Bagan, Myanmar

Dhamma-yan-gyi Temple is the largest brick temple at Bagan. The structure is held together by the sheer number of bricks – no plaster, beams or supports are used.

Shaping a bamboo piece before it is covered in lacquer

Workers carve designs onto lacquered pieces of bamboo.

Father separates bamboo, his son files and readies it for lacquer coating and the grandson watches and learns.

Separating bamboo to be fashioned into boxes, bowls and trays for lacquer ware

A teak and bamboo former monastery

Myanmar mother and daughter

Ma-nu-ha Temple houses three enormous, congested Buddha figures, with heads and bodies protruding against the walls. Mon King Manuha, who was imprisoned in Bagan, built the Temple in 1059 as a protest of his confinement.

One of the most ancient structures is Bagan’s only Hindu temple Nat-klaung-kyaung, devoted to Vishnu seen reclining here.

Ananda Temple, built by Bagan’s third king, Kyan-zit-tha, is named from the Pali word ‘anantapannya’, which means ‘boundless wisdom’.

A nap follows tea inside Ananda Temple complex.

Inside 11th century Ananda Temple, the most sacred temple in Bagan

Niches and openings in the walls of Ananda Temple allow space for countless Buddha sculptures.

Twelfth-century Hti-lo-min-lo

Inside Hti-lo-min-lo

Buddha inside Hti-lo-min-lo

Long hair is a Myanmar tradition for women. Many secure theirs with a comb like this one, but in a variety of colors.

Older women in Myanmar still smoke cheroots, but the young ones tell me they don't touch the tobacco, herb and root cigars.

These young women work every day except holy days making about US$1 per day for rolling 500-700 cheroots.

The most expensive, larger cheroots sell for about ½ a US penny.

Women rolling tobacco, herbs and root into Myanmar cheroots (cigars)

Almost every pagoda or temple has vendors selling some sort of handicraft, food or drink. At Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda, the offerings of lacquer ware are vast.

Inside Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda complex

Water stands are in every pagoda complex. If one offers water, they are rewarded ten-fold according to Buddha.

Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda

Thanaka is applied to my face. Look to the man’s left and right and see small pieces of sandalwood, which produces the paste known as thanaka. I am also wearing jasmine flowers in my hair like many of the women in Myanmar, as well as a traditional longyi (sarong-type covering worn by men and women, but tied in two distinctively different ways). I am barefoot since we are in the Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda complex.

Eight hundred year old paintings inside Ywa-haung-gyi

The thanaka-wearing son of the caretaker of Ywa-haung-gyi uses his flashlight to help visitors see through the dark stairway leading to the temple top.

Almost everywhere we look in Bagan, we see stupas, temples or pagodas. Here the view is the most auspicious Ananda Temple (with gold-leaf top) and Dhamma-yan-gyi Temple in the rear left.

Buddha inside 12th century Ywa-haung-gyi temple

12 March 2001 – Jim and I spent the day touring Bagan, home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world – much dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. At one point 4000 holy structures existed, but today just 1000 stand. We visited only 12 of the remaining holy places and left feeling overwhelmed by their history, architectural feats and aesthetics and on-going religious significance today, almost 1000 years after inception. Our visit included:
1.  Ywa Haung Gyi – 12th century
2.  Alo daw Pyi – 11th century
3.  Shwe zi gon – 11th
4.  Hti Lo Min Lo – 12th
5.  Ananda Temple – 11th
6.  Ananda Brick Monastery (extraordinary painting restored by UNESCO)
7.  That Byin Nyu Temple – 1144AD
8.  Nat Klaung Kyaung (Hindu)
9.  Ma Nu Ha Temple (cramped Buddhas built by captured King allowed only a small kingdom)
10.  Gu Byauk Gyi Temple – 1113 AD
11.  Mya Zedi (pillar, stone)
12.  Dhamma Yan Giyi Temple (bricks intricately close)

Standing atop Ywa Haung Gyi temple, I overflowed with awe and told Jim, ‘Everywhere we look there is a temple or stupa.’ The architectural styles influenced by Hinduism show adaptation over time with stupas shaped differently at the base. Many of the structures consist of brick packed tightly without mortar holding them together, although some say honey was used to solidify. Other temples are brick with plaster layered over the exteriors. And since the 19th century with the discovery of gold in Myanmar, many Buddhas and stupas are now covered in gold and gold leaf, adding another layer of beauty to the land of temples.

Mankind and earthquakes have destroyed much of the murals inside the holy places. Over the centuries, people living and cooking inside the temples caused black smoke to discolor the detailed, centuries-old paintings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, officials whitewashed over the areas discolored by smoke, thus, destroying the murals for posterity. The whitewashing can never be removed to unearth the original paintings. At Ananda Monastery, no whitewashing took place and UNESCO spent six years in the 1980s and 90s restoring the murals, which show the hundreds of creations of Buddha and scores of women wearing little.

The temples of Bagan are mostly void of tourists; we saw fewer than a handful of air-conditioned, tourist buses during an entire day. The year-long, oven-like temperatures (near 37 C [100 F] during our visit) make it necessary that all sightings and exploring be done slowly and perhaps more thoughtfully as a result. The lack of sultry humidity made the heat tolerable for us.

Outside of most temples, persistent children and women offer cold drinks, postcards and not-so-high quality lacquer ware at only slightly inflated costs. Also available at every turn is thanaka, a paste made from bark (used throughout Myanmar as a sunscreen for all and a beautifier for women and girls of every age). Outside a temple a man, who calls thanaka the ‘Myanmar Max Factor,’ generously applied the light beige paste to our faces, which became tight instantly. At one temple I bought a necklace of jasmine flowers, which a girl pinned in my hair. (The flowers, adorning many ladies’ heads, are often bought and placed in the temple as an offering.) The intense fragrance of these jasmine flowers made me want to plant them in my garden immediately. I don't ever remember jasmine smelling this overwhelmingly powerful.

All in all – the temples, stupas and pagodas of Bagan are the single most impressive man-made collection of structures we've encountered in 87 countries.

Ananda Temple
Cigar Factory
  Thanaka (Paige)
  More on Bagan (Paige)
  Impressive Bagan (Paige)
  Lacquer ware (Paige)
  Cheroot factory (Jim)