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      Classifying the ancient monuments of Bagan by style and age is made difficult by the vast number of archaeological sites. The official count by the end of the 13th century is said to have been 4446. By 1901 surveys found 2157 monuments still standing and identifiable. According to resident Burmese archaeologist U Aung Kyaing, the last count was taken in 1978, when archaeologists found 2230 identifiable sites, however, most contemporary references on the subject quote a figure of 2217. These figures do not include brick mounds, which would give a total of nearly 4000 separate visible sites.
art_01 The sheer variety of motifs and measurements to be studied also presents a challenge, though certain unifying factors can be found throughout. For the most part, the proliferation of temples, stupas (Buddhist religious monuments) and kyaungs (monasteries) are constructed of fired brick covered with plaster and decorated with stucco relief, polychromatic murals and glazed tiles. Sculpture materials included bronze, teak, brick and stucco, sandstone and lacquer. The most delicate of these media, the mural paintings, are endangered by the peeling of the plaster behind them, droppings left by bats and soot from cooking fires lit during WWII, when the Burmese sought shelter inside the monuments.
Temple paintings of such figures as Avalokitesvara, Manjusri and Shiva show an unmistakable Mahayana, and possibly tantric, influence. Much of the mural work at Bagan is thought to be similar to how the interiors of Buddhist temples in North-Eastern India may have appeared during the late Pala period, before their destruction at the hands of Muslim invaders.

Looting & Restoration

Looters have made away with many of the sculptures and other religious objects once contained in the monuments. In the 1890s, a German oilman removed glazed plaques from Mingalazedi, Dhammayazika and Somingyi, as well as Vishnu figures from Natlaung Kyaung, all of which ended up at the Berlin Volkerkunde Museum. Around the same time, another German, Th H Thomann took some of the finest mural paintings known in Bagan from Wetkyi-in's Gubyaukgyi and Theinmazi Pahto. The latter were sold to the Hamburg Ethnographical Museum; the exquisite Wetkyi-in paintings never resurfaced (fortunately Thomann left some murals behind, and they're still visible today).
      Another complication comes in deciding what's original and what's been added or reformed since the Bagan period. Restorations of several monuments, for example, were under way when British diplomat Michael Symes visited Bagan in 1795. Although, for the most part, writings from the colonial era show a great appreciation for Bagan art and architecture, the British did very little to further Bagan archaeology in terms of excavation or exploration.


An example of the early carelessness with which research was carried out can be found in the early 1900s' art_03 Archaeological Survey of India. During the survey, a representative from Yangon was accompanied by a local village headman who identified the monuments. When the headman didn't know a monument's name, he simply made one up to please the representative! Many of these names are still in use today.
      It wasn't until a couple of decades later that inscriptions were seriously examined to learn Bagan's historical context. The eminent Cambridge scholar GH Luce published a pre-WWII three volume study of the Early Bagan period monuments entitled Old Burma-Early Pagan that stands as the classic work. A well researched art history of Bagan was finally carried out by Scotland's Paul Strachan in 1986 and 1987. Strachan published the results in his book Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma, in which he divides everything from artefacts to buildings into three stylistic periods: Early (circa 850 to 1120), Middle (circa 1100 to 1170) and Late (circa 1170 to 1300).
      The book has its flaws: for example, the author questions why the reclining Buddha next to Shwesandaw Paya couldn't have been lying on its left side instead of its right - an alternative that would have been a violation of classical Buddhist iconography never dared in Myanmar. Nonetheless, it is a very welcome addition to the literature on Bagan.
      Strachan's book notwithstanding, no thorough archaeological study has been published since Myanmar's 1948 independence. UNESCO's work focuses on restoration rather than excavation or archaeology; this was perhaps mandated by government fears of any deep historical studies.
      Pierre Pichard, an archaeologist from the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO), the same faculty responsible for most of the authoritative work on Angkor and Champa in Idochina, has been working on a new treatise on the archaeology of Bagan for the last 20 years or so. The initial results of his study have appeared in the six volume Inventory of Monuments at Bagan , which provides schematic diagrams of many of the Bagan religious ruins. If and when Pichard takes his work any further, it may very well bring with it a whole new set of intriguing theories about the origins and demise of the kingdom of Bagan.


Though there are a number of distinct architectural styles at Bagan, it is easy even for amateurs to trace the developments of temple design over the 240 years of construction. Buildings are primarily either solid zedis (stupas) or hollow pahtos (temples or shrines). The latter large, square buildings, containing arched passageways, are sometimes referred to as temples in their English names. A zedi customarily houses some relic from the Buddha (hair, tooth or bone), while the focal point of a pahto will be a number of Buddha images. The zedis can be seen in an earlier, more bulbous style and in a clearly Sinhalese design before they evolved into the more distinctively Burmese pattern.
art_02       Early pahtos were heavily influenced by late Pyu architecture, as characterised by the monuments of Bebe and Leimyethna at Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra) near Pyay (Prome). These early square temples are charaterised by their perforated windows and dimly lit interiors. The common Burmese view holds that these early Bagan styles are Mon-style buildings, created by Mon architects imported from Thaton after its conquest, although no such architecture exists in the Mon lowlands. The latest theories suggest the Mon influence at Bagan was primarily confined to the religious and literary spheres, rather than the artistic or architectural. Bagan's kings looked instead to the Pyu kingdoms, and to India, for architectural inspiration.
      The pahtos can be primarily divided into two types: those having one entrance to a vaulted inner area, and few windows, and those having four entrances with images around a central cube. The smaller pahto, characteristic of early Bagan, is often called a gu or ku (Pali-Burmese for cave temple); these monuments are particularly common around the town of Nyaung U. Seventeen pentagonal monuments - considered the earliest known five-sided buildings in the world - have also been found at Bagan.
      Later pahtos added Indian design elements to the mix, to produce a truly Burmese design in bright and well lit pahtos like Gawdawpalin, Htilominlo and Thatbyinnyu. Ananda and Dhammayangyi are examples of an earlier transitional phase; indeed, the Ananda is thought by some to have been built by importe../../../myanmarinfo/art/d Indian labour. _br__nbsp.css;     Other unique structures include the pitaka taik (Buddhist scripture library), thein (ordination hall) and kyaung. These are buildings that would normally have been constructed of wood, and therefore would have disappeared; fortunately, a few were constructed of brick and stone. Monastery buildings served as living quarters and meditation cells for resident monks. At one time, much of the ground space between all the monuments visible today was filled with wooden monastery buildings, said to rival or even exceed the royal palace in design.

Old Bagan
Ananda Pahto

art_04 One of the finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples, Ananda suffered considerable damage in the 1975 earthquake but has been totally restored. Thought to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period. In 1990 on the 900th anniversary of the temple's construction, the temple spires were gilded. The remainder of the temple exterior is whitewashed from time to time.
      The central square measures 53m along each side, while the superstructure rises in terraces to a decorative hti (umbrella-like decorated top) 51m above the ground. The entranceways make the structure a perfect Greek cross; each entrance is crowned with a stupa finial. The base and the terraces are decorated with 554 glazed tiles showing jataka scenes (life stories of the Buddha), thought to be derived from Mon texts. Huge carved teak doors separate interior halls from cross passages on all four sides.
      Facing outward from the centre of the cube, four 9.5m standing Buddhas represent the four Buddhas who have attained nibbana (nirvana). Only the Bagan-style images facing north and south are original; both display the dhammachakka mudra (a hand position symbolising the Buddha's first sermon). The other two images are replacements for figures destroyed by fire. All four have bodies of solid teak, though guides may claim the southern image is made of a bronze alloy. Guides like to point out that if you stand by the donation box in front of the original southern Buddha, his face looks sad, while from a distance he tends to look mirthful. The eastern and western standing Buddha images are done in the later Konbaung, or Mandalay, style.
      A small nut-like sphere held between thumb and middle finger of the east-facing image is said to resemble a herbal pill, and may represent the Buddha offering dhamma (Buddhist philosophy) as a cure for suffering. Both arms hang at the image's sides with hands outstretched, a mudra unknown to traditional Buddhist sculpture outside this temple. The west-facing Buddha features the abhaya mudra (the hands outstretched, in the gesture of no fear).
      At the feet of the standing Buddha, in the western sanctum, sit two life-size lacquer statues, said to represent King Kyanzittha and Shin Arahan, the Mon monk who initiated the king into Theravada Buddhism. Inside the western portico are two Buddha footprint symbols on pedestals.
      The British built a brick museum next to Ananda Pahto in 1904 in the provincial colonial style. It's now used as a storage facility and is closed to the public. Around the old museum stand a few ordination markers, inscribed stelae and Buddha images.
      On the full moon of Pyatho (December/January), a huge paya pwe (paya festival) attracts thousands to Ananda. Up to 1000 monks chant day and night during the three days of the festival.

Ananda Ok Kyaung

The name of the smaller vihara (Pali-Sanskrit word for sanctuary or chapel for Buddha images), next door to Ananda Pahto, means Ananda brick monastery. It's one of the few surviving brick monastery buildings from the Early Bagan era. The interior of the building is lined with well preserved murals, whose colour palette stretches beyond the traditional brown, black and dull red to include a brighter red, plus a little green here and there. The paintings depict everyday scenes from the Bagan period, including Arab traders, market vignettes, bathing and cooking, and musicians playing saing waing (Burmese drums) and saung gauq (Burmese harp).
      Although the building is often locked, someone around the temple should have the keys to let you in.

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