Temple Strewn Plains of Bagan, Myanmar, March 2016


The second stage of my journey in Myanmar has taken me to the dusty plains of Bagan. Between the 10th and 13th centuries Bagan formed the centre of the First Burmese Kingdom and was perhaps the most important Buddhist religious centre in all of Asia at the time. Temples and shrines (stupas or zedis) were built to house Buddhist scriptures (the Tripitaka) and relics, but it was also favoured as a means of gaining karma & spiritual benefit with a view to favourable reincarnation in the next life. Frenetic temple building reached a peak in the 12th century at which point over 10 000 stupas dotted the plains of Bagan. Pilgrims to the area travelled from China and Cambodia to the east and from India & Sri Lanka to the west.

The Archaeological zone of Bagan now consists of around 2000 remaining temples and ruins, although some have remained in continued religious use over the last millennium. Instantly recognizable is the hemispheric or curved dome of the stupa roof topped by a conical spire or ‘sikhara’ consisting of varied combinations of layered lotus petals, banana blossoms and then crowned with a gold or jewelled ‘hti’ decorative pinnacle. Built from red brick some of the larger temples were several storeys high, with vaulted construction and encircling ambulatory corridors intricately painted with frescoes and inlaid with niches that housed Buddha icons.
Many of the more important temples have been under active restoration by the Burmese government since the 1980s although much criticism has been directed at the ‘interpretative’ reconstruction which does not abide by archaeological conservation ideals. The temple – strewn plains are nonetheless inspiring as a land of burnished pagodas shines rose gold in the setting Burmese sun, by the banks of the Irrawaddy River. For 5 days I cycled around but a small number of Bagan’s hidden secrets, and with little restriction explored and climbed over the thousand year old pagodas. On my final day in Bagan was perhaps a highlight of this trip so far – a hot air balloon flight at sunrise floating gently over acres of terracotta temples glowing with the first light of the day.

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