Bagan, sometimes called Pagan, is one of the oldest major cities in Myanmar (formerly called Burma). It is world famous because of the many thousands of Buddhist stupas and temples to be seen there. The city is said to have been founded around 874 but is probably much older. It has had many different names including Arimaddanapur (‘the city that tramples on enemies’) and Tambadipa (‘land of copper’). Since the 12th century it has been known as Pagan. It is an enormous site measuring in total 130 square kilometres. Bagan’s golden age was between the reign of Anawratha (1044-1077) and the city’s destruction by the Shan princes in 1299. Marco Polo’s visit to the city in 1287 coincided with an attack by the army of Kublai Khan.
Bagan, rediscovered and rescued
After the city’s destruction it was not rediscovered for a very long time. In fact, it only happened in 1855, when the Scottish engineer Henry Yule wrote a description of the city. In 1866, the British annexed Myanmar (Burma) and began archaeological excavations. One famous archaeologist in the early 20th century was Gordon Hannington Luce, who later ensured that Bagan was spared bombardment during the Second World War. Sadly, the city was later to suffer severe damage during an earthquake in 1975. Since 2019 Bagan has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
5,000 Buddhist monuments
It is estimated that there are about 5,000 monuments in the region, of which 1,000 are in a good condition. A number are still in use. The monuments were built in three phases: from 850 to 1120, from 1120 to 1170, and from 1170 to 1300. At that time this was a lush green area on the banks of the Irrawaddy river, watered by an extensive irrigation system. Today, by contrast, the area is relatively dry.
Buddhism was brought to Bagan from India and belongs to the Theravada school. This is the oldest Buddhist doctrine and is seen as the closest to Buddha’s original teaching.
Stupas and cave temples
Two basic architectural forms are to be found in Bagan: the stupa, sometimes called zeidi’s, and the cave temple. Stupas in Myanmar are built mainly with sandstone, strengthened by bricks. The form is derived from Indian stupas and symbolises the tumulus or burial mound and the teachings of Buddha. Most stupas in Bagan consist of a square platform with a very high, many-sided foundation, on which the actual bell-shaped stupa rests. On top of that is a narrow spire with a ‘parasol’. At the corners of the terrace stood miniature zeidi’s which were later often replaced by water jugs, which derive from Hinduism. The walls are often covered with glazed terracotta tiles with texts from stories about the former lives of the Buddha.
During rituals, believers could intensify their faith by reading the stories and contemplating the images. The entrance steps leading to the higher levels were oriented to the four points of the compass. The heart of the structure was formed by a closed central space containing relics. This room was completely closed off and contained the human remains of holy men, sacred texts and holy images. A stupa often contained several spaces of this kind.
Later the interior of the stupas became more like a maze, probably to discourage robbers. The stupas were often finished with a thick layer of rough plaster made of sand and lime. This layer was white, the colour of purity. Then the wall would be decorated with multicoloured designs, such as garlands of lotus flowers and terrifying masks symbolising the all-destroying effects of time. On top of the structure rose the spire (‘the parasol’) which was usually made of copper.
As well as the stupas there were many cave temples, often used for rituals such as meditation and worship. Light from the windows fell on the wall paintings, stimulating a contemplative frame of mind.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey