Sunday, 17 July 2011

Preview: Bagan

Imagine Manhattan Island. As islands go, it's big, though not that big. At its longest, it would take you about 13 minutes at 60 mph to drive from top to bottom, and under two-and-a-half minutes to drive its widest point, all assuming you had a magical new road without any traffic. If you prefer to walk, you could walk its 32-mile circumference in about half a day, with a leisurely lunch in between.

That doesn't make it sound so big. However, for those that have actually visited Manhattan, it feels a different story. Manhattan Island is big - not just in the sheer height of buildings, but in the sheer density of them too. Its land area is a fraction under 23 square miles, which still doesn't sound so big (try 5957 hectares, 14720 acres, 59.6 million square metres or 59.6 trillion square millimetres if you fancy some longer numbers) but when you cram everything but the kitchen sink into that space it suddenly seems a lot larger. Wait - that should read, everything including about two million kitchen sinks.

In this sense, the ancient ruined city of Bagan in northern Burma mirrors Manhattan Island. Ok, it's not an island, but it takes up an area approximately that of a shorter but fatter Manhattan Island - the overall archaeological zone is 36 square miles (as though Manhattan had been binging on cakes) with the more appealing city ruins at 16 square miles (Manhattan then onto a radical bulimia-inspired diet). In this city area, somewhere in the region of 3000 temples and brick monuments remain, with well over 5000 pagodas alone once standing back in its peak between the 11th and 13th Centuries. Even visiting the remaining ones, at a considered rate of one per day, would take over eight years. Bagan is pretty big.


I don't quite have eight years, but eight days will hopefully suffice. And although there are - at last count - 2217 Buddhist pagodas as well other brick buildings, I'm under no obligation to visit them all, especially as many resemble, to the undiscerning eye, a big pile of bricks. It still leaves plenty of temples to visit, some the size of 21-storey buildings, others still used and maintained and beaming in gold. And these 2-3000 buildings, mostly pagodas, are just the brick survivors of this once-great civilisation. Most buildings back then were made of wood, which of course perishes over time until nothing remains; only important religious shrines were built in brick at higher effort and expense, and are what remain now. It's as though someone visited Manhattan in 1000 years time, and all that remained were the churches.

Founded in the late 9th Century, Bagan ambled along for a couple of hundred years, quietly growing, until the time of King Anawrahta, who pulled Bagan kicking and screaming from the murky history of myth and hearsay to... um... further myth and hearsay. Popular Burmese history will have you believe that he conquered the lower Burmese kingdom of the Mon and took with him lots of sacred Buddhists scripture as well as monks, craftsmen and artists, thus propelling Bagan into the big time. The problem is, evidence for this is pretty much non-existent, except for a 19th Century chronicle about as reliable as me reverse-parking a van. King Anawrahta may indeed have conquered the Mon kingdom in a blaze of glory, but for all we know he did it with magic rainbows and a gigantic angry unicorn, because actual evidence is lacking. The real history has to be taken from a small collection of four hundred (and gradually growing) stone inscriptions, architectural and archaeological analysis and lots and lots of extrapolation. Because if we're to believe the chronicle - the only significant non-modern written account of Bagan - we're going to have to also believe such tales as Anawrahta miraculously duplicating a holy tooth of Buddha four times by the power of his words.

Regardless of how it happened, King Anawrahta's reign began a glorious two-hundred year run of power in Bagan. It was the first Burmese Empire, and considered the first time that what we regard as the nation of Burma was unified, incorporating different tribes and regions. It is also the time most of the significant construction occurred. Bagan's decline in the 14th Century is sometimes attributed to getting a right kicking from the Mongols, but like most things in Bagan the evidence for this doesn't really stack up. Instead, the prosaic reality is that we just don't know. Bagan was replaced as the capital city by a more southern city, Ava, for reasons unknown, and this precipitated a growing lack of interest in Bagan, which relied upon the patronage of the elite of society. Bagan was never lost or forgotten about, it just became unfashionable, with much of it falling to dereliction.

If I ever was to decide upon a quest to find the top seven cities - existing or ruined - in the world, Bagan would certainly be on the list as a very notable and extensive fragment of history. But this particular mission is to find individual Wonders, and this is where I suspect Bagan may trip up. For just as no-one would suggest that Manhattan is a single monument, neither is Bagan. Therefore, although I nonetheless expect to be impressed, it needs a focus, a show-stopper. Does it have one? I don't yet know. But it does have candidates. Such as the 900-year-old Ananda temple, considered one of the best surviving piece of Mon architecture; the six million bricks of the massive Dhammayazika temple (to compare, the Great Pyramid only has 2.5 million bricks, although granted each one weighs about 2.5 tons); or the Shwezigon Pagoda, a golden spire not unlike Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, and hundreds of years older.

Dhamayazika Temple

And I'd better be quick. Because UNESCO, despite invitations to, has refused to place Bagan on their Heritage List. This is because Burma's ruling military junta aren't exactly treating the area gently. For the last two decades, their restorations and improvements have been implemented with all the subtlety of an idiot child with a crayon, more in keeping with a tacky recreation centre than a historical heritage site. Their inauthentic brickwork recreations stick out from authentic buildings, in the words of Donald Stadtner, a scholar in Burmese and Indian art, "like a plucked, pink chicken". A leading Burmese historian has called it "Blitzkraeg archaeology." Their reconstructions are done to standardised and wildly inaccurate models, rather than being unique as the ancient temples all were. And, get this, there is now a highway, a golf course and a 61-metre high observation tower right in the middle of this millennium-old historical site. Bloody hell, junta!

I'll be visiting Bagan - if it hasn't been bulldozed to make way for some modern flats - in late November or early December, and will give fuller historical account, as well as my own impressions then. I promise not to play on the golf course.

Reviewed 26th October 2011.

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