ARCHAEOLOGY OF BAGAN
Classifying the ancient monuments of Bagan by
style and age is made difficult by the vast number of archaeological sites. The
official count by the end of the 13th century is said to have been 4446. By
1901 surveys found 2157 monuments still standing and identifiable. According to
resident Burmese archaeologist U Aung Kyaing, the last count was taken in 1978,
when archaeologists found 2230 identifiable sites, however, most contemporary
references on the subject quote a figure of 2217. These figures do not include
brick mounds, which would give a total of nearly 4000 separate visible sites.
The sheer variety of motifs and measurements to be studied also presents a
challenge, though certain unifying factors can be found throughout. For the
most part, the proliferation of temples, stupas (Buddhist religious
monuments) and kyaungs (monasteries) are constructed of fired brick
covered with plaster and decorated with stucco relief, polychromatic murals and
glazed tiles. Sculpture materials included bronze, teak, brick and stucco,
sandstone and lacquer. The most delicate of these media, the mural paintings,
are endangered by the peeling of the plaster behind them, droppings left by
bats and soot from cooking fires lit during WWII, when the Burmese sought
shelter inside the monuments.
Temple paintings of such figures as Avalokitesvara, Manjusri and Shiva show an
unmistakable Mahayana, and possibly tantric, influence. Much of the mural work
at Bagan is thought to be similar to how the interiors of Buddhist temples in
North-Eastern India may have appeared during the late Pala period, before their
destruction at the hands of Muslim invaders.
Looters have made away with many of the sculptures and other religious objects
once contained in the monuments. In the 1890s, a German oilman removed glazed
plaques from Mingalazedi, Dhammayazika and Somingyi, as well as Vishnu figures
from Natlaung Kyaung, all of which ended up at the Berlin Volkerkunde Museum.
Around the same time, another German, Th H Thomann took some of the finest
mural paintings known in Bagan from Wetkyi-in's Gubyaukgyi and Theinmazi Pahto.
The latter were sold to the Hamburg Ethnographical Museum; the exquisite
Wetkyi-in paintings never resurfaced (fortunately Thomann left some murals
behind, and they're still visible today).
Another complication comes in deciding what's
original and what's been added or reformed since the Bagan period. Restorations
of several monuments, for example, were under way when British diplomat Michael
Symes visited Bagan in 1795. Although, for the most part, writings from the
colonial era show a great appreciation for Bagan art and architecture, the
British did very little to further Bagan archaeology in terms of excavation or
An example of the early carelessness
with which research was carried out can be found in the early 1900s'
Archaeological Survey of India. During the survey, a representative from
Yangon was accompanied by a local village headman who identified the monuments.
When the headman didn't know a monument's name, he simply made one up to please
the representative! Many of these names are still in use today.
wasn't until a couple of decades later that inscriptions were seriously examined
to learn Bagan's historical context. The eminent Cambridge scholar GH Luce
published a pre-WWII three volume study of the Early Bagan period monuments
entitled Old Burma-Early Pagan that stands as the classic work. A well
researched art history of Bagan was finally carried out by Scotland's Paul
Strachan in 1986 and 1987. Strachan published the results in his book Pagan:
Art and Architecture of Old Burma, in which he divides everything from
artefacts to buildings into three stylistic periods: Early (circa 850 to 1120),
Middle (circa 1100 to 1170) and Late (circa 1170 to 1300).
has its flaws: for example, the author questions why the reclining Buddha next
to Shwesandaw Paya couldn't have been lying on its left side instead of its
right - an alternative that would have been a violation of classical Buddhist
iconography never dared in Myanmar. Nonetheless, it is a very welcome addition
to the literature on Bagan.
Strachan's book notwithstanding, no
thorough archaeological study has been published since Myanmar's 1948
independence. UNESCO's work focuses on restoration rather than excavation or
archaeology; this was perhaps mandated by government fears of any deep
Pierre Pichard, an archaeologist from the Ecole
Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO), the same faculty responsible for most of the
authoritative work on Angkor and Champa in Idochina, has been working on a new
treatise on the archaeology of Bagan for the last 20 years or so. The initial
results of his study have appeared in the six volume Inventory of
Monuments at Bagan , which provides schematic diagrams of many of the Bagan religious
ruins. If and when Pichard takes his work any further, it may very well bring
with it a whole new set of intriguing theories about the origins and demise of
the kingdom of Bagan.
Though there are a number of distinct architectural styles at
Bagan, it is easy even for amateurs to trace the developments of temple design
over the 240 years of construction. Buildings are primarily either solid
zedis (stupas) or hollow pahtos (temples or shrines). The latter
large, square buildings, containing arched passageways, are sometimes referred
to as temples in their English names. A zedi customarily houses some relic from
the Buddha (hair, tooth or bone), while the focal point of a pahto will be a
number of Buddha images. The zedis can be seen in an earlier, more bulbous style
and in a clearly Sinhalese design before they evolved into the more
distinctively Burmese pattern.
Early pahtos were heavily influenced by
late Pyu architecture, as characterised by the monuments of Bebe and Leimyethna
at Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra) near Pyay (Prome). These early square temples are
charaterised by their perforated windows and dimly lit interiors. The common
Burmese view holds that these early Bagan styles are Mon-style buildings,
created by Mon architects imported from Thaton after its conquest, although no
such architecture exists in the Mon lowlands. The latest theories suggest the
Mon influence at Bagan was primarily confined to the religious and literary
spheres, rather than the artistic or architectural. Bagan's kings looked instead
to the Pyu kingdoms, and to India, for architectural inspiration.
pahtos can be primarily divided into two types: those having one entrance to a
vaulted inner area, and few windows, and those having four entrances with images
around a central cube. The smaller pahto, characteristic of early Bagan, is
often called a gu or ku (Pali-Burmese for cave temple); these
monuments are particularly common around the town of Nyaung U. Seventeen
pentagonal monuments - considered the earliest known five-sided buildings in the
world - have also been found at Bagan.
Later pahtos added Indian
design elements to the mix, to produce a truly Burmese design in bright and well
lit pahtos like Gawdawpalin, Htilominlo and Thatbyinnyu. Ananda and Dhammayangyi
are examples of an earlier transitional phase; indeed, the Ananda is thought by
some to have been built by imported Indian labour.
structures include the pitaka taik (Buddhist scripture library), thein (ordination hall) and kyaung. These are buildings that would normally have
been constructed of wood, and therefore would have disappeared; fortunately, a
few were constructed of brick and stone. Monastery buildings served as living
quarters and meditation cells for resident monks. At one time, much of the
ground space between all the monuments visible today was filled with wooden
monastery buildings, said to rival or even exceed the royal palace in design.
One of the
finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples, Ananda
suffered considerable damage in the 1975 earthquake but has been totally
restored. Thought to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this
perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the Early Bagan
period and the beginning of the Middle period. In 1990 on the 900th anniversary
of the temple's construction, the temple spires were gilded. The remainder of
the temple exterior is whitewashed from time to time.
square measures 53m along each side, while the superstructure rises in terraces
to a decorative hti (umbrella-like decorated top) 51m above the ground.
The entranceways make the structure a perfect Greek cross; each entrance is
crowned with a stupa finial. The base and the terraces are decorated with 554
glazed tiles showing jataka scenes (life stories of the Buddha), thought
to be derived from Mon texts. Huge carved teak doors separate interior halls
from cross passages on all four sides.
Facing outward from the centre
of the cube, four 9.5m standing Buddhas represent the four Buddhas who have
attained nibbana (nirvana). Only the Bagan-style images facing north and
south are original; both display the dhammachakka mudra (a hand position
symbolising the Buddha's first sermon). The other two images are replacements
for figures destroyed by fire. All four have bodies of solid teak, though guides
may claim the southern image is made of a bronze alloy. Guides like to point out
that if you stand by the donation box in front of the original southern Buddha,
his face looks sad, while from a distance he tends to look mirthful. The eastern
and western standing Buddha images are done in the later Konbaung, or Mandalay,
A small nut-like sphere held between thumb and middle finger of
the east-facing image is said to resemble a herbal pill, and may represent the
Buddha offering dhamma (Buddhist philosophy) as a cure for suffering.
Both arms hang at the image's sides with hands outstretched, a mudra unknown to
traditional Buddhist sculpture outside this temple. The west-facing Buddha
features the abhaya mudra (the hands outstretched, in the gesture of no
At the feet of the standing Buddha, in the western sanctum, sit
two life-size lacquer statues, said to represent King Kyanzittha and Shin
Arahan, the Mon monk who initiated the king into Theravada Buddhism. Inside the
western portico are two Buddha footprint symbols on pedestals.
British built a brick museum next to Ananda Pahto in 1904 in the provincial
colonial style. It's now used as a storage facility and is closed to the public.
Around the old museum stand a few ordination markers, inscribed stelae and
On the full moon of Pyatho (December/January), a huge
paya pwe (paya festival) attracts thousands to Ananda. Up to 1000 monks
chant day and night during the three days of the festival.
The name of the smaller vihara (Pali-Sanskrit word for
sanctuary or chapel for Buddha images), next door to Ananda Pahto, means Ananda
brick monastery. It's one of the few surviving brick monastery buildings from
the Early Bagan era. The interior of the building is lined with well preserved
murals, whose colour palette stretches beyond the traditional brown, black and
dull red to include a brighter red, plus a little green here and there. The
paintings depict everyday scenes from the Bagan period, including Arab traders,
market vignettes, bathing and cooking, and musicians playing saing waing (Burmese drums) and saung gauq (Burmese harp).
Although the building is often locked, someone around
the temple should have the keys to let you in.
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