Bagan, ancient capital of a once mighty kingdom

On the way to the opposite side of planet earth, the sun’s fireball explodes into a firework of all colors of red, yellow and in the middle as, reflected by the water surface of the mighty Ayeyawaddy River, it sets slowly and eventually disappears behind the Yoma mountain range that separates central Burma from the western coastal areas of Burma that straddle the Bay of Bengal. Shortly before the fireball leaves me and thousands of pagodas and temples cloaked in the darkness of night, the sun is turning red to pink stripes in the increasingly darker, bluish, and black sky. This is the moment when a myriad of stars begin to twinkle in the sky and the spectacle of one of Bagan’s beautiful sunsets, which I had the privilege of enjoying over a thousand, is over. Night has fallen on me and my beloved Bagan, the ancient pagan, capital of the once mighty kingdom of Pagan.

Yes, Bagan is beautiful and has a charm of its own; but it is much more than meets the eye. The story of Bagan is the story of a kingdom that grows from a little more than the size of a village to about 70 percent the size of present-day Burma / Myanmar. It is the story of 55 Bagan kings, of myths and legends, of nats and nagas, of wars, political intrigues, lies, betrayals and murders, of the Naga cult, Ari Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism.

It is also the story of the fall from a relatively small but bustling and wealthy royal capital to a quiet, dusty place with the stark charm of a semi-desert in the dry zone of Burma. Today, no one would talk about it more if it weren’t for Theravada Buddhism and the magnificent temples and pagodas that dot the arid plains of Bagan. These according to the Bagan Inventory of Monuments (which does not include all historical religious structures) 2,162 pagodas and temples from before 13,000 still bear valid and vivid testimony to the ‘Golden Age’ of Pagan when the city became known as’ The City of the Four Million pagodas’. Thousands of religious monuments were built during the reigns of Pagan’s greatest kings, King Anawrahta (son of King Phyu Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu) and King Kyanzittha (son of King Anawrahta) alone.

The dry and dusty plains of Bagan today, despite significantly higher numbers of tourists, are still shrouded in deathly silence. They are, with their multitude of pagodas and temples, an impressive tribute to Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, but otherwise there is nothing to indicate that this was once the heart of royal power; a powerful political and economic center from which the great kingdom of Pagan was ruled.

In many of its characteristics, present-day Bagan still closely resembles the pagan that Sir James Scott under his writer’s name ‘Shway Yoe’ in 1882 in ‘The Burman: His Life and Noions’ described with the words: “Pagan is in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world. Jerusalem, Rome, Kieff (Kiev), Benares none of them can boast of the multitude of temples and the abundance of designs and ornaments that make the desert capital of the Irrawaddy wonderful … the space is densely studded with pagodas of all shapes and sizes, and the ground itself is so thickly covered with crumbling remains of vanished shrines that, according to the popular saying, you can’t move a foot or a hand without touching something sacred. “

None of the current characteristics of Bagan correspond to those generally associated with the idea of ​​the city. On the contrary, to the foreigner, Bagan appears to be nothing more than a sparsely populated and overgrown village comprising mostly mostly fairly simple bamboo huts and wooden houses spread over an area of ​​40 square miles / 104 square kilometers. . All parts, such as cabins, houses, hotels and guest houses, as well as the ancient temples, pagodas, monasteries, ordination rooms, libraries and a gate, along with a small piece of the old city wall that make up the Bagan quite rural they are connected mainly with bumpy dirt roads, sandy trails and, as for the main roads, nowadays asphalt roads.

Life in Bagan is simple. For many farmers and their families, it is still dominated by hard physical labor and, with the exception of some modern technological achievements such as the bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, television and radio, not much has changed since the beginning. antiquity. Horse carts and bullock carts are still very important modes of transportation and it is still ancient wooden plows drawn by oxen that farmers use to plow their fields. The crushing of sesame to extract oil is often still done by having an ox walk in circles around a stone mortar driving a hardwood grinder. The sowing and harvesting is still done by hand and it is still the climber Toddy who is mining the Toddy palm juice.

The vast majority of the inhabitants of Bagan live in quite precarious conditions and without tourism Bagan would have a very, very difficult time to survive because it relies heavily on income from hotels, guest houses, restaurants, lacquers, wood carvings, paintings and others. souvenirs and services related to tourism.

Bagan’s main pagodas and temples are, while impressive, only a shadow of what they once were and are still waiting to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which would ensure they will be professionally restored to their former glory. Unfortunately, almost the opposite has been done so far.

Following the government issued order in 1992 to restore Bagan’s historic pagodas and temples, this has been done under great oversight of historical accuracy using unskilled labor and improper materials, causing significant damage and, often irreversible. Furthermore, wealthy Burmese Buddhists have frantically built new smaller and malformed pagodas on top of old pagodas. Another problem was the uncontrolled whitewashing of the interior and exterior of pagodas and temples, which has contributed to causing great damage to historical murals and stucco.

Among the most important witnesses to the ‘Age of Pagan Greatness’ worth preserving due to its historical, religious and architectural value are Shwezigon Pagoda, Ananda Temple, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Gawdawpalin Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple, Gubyaukgyi Temples, Shwesandaw Pagoda, Sulamani Temple, Htilominlo Temple, Lawkananda Pagoda, Dhammayazika Pagoda, Bupaya Pagoda, Abeyadana Temple, Nanphaya Temple and Manuha Temple.

As important as pagodas and temples are to Bagan, they only tell part of Bagan’s history. By lifting the curtain of myths and legends behind which the real history of Bagan hides, it is shown that the history of Bagan is not just a story of glory, splendor and beauty. It is also a crime story; and here we are not talking about petty crimes but very serious crimes including partricide, fratricide and murder committed to get to the top and stay on the top. Crimes committed to gain and maintain unlimited power and amass unimaginable riches. Here are some examples of capital crimes committed by Bagan royalties:

King Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu (Anawrahta’s father) usurped the throne from King Nyaung U Sawrahan.

King Sokkate (Anawrahta’s brother) seized power from King Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu (his father) and imprisoned him in a monastery.

Anawratha killed King Sokkate (his brother) and almost the later King Kyanzittha (his son). King Anawrahta was later assassinated.

King Kyanzittha (son of King Anawrahta) killed the architect of the Ananda temple.

King Alaungsithu (son of King Sawlu) was assassinated by Narathu (his son).

King Narathu killed Min Shin Saw (his older brother), one of his wives (Queen Kyaban), one of Queen Kyaban’s children, and the scribe Mahabo (his uncle).

King Narathihapate was assassinated by Thihathu (his son).

This is the dark side of the story about the power and royal families of the pagan era. However, the fact is that my beloved Bagan is very beautiful and I can’t wait to be there again to enjoy, among others, the tranquility of Bagan and its spectacular sunsets.

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