Built by the kings of the Pagan Empire, the existing temples of Bagan have outlasted pillaging armies and natural disasters.
It almost seems like time has stopped inside this former capital of the Pagan Kingdom. In the present-day village of Bagan in central Myanmar (formerly Burma), ancient spires from 12th and 13th-century Buddhist temples still stretch skyward near the shores of the Irrawaddy River in Southeast Asia.
Today, more than 2,200 temples stretch across the 26-square-mile plain of Old Bagan. These include the remains of more than 10,000 religious monuments constructed during the peak of the Pagan Empire. The sacred landscape here reflects the devotion and merit of the early Buddhists that resided in the area.
It's a wonder the ancient temples are still standing, especially since Bagan sits near the Sagaing Fault, a tectonically active area. An especially large quake in 1975 nearly decimated 94 temples all by itself.
"It was a loud roar like the sea," recalled one English archaeologist of the massive earthquake. "Then the pagodas went off, one after the other. First there was a cloud of dust and then, like water cascading, down the sides came bricks, stones, and sand."
At the time, the country was isolated from the rest of the world by its military dictatorship, and so the outside world wasn't aware of the damage until days later.
Major repairs didn't begin for another 20 years; since 1995, more than 1,300 structures have been either rebuilt or massively repaired. Some preservationists have criticized the shoddy workmanship and historically inaccurate repair methods.
Regardless, in 2019 Bagan recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site — 24 years after the military government first nominated it in 1995.
Temples Built Under Pagan Rule
Most of the ancient temples were built between 1057 and 1287 under King Anawrahta, who formed the first Burmese kingdom. Anawrahta also introduced his people to Theravāda, the oldest extant school of Buddhism. This became the dominant religion and the cultural catalyst for the Pagan Empire.
The Theravāda Buddhist tradition of merit-making spurred rapid temple construction. Merit-making is a concept that focuses on good deeds — but also emphasizes using wealth for generosity. Accumulating wealth for giving purposes became a spiritual practice.
Aside from temples, some other monuments in Bagan are called stupas or pagodas — large structures often with a relic chamber inside. Anawrahta built the Shwezigon Pagoda, which houses a replica of an important Buddhist relic: a tooth of Buddha himself.
Subsequent kings commissioned temples of their own. The next king of Bagan, Sawlu (reigning 1077-1084), was the son of Anawratha. He was incompetent and ultimately assassinated. After Sawlu, another son of Anawratha took the throne. Kyanzittha reigned from 1084 to 1113 and built many temples, but the most iconic of them was the Ananda Temple.
Following Kyanzittha was King Alaungsithu, whose son, Narathu, murdered him for the throne. Narathu reigned for three short but chaotic years and built the largest temple in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi.
Several generations later, Narathihapate was the last true king of Pagan, ruling over modern-day Myanmar for more than three decades until 1287 — when the Mongols invaded.
Fall Of The Pagan Kingdom
The Pagan kingdom began its decline in the mid-13th century, as the powerful few increasingly seized dwindling resources for themselves. Leaders wanted to keep accumulating religious merit, but they'd run out of room to expand their lands. Merit-making donations kept rolling in, as Buddhists looked to overcome apathy through virtue.
By now, a significant area of Upper Burma's arable land had been donated to religion for merit. When the throne lost this essential resource, it was the beginning of the end.
In 1271, Mongol ruler Kublai Khan sent his representatives to request tribute from Pagan, but Narathihapate refused. Khan sent more reps out the next year, but either Narathihapate executed them or bandits killed them. Either way, they didn't return to Kublai Khan.
This ultimately triggered the Battle of Ngasaunggyan, remembered mainly by Marco Polo's written accounts.
The Battle of Ngassaunggyan was the first of three battles fought between the two empires. By the end of it all, the Mongols had successfully conquered the Pagan Empire. It was the end of the end.
Though the empire fell, its 250-year success in dominating over the Irrawaddy Valley was not in vain. It birthed the Burmese language and unified its people under Theravāda Buddhism, still practiced by the vast majority of the country. Bagan's temples stand in tribute to the lost kingdom.
The Temples Of Bagan Today
Today in Bagan, the remaining examples of ancient Buddhist architecture are still distinctive and awe-inspiring. The monuments have retained most of their original form and design, even though the building techniques and materials haven't always been historically accurate.
Nevertheless, the setting is breathtaking. The Bagan plain is partially covered in trees, and flanked by the bend of the Irrawaddy River. Distant mountains frame the scene of hundreds of temple silhouettes rising above the tree line. Some show their age with grass and brush spurting out of their cracks, while others shine in golden gilded glory.
The interiors are just as beautiful. Many contain frescoes, carvings, or magnificent statues of Buddha. It makes you wonder if the Buddhists and kings responsible for all these gorgeous monuments received whatever merits they were looking for in the afterlife. At any rate, their descendants — and the rest of us — are still awed by their beauty and grandeur.
Built by the kings of the Pagan Empire, these temples have withstood plenty of pillaging armies and natural disasters — another major earthquake hit them in 2016. Only a handful of the temples are regularly visited, but tourists are starting to catch on to their ancient beauty.
Aside from a golf course, one paved highway, and a 200-foot watchtower, Old Bagan remains a largely undisturbed mecca of historic architecture.
Next, take a look at these 1,000-year-old artifacts found under ancient Mayan ruins. Then, check out the Buddhist temple "guarded" by 1,200 adorable statues.