In the historic royal city of Bagan in the centre of Myanmar, there are still around 2,000 magnificent stupas, temples and pagodas. Covering an area of 30 square kilometres, they represent one of the largest archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.
The historic city of Bagan is located in the centre of Myanmar about 150km southwest of the city of Mandalay on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Bagan was once the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, which extended over almost the whole of Myanmar. To this day, some 2,000 brick buildings remain in Bagan.
The temple city thus holds several records: it is the world's largest collection of Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas. The region of historic sacred buildings covers an area of over 30 square kilometres, making it the largest excavation site in Myanmar and one of the largest in all of Southeast Asia.
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PICTURES: Temple City Bagan
Getting to Bagan - best by air
It is best to take the plane to Bagan from Yangon, because getting to Bagan without flying is relatively time-consuming. Due to the remote location, it takes about 9 hours by car from Mandalay, and about 7 hours by train and boat on the Irrawaddy.
The temple complex of Bagan is best explored by rental car or bicycle. Horse-drawn carriages are also available. The vast scale of the entire pagoda rock can best be grasped by climbing to the top of one of the well-preserved brick buildings or taking a fantastic spin in the hot air balloon offered on site.
Otherwise it is impossible to see all 2,000 buildings - you have to be happy if you manage to see the 20 most impressive pagodas in one day, so it is better to plan at least two days for Bagan. By the way, the atmosphere is most impressive at sunrise or sunset.
Tip: In the town of New Bagan, 5 kilometres away, there are also numerous accommodation options that are somewhat cheaper - but of course do not have the flair of "Old Bagan".
Sights of Bagan
Moving through the imposing historical buildings, one gets an idea of the former splendour of the city. The temples can be visited from the outside as well as from the inside.
Tip: When visiting Bagan, be sure to bring enough sunscreen, water and a head covering. Nothing in Bagan is air-conditioned and there is hardly any shade from the blazing midday sun. We also recommend shoes without socks that can be easily taken off and quickly put back on, as most temples can only be entered barefoot. However, they should also not be too fragile for climbing on the temples.
The alignment of the temples in terms of the universe can still be seen today. However, part of the square was washed out by the Irrawaddy, making the site more triangular today. In the centre reserved for Buddha Gautama, King Anawrahta built his palace and the Mahabodhi temple.
Hot spots for the sunset
The gilded pumpkin-shaped Bupaya Pagoda is located high above the Ayeyarwady River and was completely destroyed during the earthquake. It has since been restored to its former glory and is a popular meeting place for tourists to enjoy the sunset.
The magnificent golden Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U, THE prototype of a Burmese pagoda and one of the country's most important shrines, is also a feast for the eyes in the red sunlight.
Ananda - the holiest temple in Bagan
In the Ananda Temple, the holiest temple in Bagan, named after Buddha's cousin and long-time companion, there are four 12m-high Buddha statues facing all four directions. A week-long festival is held here every year in December or January, during which thousands of believers make offerings to the monks on the morning of the full moon day. Tents and huts are erected around the temple, transforming Bagan into a joyous fair for a short time.
Buddhas wherever the eye looks
The almost 50m high an Htilominlo temple also houses a Buddha statue for each cardinal direction on the first floor. The terraced roof is topped by a golden hti (literally "umbrella"). The Sulamani temple was the model for the Htilominlo temple, which impresses above all with its wall paintings and the astonishingly well-preserved façade decorations of stucco and tiles. Here, too, there is a Buddha statue for each cardinal direction.
The Htilominlo Temple is surpassed by the 61m high Thatbinnyu Temple, which is the tallest building in Bagan.
Dhamma Yangyi Temple - inhabited by spirits?
The Dhamma Yangyi Temple is surrounded by numerous myths and legends, many even claiming that it is haunted within its masterfully assembled walls.
This is because its builder, King Narathu, had the temple built to redeem himself from the murder of his father, brother and wife. He was generally known for his cruelty.
On temple construction sites, for example, a mason who did not place the bricks exactly on top of each other paid for this faux-pas with his life. That is why the bricks are still stacked on top of each other today in such a way that there is not even room for a needle between them.
Inner values of the Bagan temples
Not only the buildings themselves, but also the precious wall paintings are incomparable treasures. They date from the 11th to 13th centuries, are extremely well preserved due to the dry climate and are among the oldest paintings in all of Southeast Asia. The fantastic paintings in the Adebayana Temple are particularly noteworthy here.
Renovation work in Bagan on the buildings, paintings and inscriptions has been ongoing since the 1950s. In 1975, a strong earthquake destroyed much of what is now being reconstructed and rebuilt by archaeologists. Since Bagan was designated a World Heritage Site, UNESCO has also been exerting pressure on those responsible for the preservation of the buildings.
History of Bagan
The temple buildings in Bagan were erected as early as the first millennium AD. The trade routes from China and India once met on the banks of the Irrawaddy. The city wall that surrounded Bagan could be dated back to the year 849. Even then, Tantrism and Buddhism from India found their way into Bagan and mixed with the snake cult practised there.
However, Bagan's true heyday began with King Anawrahtas in 1044, who also drove the serpent priests out of the city in favour of Tharavada Buddhism. Anawrahtas and his son used religion and politics to their advantage and brought the elite Mon priests to Bagan, which led to the adoption of literary Mon culture and their script.
Bagan continued to develop and in the Middle Ages, at 40 square kilometres, was 15 times larger than London at the time. Since there were no wars, the population had time and money for architecture and the elaborately crafted pagodas virtually shot up in the 11th and 12th centuries. There are said to have been 6,000 in total.
Bagan as an image of the universe
The temple complexes depicted the universe according to Buddhist beliefs. In the centre of a perfect square was the mountain of the gods, Meru, while the fields around it represented the eight planets known at that time. The spaciousness of the area is due to the fact that in former times, the people's homes also stood between the stone buildings. However, these were made of wood and bamboo and did not survive the test of time.
The magnificent buildings that today bring Bagan its worldwide fame were the city's undoing almost a thousand years ago. The construction of temples and pagodas cost vast sums of money, temples and monasteries were tax-free and the governors of the conquered provinces soon stopped paying their shares.
Finally, Bagan was conquered by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan at the end of the 13th century. Before his flight, King Narathihapate had many of the pagodas demolished in order to build stronger city walls - in vain. Bagan fell and with its capital the whole Pagan empire disintegrated into small states that fought each other for centuries.