Once the capital of the kingdom of Myanmar between the ninth and 13th century, ancient Bagan is a reflection of the wealthy heritage of one of the modern world’s poorest countries. At its height, so our amiable and informative guide Thet Naing tells us, over 13,000 stupas and pagodas dotted this 40-odd square km plain. Natural erosion, war (the Mongols in the 13th century, the British and Japanese in World War II), and earthquakes (one in 1975, the other in 2016) have whittled this number down to about 2,000. In 2016 alone, over 200 structures collapsed.
Ananda Phaya, the best known of the Bagan pagodas (Photo: Istock)
The extraordinary density of pagodas and stupas is only part of the appeal. Set in the middle of thick vegetation, these gracefully ageing brick structures in their quirkily varied architectural styles —Khmer, India, Chinese — give Bagan the kind of aura that would make it an ideal setting for an Indiana Jones movie.
A sad political legacy has prevented Bagan from acquiring the deserved label of a World Heritage Site. For years, it was the focus of the military junta’s predilection for “good works” and old temples were often overbuilt by newer structures. A whole village was arbitrarily shifted 2 km away. Spurning UN advice on the art of restoring with a light hand, the aggressive cement reconstruction and wince-inducing applications of dazzling white and gold paint on exteriors and images had marred the antique beauty of Bagan — until earthquakes revealed the extent of shoddy work by crony contractors (heavy-handed restoration is a common affliction in Myanmar’s monuments). Now, the UN is back as an advisor — The Lady has a hand in this, Thet says. Visitors from India are proudly told about the Archaeological Survey of India’s involvement in the restoration of the Ananda Phaya — the best known of the Bagan pagodas.
Ananda Phaya is an imposing edifice. Being a “live” temple, we dutifully stoop to take off our shoes — no socks allowed, the Buddha, apparently, wants us to be grounded in this gentle land of Theravada Buddhism. We giggle afresh at the standard illustrated sign outside prohibiting anyone wearing “short pants” and “spaghetti blouse” (both drawings worthy of Jockey innerwear ads) from entering.
“Keep silence,” the sign also adjures visitors. That’s easy to do, because you’ll be struck by the majestic 31-foot standing Buddha image inside, his long-fingered sculpted hand raised in the merciful tantric-style illustrations along the walls. Outside, Thet shows us the ingenious interlaced brickwork and jointing that forms the bedrock of the pagoda. (A quick clarification on the difference between a pagoda and a stupa: a pagoda is basically a temple where people worship and may or may not contain relics; a stupa is a solid structure that is solely a repository of relics).
The 31-foot standing Buddha image inside Ananda Phaya (Photo: Istock)
The three-storey Htilominlo Temple is known for its elaborate plaster moldings (Photo: Istock)
If Bagan is your second stop from Yangon — there are direct daily flights to its tiny airport — there are many pagodas to view. If, like us, this is your fourth major stop on a boat ride down the Ayeyarwady, you run the danger of suffering pagoda fatigue — the extraordinary Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital alone takes some absorbing.
If that is the case, limit your visit to Ananda Phaya and Htilominlo, built in 1218, an engaging three-storeyed tiered temple with four Buddha statues — only two of them are original, though. Bask instead in the unique beauty and atmosphere of the site.
As the day draws to a close, do the standard tourist thing and climb a pagoda of your guide’s choosing catch a panoramic view of Bagan. If, like me, you are an atheist, that’s the nearest you’ll come to a divine experience.