We had been on the boat for ten hours when, high on the top the cliffs, the first sillouttes cradled by the Irrawaddy river began came into sight. One after the another, like centinels towering above the Mandalay plains as they had been doing for centuries. Shrouded in the late afternoon mist, the old, majestic stupas and temples of the ancient city proudly stand before us. As in a dream, as an ilusion.
Bagan, ‘The city of Thousands Temples’, the mystical capital of the ancient Bagan Kingdom.
We have arrived.
For each trip that we plan, I have a preferred book. This time, my choice was ‘Sacred Sites of Burma, by Donald M. Stadtner, which turned to be my journey’s bible, if I might say so, from the start, we were guided by Stadtner’ knowledge. I just couldn’t have asked for more.
Reading this fascinating book I learnt that Bagan, the ancient capital was a city with a rich history but one that is also rich in myths, so, for some experts, it is considered as having two stories.
A history built on information obtained from contemporanenous inscriptions and the monuments themselves.The other, fashioned around myths and preserved in chronicles, which was developed in the centuries following the city’s eclipse in the 14th century.
Therefore, according to whom tells the tale, we could find ourselves wrapped in a cloak of myths, more than hearing the historical account. Just listening to any of the local guides and it is more than sure that you will hear the most enchanting myths. Or, reading boards that are next to the entrance of different temples or pagodas telling their stories, according to such and such chronicles.
May be it is in those myths that Bagan’s magic rests.
Now, following interpretations of inscriptions, where the city stands today, in the first millenium was the site of a previous Pyu community, but any of those structures had survived.
It was only in the 11th century that the earlier constructions of Bagan started near the river’s edge and within the walled city. In the next century moved eastward, where temples, monasteries and pagodas just sprout up in the flat plains. Yes, that is the feeling. Wherever you stand, whatever cardinal direction you look at, you will see all these buildings, with no orden nor aligment, just spread over the plains. As far as your eyes can see. Anywere.
It is something that regardless of how much you had read, how many pictures you had seen, you just will never be prepared for. It is atonishing. It is more than your imagination could ever deliver.
Built nearly in the same era than Angkok Wat, both are just shocking, humbling. Both leave you stunned, small. What impresses of Angkor Wat is its own immensity. What impresses of Bagan is the immensity of the number of religious buildings. No two shrines are exactly alike, despite an apparent uniformity. You feel just absorved, lost .
During the 200 years of the Bagan’s zenith only, over two thousands of these structures were built. But if you listen to Bagan’s myths this number might rise up to more than 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries. But lets stand on the realistic-more precise-cold number of the historical sources. Thinking of more than 2,000 monuments built only from the 11th to 13th centuries, plus the hundreds built from the 14th until the 20th century, all spread in the same flat area, only that final figure, is just stunning.
Sadly, not all those buildings have reached the 21st century. Many didn’t survive the ravages of time, from invasions to natural disasters, as the earthquakes that hit the region during which they were destroyed or their foundations weakened.
According to the survey that nowadays the Bagan Archeological Department is carrying on with the profesional advice of UNESCO, the actual number of Bagan’s monuments is more than 3,000. Yes, more than 3,000. In Bagan’s area only.
Just imagine which would have been their total number, before all disasters struck. Just unimaginable.
As we couldn’t grasp the whole extent of it, we did what we thought it would be the only way to have a clearer idea of what that meant. We got a ride on a hot air Balloon over Bagan, just to see it from the sky, just to have the general lyout of the ancient capital.
With that done, the following day, we’d head toward the river edge, toward the walled city, the Old City of Bagan. The whole idea was to visit the buildings emulating history, in a similar order in which the capital grew in the 11th century.The last two days of our stay in Bagan were reserved for those built to the east of the walled city, into the plains.
We had a plan. We were ready to visit Bagan, the spiritual capital, the legendary capital with a rich history and rich in myths.
Bagan, The city of Thousands Temples…
Bagan, the ancient capital of Thousands of Temples…
Bagan, the city of rich history and rich in myths…
No two shrines are exactly alike, despite an apparent uniformity….
Photo Credit: Silvia Muda