Wednesday, 26 October 2011

6. Wonder: Ananda Temple in Bagan

Please see my entry on Bagan for the story behind the overall archaeological site around Ananda.

Ananda temple in Bagan is not Bagan's biggest temple. It is not the tallest, and it is not the oldest.  But it is the most beautiful. Placed very centrally in the overall Bagan area, it is the perhaps the most visited of all Bagan's temples, it is one of the "must-sees", and like all the best buildings reward repeat viewings. Resplendent in white and gold, its appearance today is much like it was 900 years ago: like a silver fox, it has retained its charming good looks.

Like much of Bagan, much of Ananda is lost in time, with only myths compiled in the 19th Century guessing as to its real history. As such, even Ananda's real name is unknown, with the Ananda appellation being taken from an 18th Century tale that the king, Kyansittha, who supervised its construction was emulating some legendary Himalayan caves called Nanada-Mula. Additionally, the Sanskrit word "Ananda" means "very beautiful" and Ananda is also the name of Buddha's first cousin, and disciple. Kyansittha was one of the more notable kings of the Bagan era, reigning from 1084 to 1113 and responsible for a number of temples. He built Ananda in the late 11th or early 12th Century as his masterpiece.

All the large temples in Bagan have their peculiarities, but all still conform to a standard model, and Ananda is no exception to this. It is four-sided, with four entrances, and a Buddha from the current kalpa (i.e. the period of earth's existence) at each entrance. Its peculiarity is the porch-like extension at each entrance, so rather than directly enter the temple, there is a short covered walkway leading up to the Buddha statue. This has the dual effect of giving Ananda a symmetrical cross design from above (Ananda is Bagan's only symmetrical temple) and also gives the Buddha statues a much better entrance. It makes all the difference. If you visit a lot of temples, you'll see a lot of Buddhas, and in short time you'll quickly be passing them by with barely a second glance. But Ananda is different. It's not flashy or bombastic, but its beauty is in its subtlety. Approaching the Buddha from the beginning of the porch only the bottom half of the 9.5-meter statue is in sight, but as you grow closer more and more can be see through the double-arched entrance. It is a slow reveal, and only as you actually enter do you see the entire Buddha, looming high above, gleaming and gold. It's a simple but very effective trick, giving much more impact to the Buddha statue. Helping too, is that the four main Buddha statues in Ananda are quite elegant. Many of Bagan's Buddhas are painted, look new, and seem rather crude and uninspired. But the four Buddhas of Ananda have poise; gilden wooden statues, they glow but don't look tacky. Probably none of them are original - at the very least, the east and west Buddhas are thought to be 18th Century remakes - but as Nicholas Cage's "The Wicker Man" demonstrated, sometimes the remake is better than the original. Oh, wait...

It's quite possible to visit Ananda and never even see its exterior. The main, west, entrance is from outside the temple walls and you need to enter through a covered walkway filled with fairly undemanding vendors. This takes you directly inside Ananda, below Gotama, the most recent Buddha. The temple is ringed with two corridors, which lead to each successive Buddha. But for some reason, the other entrances are closed off, so you can't enter the temple grounds from them. In fact, it's all too easy to do a full circuit of all four Buddhas, then exit through the covered walkway, without every venturing outside. It's a curious state of affairs. I bet entire tour groups walk in, walk around, then walk out without ever having actually seen Ananda.

All the better for me. Because despite being a popular temple on the tourist circuit, so long as your visit doesn't clash with an arriving tour bus, the temple is surprisingly quiet on the inside. And on the outside - which is easily accessed from the covered walkway - there's no-one else there. On one day I visited, there was one other tourist, sitting peacefully on a bench. Another day, the only company I had was a sleeping dog, and an old man brushing leaves. I was allowed to sit back on a stone bench, and gaze up at Ananda uninterrupted.

It's a charming construction. As with the brilliantly done interior, the unnamed architect had a deft and subtle hand. Legend has it that he was killed afterwards so that he could never build again thus preserving Ananda's uniqueness, paying him the eternal compliment of attributing him the same myth - and they are just that - as the designers of the Taj Mahal and St. Basil's in Moscow. Taking the basic temple design for Bagan temples - four sides, crowing stupa on top - Ananda seems more refined. It has small architectural flourishes, attractive entrances, and seems, well, pretty. It helps massively that it still has its stucco, a plaster-like material used for covering and easier to work with for sculpture and design. All Bagan temples were once covered in stucco - the brick we see now is the stripped-down version of the temples, the shell of a once much-finer building. But Ananda still has the finery. Add to that the four porches, which give it an almost church-like look, and the gold crowning stupa making a total height of 51 metres, and it's a truly elegant and assured building.

And a Wonder? Ananda was never intended to be a Wonder candidate; rather, its surrounding site of Bagan was originally my choice. But Ananda is, by general consensus and my opinion, the best temple in Bagan, and the focal point of the entire sprawling ruined city. If you're a bit mental and only visit one temple in Bagan, make it Ananda. And if you're a little more sane, enjoy a few days of exploration, taking in the view, horse-cart riding and cycling, but also pay a few visits to Ananda and sit outside in the peace and quiet, admiring it. Walk inside and enjoy the slow reveal of the four golden Buddhas. By itself, Ananda is probably not quite grand or big enough to be a Wonder, but it is the architectural highlight of a terrific sprawling series of ancient ruins, and its good condition hints at what the rest of Bagan must once have looked like.

Criteria then.

Size: Large, but not huge.
Engineering: Well built, but done to a rough template, albeit with additional flourishes and the original addition of porches on all sides.
Artistry: Elegant and subtle. Ananda is a charming building.
Age/Durability: It has been around for over 900 years and remains in good condition. Although UNESCO aren't on board yet, the Myanmar government don't appear - and surely wouldn't dare - to change anything. Up until quite recently, the walls of Ananda were regularly whitewashed, but this appears to have stopped now, and made only an aesthetic difference.
Fame/Iconicity: Within the context of Bagan, it's one of the best known temples, but even within that context its fame doesn't eclipse the rest; it's a focal point but not a strong emblem of Bagan. It's an ensemble piece. Outside of Burma though, and it's not so known.
Context:  Surrounded by the ancient ruined city of Bagan, with thousands of ruined temples as far as they eye can see, Ananda's surroundings are amazing, and are its defining feature.
Back Story: Sadly, not a great deal is known about Ananda, even its real name, just like much of Bagan. Nonetheless, that it is part of an ancient series of ruined temples is evocative enough.
Originality: A well-done and tweaked version of the standard Bagan temple template.
Photogenicity: The vantage point of a helicopter, as ever, makes it looks good from above; for the amateur photographer it looks pretty, but because of the high outer wall of the temple grounds, you can't get much of a photo from distance. Except - if you climb another temple, and have a good zoom, I reckon you could get something nice. As I'm a crap photographer and don't have a good zoom, I haven't managed this.

If surrounded by a modern city or just by itself in a field, Ananda would rate as an attractive and charming building, but would never be considered a World Wonder. In the context of a couple of thousand of other ancient temples, it is elevated significantly. But ultimately, it's part of a bigger picture, and isn't quite big or important enough to dominate that picture. Where does that leave Ananda? Higher than the Marina Bay Sands due to the breathtaking scale of its surroundings, but a little below the sheer grandeur and importance of that Burmese icon, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The List So Far

1. Sydney Opera House
2. Borobudur
3. Petronas Towers
4. Shwedagon Pagoda
5. Ananda Temple in Bagan
6. Marina Bay Sands

Edit: Bagan was reinstated as a Wonder following my entry, "The Bagan Question", and would place at the top of the above list.


  1. Hi, We recently visited Ananda and I absolutely concur. It is a beautiful building and as independent travellers we had the luxury of having the time to wander about so we did go outside and walk about appreciating the overall majesty of the place. Definitely a must see if you have to choose.
    I am now sorting through my many photographs to upload and write about my travels in Myanmar as well.

  2. This was the last temple I came across in Bagan when aimlessly cycling around without a guide or map, so thanks for giving me the details! Shamefully, I was more intrigued by the single-headed, double-bodied lion statues each having two penises, but I did find my way inside.

    1. Damn, if only I'd known there were single-headed, double-penised statues. Guidebooks so often leave out the crucial details.


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