Bagan, Myanmar: Land of 2,000 Temples

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Sprawled across 16 square miles of semi-arid plain, the ancient city of Bagan (also called Pagan) is the world’s largest group of religious structures. Some 2,500 sacred buildings still stand here, a mere fraction of the 10,000 red-brick temples and pagodas the city boasted during its cultural and economic peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. The many wood houses from that period have disappeared entirely.

In its prime, Bagan was the seat of a flourishing kingdom in Southeast Asia, one distinctly different from the Buddhist civilizations of Tibet and elsewhere. Artisans and monks poured in from all over, and the seeds of Myanmar’s national and religious identity blossomed for several centuries until the Mongol invasion of 1287 ended the so-called Bagan Dynasty.

Bagan’s art and architecture—including the trademark shikhara, or spire—is rooted in older Indian cultures. Overall, though, it is a more restrained aesthetic, one that emphasizes repeated motifs more than fanciful ornament. Scholars have noted the “ritual monotony” in the city’s sheer volume of murals and sculpted Buddhas,* and the many thousands of clay votive tablets that citizens of Bagan, from kings to paupers, contributed to the construction process in hopes of achieving merit. The city’s largest pagoda, Nanda, is considered one of the architectural masterpieces of the East.

These days, the brick temples are strung with lights that glow after sundown. Especially viewed from above, Bagan is unlike any landscape on earth. As striking as it must have appeared centuries ago, Marco Polo (probably the first Westerner to hear of the city) was careful also to note the sound, reporting that “round the whole circuit were little gilded bells that tinkled every time the wind blew through them.”

* See Spink, Walter; Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 31 No. 3, May 1972: pp. 717-719.

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