Thousands of Buddhist temples once filled this sacred skyline
Published December 15, 2022
9 min read
For centuries, visitors to a bend of the Ayeyarwady River in central Myanmar (Burma) have been greeted with a breathtaking spectacle: myriad rose-colored pagodas and temples rising above red soil and emerald green vegetation.
This vast sacred landscape is one of the largest concentrations of Buddhist temples anywhere in the world. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019, Bagan is the legacy of a complex relationship between religion and culture, whose role in the forging of Burmese identity would be explored by scholars in the early 1900s.
The name of the modern state of Myanmar, and its previous name of Burma, both derive from a people known either as the Mranma or the Burman. Historians believe that the Burman was born in the lands bordering Tibet and western China. The Burman invaded the Pyu culture in the middle of the ninth century A.D. to take over the lands. They were then in military decline and established Bagan as their capital. 849.
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It was not a total conquest, however: The Pyu had been shaped by cultural and economic ties with India. They practiced Buddhism, which was adopted by the Burman newcomers. The Burman adapted to the climate and terrain of higher altitudes. They also learned from the Pyu-rice agriculture, which is still being practiced in the Ayeyarwady Delta.
Bagan was a modest kingdom until 1044, when its greatest ruler, King Anawrahta, ascended the throne. His accession marked a significant shift in the fortunes and region of Bagan.
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A fresco detail from the Law Kahtikepan Temple complex in Bagan.
Bagan’s marvels are not just archaeological. Many of the pagodas and monasteries in Bagan are treasure troves of decorative brilliance. Bagan spent its wealth during the reign of Anawrahta, the imperial founder, and the kings that followed on embellishing the structures with frescoes and sculptures, gilded Buddhas and terra-cotta reliefs glazed in green. The Jatakas were a key decorative theme. They tell stories about the multiple human and non-human incarnations of Buddha before his birth.
The new king improved his kingdom’s irrigation systems to make Bagan a major rice producer. He also laid ambitious military plans: In 1057 he captured the city of Thaton, capital of the rich and cultured Mon kingdom to the south. Anawrahta encouraged other Mon rulers into submission to Burman authority and quickly united the entire Ayeyarwady area under Bagan rule, establishing the first Burmese Empire.
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Anawrahta’s achievement was as much about cultural exchange as military conquest. He was influenced by the Mon variety of Theravada Buddhist Buddhism and, seeing it as a means of unification, the King promoted it throughout the Bagan realm.
Anawrahta also recognized the enormous value of Mon culture, which was steeped in Indian influences. Anawrahta was able to pay Mon engineers, goldsmiths and woodworkers to beautify Bagan because of the wealth he gained by conquering the Monports. He ordered countless stupas and pagodas as well as temples, each one being more impressive than the last.
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Following Anawrahta’s death, Bagan’s golden age rolled on, with buoyant trade paying for the fast expanding temple landscape. Bagan’s fate was similar to that of many other states. It was eventually destroyed by the Mongol invasions. King Narathihapate, buoyed initially by victories, shunned diplomacy and sided with Kublai Khan (leader of the Mongols). Bagan’s luck changed, and a major defeat in 1277 at the Battle of Ngasaunggyan was the beginning of the end. A decade later, Bagan fell.
Although many of the temples and pagodas fell into disuse in the following centuries, Bagan resumed importance as a place of Buddhist pilgrimage in the 15th century. There are thousands of monuments left, including monasteries, temples, stupas, and monasteries. These structures house Buddhist relics and are shaped like cones, bell-like domes or mounds. These sacred buildings are almost all made of brick and stucco.
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Among the thousands of structures–from tiny, one-room monasteries to sprawling temples–several landmarks stand out. The Lawkananda Pagoda, built by Anawrahta, astonishes visitors with its gleaming dome, topped with an umbrella-shaped finial known as a hti. This pagoda contains a relic believed to be one of the Buddha‘s teeth. Anawrahta from Sri Lanka obtained it.
Finding the story
Bagan could not be “discovered,” as it had been treasured by the Burmese for centuries. However, its history was based on royal chronicles: the 18th-century Maha Yazawin and the 19th-century Hmannan Yazawin.
These accounts place the origins of Bagan in the very distant past and mix legends with verifiable history. In the early 1900s Burmese scholars sought new data to provide more solid historical information on Bagan. U Pe Maung Tin, a Burmese scholar, and Gordon Luce, a British academic were among them.
After graduating in classics at Cambridge University, Luce taught literature in Rangoon (today, Yangon), the capital of Burma (today, Myanmar) when it was part of the British Empire. U Pe Maung Tin was a specialist in Pali, Theravada Buddhism’s sacred language. Luce became friends with her. Luce developed a passion for Burmese history through this friendship. He spent a lot of time at U Pe Maung Tin’s house, where he met his sister Me Ti Ti. The two married in 1915.
In 1918 Luce published his first article on Bagan. He applied for a professorship at Rangoon university two years later. The British chancellor told him that he was expelled from the university because of his marriage with a Burmese woman.
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Disappointed, Luce returned to Europe, where he continued his studies of Burmese history, language, and culture in Paris and London, where he studied Chinese. In 1923 he and U Pe Maung Tin collaborated on the first English translation of the Hmannan Yazawin.
Later, having returned to Rangoon, Luce concentrated on researching the Bagan empire by compiling references to Bagan in medieval texts in Chinese. Combining this knowledge with his and U Pe Maung Tin’s study of inscriptions at Bagan, both men set out to chart the history of Burma and of Bagan that is accepted today: That the Burmese originated in the ninth century A.D. with the Burman conquest of the Pyu–and not centuries earlier as the chronicles claimed.
Bagan has faced challenges in the 20th century. Archaeologists have criticized the restoration of the site by Myanmar’s military government. Two earthquakes, in 1975 and 2016, destroyed many structures. Specialists in Bagan history hope that the World Heritage designation can foster cooperation between specialists from Myanmar and the Myanmar government to preserve Bagan’s sacred structures for many years to come.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.