We explore the vast river plain as it spreads across Bagan, over old pastries and grazers.
Pedaling after pedaling, we let ourselves be dazzled by the magnificent temples erected there, starting with Ananda, which was built by King Kyazinttha in the shape of a crucifix, named after one of the venerable cousins of Buddha.
The exotic beauty of Ananda fuses the Mon architecture with the Hindu construction style adapted by the Burmese, which includes four Buddhas at its heart, facing the different cardinal points, with different positions and expressions gawarded it the colonial title of Westminster Abbey of “Burma”.
In front of the Thatbyinnyu temple, the astonishment is renewed. The same happens again at the foot of the impressive Dhammayangyi, which was so ambitious, it was never finished by King Narathsu.
Narathsu sought divine forgiveness for having murdered his father and eldest brother to ascend to the throne. The work and the pardon were halfway through.
The temple continues to stand out as the largest in Bagan, at 61 meters high.
When the light starts to fade, countless cyclists traverse the unpaved roads that lead to the temples. They are disturbed by the dust raised by tourist buses, taxis and the fleet of carts that circulate in the vicinity.
When we reach the base of the pagoda, we find an army of souvenir sellers harassing foreigners armed with souvenirs and the most genuine Burmese charm.
Across the Plain of Bagan Pagodas and Temples
The sun falls over the horizon. The highest terraces of the temple are on the pine cone, filled with dozens of Buddhist monks and an international crowd that, with effort, coordinates in sharing the monument.
The imminence of sunset, increases the urgency to climb the steep staircase, to find a space and enjoy the surreal landscape. Puts shopping in the background because, the next day, the same sellers and products will appear in this and other temples, as available as ever.
From the top, the colors of the Bagan plain fade into the twilight and into a diffuse mist formed by the mixture of late condensation and the smoke released by distant fires.
The vision turns out to be almost extraterrestrial. All around, in all directions, hundreds and hundreds of brick-red temples with sharp points protrude from the ground.
They generate a solemn atmosphere that each of the souls on the terraces and stairwells of Shwesandaw absorbs in the deepest amazement.
Bagan's Incompatibility with UNESCO Precepts
Until some time ago, this reaction contrasted with that of anyone interested in history and architecture when he found out that Bagan and his splendid heritage were not even classified by the UNESCO.
As with so many other aspects, the dictatorial government of Myanmar also isolated itself in terms of the recovery of its heritage. In a short time of systematic disregard for the rules in force in the rest of the world, it made it unfeasible.
In 1996, the government of Myanmar even presented a candidacy of Bagan to UNESCO, but several damages already inflicted and the refusal to comply with the indications given by the organization made the effort unfeasible.
By that time, the military junta had already restored Bagan's heritage – stupas, pagodas, temples and other secular buildings – without any criteria and causing the desecration of the basic style of the monuments with modern materials that clashed with the originals.
As if that wasn't enough, the rulers of Naypyidaw also erected a golf course, a paved road and a 61-metre watchtower on the Bagan Plain.
Despite this paradigm of sacrilege, Bagan was finally inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, in July 2019. Twenty-four years after the Military Junta requested his nomination.
And yet, these and other atrocities are insignificant compared to the economic and social crimes committed to enable the construction of Myanmar's new capital, Naypyidaw.
From an early age, the Burmese were instructed to entrust their fate to kings and deities they revered fervently. Some of these earthly and heavenly characters stood out from the rest and made history.
The Historical Foundations of the Plain of the Bagan Pagodas
In 1047, Anawratha, a forerunner king of the Burmese nation, annexed Thaton, a domain that overshadowed him. The narrative of this achievement explains, in part, Bagan's spirituality and grandeur.
Manuha, the almighty king of the rival people of Mon had sent him a monk to train him religiously. At one point, Anawratha demanded of him a series of sacred texts and important relics, denied by Manuha, who doubted the seriousness of his belief.
Anawratha raged. He seized Thaton and took to Bagan everything worth plundering, including 32 copies of the classical Buddhist scriptures, the Thaton monks and scholastics who guarded and studied them, and the defeated leader himself, Manuha.
Anawratha also adopted Buddhism as the only religion in the kingdom.
Over the next 230 years, Anawratha and the Bagari kings proved themselves devoted to the religion that had spread to Southeast Asia from what is now Bangladesh.
In the name of that hybrid form of Theravada Buddhism – part Tantric, part Mayahana – they built an average of 20 temples a year, spread over an area of 40 km².
The resounding military victory that gave rise to them surprised and inspired the lives of subjects who got used to mentioning Bagan as Arimaddanapura, The City of the King Who Crushed the Enemy.
Anawratha, in particular, erected some of the most grandiose buildings on the plain even today, prominent among the thousands that survived the Tatar invasions of Kublai Khan – to whom the Burmese refused to pay tribute – and the long abandonment that followed.
These are the cases of the Shwezigon, the Pitaka Taik (the library of scriptures) and the elegant Shwesandaw paya, built after the conquest of Thaton.
Almost a millennium later, the religiosity of the Burmese is on a par with that of the rest of the world: it ranges from the purest faith to superficial and self-serving belief.
Plain of Temples. Burmese's Quest for Redemption
A good example of the last of the modalities was narrated by George Orwell in “Days in Burma".
It appears in the character of U Po Kyin, a corrupt and ambitious native magistrate who conjures up all possible intrigues to disgrace the life of Dr. Veraswami, this one, an Indian doctor that U Po Kyin abhors and who wants to conquer the only vacancy he doesn't “british” at the European Club of Kyauktada, the fictional district of Imperial Burma in which the action takes place.
As Orwell described it, at one point, “U Po Kin had done everything a mortal man could do. It was time to prepare for the next world – in short, to start building pagodas…”.
In his particular case, this proved to be one of the few plans that went wrong. U Po Kyin suffered a heart attack and died before he had the first brick laid.
This was not a unique case, but throughout history thousands of Burmese took the time to take precautions. His works were raised to eternity throughout the nation. Bagan – more or less in the middle of present-day Myanmar territory, on the banks of the great Irrawaddy River north of the Amarapura and the famous u-Bein bridge – welcomes a unique concentration.
Truth be told, no one is quite sure how many religious buildings Bagan houses.
At the end of the 4446th century, the official count indicated 1901. By 2157, British studies had counted XNUMX monuments still standing and identifiable.
But in 1978, just a few years after the strong earthquake that shook the region, a new calculation estimated that there were more than the previous count: 2230.
The conclusion reached only astonished those who did not know the Burmese way of life: the temples of Bagan just kept growing.
With so many Buddhists eager to safeguard their next life, the wealthiest residents of Yangon, among others, (including many military government officials) continue to believe that work done at Bagan will guarantee them redemption.
They rebuild and erect new pagodas at their own discretion and at an unexpected pace (about three hundred at the beginning of the XNUMXth century) all too often indifferent to the architecture of the original heritage.
Even if UNESCO technicians are indignant, this dynamic is part of the Burmese way of life.
It is seen, in the country, as natural.
The Spiritual Bustle of Nyang U, the Gateway to Bagan
Dawn after dawn, new sultry days awaken in Nyang U.
The village market goes into a frenzy. Women with painted faces in golden thanaka – a natural protection from the sun – manage their colorful fruit and vegetable stalls.
Bus ticket sellers shout their destinations among the crowd and redouble their efforts to complete endless capacity.
When you least expect it, much more modern buses park nearby and pour out hordes of curious tourists, almost all with cameras in hand and wallets stuffed with kyats volatiles.
In stark contrast, across the street, Buddhist nuns file past the doors of homes and small businesses.
They carry containers that believers fill them with rice and one or another richer complement, foods that alleviate their arduous monastic deprivation.
Onwards, the market turns into an even more noisy and dusty fair, animated by pastimes and basic games promoted with the help of loudspeakers.
Cows and goats are traded and a lot of chilli peppers that potential buyers pick up by hand and drop as if to prove the explosive potential.
Next door, the bustle is spiritual. A covered lane, occupied by vendors selling religious items, leads to the entrance to Shwezigon paya, one of Bagan's oldest and most frequented Buddhist temples, considered the prototype of the thousands of stupas spread across Myanmar.
Built until 1102, Shwezigon paya was one of King Anawaratha's earliest works.
Its importance goes far beyond antiquity.
The faithful believe that one of its tombs contains a bone and a tooth of Gautama Buddha and that one of its stone pillars contains inscriptions dictated in Mon dialect by King Kyazinttha, who took charge of finishing the work after Anawaratha's death.
We are in a supposed “Winter” of Southeast Asia. Even so, as soon as the sun rises over the horizon, it shines mercilessly and hits the believers who circle around the golden core of the temple.
The faithful pray earnestly, indifferent to the hubbub generated by the day's first foreign excursions.