The Pagan Pagodas

Pagan (also called Bagan), located some 425 miles (680 Km) north of Yangon in Myanmar (Burma), is one of the famous religious places in the world. Over 2000 temples, pagodas , stupas and shrines located in this ancient city were designed , built and decorated by master craftsmen in 11-13 AD.

More than a thousand years ago, Pagan was the capital of northern Burma. Between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, in a burst of religious fervor, Pagan's rulers had thousands of temples, pagodas, kyaungs and other religious monuments constructed. It's believed that more than 13,000 structures once occupied the Pagan plain.

Today, the remains of more than 2,000 of Pagan's pagodas and temples form the greatest assemblage of Buddhist monuments in the world. Pagan is a religious and archaeological marvel, and some would say it's "a wonder of the ancient World." The temples stretch for eight miles along the bank of the Ayeyarwady River and for about two miles inland. At some points the ruins are so dense that it's often described as a place where it's impossible to move without touching something sacred.

Between about 500 and 950, people of the Burman ethnic group had been infiltrating from the north into a region occupied by other peoples; these people already had been converted to Indian religion, especially the Mahayana Buddhism of Bihar and Bengal. Under King Anawrahta (reigned 1044-77), the ethnic Burmans finally conquered the other peoples of the region, including a people called the Mon, who were previously dominant in the south.

They transported the Mon royal family and their scholars and craftsmen to Pagan, making it the capital and centre of an official, fundamentalist form of Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism adopted from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), about 1056. This initiated the period of Pagan’s greatness, which was sustained at first by Mon artistic traditions. The enormous number of monasteries and shrines built and maintained during the next 200 years was made possible both by the great wealth of the royal exchequer and by the large number of slaves, skilled and unskilled, whose working lives were dedicated to the support of each institution. The city became one of the most important centres of Buddhist learning.

Lesser buildings are grouped around the more important pagodas and temples. Scattered around these are smaller pagodas and buildings, some of which may once have been aristocratic palaces and pavilions later adapted to monastic uses--e.g., as libraries and preaching halls. All are based on Indian prototypes, modified during subsequent development by the Mon. The principal architectural theme is the Buddhist stupa, a tall bell dome, designed originally to contain near its apex the sacred relics of Buddhist saints. Another is the high, terraced plinth, which may be supplemented by stairs, gateways, extra stupas, and pinnacles and symbolizes a sacred mountain.

During the course of artistic evolution the themes were frequently combined, and the combination opened into a complex rectangular hall with porticos extended from the sides, crowned by a stupa or, in some cases, by a rectangular tower of curved outline reminiscent of the contemporary Indian Hindu shrine tower. Interior arches and vaults, both rounded and pointed, are, however, constructed by a true radiating-arch technique that was not used in India. A vista across the site of Pagan shows a series of variations and combinations of the themes. Many buildings, especially those no longer in use and hence unrestored, bear substantial remains of external, decorative stucco and terra-cotta (adding flamboyance to the finely proportioned rectilinear structures) and internal paintings and terra-cottas recording Buddhist legend and history.

Anawrahta constructed the Shwezigon pagoda. Nearby he built a nat shrine with images. The Shwezigon is a huge, terraced pyramid, square below, circular above, crowned by a bell-shaped stupa of traditional Mon shape and adorned with stairways, gates, and decorative spires. It is much revered and famous for its huge golden umbrella finial encrusted with jewels. It was considerably damaged in the earthquake of 1975. Also revered are the late 12th-century pyramidal Mahabodhi, built as a copy of the temple at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, in India, and the Ananda temple mountain just beyond the east gate, founded in 1091 under King Kyanzittha.

By the time the Thatpyinnyu temple was built (1144), Mon influence was waning, and a Burman architecture had evolved. Its four stories, resembling a two-staged pyramid, and its orientation are new. Its interior rooms are spacious halls, rather than sparsely lit openings within a mountain mass, as in the earlier style. This building combined the functions of stupa, temple, and monastery. The Burman style was further developed in the great Sulamani temple and culminated in the Gawdawpalin, dedicated to the ancestral spirits of the dynasty (late 12th century), whose exterior is decorated with miniature pagodas, the interior with extremely lavish, coloured surface ornament.

Ananda Temple
Probably the finest largest and best preserved of all the Bagan temples. Ananda Temple suffered considerable damage in the earthquakes in history. Built by King Kyanzitthar (AD 1064-1113), the temple is said to represent the endless wisdom of the Buddha. The central square has sides of 175 feet (53m) and rises in terraces to the crown 168 feet high. In the center of the cube are 4 famous standing Buddha images of 31 feet (9.5m) height. The base and terraces are decorated with a great number of glazed tiles showing scenes from the earlier lives of Buddha. In the western sanctum there are life size statues of the temple’s founder and his primate while in the west porch there are two footprints of Buddha on pedestals.

Sarabha Gateway
The ruins of the main gate on the east wall are all that remain of the old 9th century city. The gate is guarded by brother and sister angels, finding brother in the left, and the sister in the right. Traces of old stucco can still be seen on the gateway.

Thatbyinnyu Temple
The name itself stands for “The Omniscience”, and is the highest temple in Bagan, rising up to 200 feet (61m) and was built by Alaungsithu (AD 1113-1167) too. In a monastery compound slightly southwest of the temple there are stone supports which one held the temple’s huge bronze bell. Northeast of the temple stands a small Tally Pagoda, which was built of one brick per 10,000 bricks used in the main temple.

Shwe Gugyi Temple
Built by King Alaungsithu (AD 1113-1167), this temple is an early example of a transition in architectural styles which resulted in airy lighter buildings. The temple is also notable for its fine stucco carvings and for the stone slabs in the inner wall, which tell its history including the fact that its construction took seven months only.

Bagan Library (Pitakat Taik)
Following the fall of Thaton Kingdom in the south, King Anawrahtar (AD 1044-1077) brought 30-elephant-loads of Buddhist scriptures and built this library to house them in 1058. It was repaired in 1738. The architecture of the square building is notable for the perforated stone windows and the plaster carvings on the roof in imitation of Myanmar wood carvings.

Thandawgyar Image
This 19-feet (6m) high stone Buddha image was built in 1284.

Sulamani Temple
This temple is similar to Htilominlo and the Gawdawpalin in architecture but with better interior lighting. It stands beyond the Dhammayangyi Temple and was built in 1181 by Narapatisithu (AD 1174-1211). The interior was once painted with fine frescoes but only dim traces can be seen today.

Bupaya Pagoda (Bu Pagoda)
Situated right on the river bank of the Ayeyarwady, this pagoda has been claimed to be the oldest in Bagan, dating back to 3rd century AD. The shape is extraordinary being in the shape of a gourd.

Gawdawpalin Temple
It is one of the largest temples in Bagan, built during the reign of King Narapatisithu. Severly damaged by the earthquake of 1975. The tip of the temple, was as high as 180 feet (55m).

Gubyaukgyi Temple (Wetkyi-in)
A 13th century temple with a spire resembling the Mahabodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya in India: the Gubyaukgyi is noted for its wall paintings, depicting scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha.

Htilominlo Temple
Built by King Nadaungmya in 1211: the 50 metres high Htilominlo is one of the largest temples of Bagan; and is noted for its fine plaster carvings.

Dhammayangyi Temple
This massive temple: built by King Narathu in the 12th century, displays the finest brickwork in Bagan.

Shwezigon Pagoda
Built by King Anawrahta, founder of the first Myanmar Empire, and finished by King Kyansittha in 1084; the Shwezigon was held in special reverence by successive kings and became the prototype for later Myanmar pagodas.