Bagan The Ancient Pagoda and Temple City

Bagan Myanmar Temple and Pagoda

Once the capital of the First Empire located in the dry zone of the country on the left bank of the mighty Irrawaddy or Ayeyarwady River. When traveling in the country virtually all roads and flights somehow leads to this pagoda city, at least one time, hotels are plenty and flights from
YangonMandalay and Heho (Inle Lake) are several every day. 

Irrawaddy river cruise should be made to see the monuments from the waterside. This is now a 42 square kilometer area dotted  with thousands of ancient pagodas, stupas, Buddhist shrines, ordination halls and monuments

Traveling to the city

Bagan Pagodas and Temples
Bagan Pagodas and Temples
By road from Yangon it's around 700 kilometers, the road trip need about 16 hours. If taking a car a local driver is almost mandatory since all road signs outside the big city are in the local language only, there are almost no petrol station, people fill this by canister from somewhere in the village and if anything happen, such as an accident you are lost completely. Anyway a trip to Bagan is a highlight of every journey to Asia.

Trip to Bagan Myanmar
Trip to Bagan local style

On top of it the driver usually also functions as a tourist guide showing scenes along the road via a short side trip a foreigner will never see since many of the interesting places are not listed in any guide book.

Bagan Myanmar Pagoda and Temple City
Bagan Myanmar Pagoda and Temple City

This Pagoda & Temple City 

is a must see destination. There are plenty other attractive trip possibilities in the country browse our website to discover them. The Myanmar hotel spectrum is wide, cheap and medium price range plus expensive

Bupaya Pagoda at the Irrawaddy
Bupaya Pagoda at the Irrawaddy

Lokananda Pagoda
Lokananda Pagoda
luxury ones, everything is available and some are just beside the Irrawaddy river. To get an idea what's there just have a look the pictures. Some of the most impressive monuments are the Shwezigon Pagoda and the Ananda Temple. Visiting this places are highlights on every trip to this ancient city.

The Lokananda Pagoda is just beside the Bupaya and it is a interesting place to watch the life on the river, it seems there was no change in the last few hundred years.

Bagan Pagodas and Temples
Pagodas and Temples

Bagan temples and pagodas 

is what most of the visitors come for. The monuments form a surrealistic landscape in the dry and flat area. At sunrise and at sunset great visual impressions are around in particular in

Old Bagan and Irrawaddy
Old Bagan and Irrawaddy

composition with the Irrawaddy or Ayeyarwady river behind. The old inhabitants have set plenty of monuments into the plains. A reason to built them is is a usual way to accumulate merit in the current life to be in a better position in the next life, most people are Buddhist.

Thatbyinnyu Temple
Thatbyinnyu Temple is colossal
Here three versions of Myanmar art come together and form an impressive symbiosis,  this is painting (usually in form of mural or wall paintings), sculptures (usually Buddha related) and architecture (usually temples and pagodas). This is not very visible in the very early period  but from the 12th century onward this arts become more and more inter dependent.

Bagan Mural Paintings Art and Sculptures
Mural Paintings Art and Sculptures

Bagan has a special place in the history of Myanmar; this period was the “Hay Days” of the country by every means and especially in culture and art. 

Religious monuments take various forms and styles,

the monuments withstood monsoon floods and some even earthquake but not many monastic complexes resist the teeth of time, the reason is they were built from wood and fires erased them from time to time. The monuments where made from bricks now those are the remains of the glorious hay days of the city.
Gubyaukgyi Pagoda
Gubyaukgyi Pagoda Perforated Stone Window

Dhammayangyi Monument
Dhammayangyi Monument
Bagan has a special place in the history of Myanmar. This period from the 11th to the 13th century is as chronicles and other sources indicate Myanmar‘s Golden Age. 

This were the "Hay Days" of the ancient country by any means, but especially of culture and art.

One of the architectural masterpieces was the Dhammayangyi Monument a beautiful and massive pyramidal structure.

Myanmar‘s Golden Age
Myanmar‘s Golden Age 
Bagan, where came the name of this powerful empire with a glorious two hundred years long epoch. In the heart of Myanmar at the Irrawaddy, stands a partly ruined city, which is regarded by everyone in the country and elsewhere as one of the wonders of the world. Only English and US politicians always blocked the attempt to declare the city as a cultural heritage by UNESCO, for lousy political reasons since the old and the new colonialists don’t like when the others don’t bow their body to them.

Temples and Pagodas
Temples and Pagodas in the center

This city has long been abandoned as a capital, only the temples and pagodas remained, the place was also called Arimaddhapura or Pukam and was once the center of a huge state whose territory stretched over the borders of today. 

Bagan Monuments
The count of Bagan Monuments is still around 2000

Regarding the extent and size of buildings and monuments brings the city au par with the biggest cities of the Middle Age. The number of buildings were extremely exaggeration in some chronicles is sometimes far, some even write about 5 million temples which is simply impossible the total area of around 40 skm this would allow 8 – 10 sqm for each temple and they would have to build around 50 buildings per day, sometimes they talk about 5000 buildings which is probably also an exaggerated count.

Bagan Temples
Temples are plenty and some look real good

Today according to official figures 2300 monuments are still around in different condition.

 In the 13th Century the number of buildings were probably about 4000, among them stupas and temples, between the 11th and 13th century the main pagoda building period saw both small and gigantic structures. Even today  most  temples still have magnificent mural paintings and Buddha sculptures.

Reclining Buddha Sculpture
Reclining Buddha Sculpture in red color plus gold

How, why and when this unique complex of several thousand buildings come into being? Where people lived, who constructed the temple and prayed in it? What was their everyday life beside of pagoda building? Was there any basic idea of the urban buildings related to the environs   Since plenty of research went into these subjects today we have a good picture of the formation and evolution of the city.
Bagan Chronicles
Bagan Chronicles in the monastery at Saleh

Chronicles date the founding of the city in the year 850, when a ruler had the city encircled with a wall. Since at 832 the Pyu kingdom (today Prome od Pyay) and its capital Thayekhetaya  was destroyed by troops of the northern neighbor Nan Chao which belonged to the Khmer empire.
The town had a square layout and a very favorable position by any means.  The trading road from India to Indochina ran from west to east through the city.

Bagan Road was revived by the British during colonial times as the Ledo Road but abandoned after WW2. Only recently, in 2012, the prime minister of India and the president of Myanmar agreed to open this road again by 2016, which is a Hercules task since around 80 bridges must be rebuilt and the road extended since right now 2012, this is only a better dirt road. 

Bagan Road
Bagan Road
Irrawaddy River at Bagan
Irrawaddy River at Bagan, boats and Bupaya Pagoda

The Irrawaddy and Chindwin served as a north – south waterway

and natural wall, towards the plains  an approaching enemy could be seen from the 10km Touwa Hills to the south already far away.

The favorable climate in the area allowed growing millet and peanuts, to cultivate palms and rear cattle. There also was plenty of clay around for making bricks used as building material.  Teak came down from the north using large rafts, actually many teak trunks were fixed to bamboo rafts since teak without cutting the sap wood and leaving them to dry at location is too heavy to float. 

Monastery made from Teak Wood
Monastery made from Teak Wood

Originally, the city was not a large one, total barely around 1.5skm but the fortification was gigantic. The thickness of the walls reached almost 4m and even 9m high at certain places. Who founded the city, maybe Pyu, maybe Mon or local people nobody know for sure. What is known is at the turn of 10th to the 11th Century it was already in the hands of the Burmese and famous far over the country's borders.

Bagan Monumental Buildings
Bagan Monuments with a religious purpose

But until the mid-11th Century the creation of monumental buildings not exceed the construction of fortifications, and pagoda and temple building was rather minor. Around the middle of the 11th century Bagan was an ordinary a feudal city under the protection of brick walls and moat, surrounded by villages with agricultural orientation.

King  Anawrahta
King  Anawrahta making a official tour in the city

The data specified in the chronicles of the kingdom, 1044, fall together with the year of the coronation of King  Anawrahta, who transformation of the small state into a mighty one.

The economic base of the empire were agriculture, domestic as and also by trading with other countries as well. A well-organized system of irrigation whose preservation was one of the main duties of the king in peacetime rendered twice rice crops per year and rice farming was the main crop.

Bago or Pegu
Bago or Pegu is east of Yangon, ideal for a day trip
The wealth of the state and the port cities of Pegu, today Bago, at the Gulf of Martaban and Sittwe at the Gulf of Bengal drove an extensive maritime trade with India and the countries of South and East Asia, and Bagan was in the center of this important trade routes in Indochina. The chronicles say that the residents of Bagan knew several languages ​​and were known for their courtesy and business capabilities.

All this found its reflection in the cultural development, in a relative short time a Burmese script was created, which has strong similarities to India, a Burmese literature arose, and the national literary achieved a respectable level.

Bagan Empire
Bagan Empire held for quite a long time

In the time of the Bagan Empire Burmese contributed to the grammar of Pali and with comments on Holy Books of Buddhism.

By subjugating other areas always wealth grew Bagans and the increasing number of prisoners of war, who were used as cheap labor forces increased and made the building boom possible. This reminds me to the building boom at Phuket and other places in southern Thailand which is mainly fueled by workforce from Myanmar, now it’s just the other way around as it was the last three hundred years thanks to lunatic communists and military. The result of such prosperous time is always expressed by art and monumental architecture intimately connected with Buddhism. Today (2012) one more parameter is added and this is nightlife to spend money for pleasure.

Bagan Arts and Crafts
Bagan Arts and Crafts, here are wall or mural paintings

The whole arts and crafts of that time

was directly connected with Buddhism all this coincided roughly with the emergence of bigger States around the Ganges river and the victory of the idea of ​​centralism over the fragmentation of a tribal society that had cherished the Brahmanism.

Teaching Buddhism
Teaching Buddhism in a monastery
 It is characteristic of Buddhism of a centralized power as a protection of morals and the ruling elite. The creators of the first centralized Burmese government at Bagan obviously found the usefulness of this and other Buddhist teachings useful to strengthen their political power.  This helped to justify the central kingdom, for example, the raids into southern Mon territory was justified with the desire to come into the possession of sacred Buddhist scriptures, and the claim Kyanzitthas, third king of Pagan to be so because he was selected by Buddha himself.

Buddha Mural Painting
Buddha art mural painting

Buddhism in this terms is a correlation with the power of the king and it sanctified the rulers power. According to the doctrine of karma of man's place was in society, his position on the social ladder is completely relative to its conduct in society and due to his good and bad deeds in the previous incarnations. 

Myanmar Buddhism
Buddhism depicted in wall painting

Therefore this can only obtain a person who had distinguished himself in his earlier existences by outstanding justice and virtue. For this reason alone the power and wealth of the king were considered deserved and indisputable. Thus, this has been placed at the service of the new Burmese empire; he united the people under his ideology and strengthened state power - the power of an almighty autocrat, to some degree this is largely a social role.

Myanmar History
History goes back a long way

The history could be divided into three periods,

the first until the 12th Century, Then the time until the start of the 12th Century the first period. It is the time of the Union of Myanmar to integrate the influence of the Mon culture. The second period until the beginning of the last third of the 12th Century was to some degree a "time of troubles" in the history of the kingdom when

Myanmar Histort Rakhine
Myanmar History at Rakhine's Mrauk U
Myanmar History Arakan
History at Arakan at Mrauk U

in the  provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim insurrection started and they were cruelly suppressed, raged as bitter power struggle between the King of Bagan and their political opponents.
King of Bagan
King of Bagan at an audience for foreigners

It was also a time of growing wealth at the expense of the conquered provinces, the period of assimilation by the traditions of the Mon-Burmese. Thus, in the late 12th Century the Mon language in literature and epigraphy was completely ousted by the rulers. The third, the Burmese period began by the end of the 12th Century and lasted the entire 13th Century until the fall of the Empire.  It was a time of a relative peaceful development of this feudal state with vast resources of men and material. Particularly intensively developed during this time was building Pagodas and temples.

The Bagan Empire
The empire was not only made from pagodas

They charged the inhabitants of the conquered territories with taxes and duties to invest huge funds in the "faithful" temple and monastery. It is significant that the strengthened country, similar to ancient Rome, had no walls around, with the Romans the exception was the Hadrian Wall in England . In the 11th and 12 to the early 13th Century, it was so powerful that  there was no danger of enemy armies, and it required no defenses. 

Old Bagan and Irrawaddy
Old Bagan and Irrawaddy with big sailing ships

And then, when the decline began, lacked the resources and people for the construction of defensive walls. The first signs of decline were already evident in the first half of the 13th Century. Centrifugal tendencies and separatism of the feudal elite plus a controversy between the king and the clergy began to smash the foundations of the state.

Ananda Temple
The famous Ananda Temple is one of top monuments in the city

Ananda Temple and Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda
Shwezigon Pagoda is a splendid monumental impression

are probably the most popular, in appearance they easily can match the pyramid of Egypt, Boroboudor and the temples of the Maya, its a great exotic and monumental Buddhist environment. The monuments are optically very similar to Sukhothai and Ayutthaya in Thailand and a few places in Cambodia, but not Angkor Cambodia, that's more in the Hindu direction but the area is much bigger, anyway check the pagoda pictures.

The Shwezigon Pagoda is together with the Shwedagon in Yangon the most stunning implementation of a Buddhist Pagoda in the country. The building is incredibly impressive when you stand in front or looking from the Irrawaddy, its a great exotic and monumental environment read more.

Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the most famous in the area, and one of the reason is, the building is perfectly situated to watch the sunset over the plains and the Irrawaddy, it is allowed to climb up the pyramid. Every day dozens of tourist climb up shortly before sunset to watch beautiful tropical colors on the horizon. its a real "eye candy", it needs to come a bit 
more early since the crowd is dense, more.

Earthquakes (a major one every two hundred years) and the monsoon flood, have taken their toll on some of the most important monuments, but many have been restored to their original condition. People are continuously working to renovate more of the most historically important ruins.

Ananda Temple
A other view of the Ananda in the morning

The Ananda Temple is probably the most impressive Buddhist temple structure, its always impressive to see what the people long time ago created without all this technical equipments we are used to work with today, the monument can be seen already from far away.

Ancient Bagan History
Ancient Bagan History

Some Bagan history,

Two thousand pagodas & temples beside the Irrawaddy River east side, this old city is a historic treasure. Many years of waste and decay have gone by, still unforgettable views are here. The monuments are spread over around fourty square miles on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady -  Irrawaddy river eastwards.

This city was the capital from 1044-1286 A.D. when the empire, so to speak, reached the zenith of its power for the first time. Actually the founding of the city (a group of 19 villages) took place quite early in the dim past (about 107 A.D.), but the illustrious dynasty of temple builders, which made the city strong and famous, started only in 1044 A.D. (i.e. 22 years before the Battle of Hastings in Britain). The story of the city may be told in two parts, before King Anawrahta and after. 

Rome, or any other city, wasn’t built in a day and for this city to come into being, it had taken a long time to receive the tradition and influence of three former dynasties, Tagaung, Thaton and Tharekhittaya. At the start (107 A.D.) at Yone-hut kyun it might just have been a fortress or garrison town.

The founder King Thamodarit, paid tribute to his Pyu descent by giving his fortress city the name Paukkan or Pyu Gama (which simply means a Pyu Village.) In everyday usage, the name changed to Bagan.

Two thousand pagodas & temples beside the Irrawaddy River
Two thousand pagodas & temples beside the Irrawaddy River

History is closely connected with King Anawrahta who made Kyaukse the granary of northern Myanmar. He made administrative reforms, dividing the kingdom into districts and appointing officers to look after all affairs and to collect fair revenue. For security, he established 45 out-posts along the border of his kingdom.

In religion and culture, Anawrahta did not encourage the shabby customs of Aris, nor the popular celebrations of nat-pwe's. He looked for a true faith and, in 1056 A.D.

Anawrahta's Kingdom of Bagan,

emerged, it was this King who made the city breathing and famous. Very important was that Mon craftsmen, artistes and skilled workers numbering about 30,000 were also brought to the city. Anyway, destiny seemed to have sacrificed Thaton for the coming greatness of Bagan and also for the emergence of Myanmar as a leading Buddhist country today. Shin Arahan, the scriptures, Mon craftsmen and Anawrahta, with his people together started building the city.

Anawrahtas Palace
Anawrahtas Palace was a big precinct

During Anawrahta’s reign and after, people became so well-versed in the scriptures that, it is said, even village girls could discuss metaphysics with the learned monks from a
Bagan monastery. 
Then there appeared exceptionally learned persons among the leisurely royal class King Kyaswa, Princess Thanbyin, etc. who held regular classes teaching monks in Pali and Sanskrit texts !

Bagan Myanmar Today
Bagan Myanmar Today, it's dusty and poor

Thus the place of today, with the remaining two thousand monuments, though grand and splendid in old age, is just a skeleton of the great glorious past. 

On certain places it might be useful to hire a local photographer to assist you in finding the right places for pictures taking at the right time.

Myanmar cities used to have at least two names, formal and informal. (Shwebo of the last Konbaung Period had five names.) So, in formal declarations, it was described gradual as Arimaddana Pura, meaning the “City of Conquerors”, and as the name suggested, the first group of kings had quite a hard time just taming and conquering the wild environment.
It is said that from the dense forests around the Irrawaddy River, wild beasts and fabulous birds like rocs harassed the people.

Even wild vegetation of ground bushes overran the paddy fields in the countryside. Brave knights like Pyu Saw Hti (the 3rd, king) appeared to do away with the wild ones. Thus, Hnget-pyit-taung pagoda (where the great roc was shot) and Bit Phaya (where the wild gourd was cleared away) stand Anawrahta’s Kingdom (1044-1298 A.D.)

He was the 42nd. king of the dynasty and he came to the throne in 1044 A.D. He opened the stage of his regency dramatically by fighting and killing his half-brother King Sokkate in single combat.

He was hot-tempered and did many wrongs as a young king. But at heart, he was just and straight-forward, and he tried to repair his wrongs. Anawrahta did many works of public utility, such as repairing Meiktila lake and constructing irrigations and the also the temple building started.

Shin Arahan, known to be a dedicated missionary, came from Thaton. The dedicated monk and the dynamic king met to make the historic changes. Anawrahta became a pure Theravada follower with great zeal. First of all he abolished the Ari gangs, driving some away and forcing most of them to work as lay men.

Manuha Temple Reclining Buddha
Manuha Temple & Reclining Buddha

Then to foster the true religion, he needed Buddhist scriptures. Because King Manuha of Thaton bluntly refused his decent request, Anawrahta made war on Thaton (1057 A.D.) and thus destroyed the Mon dynasty. Thirty-one elephant loads of the scriptures were carried away. Manuha and family were  taken prisoners, after he built the Manuha temple.

Today in memory of those early struggles against natural enemies. Even the palace sites of the kings had to change four times, though all were in the same vicinity but all possibly would have never existed without the mighty Irrawaddy River.

Irrawaddy River Bagan & Pagoda
Irrawaddy River Bagan & Pagoda plus small sailing ship

The present site at the Irrawaddy

with walls and Tharaba Gate, was the fourth city built during the reign of King Pyinbyu in 849 A.D. He was the 34th. king of the dynasty and at that time the city had started to prosper having commercial relations with Shan State and Chinese in the east, Assam and Manipur in the west and the land of Pyus and Mons in the south. Bagan as regards religion, people of early times, with some Pyus and other natives of the north mixed up, had diverse interests. Horse-riding Aris (monks) with pugilistic habits and other malpractices had migrated from N.W. India and they gained considerable sway over common people. 

Then during the reign of Thin-ie-kyaung (344-384 A.D.), the 7th. king of the dynasty, Mahagiri Nats came to Mount Popa and nat-worshipping was popular among all classes.

Mount Popa
Mount Popa is the abode of the Nats a interesting day trip destination

The city started to decline in the 13th century before the Mongols came in 1287 because all daily life was dedicated to pagoda building. Since the pagoda areas were exempted from taxes income and revenues went down dwindled and weakening the state because not much money left for public service. 

This was only in economic  terms, monument building still went on as ever and also in the same quality, the same aesthetic and quality of craftsmanship, this went on into the mid of the next century. The arrival of the Mongols had no much effect in the lives of locals, Bagan remained the cultural center for several more hundreds of years until the center of power shifted north to Ava and Mandalay.

The Mongols

where just ignored and embraced, the exotic Mongol warriors were rather a matter of curiosity but not fiends. When the Mongols came in 1287 the city didn’t really “fall” to them, naturally the Bagan regime was politically and economically destabilized, tribute and booty must have been paid but nothing really changed well into the 14th century.

Monastic land ownership still increased and temple and pagoda complexes continued to be built and lavishly decorated. Much has changed until now with this high level of devastation over time and treasure hunting hordes.

Bagan Travel by Ox Cart
Bagan Travel by Ox Cart
Bagan travel and day trips are on the agenda, tourists are the new invaders and they are welcomed by almost everyone since they bring what all people like, money and work. People can sell their goods, handicrafts, lacquer ware and other items and services, there are plenty of them.  Especially the lacquer cottage industry is well known and appreciated for their beautiful creations, read more.

Bagan Travel and Day Tours

Bagan travel and day tours to Mount Popa, Irrawaddy Cruise, Sale Monastery and Lacquer Factory

Bagan travel means not only pagodas and temples, there is more, for sure. Although this is the driest part of the country with all the negative effects. There are plenty of possible trips with interesting destinations such as Mount Popa, the Abode of the Nats, Irrawaddy Cruises, visiting a monastery having a look for the famous "cottage industry" and more. Maybe just climb up the Shwenandaw Pagoda and watch the sunset behind the Irrawaddy.  

Bagan travel per oxcart
Bagan travel per oxcart

A day tour to Mount Popa is probably the best

This is a detour into past and gives an idea what happen in the country before Buddhism, when the Nat Spirits where the ghosts the people prayed to.

Nat Spirits
Nat Spirits

Lokananda Pagoda Bagan

The Lokananda Pagoda at Bagan has a unique location at the Irrawaddy River banks

Similar to the Bupaya stupa plenty of gold leaves are used at the bell, devotees come every day to add some more. Built in 1059 the bell already show the characteristic elongated profile, the base and the crown show the main features of the iconographic stupa.

Lokananda Pagoda at Bagan
The Stupa at Bagan

Busy traffic on the Irrawaddy River at the foot of the pagodas

Lokananda Pagoda from a different perspective
The shrine from a different perspective

The architectural design shows some indication of the transition between old Pyu and the newer Bagan style. On the bell are a few decorative elements as you can see at the pictures it is a rather simple design.

In the eastern tazaung is a sandstone Buddha sculpture of almost 2 meters high. The earthquake of 1975 damaged the shrine but not much. Today it is a preferred point for local women to sell various fruits and souvenirs because of the proximity of the Irrawaddy there is busy life. 

Shwezigon Pagoda seen from the river
Bagan Myanmar and the Ayeyarwady

Pagoda and Temple City
Pagoda and Temple City

Probably the best about the Lokananda Pagoda is the location which gives a great visual impression.