Travel arrangements in Burma are not the easiest to coordinate, so I became somewhat apprehensive upon receiving a message from my travel agent in Mandalay warning that there had been a problem booking a train ticket to Pagan (renamed Bagan by the junta government). He would have to explain in person, he said, and promptly arrived at the hotel lobby. The engine had broken down and the train schedule for the next day was uncertain, especially given that the spare parts had to come from France. The alternatives were either a bus journey or a flight. In consideration of my age, the agent thought bus travel on a bad road was not the best of ideas. But I was determined to visit Pagan, so, additional costs notwithstanding, I decided to fly.
Eager to see the architectural wonder that is Pagan, on arrival I quickly took up a friendly tonga driver’s offer to take me to the ruins. Even the leisurely ride to the main site itself turned out to be a treat. On either side of the road, innumerable pagodas and stupas of all shapes and sizes dotted the fields as far as the eye could see. This peaceful atmosphere continued (almost) up to the site itself: despite its history, the site is left almost completely alone – no ticket handlers, archaeological department attendants, nor security guards in sight. The serenity is only broken a bit by overeager touts and abundant guides. But those milling around the site are mostly local residents who come to worship. There seem to be fewer foreign visitors here.
Though it is largely a free-for-all, there is one rule that is strictly adhered to: no footwear, not even socks, is allowed inside temples where worship takes place. This rule is relaxed if there is no idol inside, however, as is the case in many of the abandoned and ruined structures scattered across the site. The area of pagodas, stupas and payas (Burmese for a pagoda, also meaning ‘god’) is spread over an area of some 42 square kilometres. Most of the largest temples stand apart, within their own compounds or makeshift fences. A few smaller structures are also clustered together in twos or threes, and there are many more ruined structures amidst the agricultural fields than on the easily accessed main road.
Down to 2217
Pagan’s tryst with Buddhism began in 1057 AD, when the ruler at the time, King Anawrahta, ordered the construction of a number of religious structures. Some of these are clearly in the Indian and Sri Lankan architectural styles of the era, possibly due to the artisans brought across the Bay of Bengal to work on the temples. At the same time, clearly local artists played an important role in raising the vast number of redbrick-and-plaster structures, some of them also decorating the outsides wall with paintings. Over the next two centuries, every king who came to power built new structures devoted to the Buddha. During the heyday of Pagan’s glory, in the 12th century, some 30,000 such temples are said to have dotted this plain! The kingdom’s decline began when the invading army of Kublai Khan sacked the city in 1287, in the process destroying a number of temples and other religious structures. Much of what his army left standing back then survived the centuries, only to be destroyed during the massive earthquake of 1975. Today, only 2217 pagodas, emples and stupas are left standing, all of them in various stages of decay. While some seem to have been shoddily repaired, others are in need of urgent attention.
My first stop, the huge quadrangle housing the large and reasonably well-kept Gawdawpalin Paya, dates back to 1203 AD. The structure, in need of a fresh coat of whitewash if nothing else, has an upper structure containing several stupas, topped by the tapering spire, which is the signature of this region’s large stupas. The huge ornamental entrance beckons visitors and devotees alike, presenting a view of a stunning brass-clad Buddha, an enigmatic smile adorning his lips, sitting in a padmasana pose. Devotees pray silently, lighting candles and offering flowers and incense sticks, all of which add to the pervasive solemnity of the sanctum.
Further along, a signboard in front of one pagoda grabs my attention. According to the notice, that pagoda, the Nathlaung Kyaung Paya, is the only example of a Hindu Vaishnavite temple in Pagan. It is likely that the kings who embraced Buddhism would not have wanted to depart from their steadfast support of Buddhism by building more Hindu temples. Rather, it is believed that this temple was built by King Anawrahta during the 11th century in order to store all of the non-Buddhist religious images – both Burmese nat (spirit) and Hindu devas – that he had collected to strengthen Theravada Buddhism. The name of this paya means Shrine Confining the Spirits, and the fact that it was not destroyed indicates a tolerance of Hinduism in Buddhist Pagan. This place could have served as the temple of the Indian merchant community at Pagan and Brahmins in the service of the king, and could have been built by Indian artisans. The paya has Vishnu in a reclining position, with the triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara each inside a lotus as a bass-relief in a small niche temple facing the front entrance. On three sides of the sanctum are standing idols of these latter three, each with a red dot on its forehead.
On exiting Nathlaung, sonorous chanting leads me to Thatbyinnyu Paya, the largest standing structure in Pagan and the pride of the site’s ancient architecture. Combining several architectural styles, it consists of two cubes, the lower one merging into the upper, with three reducing terraces from which rises a sikhara spire, common to North Indian temples. Its grandeur is breathtaking. Like most of the other payas, the Thatbyinnyu too has an ornamental entrance, a balanced built-in space that blends harmoniously with the rest of the structure and is built with conical tapered domes ending with tall, pointed spires. This paya too follows the standard pattern of a sanctum surrounded by an ambulatory passage, often enclosed within a compound wall.
While the pagodas are impressive to behold, the paya interiors are just as breathtaking. To appreciate their beauty one requires the torchlights provided by the guides. The peeling plaster walls are covered with fading paintings depicting kings with crown-like headgear, along with their courtiers and maidens. Some faded paintings also reveal depictions of the life of the Buddha. Almost uniformly, these ancient works of devotional art are in need of urgent renovation. Some of the ruins are quite unreachable, made inaccessible due to the significant undergrowth of weeds and shrubbery. It is also difficult to reach the temples, which are now in agricultural fields, even though, thankfully, farmers seem to take care not to destroy the structures in their fields. No one removes the bricks from the crumbling temples, as often happens elsewhere. This is obviously because the devotion has not lapsed, even though today the temples lack patrons and caretakers.
The respect shown by the locals towards these pieces of history does not seem to be shared by the authorities, however. There is no evidence of any government involvement, either in repair or upkeep, and only seem to be interested in collecting the USD 10 tourist fee at the airport – often the officials are not even around to do this, and instead levy a tax on the surrounding hotels. A concerted effort is needed to restore and maintain the treasure that is Pagan. Burma would do well to learn from Cambodia, which has enlisted the support of a number of other countries, working through UNESCO, to conserve the ancient Hindu temples of Angkor Wat. France, Germany, Japan and India are all helping the Phnom Penh government conserve Angkor, while employing local communities and materials as far as possible. In Burma, the political will even to ask for help does not appear to be there.
The junta’s harsh record makes travel to Burma much more of a question of ideology than travel to other countries. A number of refugee and human-rights groups actively urge foreign tourists (and businesses) to shun the country, because helping fill the junta’s coffers only helps the army tighten its noose on the people. Such worries gain legitimacy as they are considered to be the opinion of Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989. In contrast, others warn that tourists avoiding Burma only translates into the army having greater sway over Burmese citizens, who in turn have less exposure to the outside world. This group further believes that the trickle-down effect of foreign visitors’ spending benefits the average Burmese, so long as that spending is done mindfully.
For having made the trip in the first place, the opinion of this traveller falls into the latter category. While visa and airport fees must of course be paid to the government, travellers can engage directly with local private businesses. For instance, tourists can stay at private guesthouses instead of government hotels; travel via transportation modes or companies owned by locals; and buy souvenirs and handicrafts from the artisans themselves, avoiding government-run stores. All of this is help the people of Burma could well use. After 18 days in Burma, I personally am convinced that tourists should indeed visit the country. Burma was counted among one of the ten poorest countries in the world about a decade ago, and today it does not seem to have moved away from this dubious distinction. With very few industries and businesses, and little domestic or foreign direct investment, unemployment and inflation are both soaring. International aid agencies are handing out micro-finance loans to villagers, but this is a drop in the ocean considering the enormity of what is required to improve the basic standard of living. At the end of the day, ordinary Burmese people should not have to suffer the consequences of a tourism boycott, one that is hardly likely to weaken the junta’s iron grip.
In Pagan, I decide to end my tour of the temples with a visit to the Ananda Paya, the holiest temple in the entire complex. Located a little distance away from the main square, it is an ancient pagoda with golden domes and two sacred Buddha footprints. Its four idols, brass-clad Buddhas some ten metres tall, stand at the four corners of the sanctum in various moods – sad, palms held in benediction, serene and smiling. On reaching the Ananda, I find myself in the midst of a mela-like atmosphere, with huge crowds thronging the temple. It is a sacred day – the full moon in the month of Pyatho (December/January), when weeklong festival after the harvest season is to come to an end. Not only is this a time for celebration, but also an occasion to meet with friends and relatives, and to buy and sell goods of all kinds, including clothing, vegetables and hand-held fans. Villagers from near and far, arriving in transportation ranging from trucks to bullock carts, camp near the temple. But just as the celebration is vibrant, so too is it short-lived. By the next morning, the paya is restored to its usual serenity, with no sign whatsoever of the stalls or the merry campers.
Strolling through this ancient town, I finally find myself on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy. The vast expanse of water flows gently, a few fishing boats floating leisurely as others ferry passengers between the two banks. With small hills in the distant backdrop, it is a serene scene indeed. I wait till evening and get another vantage point, with the backdrop of a cluster of pagodas, to view the sunset. As the red orb dips below the horizon, the suffused light throws up the magical, mystical figures of the pagodas. It becomes clear to me why the kings of yesteryear chose Pagan as their religious and cultural centre.
~D B N Murthy is a writer based in Bangalore.