Bagan, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world with many dating from the 11th to 13th centuries A.D., when Bagan was the seat of the Myanmar dynasty. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part taking on spiritual meaning.
Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid-9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. In 1057 Anawrahta conquered Thaton and brought back to his capital the Theravada scriptures in Pali, a large number of Buddhist monks, and artists and craftsmen of every description. From the Mon monks the Bagan people received their alphabet, religion and scriptures.
It was from this momentous date that there began the extraordinary architectural and artistic activity which, in a little more than two centuries, covered the city and its environs with thousands of splendid monuments of every shape and size, the inner walls of most of which are decorated with incredible frescoes.It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42 sq km plain in central Myanmar, and Marco Polo once described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”.
Bagan’s golden age ended in 1287 when the Kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained amongst the ruins of the once larger city. Thousands of pagodas were despoiled by the invaders and vandals, left to decay and ruin.
The monuments seem to overwhelm the landscape with approximately about 2,000 remaining today, in various states of disrepair. Some are large and well maintained, such as the AnandaPahto, others are small tumbledown relics in the middle of overgrown grass. All sites are considered sacred, so when visiting, be respectful including removing shoes as well as socks before entering or stepping onto them.
What makes the temples look romantic is the process of graceful aging, with the peeled off stucco coating of the temples, to reveal the brick structural blocks with its rusty, reddish, and sometimes golden brown-like patina when hit by the sun’s rays.
Other images of Bagan which make a lasting impression to tourists aside from the spire- fringed skyline arethe ubiquitous pair of ferocious stone lions flanking a temple’s door, the spiky and lacy
eave fascia woodcarvings lining a monastery’s ascending tiers of roofs, bougainvilleas, exotic cotton trees, and the likes bringing life to the arid landscape and abandoned ruins, horse drawn carriages lazily carrying drop-jawed tourists; sleepy moving grandfather’s bullock carts grinding on a dust-choked trail; not to mention the stray dogs loitering and longyi clad men spitting betel chews in copious amounts everywhere, overgrown weeds and the pestering dust.