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Myanmar: Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Yangon
Bagan, Myanmar: More temples and pagodas than people
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Bagan is indeed one of the most significant archaeological sites of South East Asia. It's an ancient city that was the capital of the prosperous Bagan Empire that controlled most of present day Myanmar (formerly Burma). At the height of the empireís power between the 11th and 13th century more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were built. Today, about 2,200 monuments remain in various states of repair, which makes Bagan one of the densest concentrations of temples and pagodas in the world.
We took an overnight cruise from Mandalay to Bagan. The jetty in Mandalay was called Htone Bo Jetty at Sagaing village. The cast off was 10:30 AM the previous morning. At around 6:30 in the evening we anchored at some village on the banks of River Yerrawadi. We set sail at 6 in the morning and arrived near Bagan at around 10 in the morning. The bus and the guide were waiting for us on the shore. It was an hour's drive to reach Aureum Palace - our resort for the next 2 nights.
Aureum Palace is a luxurious property spread across many acres with villas seperated by landscaped gardens. Elaborate woodwork adorns every villa. My villa in the Orchid section of the property was just on the shores of a little private lake overlooking a bunch of ancient temples.
At 4 in the afternoon, we were ready to explore the town on a horse cart. As we were 14 of us, 7 horse carts were arranged. The next one-hour was sheer fun. The ride triggered my childhood memories. During my schooling days at Solapur, a small town in the State of Maharashtra, India, my grandfather had a horse-cart (called Tonga locally) which was used to ferry us to school every day. To most of the Indians horse-carts are no strange thing; but actually using it after decades certainly was a great experience. More so, as the views around were pure magic. When in Bagan two things are a must do. One, the horse-cart ride; and two, hot air ballooning.
At about 6 the horse-carts dropped us at the base of Shwesandaw Pagoda. This would be our destination to witness the famous Bagan sunset.
The Shwesandaw pagoda is one of the taller pagodas in Bagan, an imposing structure visible from far away rising from the plains of Bagan with its height of 328 feet. The Shwesandaw was built in 1057 by King Anawrahta, founder of the Bagan Kingdom. Anawrahta wanted to further Buddhism in his empire. To this end he requested Manuha, King of the Mon Kingdom of Thaton, to be given a copy of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist teachings.
In 1057, after Manuhaís refusal, Anawrahta invaded Thaton. Upon his return after the successful conquest, he had the Shwesandaw pagoda built to enshrine hair relics of the Buddha, which he had brought back from Thaton.
The Shwesandaw is a white painted symmetrical structure consisting of a bell shaped stupa set on a base of five square receding terraces. The stupa is topped with a golden multi-tiered hti, an ornamental spire in the shape of a ceremonial umbrella found on many Burmese temples. The hti is not the original which came down with the 1975 earthquake. The original one is on display next to the pagoda.
On the five terraces there used to be hundreds of terra-cotta plaques with depictions from several Jataka tales, the stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. Unfortunately, nothing is left today. Narrow, steep flights of steps on all four sides of the receding terraces lead to the base of the stupa, from where visitors have good views of the plains of Bagan and its numerous temples. The pagoda is a well-known spot for sunset and sunrise viewing.
Post sunset, and after carefully stepping down the steep flight of stairs, we took our bus back to our resort. Early next morning at 5:15, we were scheduled for hot air ballooning over Bagan!
Essentially, there are 3 companies in Bagan who are authorized to undertake the hot air balloon rides. We opted for the company named Balloons Over Bagan. Each company have their own coloured balloons. Ours was red. The other two were yellow and green.
Precisely at 5:15 AM a bus, as ancient as the temples, came to pick us up. Actually, these buses are part of the fun. Old buses from the World War days were converted to ferry us from and to the hotel to the scheduled fields from where the balloons would take off. Wooden benches in the bus and the bumpy road made for a good combination.
The whole experience from hotel to hotel lasts for about 3 hours. The actual flight is for about 45 minutes; that is if weather is favourable. Else it could be for as little as 20 minutes. Luckily, the weather (especially the wind conditions) were good and we could enjoy the full duration. It was an awesome view from up above. The golden glow as the sun rose casted a magic spell on the hundreds of temples and pagodas below. We were thrilled to spot our villas as the balloon went past our resort!
We were back in our resort at 8:30 AM. The rest of the morning we idled around the resort. Post lunch, we were ready to explore Bagan and a few of its famous temples and pagodas as also a lacquer making workshop.
The Ananda temple is one of Baganís best known and most beautiful temples. It was one of the first great temples to be build in Bagan and is well preserved. The temple is found near the Tharabar gate, the only gate remaining of the original 12 in the old Bagan city walls.
The Ananda Pagoda, also named Ananda Pahto and Ananda Phaya is a single storey structure built towards the end of the early Bagan period. The architectural style shows Mon and North Indian influence. The templeís most distinctive feature is the gilded sikhara, the tower like spire on top of the pagoda. The reflection of the gilded sikhara is visible from miles away over the Bagan plains. After dark the Ananda Pagoda is lit up by spotlights creating a mystical atmosphere. The Ananda was damaged during the 1975 earthquake, and has been extensively restored since then.
The Sulamani Temple is a large, very elegant multi storey structure from the late Bagan period. The temple was built during the reign of King Narapatisithu, a very prosperous time in Bagan. During his long reign several of Baganís most impressive monuments were built, such as the Dhammayazika and the Gawdawpalin temple.
An inscribed stone in the North porch of the temple tells that King Narapatisithu found a small ruby at the spot where the Sulamani temple was later erected, hence the name of the temple, which means small ruby.
The architectural style has many similarities with that of the Htilominlo temple, which was built a few decades later. The Sulamani is a two storey structure with a square layout. The large first floor is topped with three receding terraces. The upper floor which is much smaller is topped with another four receding terraces. The corners of both lower and upper terraces contain smaller spires.
The top of the Sulamani comprises of a sikhara, a tower structure originating from North India. Unlike the one of the Ananda temple, the sikhara is not gilded. On top of that is the hti, a spire ornament shaped like an umbrella. The temple has entrance porches on all four sides. The Eastern porch which is the main entrance protrudes further out from the structure than the others. Apart from this, the structure is symmetrical.
The Sulamaniís base and terraces contain beautiful glazed terracotta plaques with depictions of Jataka tales, the stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. It was customary for the most important and largest temples in Bagan to have a set of plaques with Jataka tales, of which there are 547 in total, in order to educate the people about Buddhism.
The ground floor contains Buddha images on each of its four sides. The corridor surrounding the lower cube contains frescoes and murals from various eras. They depict scenes from the life of the Buddha as well as various mythological animals like Naga snakes and Makara sea creatures. The niches in the wall of the corridors surrounding the cubes of the lower and upper floor contain seated Buddha images placed on pedestals.
We were back at our resort, well in time to take the lift to the resortís private watch tower to enjoy our last sunset of Bagan.
The next morning, we would leave for our next destination Ė Inle.
Bagan Image Gallery Photo viewer
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