Wednesday, 26 October 2011

6. Wonder: Bagan

(For the Bagan preview, please click here.)

"Imagine all the medieval cathedrals of Europe sitting on Manhattan island." So says the Myanmar edition of the Lonely Planet during their introduction to Bagan. The description is evocative. Because although not on an island (Bagan is on plains on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River), in one succinct sentence it conveys an idea of the age of the site, the reverence it is held in, and the sheer grand scale as thousands of ruined brick temples scatter the dusty Burmese countryside. Bagan is something quite amazing to behold.

That was my first impression of Bagan, as I stood atop the humble Shweleiktoo temple surveying the scene before me. As far as temples go, Shweleiktoo isn't anything special, being yet another crumbling brick temple from the 13th Century and positioned just outside the Bagan satellite town of Nyaung U, but it is one of a decreasing number of temples that climbing on is still permitted. It was also the first temple that Win-saw, our quiet but pleasant horse-cart driver, took Burness and I. It was the ideal starting point. Not on the tourist circuit, it was quiet, except for a woman trying to sell us paintings. Barefoot - for shoes must be taken off at all Buddhist places of worship - we wandered around the four entrances, each with a Buddha statue, before fitting ourselves into the small corridor that led up some dark steps. Squeezing around a corner and through an archway, we were onto the temple roof, and another narrow squeeze up some precipitous steps allowed us to climb halfway up the central spire. And the view of Bagan was before us. Not all of Bagan, for it stretches on and on, but a generous taster. With the wide Ayeyarwady River flanking the west side, the green plains of Bagan were packed with ancient temples and pagodas, some massive but the scattered majority small and in varying states of ruin. It was exactly the sort of scene you'd expect to see if stumbling upon a lost world.

Bagan - pronounced B'gahn rather than Bay-gan - was the capital of what we now know as Burma from the 9th to 14th Centuries. Following this period, it went into rapid decline upon the shift of power to a different city, Ava. The reason for the shift is unknown, with suggested reasons ranging from Mongol invasion to a preference for Ava's better weather. The latter was offered by Win-saw and isn't as unlikely as it may sound, for Bagan is very hot and dry - temperatures soar into the 40s during April and May - and not the most hospitable of lands to live in. But regardless of the exact reason, the city was virtually abandoned, the wooden buildings rotted and perished, and only the more sturdily built temples remained - here the hot and dry weather worked in their favour, for decay was not so rapid. It would be wrong to say that Bagan was entirely forgotten about, for between the 15th and 20th Centuries around 200 or so smaller monuments were built, but its glory was definitely over and it was left to ruin. The Burmese people had better things to worry about than a bunch of brick buildings falling down in the middle of nowhere.

And so enter the British. The British and their Empire get a bit of a bad rap, and it's not usually very fashionable to defend them, but they weren't all bad. Although one Burmese person in Yangon suggested to me that Burma was a thriving civilisation until the British showed up and stopped it in its prime, another also said that Burma had been colonised twice, by both the British and the Japanese. The British had built things like railways and roads, whereas the Japanese had just killed loads of people - and that was why he didn't mind the British. My defence focuses on the archaeological. Although the West had first noted the existence of Bagan from the late 18th Century, it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th Century that a closer interest developed. Upper Burma was annexed in 1886 and by 1900 had been "pacified". In 1901, the Imperial Viceroy of India (that is, the official who ran India on behalf of the king) Lord Curzon, showed up. Lord Curzon's name will crop up again when I visit the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, as he took a close interest in their restoration and preservation, and this was his thoughts upon seeing the ruins of Bagan. He ordered the construction of a museum and began investigation into what all these ruins really were. Bagan's ongoing archaeological era had begun.

And so over the last hundred years, Bagan has been transformed from a plain filled with ruins into a site for study, investigation and, of course, tourism. Temples have been painstakingly restored and the blank canvas of an unknown history continues to be filled in. It's still pretty blank. Although there is a reasonable overall picture of when and why Bagan came to be, the details are lacking. Stone inscriptions give some of the story, but there aren't many of these and there are a lot of temples out there. Hence why, looking at the map of Bagan, the majority of the smaller temples have just a number, not a name. Even one of Bagan's most celebrated temples, the elegant Ananda temple, has a name that was only attributed in the 18th Century - its real name is lost in time. Bagan is much like Borobudur in that sense: back then, nobody was taking notes. Thousands of buildings, hardly any details, and lifetimes of work by experts using the tiny shards of evidence that remain.

Fortunately, we have a pretty good idea of one of the big questions: why on earth build so many temples in a relatively small area? Why not, in European cathedral style, just build a big one in the middle and let everyone go there? The answer is the same answer behind the vast wealth put into the Shwedagon Pagoda, it's the same answer behind the 129-metre statue that is my next Wonder, and it's the same answer as to why all across Burma are gold pagodas, gilded Buddha statues, and a huge investment in Buddhist iconography: Merit.

The concept of merit exists in some form in most religions. Christians and Muslims have a basic, paraphrased belief that a meritorious life will get them a nice en suite room in the kingdom of heaven (free virgins for the especially pious). This is usually achieved by good deeds, lots of prayer, and not being greedy with your money. Buddhism kind of agrees, although their ultimate heaven - nirvana - is a bit more distant, and the general hope (in the Theravada branch of Buddhism that is practiced in Burma) is to be reborn in a better life that is a rung higher up the ladder and closer to enlightenment. Helping the poor, being nice to people, dedicating your life to charity - all these are meritorious actions. But there's a more direct and dare-I-say-it easy route: donate. Find a temple or a statue, and give money towards it. Or even better, build your own temple.

And that's what happened with Bagan. It seems the kingdom was swept by a religious fervour that inspired the kings and the people to build temples and give lavishly towards them, all in the name of merit. Every king - and there were many - had a royal duty to promote Buddhism and this was manifested in the construction of monuments to Buddha's name, and all the better if he could get hold of a Buddha relic to enshrine. Whether it was piety, statecraft or the sheer desire for credibility, kings were obsessed with temple building. The sanctity of the monument was measured in terms of the expense lavished upon it. Temples, stupas, and monasteries appeared everywhere, and the bigger the better.

The result of this was the vista of brick temples I could see before me as I sat on Shweleiktoo. Nearest in view was the gargantuan 46-metre Htilominho temple, which Win-saw and his trusty nag, Michon ("Beautiful Girl"), took myself and Burness to next. The temple is named after a king, who reigned from 1211 to 1234. The highly unreliable "Glass Palace Chronicles", compiled in 1829 from a variety of older sources and which accounts for much of the history (or mythical history at any rate) of Bagan, claims he was chosen to be king when his predecessor called him and his elder brothers together. A notable phenomenon of most south-east Asian kingdoms is the lack of the good system of succession from king to king, the lack of such a system causing a great deal of bloodshed and backstabbing throughout the region's history, but evidently Htilominho's successor thought he had come up with a winner. He set up a white umbrella - a symbol of kingship back then - and said “May the white umbrella bend towards him who is worthy to be King”. Lucky Htilominho got the bend. Thus his name literally means “Favoured by the Umbrella, favoured by the King” and the temple was built on the umbrella-bending location. A lovely tale, but one ruined by the evidence, in this case a stone inscription naming the temple's royal patron as Nadaungmya, which has the only slightly less ridiculous name of "He Of Many Ear Ornaments."

The Htilominho name has stuck though, and the temple is muscular and impressive, although sadly access to the upper levels is restricted. But my abiding memory of the temple is the small shop that was set up in the main entrance, just in front of the gold Buddha, selling tat.

Although there were many stalls around the main temples, this was the most brazen example of small-scale entrepreneurship I witnessed in Bagan. Inside the 800-year-old temple. Win-saw, when asked about it, just shrugged resignedly, saying that as nobody seemed to stop him, he was able to continue: Htilominho is one of most visited on the tourist circuit, and he'd obviously struck a deal to set up shop. Fortunately, as I say, this was the exception rather than the rule. But tourism in Bagan is alive and well and increasing every year, and is the vastly dominant industry in this remote area. Large hotels hover on the edge of the plains, and more and more tour buses full of Germans, Italians, South Koreans and even now Vietnamese (a direct flight between Vietnam and Yangon has just started) are arriving. Enter the big temples and you have to pass through covered walkways full of stalls selling books, paintings, statues, or general trinkets and tat. You find yourself saying "No thank-you" a million times. The walkway vendors aren't so bad, it's actually the smaller temples that are much harder work. Visited much less by tourists, there might only be one or two locals hanging around trying to sell stuff, but they can be really persistent. "No thank-you," didn't seem to be accepted, and on some occasions we would be followed into the temple, around it, and even up the stairway to the top. It could blight the enjoyment of an otherwise remote temple having a girl selling postcards or bracelets constantly by my side, trying to be friendly but also trying to repeatedly sell me something I had no interest in buying.

But touts and trinkets are just a minor, irritating thorn in Bagan's side, and not one affecting my judgement on Bagan as a Wonder, although it hindered my enjoyment of a few temples. Digging deeper into the side of Bagan, to the point of wounding it, is the government however. UNESCO has refused to put Bagan on the World Heritage List despite it being an absolute prime candidate due to the careless actions of the government and their haphazard approach to preservation. Haphazard flatters them. In 1975, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale flattened parts of Bagan. Plenty of good conservation work has saved the larger temples, but the smaller ones... oh dear. The powers in charge of Myanmar have rebuilt temples with brand new bricks, and the difference is quite apparent. Apart from them being reconstructed differently to their original design, the new buildings are far too clean, precise and new looking.

But at least they are restricted to the occasional small temple. Of far greater menace are some of the larger constructions. The golf course and the watchtower were the two I'd flagged before visiting, but to be honest they didn't concern me: I couldn't even see the golf course, and the tower was out of the way. It is the palace and the museum that are the monsters. The modern archaeological museum is a gross beast of a building, that is far too large and out of place in its surroundings, but it is nothing compared to the horror that is the palace. Built recently by a Yangon businessman, supposedly in the style of Bagan's royal palace of yesteryear, it looks like a modern, ornate hotel complex. It's huge, it can be seen across the Bagan skyline, and it is an unspeakably ghastly building that should never have been allowed.

From the low-level tourism of the Htilominho temple, we continued on our horse-and-cart journey around Bagan. And for anyone considering visiting Bagan in the future, I absolutely urge you to begin this way. 

Because it is the perfect introduction to a large and sprawling site, with a driver who has lived all his life in the area and knows the territory well. Win-saw took us not on a Greatest Hits tour of Bagan, which would just feature the biggest and most famous of the temples, but instead took us on a specially selected  compilation of big names and fans' favourite B-sides. From the opening vista seen from the obscure Shweleiktoo, to the Bagan's most acclaimed Ananda temple, to the colossal six million bricks of Dhammayangyi temple, to the climbable five-sided Dhammayaziki stupa, to the Indian-style Mahabodi temple with numerous niches and Buddha statues on the sides, to Manuha temple with the giant reclining Buddha statue filling up one side, and many others in between, it was a fascinating day of being leisurely carted around small roads and dusty tracks. The following day, now knowing the territory a little, Burness and I hired bicycles and visited other temples that looked interesting, and also went way off the main tracks to obscure temples, most of which were climbable, and were joyously free of touts trying to sell us lacquerware bowls.

So Bagan is something quite amazing to behold. My final impression never wavered from my first. Whether sitting on an 800-year-old brick temple and viewing the stunning temple-strewn countryside scene, or whether exploring down dusty tracks and stumbling upon a gang of unnamed temples, it is a wonderful experience. Wonderful, yes, but is it a Wonder. And here's the rub.

You see, Bagan forces me to think hard about my definition of what a Wonder is. Because everything I have described so far is a sprawling area the size of Manhattan with around 3000 brick ruins. Can that be described as a single Wonder? I would never consider Manhattan Island to be a single Wonder; instead I have selected both the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty as candidates, with Manhattan being the impressive surrounding context. But perhaps comparing a modern city to a set of ancient ruins is disingenuous. Nonetheless, I find it hard to reconcile Bagan with being a single sight - and I feel a Wonder should be a single sight. A Wonder doesn't need to be a single building, but it needs to be a relatively compact entity of associated buildings. Bagan might have been built by one kingdom, but it was built over hundreds of years by many different kings, and is a series of buildings rather than a specially designed set of buildings.

The overall site of Angkor in Cambodia, filled with ruined temples and other buildings, is by some estimates twice the size of Paris. But in the case of Angkor, it has one magnificent and dominant building that steals the show - Angkor Wat. Angkor has plenty of other amazing sights, but Angkor Wat is the focus, and thus the Wonder. That it has such an amazing backdrop only enhances it. Bagan has plenty of great temples, but no show-stealer. If it had an Angkor Wat, or a Great Pyramid, or a Borobudur, these would be the Wonder and the rest of Bagan would be considered the amazing surrounding context. But lacks a single structure that defines the rest of the site.

As you can tell, I don't feel that Bagan qualifies as a Wonder. As a tourist attraction, I can unquestionably and unhesitatingly recommend it, and can say that so far it is one of the best things I have seen. Sitting on top of a temple, watching the sun set over a city of ruined temples surrounded by thick green undergrowth, is an amazing experience. Bagan is packed full of mystery, of history, of evocative ruins, and exploration. Perhaps one day I will tour the world to select the best cities, ruined or otherwise, and Bagan will have a strong feature. But for now, it can't qualify as a single Wonder...

...except, it kind of can. Or rather, by focussing on what I think is the best temple there, Bagan can be counted as the surrounding context. Because context is an important part of what I regard to be the criteria of a Wonder, and Bagan being such a strong backdrop significantly enhances a temple that in isolation might not be regarded so strongly. Therefore, I have decided to replace Bagan as my candidate Wonder with the Ananda temple. And my next entry will focus on this.

Edit: This decision was later overturned, and the entire ruins of Bagan reinstalled as a Wonder.

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