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?

Monks of Myanmar

Monk on the U Bein teak bridge

I’d read that Buddhist monks are held with great reverence in Myanmar. Their moral power was enhanced when they involved themselves in protests against the military government. I’d also read that since then some of them have remained embroiled in politics. Unfortunately their politics has, reportedly, become communal; a small number of monks have lent their weight to campaigns against religious minorities in the country. My first sight of a monk in Myanmar was of this gentleman negotiating the crowds at U Bein’s teak bridge. He had the harried air of a middle-level bureaucrat trying to get home after a long and tiresome day in office. I quickly got out of the way of his somewhat aggressive umbrella. He did notice me taking the photo, and didn’t seem to like it any more than he seemed to like the crowd around him.

A serene monk on the U Bein teak bridge

The very next monk I met was altogether more serene. He stood on the bridge over the Irrawaddy river and seemed to enjoy the sunset and the cool breeze. He stood there long enough for me to get his photo with the temple behind him. I told myself that monks are also people, they have different personalities. This man was happy and unmindful of the crowd around him. The great schism in Buddhism is between Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries of South East Asia) and Mahayana (largely confined to the Himalayas). Theravada belief is more austere.

Novice monks in Bagaya monastery convert chores to play

In the Bagaya monastery I saw monks at different stages of their training and life. Monasteries come with their chores. I met a group of novice monks, children, who had converted their job of collecting trash into a game. I learnt later that many children spend a few years in a monastery, learning to read and write, and only a few of them go on to a monk’s life. Among the many others I saw, I was intrigued by one who sat in his upstairs room reading a book (featured image) even as his contemporaries spent time outdoors, chatting in groups or walking alone. Older monks looked at us as we walked around with our cameras, and occasionally asked us where we came from.

Monks' robes drying in the Bagaya monastery

There’s quite a lot of discussion about the colour of the robes that monks wear. When I saw robes drying in the Bagaya monastery (photo above) I realized that there is quite a lot of variety in the colours. Since I’d seen senior monks as well as novices wearing the same maroon robes, it seemed that there is no rule about colours. The drying robes range from maroon to orange, the latter is probably the industrial equivalent of saffron.

Group of monks in the botanical garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

Having settled this question one evening, it was quite unsettling the next afternoon when we came across a group of bhikshu in pink and saffron. We realized later that nuns always wear pink and saffron. This group of nuns walked through the garden in a single file. When the leader stopped to take a photo, the whole file behind her came to a halt. It was funny in a way.

Group of monks begging in Mandalay

It is customary for monks in Myanmar to walk amongst people twice a day and beg for food. In Sanskrit begging and alms are called bhiksha, and the monks who seek alms are called bhikshu. Late in the afternoon we saw a long line of very young girls out seeking alms. The photo above is of part of this file of children. It is considered highly meritorious to give alms of this kind. Although we did not see alms being given, everyone we asked assured us that no child nun would go hungry.

Gracious nun poses for a photo in the market in Mandalay

While walking through a market in Mandalay, I saw a nun hurrying through the narrow lanes. As I tried to take a photo, she noticed me, and gracefully stopped for a moment to give me this wonderful shot. There was no communication needed except for that graceful smile. We travel through the world, looking for differences and novelty and meet a common humanity everywhere.

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.