The Plains of Bagan
Bagan or Pagan in central Myanmar located on the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River (Irrawaddy River) was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 9th century, it was capital of the Bagan kingdom which was roughly the size of the modern-day republic of Myanmar. The Bagan kingdom reached its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, until it was overrun by the Mongols. It is now a site of Buddhist pilgrimage and archaeological site, with its wide, verdant area covered with temples, stupas, and monasteries. (Stupa is Sanskrit for “heap”, referring to the architectural structure.) Many of the temples house important Buddha statues, Buddhist frescoes and sculptures. The Dhammayangyi Temple was the largest of these temples.
Myanmar’s kings built over 900 temples, 500 stupas and 400 monasteries in an area roughly 13 by 7 square kilometres. This acquired merit — not just for themselves, but for their kingdom and subjects too, ensuring everyone would be reborn into a higher plane of existence in their next life.
Construction at Bagan reached its zenith during the 11th and 13th centuries following the adoption of Buddhism by King Anawrahta, who rose to power in 1044. In the following centuries, Bagan grew into a story of brick transfigured into religious merit. Today, over 3,500 monuments remain standing. Some are small and graceful, others soar towards the heavens. One of the most beautiful sights in Myanmar is a panoramic view of the plain at sunset and sunrise, where one can see temples, stupas and monasteries scattered across the landscape as far as the eye can see.
Myanmar’s kings ruled by virtue of the merit they accrued during previous lives. Donating religious monuments acquired merit for the royal donor, and provided his subjects with places to learn about and practice Buddhism. In turn, they too would acquire merit, and Buddhism would thrive. Bagan’s building boom bears testimony not only to the strength of Buddhist belief, but to the remarkable mobilisation of people and resources required to create this great religious and cultural centre. Today, many of Bagan’s main monuments are still places of pilgrimage for Buddhist faithful from all over the world.
Bagan’s art and architecture
Bagan’s monuments survived for centuries owing to their construction in well baked brick, combined with stone for structural soundness. One of their most striking architectural features is the regular use of true vault arching, a technique almost unknown elsewhere in Asia. These vaults could span large interior spaces. They needed to be lightweight, but still sturdy enough to support the massive superstructures above. The technology allowed the construction of distinctive temples entered through wide hallways, where the pilgrim comes face to face with a statue of Gotama, the Buddha, whose face is often gently lit from narrow skylights set high in the walls. The vaulting also permitted wide encircling inner corridors, which became canvases for Bagan’s artists to create statuary and frescoes celebrating Gotama’s previous lives, and important events from his last earthly existence prior to obtaining nibbana.
Pagoda, temple or stupa?
The English term ‘pagoda’ is often used to describe both temples and stupas throughout the Asian world. However, temples and stupas are built with very different religious aims in mind. Stupas, known as zeidi in Myanmar, are solid structures, usually shaped like a graceful bell. In essence, they are a giant reliquary, containing objects of value and reverence. The most auspicious of these are, of course, remains of the Buddha himself, such as strands of hair or a tooth. Others may be associated with his followers or other revered monks. The relic chamber lies deep within the stupa itself, or below ground level. As well as a relic of the Buddha, images, plaques, votive tablets, precious jewels and manuscripts may be interred. An inscription dated 1227 CE gives us an idea of the sacred objects interred within just one stupa’s relic chamber:
” … the bodily relics of the Lord (ie, the Buddha); then the image of the Lord made from the branch of the sacred banyan tree; the image of the Lord cast in gold; the image of the Lord in ivory bezoar; and the image of the Lord made of sandalwood. [Underneath] all these were spread gold cushions and silver cushions and these are covered with gold umbrellas. Parched rice of silver, gold chandeliers and silver chandeliers are also offered. When these gems are enshrined the relic chamber is closed with bricks.”
The floor plan of a stupa
The ground plan of a stupa is usually square, surmounted by a terraced base reflecting the tiered slopes of Mt Meru, the cosmic mountain where the gods dwell. The uppermost platform becomes the base for the bell-shaped superstructure, known as the anda. Its supporting terraces serve a practical as well as symbolic function. Many provide an open air art gallery depicting Buddhist teachings and texts. The terraces at the Shwezigon stupa at Bagan, for example, bear ceramic plaques showing scenes from the Jataka tales, the 550 tales of Gotama’s former lives.
Buddhist devotion at stupas involves a circumambulation of the stupa itself, usually on its main ground level platform or occasionally via its terraces. As well as paying homage to the stupa itself (and hence the Buddha), the pilgrim can take in the moral messages displayed in the decorative artwork. Unusually, at Bagan’s East and West Hpetleik stupas, the andas are set atop a solid core surrounded by a corridor, filled with rows of Jataka plaques. This design combines the main votive focus — the stupa — with the ambulatory corridors more normally found in temples.
Temples: sites of quiet contemplation
Temples are religious buildings with an interior designed to facilitate quiet contemplation, meditation and paying homage to the Buddha and his teachings. Bagan’s temple prototypes derive from those at the ancient capital, Sri Ksetra, which flourished between the 4th and 9th centuries. These simple structures are known as lei-myet-hna (four-faces), as they consist of a square central block with four sides. Perforated windows around the outside admit light. A cella, or large niche, is cut into the central block to contain the statue of Gotama, and devotees sit respectfully before this image to conduct their devotions.
Other simple temples contain images of the last four Buddhas of the current age: Gotama, who faces west; Kassapa, who faces south; Konagamana, who faces east; and Kakusandha, who faces north. These four-faced temples evolved to a five-faced model in the 12th century, allowing the inclusion of an image of Mettaya, the Buddha of the future.
The temples held precious items
While temples are places for devotion and meditation, they may also contain relic chambers. Donors sealed up precious items within their architecture. These gifts are recorded on stone inscriptions that often included the item’s cost, as all merit was (and still is) accounted to the donors. Enshrining precious objects contributes to the potency of the temple. This potency then radiates outwards to all who worship within it. Donated images of the Buddha and his predecessors are placed in niches around the central block, usually made of brick covered in stucco, then painted; and the corridors surrounding the central core covered in painted murals. These murals are an artistic highlight of a visit to Bagan, and are not necessarily always religious in nature. Many feature scenes from daily life, such as monkeys frolicking in palm trees, gossiping women making pots, dancers and portraits of the donors themselves.
The pagoda was central to village life
Bagan’s pagodas, whether stupa or a temple, were covered in plaster and whitewashed, then decorated with coloured stucco ornamentation. They remain surrounded by monasteries, rest houses for visitors and houses for pagoda slaves and monastic servants. Entire villages were dedicated to their upkeep, and their incomes were exempt from tax — a circumstance that may have contributed in part to Bagan’s decline in the 14th century.
Odyssey small group tours in Myanmar
Odyssey offers two fully escorted small group tours in Myanmar, ‘Discovering Myanmar’ and ‘Myanmar’s Art and Archaeology’. Each escorted small group tour in Myanmar takes a maximum of 16 people. The tours are suitable for mature couples or single travellers seeking to learn as they travel.
Small Group tour discovering Myanmar
Our ‘Discovering Myanmar’ small group tour takes in the highlights of Myanmar from Mandalay to Bagan over 14 days, allowing us to learn more about Burmese culture, the roots of Theravada Buddhism, and the beautiful Burmese archaeological wonders, especially during our time in Bagan. Commencing in Yangon, our group tour will visit Inle Lake, Pindaya, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Bagan. Mature Travellers can choose from one of three departures scheduled each year: in February, March and November. To see the full itinerary for this tour please click here.
Odyssey’s ‘Myanmar’s Art and Archaeology’ small group tour
This escorted program for mature travellers departs every year in February.
It focuses on a detailed study of the country’s art and archaeology. Commencing in Yangon, the tour first visits the ancient capital at Bagan. From Bago the small group tour continues on to the UNESCO world heritage listed first millennium city of Sri Ksetra. We continue on to Bagan and explore its cultural and artistic wonderland. The group learns about Bagan’s history, in particular the thousands of Buddhist monuments built to acquire merit for Myanmar’s kings and their subjects.
We then cruise upriver on the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River to Mandalay. Mandalay is the last royal city, still home to many of the country’s finest artisans working in traditional materials. From Mandalay we return to Yangon to learn about that city’s colonial heritage. In Yangon our small group of mature travellers take in Myanmar’s thriving modern art scene. This tour does also include plenty of general touristy things to avoid ‘pagoda fatigue’. For example, we visit to local markets and villages. To see the full itinerary for this tour please click on this link.
About Odyssey Traveller small group tours
Odyssey offers some 150 small group tours to mature travellers each year. Our packaged tours are small group tours with local guides sharing their knowledge. Odyssey has more than 35 years experience in small group travel. It remains passionate about providing affordable educational immersion style tours in a pleasant environment for mature travellers. For more information about the organisations collection of tours please click here. This link takes you to the about Odyssey Traveller page of the website.
The following links provide additional information to assist you in planning your trips. For an article about what it is like to join a small group tour click here. For tips on what to footwear to pack then please click here.
Originally published on June 20, 2017
Updated on January 7, 2020
Articles about Myanmar published by Odyssey Traveller.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Myanmar.