After a few days in Yangon, our dharma tour group flew north to Bagan, a city that was the capital of an ancient kingdom, from the 9th – 13th centuries, whose unification of the surrounding regions led to the establishment of modern Myanmar. Tourists come here for the unique panorama of old Buddhist temples and pagodas. At the height of the empire, these temples numbered around 10,000, but today only about 2200 remain. So many stunning professional photos are out there documenting Bagan (including in the opening scene of the movie Samsara, where it is shown from the vantage point of the popular hot air balloon rides), I’ll just share a few of my amateur ones.
We were lucky to be in Bagan for the January full moon. We took horse carts out to watch sunsets and sometimes rented bikes to explore at random. After sunset, the temples glowed white under the moon. All the temples were of different sizes; some we could climb on, some we could go in and some we just walked around and admired.
Some temples have been restored, unfortunately in a style that did not stay true to the original architecture (and that also seemed cheesy to us). Although Bagan has applied for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage, since UNESCO insists that original practices be used for restoration, approval of its application has been a subject of debate. Some locals seem less concerned with recreating the past and more interested in using new technology (including the ubiquitous blinky lights) to carry on with their traditions.
As has been the case with ancient empires that built thousands of grand structures, massive investments of natural and human capital were required. Around the year 1056, the King of Bagan conquered Bago, to the south, and brought back 30,000 Mon prisoners to help with the frenzied building. We cannot know the degree to which these these prisoners lived as either oppressed slaves or patriotic volunteers for Burmese Buddhism, but they were the builders and artists of the spectacular Bagan temples that materialized the merit-seeking visions of the wealthy class. Bagan is known to have been a dynamic religious center at its height, though it is hard to know if such prolific temple building was due more to religious inspiration of the populace or top-down enforcement from the ruling class. There are some clues. Many temples still have old stone inscriptions that record the land and slaves donated to build and maintain the temples. The largest temple in Bagan was built by King Narathu, who came to power by killing his father and brother. Legend says that slaves were killed if a pin could be passed between the brinks. It is believed he built such a grand temple hoping to gain merit to make up for his murderous acts.
900 or so years later, after the uprising of 1988, the small village at Bagan was relocated to make way for the emerging tourist industry. 5,200 residents were given $2 each and moved over to a dusty patch of land the government called “New Bagan”. Angkor Wat in Cambodia brought in over $40 million in 2013, and increasing each year. Tourism is now booming in Burma, and the government has taken advantage. The old village is gone, but New Bagan has found a new identity as well, supplying the tourist economy with horse-cart drivers, receptionists, waiters, and tour guides.
One afternoon we explored Bagan with a wonderful, young (although already with betel-stained teeth) local guide who was outspoken in his critiques of modern Buddhist practice in Burma. He was critical of merit-seeking rituals and the recent spending of $11 million to restore the gold finish on a particular temple. The funniest moment of the tour was when we walked into an 800-year-old temple and found the altar adorned with strings of bright multi-colored “Christmas” lights (a common practice in Burma, as you have seen in my other photos). Our guide called them disco lights. His gesture of reaching over to switch off the lights before speaking about the history and artistry of the shrine communicated his opinions more eloquently than any words. For me and Jessica, the act transformed the temple atmosphere to one conducive to deep respect. Our Western-conditioned eyes saw the disco lights as tacky, but for many Burmese people they seemed to support expressions of religious devotion. Yet here was our guide, a modern and religiously unorthodox Burmese man, disappointed with this change in style.
The experience in Bagan most special to me began with a 4:30 am waking and a walk through dark, dusty streets to a nearby monastery. Mostly boys and teenagers lived there as novice monks receiving an education in the dharma, including ethical training and experience with community life. In Burma, since monks and nuns cannot own anything, the entire monastic system is community-supported. Lay people in the village or wealthy donors own the property as well as the monastery building and provide for all the monks’ needs. Our group donated for their breakfast that morning, which we helped serve to them at the monastery. Upon hearing a series of loud clacks on a wooden bell, they quietly lined up to receive rice from our hands and then sat at tables already set with bowls of curry, soup and fruit. They ate in silence out of their alms bowls.
Once breakfast was finished, the sangha lined up for pindabat, the daily walk through the village to receive alms, food which would later be served as lunch. Our group was invited to walk along and observe this practice, allowing us to see a side of Bagan just as beautiful yet more ancient and personal than the temples.
“The gifts are never acknowledged. The cover of the bowl is removed, and when the offering has been put in, it is replaced, and the monk moves on. And when they have made their accustomed round, they return, as they went, slowly to the monastery, their bowls full of food… It is a good thing to give alms—good for yourself, I mean. So that this daily procession does good in two ways: it is good for the monk because he learns humility; it is good for the people because they have thereby offered them a chance of giving a little alms. Even the poorest may be able to give his spoonful of rice. All is accepted. Think not a great gift is more acceptable than a little one. You must judge by the giver’s heart.” Harold Fielding, Soul of a People
“Offering alms to monk on their daily rounds is considered of even greater merit than sending an elaborate meal to the monastery or inviting monks to one’s home to partake of food: it is spontaneous and lacking in show or ostentation and there is also a spirit of impersonal and impartial good will.” Khin Myo Chit, Colorful Myanmar
Along the way, we observed much about the local village life. The people were smiling and curious about us (we were wearing our buddhist shawls). Children shyly peeked from around fence posts. We happened to pass by a large procession celebrating the upcoming ordainment of a young novice.
The January full moon in Bagan is also the time of the Ananda Festival. Built in 1105, the Ananda temple is one of Bagan’s largest, best preserved and certainly most revered. During this festival, the area around the temple becomes a large marketplace, and villagers make the pilgrimage from all directions. Thousands of monks come from all surrounding areas to receive donations to support them throughout the year. The street was an unbroken river of arriving travelers, and walking around required pushing through walls of people. However, the atmosphere was one of relaxed celebration as local people wandered about and sat with families to eat. As the chanting built up over the loud speaker and the monks lined up to received donations, we felt an exhilarating anticipation.