As the center of Myanmar’s first civilization, Bagan was founded in AD 1044 on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, and is located about 683 km north of Yangon. Bagan is also the first capital of unified Myanmar under King Anawratha, and the extent of the Bagan Empire roughly represents the political boundaries of present day Myanmar. King Anawratha is also said to be the founder of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, and he constructed thousands of stupas and pagodas during his time, many of which were built in Mon architecture.
The reason being that, just one year after King Anawratha's conversion to Theravada Buddhism in AD 1056, he went to war against the Mon town of Thaton in order to gain possession of holy Buddhist scripts called the Tripitaka (The Three Baskets of Buddhism). The holy Buddhist scripts were not the only trophies that were seized from the war; the Burmese army also took approximately 30,000 Mons as prisoners. Among the prisoners were numerous craftsmen and artisans who in following decades not only enriched but even went as far to determine Bagan's culture and style of architecture.
In AD 1287, the 250 year long Bagan dynasty came to an end in the hands of the Mongols sent by Kublia Khan. Today, as one of the richest archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, once hosting over 13,000 structures, there are some 2200 monuments along with other ruins that can be still found. Over the years, both man and nature, particularly earthquakes (such as the one that occurred in 1975), have degraded several pagodas, stupas and shrines; however, the most important monuments have been restored to their original grandeur. Bagan is currently placed in the tentative list to qualify as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
There are daily flights to Bagan from Yangon, Mandalay or Heho (Taunggyi). Flight duration from Yangon to Bagan would be around 1 hour and 20 minutes, and flights from Heho and Mandalay would take less than 30 minutes. Driving 8 hours from Yangon to Bagan, enjoying a serene view of semi-developed Burmese countryside, is also a possibility. Distance from other destinations such as Mandalay and Taunggyi is around 320 km and would take approximately 7 hours to drive. There are also regular trains between Bagan and Mandalay; this route to Bagan was unveiled in September 1996. Another railway route would be the express trains from Yangon to Mandalay which stops at a station in Thazi, and from Thazi it is only a 3 hour drive to Bagan. Apart from land, air and train, there are also means to get to Bagan by water. A double-decker steamer service between Mandalay and Bagan is available, and there are also other cruises such The Road to Mandalay, RV Pandaw, and Irrawaddy Princess that go to Bagan.
Although, Bagan is part of the dry zone, and is considered as one of Myanmar’s most arid region for insignificant annual rainfall, the soil in the Bagan is fertile enough for rice and other crops to flourish due to irrigation systems that were set in place since the First Burmese Empire. It is common to witness villagers travelling along the road with loads of goods either carried by small motorcycles, tractors (locally called taw-lah-gyi) or by oxen cart. Along the way there are several groves of toddy palm trees, and locals climb these trees to harvest toddy fruits for its alcohol-like liquid called ‘tan-ye’ which is found in the fruit. Compared to the past, Toddy groves are now a permanent fixture beside the road. Several Toddy shacks can be found amongst the groves, and they act as temporary shelter for people who climb toddy plants to harvest the fruits upon request. Visitors are often encouraged to try some of this tropical booze-like juice. Apart from toddy juice, cooking Jaggery is a major cottage industry in the region. Several Neem trees can also be found, but they are primarily used by people as shade from the scorching sun.
Typical dry zone crops like maize, chilies, pulses, sesame, onions and groundnuts replace much of the paddy plants in this region. Roads are often engulfed by clouds of dust that arise from bullock carts travelling in the dirt beside the main road. It is common for visitors to see groups of women siting under a huge shade, away from their village engaged in spinning cotton using traditional spinning wheels.
10 km northeast from a place called Kyaukpadaung lies Mt. Popa which is an extinct volcano and also the highest landmark in the central dry zone, rising up to 1,518 m. Established as a National Park, the Popa Mountain Park is home to various species of exquisite flora, especially plants with medicinal purposes. It is a prime location for Nat(Angle) worship and pilgrims annualy flood into the region for the Festival of Spirits held in during the months of Nayon (May / June). The road then stretch northwest towards Nyaung Oo for about 50 Kilometers, running through sandy streambeds, low hills, and denuded vegetation until finally, the many stupas and shrines of Bagan are visible.
The main gate of the eastern wall, only left out of the twelve gates of the wall of the city which king Pyinbya established in 849 AD. The Tharaba Gate stands as a replica of the once prosperous civilization at the heart of Myanmar.
The Ananda Temple was completed in AD 1091 by King Kyanzittha, and its name means ‘endless wisdom’, symbolizing the wisdom of Buddha. The entire temple is designed as a square with four protruding antechambers acting as an entrance to the temple from each direction. Inside the temple stands four 31 feet tall Buddha statue representing the four previous Buddhas, and each statue is positioned facing one of the four cardinal compass points. On the western porch two of Buddha’s footprints can be found mounted on a pedestal stand. In Bagan, the Ananda Temple is known to be the mother of all temples, containing works that represent the arts, architecture, glazed plaques, woodcarvings, stuccos, terra cotta and stone sculptures found in all temples around Myanmar.
Lying at over 66 meters high, this white stucco temple built by King Alaungsithu in the middle of the 12th century, and it is by far the highest pagoda found on the Bagan plain.
Standing on a high brick plinth, this temple was built by King Alaungsithu in AD 1131. The arch pediments, pilasters, plinth and cornice mouldings are decorated with fine stucco carvings which act as a representation of 12th Century Myanmar architecture.
This temple was built by King Narapatisithu during the 12th century and lies about 60 meters high. This temple provides an iconic view over the ruins of the Bagan as well as the ancient Ayeyarwaddy River.
This temple was built in the 13th century and carries a spire resembling the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, India. This temple is well known for its wall paintings that depict scenes from the Jatakas (life stories of the Buddha).
This temple was named ‘Payathonzu’ because there are three pagodas of the same size, appearance and height built on the same plinth. It is adorned with paintings of the 550 Jataka (life stories of Buddha) stories and ten other depictions plus small Thambuddhay figures. The frescoes and the architecture are roughly guessed to be from late 13th century.
The Mahabohdi temple was erected during the reign of Nadaungmya from 1211 AD to 1234 AD. It is modelled after the original Mahabodhi temple which can be found in Bodh Gaya, India. The structure is 140 feet high, made with brick and whitewashed stucco. The temple is characterized by a large square pyramidal tower that is topped by a conical spire and a ritual umbrella.
Built in 1211 AD by King Nadaungmya, the Htilominlo is one of the largest temples in Bagan. It is a two-level structure that is about 50 meters high. This temple is mainly noted for its fine plaster carvings on the arch pediments, frieze and pilaster.
Construction for The Shwezigon Pagoda was started by King Anawrahta but completed by his son King Kyansittha, and acted as a prototype for all pagoda that were later built in Myanmar. Shwezigon is Bagan's biggest and one of the most significant pagodas in all of Myanmar. It also is one of the most respected pagodas in Myanmar as it contains Buddha's tooth, collarbone and frontlet bone. The golden-bell shaped stupa arises from five surrounding terraces, and night the lights are reflected off the stupa providing an alluring spectacle. There are also other smaller stupas that .can be observed at the corners for the terraces There are also small square temples located on all four sides of the stupa, all of which houses a standing bronze image of Buddha. Green glazed plaques depicting scenes from the Jatakas can also be found within the confines of the stupa. The pagoda annually hosts a traditional festival which is held from late October till early November.
At first glance, this pagoda looks extremely similar to the Shwezigon pagoda; however, it is unusual for its pentagonal terraces instead of the usual square ones. At the top of the receding terraces lies a massive bell-shaped dome lined with ornate Jataka images. There are five small temples laid out on all five sides of the pagoda that were built with their own distinctive architectural characteristics, complete with their own entrance porch, terraces and curvilinear spires.
Standing on the brink of the Ayeyarwaddy River, the Bupaya Pagoda is a conspicuous landmark for visitors travelling along the river. This pagoda sporting a bulbous dome resembling the ''Bu'' or a gourd is a favourite spot for visitors wanting to enjoy witnessing a spectacular sunset.
The museum, run by Archaeological Department of Myanmar, is situated near the Gawdawpalin Temple. It has a collection of more than 2,000 items including Buddha statues, stucco pieces, terra-cotta and other ancient artefact. The museum is open daily except on Mondays and public holidays.
Mingalazedi was the last pagoda that was built during the Bagan dynasty. It was built by King Narathihapatae (1256-1287 AD). The construction started in 1268 AD, but before its completion a prophecy arose that “once the pagoda is finished, the Kingdom would be destroyed”. King Narathihapatae therefore stopped the construction for 6 years. However he decided to complete the pagoda in 1274 AD. Merely ten years later, King Narathihapatae had to flee from Bagan in order to escape from the invading Mongols.
This graceful pagoda was built by King Anawratha after his conquest of Thanton in AD 1057. The pagoda sports an octagonal base and a set of stairs that rise to the top, cutting through each of the five terraces. The highest terrace of Shwesandaw Pagoda has become a popular view point for sunsets over the years.
One Bagan’s biggest temples, built in AD 1163 by king Narathu, Dhammanyangyi temple is noted for its fine brickwork. the bricks are fitted so closely together that there is hardly any space in between the cinder blocks for light to pass through.
The Sulamani (occasionally Sulamuni) Guphaya, or Pahto, is one of Bagan's premier attractions. The name itself means Crowning Jewel or Small Ruby. It was the first and most important temple that was built towards the end of the late Bagan dynasty (1170-1300 AD) by King Narapatisithu. Architecturally, this temple is similar to Htilominlo and the Gawdawpalin, but Sulamani was designed for exceptional interior lighting through various skylights and large open archways. Other important features of the Sulamani include its fine brickwork and use of stone in both load-bearing areas as well as in external corner elements. The interior was once painted with fine frescoes but only dim traces from the past can be seen today.
In 1057 AD, King Anawrahta returned victorious from his conquest in Mon and brought the captive King Manuha to live in Myinkaba. By 1059 AD, King Manuha had built himself a two storey tall white temple to convey a subtle melancholic message. The three Buddhas built within the confines are extremely large compared to their enclosure and act as a metaphor to illustrate his captivity and mental stress. The facial expressions of the two seated Buddha images are grim, and that of the one reclining, on the other hand, is smiling and serene. The Buddha faces north and acts as a symbolism of Nirvana and release from the transitory World.
Located slightly south of Myinkaba, this elegant and well-preserved temple was built by King Kyanzittha during the 12th century. Within the temple itself, the central shrine contains a huge standing image of the Buddha with two smaller images flanking the main one. A corridor paved with green glazed stones runs around the central shrine and can prove to be a relaxing walk. Dim light comes into the temple through the perforated windows of the outer walls, and the walls itself depict stone sculptures of previous Buddhas before Gautama Buddha. Like paintings that are found in several temples and monuments scenes from the Jatakas can also be observed on the walls of the Nagayon Temple.
Salay is a town in Magwe Division lying on the east bank of the Ayeyaerwaddy River. This town is famous for three things: firstly it is the birthplace of a reputed Myanmar playwright U Ponnya of the late Konbaung Period, secondly the plums of Salay are seedless and incredibly delicious, and thirdly Salay is home to the largest lacquered wickerwork image of Buddha standing 18 feet high. The image today is entirely engulfed with gilt (thin gold layer) and its headband is adorned with glass mosaic. Although, it bears the appearance of solid metal, two or three people can lift it up with ease.
Mt. Popa is said to be the core of an extinct volcano with an altitude of about 1500 meters above sea level. It is also known as the oasis of the central Myanmar since central Myanmar is essentially a dry zone. The mountain is to be home to the most powerful Nats ( spirits/angles) and considered to be the prime pilgrimage destinations for Nat worship. Mt. Popa hosts two major Nangletpwe (spirit festival), one in the May/June and other in November / December where spirit possession and overall drunken ecstasy are parts of the celebration.
Although, Buddhism has been the established as the religion of Myanmar, spirit/angle worship or animism is also practiced. In the Burmese spirit world there are thirty-seven Nats, many of whom are supposedly the spirits of ancient heroes that have been killed. There are several different kinds of Nats such as: Nats of the house, the river, the air and the jungle. Ritual dancing assisted by drinking local alcohol that puts the person into a trance-like state is believed to bring the individual in contact with these supernatural beings. Offerings to the Nats usually include fruits (typically an arrangement of a fresh green coconut and some bananas) and flowers. Although, people today are more sceptical about such beliefs, there are several people in Myanmar who still acknowledge various Nats for blessing them with luck in business, good health and so forth.
Pakkokku lies on the western bank of the Ayeyarwady River across Bagan. This port city is an agriculturally rich hinterland situated between the two great rivers; Ayeyarwady and Chindwin. The city is well known for its quality tobacco production. From Bagan, Pakokku is about a 45 minute ferry ride. Travelling by a local bus to Pakokku is also a fun and culturally enriching experience since the scenery includes the daily lives of locals and a little known archaeological site called Pakhangyi. Some of the town’s local attractions include the walls of Pakokku, the Pakokku museum and a spectacular 19th century wooden monastery. Pakkoku is also a gate way to the scenic Mt. Victoria and into the realms of the Southern Chin State.
Sameikkon is a delightful village isolated from the world to be reached only by water. In British colonial times Sameikkon used to be a wealthy trading post. However, today all that is left of its legacy are a number of splendid mansions that once used to belong to merchants. The local monastery is connected with a wonderful network of teak footbridges and is one of the main attractions of the village.
Yandabo is a small village that is rarely visited since there are no land roads that lead to the area. The survival of the village solely depends on the revere economy that it gains from the production of terracotta pottery that is created using mud from nearby river banks. Various stages and types of pottery making can be observed there. Yandabo is also a historical place since it is where the Treaty of Yandabo was signed in 1855 between the Burmese king and the British colonists. Yandabo today acts as a center of pottery production.
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