The Temples of Pagan
Audley Burma country specialist, Mark Hotham, explores the ancient and fascinating temples in Pagan, Burma.
Temple wall paintings, Bagan
Once known as the city of four million pagodas, the ruins of Pagan offer visitors a glimpse of a nation at the height of its powers.
Pagan’s temples flank the Irrawaddy River and cover an area of 40 square kilometres, a remarkable footprint of a glorious period in Burma’s history.
Although an earthquake in 1975 destroyed many of the pagodas, around 3,000 religious structures remain.
Pagan began to flourish in 874 AD when King Pyinbya moved the capital here, but it was not until the reign of Bamar King Anawrahta that the ‘golden period’ of Pagan commenced.
In 1057 Anawrahta overwhelmed the Mon capital of Thaton, capturing over 30,000 prisoners, including the Mon royal family. Yet the influence of the Mons was key to the development of Pagan.
During his 33 year reign the Mon language became the official language (instead of Pali and Sanskrit) and Theravada Buddhism became the state religion.
It was in honour of this new found religious fervour that Anawrahta ordered temples to be erected, the most notable being the Shwezigon Pagoda.
It was, however, under the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084-1113) that temple construction reached new heights, perhaps the most famous being the Ananda Temple with its 51 metre golden hti or stupa.
By the start of the 13th century Pagan had become an influential religious centre and a complex system of irrigation supported extensive rice cultivation on the otherwise arid plains.
The end of Pagan’s dominance was heralded when King Narathihapate assassinated an ambassador of Kublai Khan in 1287 bringing upon himself and his people the considerable wrath of the Mongol empire.
Over the next few centuries Pagan was left to the elements and considered by many as a region haunted by nats (spirits).
Today the elegant temples serve as a testament to former kings and the power and glory they enjoyed in their heyday.
Temples of Pagan fact file
- Built by the merciless King Narathu as a supposed sign of atonement for his evil rule, Dhammayangyi Pahto is more commonly referred to as the ‘bad luck’ temple. Legend has it that its impeccable brickwork was a result of the King threatening to amputate the masons’ arms should he be able to fit a pin between the bricks.
- Pagan or Bagan? In 1989, the military government abandoned colonial-era English translations and reverted to traditional place names instead, including changing the name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar”. At this time Pagan became Bagan.
- The Ananda Pagoda, considered one of the most beautiful in Pagan, plays host to its annual festival in January. Pilgrims from all over the country gather here to celebrate the wisdom of Buddha with music, worship and plenty of high spirits.