Updated January 2006
Bagan: location map. The city was at its most active between the 11th and early 14th Centuries AD, but it remained in use as a religious centre after the Burmese capital moved north to Sagaing, Ava and Mandalay. It is now a popular site with Buddhist pilgrims, and with tourists from overseas, who often arrive there by way of a day's ferry trip down the Irrawaddy river from Mandalay.
This wonderful etching is Sir Henry Yule's impression of Bagan, from his 1904 book on Marco Polo. The Italian adventurer had described in his memoirs how the Mongol Army of Kublai Khan fought a war with the king of "Mien", the Chinese name at the time for the kingdom based on Bagan.
This map shows all of Bagan's remaining buildings. It was created on MapInfo, which is a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) program. You need to look at the big version to get an idea of the scale of construction. Some of the buildings are hard to distinguish even at the larger scale, because there are so many of them, but the map gives an idea of the layout of the city. Note the dense clusters of buildings to the southeast of the main clump of monuments (the top of the map is north). These were the later "suburbs" of Pagan, thick with monasteries. I suggest that overcommitment to building and particularly to the maintenance of buildings, as seen in this pattern of nodalisation of the city, overstretched its economic and communication resources, and left it vulnerable to stress.
The Ananda temple at Bagan. This huge temple is a major Buddhist pilgrimage spot. It is located just east of the walled core of the city. On the top right of the picture you can just see Tanggyi Taung, a mountaintop stupa, or pagoda, on the other side of the Irrawaddy River.
Detail of stucco decoration on a temple. Stucco is a sand and lime plaster that is laid on to a surface and moulded or carved while damp.
Buddha image inside a temple at Bagan. This is a painted plaster statue, made on a brick base. You can see the remains of wall paintings of Buddhist scenes in the background.
A more modern Buddha image, made from marble. Note the highly decorative setting. Marble is mined north of Bagan, around Mandalay, and that city has a suburb where the marble is used to manufacture Buddha images.
Mount Popa, a volcanic plug about 60 kilometres southeast of Bagan. There is a temple complex on top, reached by a winding staircase around the side of the mountain. The "brother and sister nats"- spirit protectors of Bagan- are supposed to live here. There are references to Mount Popa from the Bagan era, but there appears to be no formal dating available. The monk in the picture was walking as if in slow motion, being mindful every step he took- a tradition among monks in this area.
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Ruined temple and monastery complexes at Minnanthu, about 4 kilometres back from the river at Bagan- this was one of several "suburbs" of the medieval city. The buildings and their walled enclosures took up a lot of space. Bagan is quite dry, and there were few local irrigated rice fields in medieval times. But the city "owned" about 250,000 hectares of irrigated land up and down the Irrawaddy, and rice was presumably sent to Bagan along the river, for distances of up to 100 kilometres. Much of this outlying land was officially dedicated to the upkeep of various temples and monasteries. People were also permanently dedicated as what are often called "temple slaves", although "slave" is not really an accurate term, as most of these devoutly religious people appear to have considered it an honour. Some families in Bagan still trace their ancestry back to these original servants of Buddhism. Dedications of land, people or silver were written on foundation stones, many of which still exist and are kept either at a museum in Pagan or at their original sites.
A moulded clay votary tablet, left as an offering at a temple at Bagan, probably between the 11th and 13th Centuries AD. Note the multiple images of the Buddha.
An apparently modern stupa upriver from Bagan. Note the rubble along the bank, either from flood damage, or laid there in an attempt to reduce flood damage. A stupa is a burial mound. In the early history of Buddhism, particularly during the reign of the Indian Buddhist King Asoka, remains of the Buddha were believed to have been transported far and wide throughout the Buddhist world, and encased in stupas (which are also called cedi, depending whether you use the Pali or Sanskrit based name). These remains could have been ashes from cremation, or remnants of items associated with the Buddha. The result is that a stupa can be either a monument that acts as a reminder of Buddha ( possibly containing a holy relic), or an actual burial monument for the ashes of an individual Buddhist.
A temple framed by the archway of its courtyard gate. These temples are quite cool inside despite Burma's hot climate. They are made from brick, plastered on the inside and outside. The bricks are set in a clay mortar, not with cement.
A small temple at Bagan.
These buildings are within the city walls of Old Bagan. The stupa in the centre is covered with green glazed tiles. The steel bands are to support it because it suffered stress following a severe earthquake that hit Pagan in 1975 and damaged many buildings. Since this picture was taken, its top has been repaired, and it now has a traditional pointed cap on it (see the next picture). The white temple in the background is in modern use. It is kept whitewashed by a temple committee responsible for its upkeep. If a building is painted white, this is usually an indication that it is active as a religious centre. The unpainted brick temples are looked after by the Archaeology Department at Pagan. Some observers have commented that the locals in Burma only seem to want to go to the white temples, while the tourists only seem to want to go to the brown ones! Visitors are expected to show respect, including removing their shoes when they go inside, whether a temple is in active use or not.
This is the restored "ear ornament" pagoda, so-called because it is said to have been modelled on the earring of one of the nobles of the Bagan period.
This ruined temple, whose roof is gone, contains a brick and plaster image with a small cavity in the chest. If you look closely (click on the image for a larger version) you can see that the cavity was specially made, with a base of brick or stone. This cavity may originally have contained relics, small Buddha images or other treasures, sealed inside the image. The treasure has long since proven to be a temptation to some passer-by. It was not necessarily robbed in modern times- Pagan had several centuries without much supervision of its buildings, particularly those in out of the way places like this temple is. It you ever visit Pagan, this is a short walk northeast of the Dhammayazika stupa. The photograph was taken around noon, so the image inside the roofless temple could be illuminated by sunlight. Remember that this picture, like all on these pages, is copyright. That means you can use it for an essay or university paper if you credit it in your bibliography, but it cannot be used for commercial purposes like a book, map or brochure, without permission.
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© Bob Hudson, 1997-2006