across the world, but there has been no news later. When I set about investigating this, it took a while to get to Myanmar Times, which confirmed that the official count of deaths and injuries remains small: "Three people were killed and five injured, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said." All is not well, however. Mizzima, another newspaper from Myanmar, reports: "The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has expressed her profound sympathy to the government and people of Myanmar after the devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck central Myanmar, including the ancient city of Bagan, causing loss of life and extensive damage to nearly 200 historic monuments and iconic pagodas." That means about 10% of the temples have been badly damaged.

I discovered that this is not the first time this has happened. The Myanmar times had an article which said "State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instructed the Culture and Religious Affairs Ministry yesterday to refrain from conducting urgent renovations on the 187 ancient Bagan pagodas and temples that were damaged by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on August 24. She asked the ministry to discuss renovations with specialists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and to make their plans with technical support from the organisation". The article led on to another which reported on the fallout of an earthquake in 1975: "More than 600 ancient pagodas in Bagan have been ruined by botched renovation work, an architect has claimed. U Sun Oo, a member of the Bagan Management Plan Organising Committee, laid blame for the destruction on the practice of putting out complex and sensitive repair work to tender."

An older news report talked about some other problems in maintainance: "The long-running “limbo hotels” problem arose when the 42 hoteliers were cleared to build in Bagan by the Archaeology Department in 2013, but subsequently ordered to stop work and not to take in guests. The guesthouses, mostly modest establishments run by local residents, are deemed to be too close to Bagan’s famed temples, a factor that could put at risk the city’s bid to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. As a result, the Ministry of Culture reinstated a zoning ban put in place in 1998 but rarely enforced since then. Earlier this year, 129 properties deemed to be operating too close to the ancient site, including the 42 guesthouses, were given a 10-year deadline to move to a special hotel zone."

The most disturbing report for would-be travellers comes from Bangkok Post, which reports "Another Myanmar earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude is possible and it may affect Bangkok and northern Thailand in the absence of an aftershock in the neighbouring country after Wednesday’s 6.8-magnitude". I tried to confirm the basic facts, and found a site called Earthquake Track which indeed confirms that there are no aftershocks.

Bagan is one of the high point of a Myanmar itinerary, so this leaves us somewhat undecided.

Note added after the trip:

While all the snippets of news about damage to temples is true, Bagan is still stunning, and definitely worth traveling to. More than a year after the quake, there has not been another one. This could mean that the next one will release a lot of energy. Or it might not. Earthquakes are hard to predict.