The British rulers of the erstwhile Myanmar may have introduced some confusion into things when they began spelling it as Pagan, but the Kingdom of Bagan, as it is now named, is a marvellous archaeological confluence of many ancient cultures. With over 13,000 temples, pagodas and other religious structures originally built within this 26 sq. mile (42 sq. km.) area during the heydays of the Kingdom between the 11th and 13th centuries, little wonder then that this has earned the nomination as a World Heritage site. Evidence of early settlers by the banks of the Irrawady is traced back to the second century AD. However the first permanent settlers are correlated with the beginnings of the Kingdom of Bagan in the mid-ninth century. Two centuries later, after the Mons were overpowered, during the golden era of a united Bagan scholars, artisans, master builders and religious builders helped lay the foundations of a rich new society. Bagan became known as the land of four million pagodas, reflecting the economic and religious wealth of the new kingdom. A thriving rice culture was supported by an excellently crafted irrigation system.
But history also presents us with some useful learnings: In the zeal to build almost all temples and stupas with fired bricks and not perishable wood, the demand on local vegetation to fire the kilns had an adverse effect on ecological balance. Denuded land, earthquakes, floods, erosion and invasions led to economic decline and downfall of the empire. The story is another reminder for those who continue to turn a blind eye to the inevitable truth around the powerful concept of Naturenomics.
History also reminds us of the inevitable doom that is brought about by greed and avarice. Both insiders and outsiders have, through the ages, been party to the systematic looting of Bagan’s artefacts and treasures. Unfortunately, more visitors coming to witness the site may also result in its frescoes, statuary and various antiquities being in jeopardy of falling ultimately into the hands of wealthy private collectors, despite the Myanmar authorities having slapped a ban on their export.
As a resurgent economy with its recently open doors prepares to grapple with many issues of progress and balance, we hope and pray that Myanmar’s wealthy heritage will be viewed and leveraged with depth of understanding and maturity. This Bagan is certainly no Pagan symbol! Hence, in lining up to view and appreciate the hidden treasures that the Bagan Kingdom represents, we should certainly mind our ‘P’s and queues!
– Ranjit Barthakur, Publisher.