Monday, October 13, 2008

Myanmar: Twenty-eight Days in the Golden Land of Burma (Part IV)

"Pagan in many respects is the most remarkable religious city in the world. Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of these can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament that make marvellous the deserted capital on the Irrawaddy ... the whole space is thickly studded with pagodas of all sizes and shapes, and the very ground is so thickly covered with crumbling remnants of vanished shrines, that according to the popular saying you cannot move foot or hand without touching a sacred thing." - Sir James Scott, in 'The Burman: His Life and Notions'.

Chapter Four - Bagan - Thousands of temples jostling for space

Just imagine yourself standing at an elevated point looking out over vast, green plains which are all around you. This silent, green expanse is liberally dotted with brown pagodas, some of which are so imposing you won't be occupied with anything but gazing at them. That's exactly what we saw and did when we visited the archaeological zone of Bagan.

The temple plain of BaganFor those who find history dull I have bad news: you need to read up on it at least a bit, otherwise you'll miss the point of why so many monuments were built there. So here's an introduction.

Bagan was established around 849AD and, from the 11th century to the end of the 13th, was the capital of a region roughly the size of present Myanmar. King Anawrahta, who ascended the throne in 1044, led the city to its prime.

Shin Arahan, a young monk from the Mon capital Thaton, travelled north to live as a hermit in the woods near Bagan. Somehow the king heard about and developed an interest in the monk and invited him to his palace to discover what this stranger was up to. The young man introduced Theravada Buddhism to the monarch, who at that time was trying to eradicate all the animistic and Tantric beliefs in his empire. He saw an opportunity to introduce a common religion - which, he figured, would bring unity and thereby reinforce his power - and developed such an unhealthy interest in this form of Buddhism that he requested several manuscripts and relics from the Mon king, Manuha. When Manuha refused, Anawrahta didn't hesitate. He marched his army south and conquered Thaton, carting off 30 sets of the Tripitaka (classic Buddhist scriptures) as well as 30,000 prisoners who included all kinds of craftsmen, animal trainers, weaponry experts, cooks, monks, scholars and even King Manuha himself!

The presence of all these Mon people skilled in each and every art and craft allowed King Anawrahta to embark on an unequalled building frenzy which marked the start of what is generally referred to as the First Burmese Empire. This phenomenal construction programme was continued by Anawrahta's successors (and in particular by Kyanzittha, Alaungsithu and Narapatisithu) and Bagan became a great centre for learning and pilgrimage.

About two centuries later, in 1287, Bagan was taken in by the Mongols of Kublai Khan (whether peaceably or by force is still a point of discussion). By that time over 12,000 temples and other structures had been built on this vast plain near the Ayeyarwady river!

Many of the buildings have since disappeared. The ravages of time, demolition, human destruction, earthquakes and the change of course of the river have all taken their toll, but thanks to the prevailing dry climate some 2,200 identifiable sites still remain - more than enough to keep any temple enthusiast well occupied!

We didn't stay very long. It's too easy to become 'templed out' in this country, let me warn you! If you cram in too many temple visits at any one place you'll regret it; by the end of your trip, visiting any but the most impressive payas will feel like a drag! I think we saw all the principal monuments during the two days we spent in the archaeological zone, and that was quite sufficient.

More than enough books describing the temples of Bagan have been written. There is no point doing the same again here but I cannot resist mentioning the highlights - in no particular order.

The Manuha Paya, named after and built by the Mon king of Thaton, is truly incredible! One reclining and three sitting Buddhas are crammed into separate rooms which appear to be too small for the huge statues. It is generally assumed this was done on purpose to represent the emperor's feeling of captivity.

Virtually next door to the Manuha Paya stands the beautiful Nan Paya. It is thought that it used to be the palace of the Mon king before it was converted into a temple. Relatively recent statues of Manuha and his queen, in a small pavilion along the path leading to the entrance of the pagoda, illustrate this belief. Inside are four pillars decorated with exceptionally fine bas-reliefs. Most of all I'll remember the Nan Paya for the fact that, despite the warning sign, I managed to hit my head on the iron entry gate, resulting in a nice lump.

BupayaThe Payathonzu, Abeyadana Paya and Gubyaukgyi Paya are interesting for their frescoes. No doubt they were once very beautiful but I've seen better. I found them a bit too washed out to enrapture me. Moreover, power outages are everyday events in Bagan so chances are you'll only see the paintings by the light of a candle or flashlight.

Photography is not allowed in any temple containing murals, although a nice tip could probably persuade the caretakers. Remember, though, that the prohibition is there for a reason and that the guards might lose their job (or could even be taken to jail!) for allowing tourists to take pictures. Inside the Gubyaukgyi some good books about Bagan are available for a fair price.

Probably dating back to the 9th century, the gilded Pyu-style Bupaya is possibly the oldest monument in Bagan. It's an attractive spot looking out over the Ayeyarwady and a good place to watch the locals. If you want to take pictures, a small camera fee applies.

The giant Archaeological Museum is a majestic new building with a well-kept little park in front. Whether or not you should go and visit it is entirely up to you. It's government-owned, the admission fee a steep $5 and the collection modest but it's all very nicely presented, educative and the people working there are wonderfully friendly. If you decide to see it, it's best to go before you go to the temples because in the museum you'll gather a lot of background information, necessary to fully appreciate and understand the monuments.

The Gawdawpalin Pahto, opposite the museum, is one of the bigger temples of Bagan. It used to provide a great view from its upper terraces but in 1994 the Department of Archaeology prohibited climbing the most important monuments in order to protect them.

The same prohibition is enforced at Thatbyinnyu Pahto (or Temple of Omniscience), at 61 metres (200 feet) the tallest temple. To get an idea of its enormity: of every 10,000 bricks used, the constructors took one to keep track of the total. With the stones thus collected they built the so-called 'Tally Zedi', which is by no means small.

A good view of the Thatbyinnyu temple as well as the other surrounding monuments can be had from the nearby, though considerably smaller, Shwegugyi Pahto built by King Alaungsithu. He was smothered in it by his own son, Narathu, so you're effectively walking around a murder scene. Other good places for views across the plains are Mingalazedi and the lesser-known Tayougepye Paya near Payathonzu, but the best is Shwesandaw Paya. The vistas from the upper terrace are simply stunning. We were unlucky that clouds prevented a nice sunset but if they hadn't, this would have been the place from which to observe it. Be careful, though... It's quite a climb up, and the stairs are steep enough to be termed dangerous even in broad daylight, never mind in the dark of night.

The beautiful red-and-white Shwesandaw was erected by Anawrahta upon returning from Thaton and enshrines a couple of hairs of the Buddha. Its hti (the umbrella-like topping over almost all Burmese pagodas) came down during the 1975 quake. It can still be seen lying where it landed.
Right 'next door' is a building housing the Shinbinthalyaung image, an 18 metres (59 ft) long reclining Buddha which is worth a look.

For most people the highlight of the Bagan temples is the whitewashed Ananda Pahto. In and around it alone you could easily spend several hours. It's very beautiful and, the 1975 earthquake notwithstanding, quite well preserved. In my personal opinion the absolute masterpiece, however, is the Shwezigon Paya. It's not only extremely beautiful, it's also one of the holiest shrines in the entire country as well as the prototype of the Burman ('Bhamar') pagodas. Commenced by King Anawrahta it was to become the most important reliquary shrine in Bagan; it houses some bones and a replica of a tooth of the Buddha. Impressive covered walkways - it's more appropriate to call them 'covered streets' (!) - lead up to the stupa. The main one is full of people trying to sell you all kinds of souvenirs. As it's one of the principal monuments the hawkers here are extremely persistent. Beware - and this goes for other sites in Bagan as well - of children who walk up to you and try to attach a pin (often in the shape of a butterfly) to your shirt, saying it's a present. It's not a gift! As soon as the thing has been pinned on, they'll start asking for money. No matter how innocent these kids may appear to be, keep in mind that's their job!

There's another little scam going on: some kid will ask you where you're from and then tell you (s)he has some coins which were given to him/her by a fellow countryman of yours, and would you mind changing them because the banks do not accept them. At first you're unaware you're being deceived, so you probably will change that small amount for them. You only realise the fraud when other children arrive asking for coins "for my collection"!

The Shwezigon is a true photographer's paradise. The whole building complex is very photogenic and always has its share of devotees. If you take a picture of a monk or novice, chances are high they'll come over to demand a reward. They'll even offer to pose. At both the Ananda and Shwezigon you must pay a K30 camera fee (slightly more if you have a video camera).

If Thatbyinnyu is the highest and Ananda generally acknowledged as the most beautiful temple, then Dhammayangyi is the most massive. It's also the most mystifying, for it contains an intriguing puzzle: why is the innermost of two parallel vaulted corridors, running along the four sides, closed off? And when did this happen? Possibly after the death of King Narathu; the labourers may have filled it up as a form of revenge for his cruelty. Narathu insisted on such a perfect brickwork that he chopped off the hands of the workers if he could insert a pin between the joints - the masonry of the Dhammayangyi Pahto is indeed perfect. Several solutions to the mystery have been offered but so far none of them can be proven.
Like most monuments in Bagan, I found the building much more beautiful on the outside than the inside. It used to be possible to climb to the top of it, but as with the other major temples this is no longer the case. Inside, one can climb some dangerously steep steps leading up to a higher floor but there's really no point in doing so.

The Htilominlo and Sulamani Pahtos are definitely worth a visit and so is the Dhammayazika Paya, which at first sight looks very similar to the Shwezigon. This striking pagoda, which recently had a complete overhaul sponsored by the military, is rather unusual because it has a pentagonal ground-plan. The fifth aspect adds the future Buddha, Matreya, to the traditional concept of four sides representing the past and present Buddhas. Photography here will only set you back K25.

Wandering around the ruins, I came to the conclusion that the desolate feeling which is often described in older books and manuscripts no longer exists. Even though Bagan is not trodden all over, there are enough other tourists around to take away the impression of solitude. And if they don't, the hundreds of souvenir sellers who hang out at even the smallest of temples certainly do.

In terms of persistence these hawkers are the worst I've ever encountered! Even if you say a hundred times you don't want anything they're trying to sell you, they'll still continue asking the same over and over again: "Do you want to buy? Very cheap!", "Please buy. I want to sell.", "This is my shop. Wanna look? Just looking!", "You're very handsome! Do you want to look at my shop?", "You very beautiful",...
They're extremely persistent but never become offensive or angry; I've seen different! Actually, some of the girls and women (in 95% of the cases the salespeople are female) are kind of funny, in a cute way. Some of the stuff they sell is quite all right too: 'opium' scales and weights, statuettes made of brick or bone and all kinds of lacquerware, for which Bagan is famous. There are many workshops producing countless lacquered items. If you plan to buy some, this is the place to do so! The quality is very good and the prices are often low, especially if you bargain hard. I bought from a family I met at the Mahabodhi Temple. They had a decent stall set up near the entrance. I started talking to them because they appeared to me to be both very friendly people but also somewhat reserved and sad. I asked if they'd had a bad day so far. They confirmed my suspicions and said business had been much better in the past, when they had a shop in the village of Old Bagan. Being forced to move out of their home, they now had to be content with a simple stall.

Local people used to live amidst the ruins of (Old) Bagan. In 1990, however, the government decided they had to be relocated, allegedly for the excavation of an old palace, the benefit of tourists and preservation of the monuments. The entire population of the village was moved to a spot designated by the military, right in the middle of a peanut field - an action which is frequently used as an example to illustrate the ruthlessness of the regime. It's not unique, though, to prohibit habitation in or around ancient monuments, for humans have a tendency to destroy their patrimony rather than preserve it - wittingly or unwittingly. For instance, in Petra (Jordan) Bedouins had been living in the ancient rock city for centuries when they heard they needed to move out. They didn't like it a bit - how would you feel? - but the world's heritage needs to be protected. In this respect I can well understand a government taking measures to preserve it, if relocation is spread over a reasonable period of time rather than virtually overnight, and if affected families are compensated for their losses - neither of which happened with Old Bagan.

To send some postcards we went to the little post office not far from the Lawkananda Paya. None of the cards ever reached their destinations. Something happened to them, but what? Will we ever know ...?

The Thirinandar Cafe is a good place to go for a cup of tea and a sweet snack. The attitude towards foreigners there cannot exactly be called welcoming, but it's OK anyway. Allegedly the best place to eat in Bagan is the Nanda Wun Restaurant. It's pleasantly situated right on the bank of the Ayeyarwady river and a particularly cosy spot in the evenings. The food is good, not fantastic but good, and the service is excellent though rather unfriendly.

The great thing about dining in Burma is that even if you choose to eat at the most expensive restaurant, it's still dead cheap for most of us but you have the enormous advantage of being able to savour some of the better food; and most importantly you'll have the highest certainty of eating safe food. Now I would never go and eat at fancy, expensive joints just to get the best and most healthy food but when I can get an excellent meal including soup, main dish and three drinks for just three or four dollars, I'm not complaining! Besides, eating places in Myanmar are never posh.

If you prefer Burmese food to Chinese then the Pwinl Mar Tar Restaurant, east of the market of New Bagan, is the place to head for. It's owned by a nice family and offers true home-cooking. You'll be able to taste twenty-odd different dishes, all offered on separate little plates. As far as Burmese eateries go, this must be one of the best. Personally, I didn't like Burmese food that much; it's too greasy for my taste. If you eat it every day your cholesterol level will rise considerably!

On the third day of our stay in Bagan we headed to nearby Salay. One of the boys working in the Silver Moon Hotel came along. A reasonable road, lined with palm trees, follows the Ayeyarwady river. Approaching the town of Chauk, I noticed several pumps slowly extracting oil from underground reserves as they have done since British times. This is the oil drilling district of Myanmar. A pipeline transports the crude oil to a refinery in Chauk. On a small hill on the outskirts of town lies the tranquil Maha Aye Zedi Monastery. We went up after meeting a couple of friendly monks at the bottom of the covered stairway leading up to it. Foreigners are still very much a novelty there; it made for a nice, hassle-free visit. The views from the monastery are good, looking out over Chauk and a small village.

Salay is often referred to as "Bagan's twin city" because many monuments dating back to the same era can be seen. We decided to have only a brief look at them because if you've just spent two days in Bagan, you've seen the best of that period.

Instead we concentrated on the other sights the town has to offer. Regardless of whether one visits the ruins or not, entering the 'archaeological zone' means purchasing a $3 ticket. First we went to the Yoe Soe Kyaung, the oldest surviving wooden monastery in the area. It's rightfully famous for the splendid antique carvings adorning two sides of the 23 metres (75 ft) long hall, which is supported by 170 teak pillars. In 1994 the monastery was turned into a museum after restoration; inside many old religious objects are on display.
Nearby is the Nan Paya, probably the largest lacquer Buddha in the country. This means it's big, but not as big as we expected it to be after reading in the Lonely Planet guide that "the fingertips alone measure about two metres high"; this is just not true. I think the total height of the Buddha is about three metres (10 ft). Legend has it that it was thrown into the river somewhere in the Shan state and, because of its bamboo framework, drifted downstream. When the people near Salay saw it floating by, they fished it out of the water and re-erected it where it is today. It's a beautiful figure and the shrine in which it's housed has a peaceful atmosphere.

A path leads to the Thartana Yaunggyi Kyaung, an old wooden monastery where only five monks reside. They specialise in meditation techniques; Buddhist laymen can attend. The monks were very friendly, especially the abbot. Whilst he and his fellow brothers were enjoying their only meal of the day, we could wander around at will. When he had finished he explained about the monastery and various antique objects such as a painted piece of library furniture containing old palm leaf scriptures. He also taught us how to donate money to a monk properly, as they're not allowed to touch it: kneel in front of him with your feet pointing away, put the money on a (silver) plate and present it to him with both of your hands holding the plate. Don't look at him; be humble: bow and look down. The monk will take the plate. Hold on to it; the monk will utter a prayer. Only when he's finished do you let go of the plate. A novice will take the money away.

The weather was more than acceptable for the third day in a row so we thought we'd better take advantage of it and continued to fabled Mount Popa, the legendary birthplace of the 37 nats. Mt Popa is actually the name of a 1,518 metres (4,981 ft) high mountain - the highest of the Bago range - but the name is usually associated with the solitary volcanic outcrop rising abruptly out of the surrounding landscape about halfway up the mountain. The fertile volcanic ash covering the mountain slopes combined with the moisture the peak captures due to its height ensure that flowers grow abundantly. When centuries ago the people saw the mountain in bloom in this otherwise dry area they deduced this had to be caused by the interference of supernatural beings - the nats. Mt Popa is recognised as their abode and is the most important pilgrimage spot for nat worship adherents.

Contrary to what I expected, the main sanctuary is at the base of the rock, not on top of it. In the Mahagiri shrine the 37 nats are on display in the form of beautifully dressed mannequin-like figures. Two large stone elephants stand on either side of the stairway leading up. The covered, winding walkway is lined with little stalls selling all the usual religious attributes, as well as food for the hundreds of monkeys that live on the rock. These long-tailed kleptomaniacs can be quite aggressive, so be careful, and they defecate anywhere they like, so watch your steps.

The climb up is not so hard, in contrast to what's often written in the guidebooks. Perhaps if you're elderly or disabled, but otherwise you should easily make it to the top in twenty minutes, provided you don't pause along the way, for example to absorb the fantastic views, which are even better from the top. They're the only reason to make the ascent because other than the stunning panoramas there's not a great deal to see up there. The shrines are beautiful but of recent date.

On the drive back to Bagan I had an interesting discussion about religion with Phone Kyaw and the hotel boy. In the meantime I didn't forget to look out of the window; the route from Mt Popa is very scenic with lots of palm trees. Most of these trees are owned by someone who employs the poorer people living in this region to tap the toddy, the sweet palm juice. I'd seen toddy tapping before, in Sri Lanka. The difference is that here the sap is primarily used to produce a sweet kind of candy instead of the alcoholic drink which in Sri Lanka is called Arak. The tappers in Burma don't perform the acrobatic feats of their Sinhalese colleagues. They use a ladder to get up the palm's trunk and they don't walk around on ropes in the tops but stick to one tree.

We stopped at one of the small tappers' huts along the road and were shown by the friendly family how the juice is collected and the candy prepared. For only a little money I bought some of the sweets which are widely regarded as having a soothing effect on the stomach.

In Myanmar there's virtually nothing going on in the night time. Until about 8 or 9 pm one can go to a restaurant or café/tea shop but that's it. In Bagan it's no different, but a marionettes and dance show is staged in one of the hotels. We heard it was $8 per person (incl. a meal), which is expensive by Burmese standards. Phone Kyaw told us we could enjoy better and cheaper performances in Mandalay and Yangon. After supper we confined ourselves to our hotel for the rest of the evening. There we talked about the things we'd seen that day, and I continued the religion discussion with Phone Kyaw and the room boy (whose name I can't remember no matter how hard I try). All in all, I enjoyed myself just as much as when we'd gone to a dance show. A lot of the joy in a visit to this country really comes from talking to and observing the people. They're so wonderful!...

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