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?

Manuha is about captivity

Seated Buddha in the Manuha temple in Bagan

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. 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.

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.

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda

One story about the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon is too good to be true. According to this story, two brothers from Myanmar were travelling in India 49 days after Gautama became the Buddha. They met him, and offered him moon cakes. In return he gave them eight strands of his hair. The puzzled brothers returned to their country and gave the hair to the king. The king was quite as puzzled, but decided to build a pagoda. This was the first Shwe Dagon pagoda, and, if one is to go by this story, it was the first Buddhist pagoda in the world.

The Shwe Dagon pagoda in YangonThe historical record says that the pagoda probably predates the Bagan kingdom, since one of its kings rebuilt the pagoda in the 14th century. Various datings of the pagoda reach back to the 6th century. I don’t know what these datings are based on, since there has been no systematic digging at the site.

Given the religious status of the pagoda, one doubts that there will be organized archaeology here. The only recorded attempt go dig here was made, for all the possible wrong reasons, by British military officers during the early 19th century, and had to be given up because of the resulting popular anger. What is known is that the current structure dates from the late 18th century, after an earthquake brought down the previous spire. The real history of the pagoda is probably as beautiful as a myth, and more elaborate.

An outer pagoda in the Shwe Dagon complex at nightNaing Naing Tuan, our guide for the day, brought us to the complex just before sunset, knowing how beautiful it looks at that time. As we walked through the place with him, he showed us little details which we might have otherwise missed. The sky turned from blue to gold, and eventually into a deep purple. It was very close to the full moon, so the moon was high in the sky in no time. The masses of cumulus clouds lent an edge to views. About a third of the crowd consisted of tourists like us, and the rest seemed to be made up of devout Buddhists from all across Asia.It is hard for us to imagine a more spectacular visit to the Shwe Dagon pagoda.