Temple Guide to Bagan
Posted: July 2013

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Foreword: We're travellers, not historians. We've gathered snippets from here and there and put this together for you. For more information relating to each of the temples, follow the relevant link.

History
Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, in the Mandalay Region of Burma, lies the ancient city of Bagan. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and the political, economic and cultural nerve center of the Pagan Empire. During the kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries, the wealthy Pagan rulers commissioned thousands of temples to be built in the Bagan plains. It is estimated that over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries once stood on this 100 square km plain in central Myanmar, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.

Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid 9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan's rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments in the Bagan plains. The prosperous city grew in size and grandeur, and became a cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies. Monks and scholars from as far as India, Ceylon as well as the Khmer Empire came to Bagan to study prosody, phonology, grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and law.

Bagan's golden age ended in 1287 when the Kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained amongst the ruins of the once larger city. New religious monuments still went up to the mid-15th century but afterward, temple constructions slowed to a trickle with less than 200 temples built between the 15th and 20th centuries. The old capital continued to be a pilgrimage destination but pilgrimage was focused only on the most prominent temples. The rest thousands of less famous, out-of-the-way temples fell into disrepair, and most did not survive the test of time. Others were consumed by natural calamities, such as earthquakes.

In present day, only a few dozen temples are regularly up kept. In the 1990s, the government made an effort to restore many of these damaged pagodas, but the failure to retain the original architectural styles and the use of modern materials drew widespread condemnation from art historians and preservationists worldwide. Bagan had to pay the price of the government's irresponsible act when UNESCO rejected the city as a designation for World Heritage Site due to the un-historic way the temples were restored, although the government believes that the ancient capital's hundreds of unrestored temples and large corpus of stone inscriptions were more than sufficient to win the designation.

Temples
There are so many temples to see and for us we simply followed our instinct on the first day, returning to compare map and guide book to see which of the temples we had visited.

These are the important ones recommended by nearly all tourist maps.

Ananda Temple
Bagan's holiest temple, built by the third king, Kyan-zit-tha in 1091. Ananda comes from the Pali word "anantapannya", which means "boundless wisdom". The temple houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, which represent the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. The fifth, Maitreya, is yet to appear. This is the most important temple in all of Bagan. Location: Left side on the southern stretch of the Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. just before the road heads to Tharaba Gate of Old Bagan. [more]

Shwesandaw Temple
This is the "sunset temple", where foreign and Burmese tourists alike gather every evening to view the spectacular Bagan sunset. Get here early, as the top levels are small and space is scarce. There are many peddlers around the temple selling T-shirts, drinks and souvenirs. The climb up is a reasonably easy 5 minute walk up a flight of stairs, but the steps get narrower and steeper near the top. Not recommended for those with vertigo, but if you can make the climb, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking sunset as the the temples and landscape are set ablaze in golden sunrays. A good compromise is to climb to the 3rd or 2nd highest level, where the steps are much more manageable than the topmost level, is less crowded, and the view is just as good. It starts getting crowded here as early as 4:30pm, so consider taking a view from the Shwe-Gu-Gyi temple nearby instead (easily passable if on bike).

Shwe Zigon Temple 
This gourd-stupaed golden pagoda is the first and prototype monument (including for the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon) built in Myanmar style in 1087. Careful on the stall vendors, they are the pros employing hard sell psycho tactics. Location: Heading south, right side on the northern stretch of the Bagan-Nyaung Rd. after passing the bus station. A long covered walkway with souvenir stalls starts from the road to the compound.

Thatbyinnyu Temple
The tallest pagoda measuring 66 meters built in the 12th century. Location: Left side after entering the Tharaba Gate of Old Bagan, the second road.

Shwegugyi Temple
Commissioned by King Alaunsithu in 1131, one of the most intact temples in the site that needs a little less of imagination to appreciate Bagan's olden days. Nearby the Shwe-San-Daw pagoda, this temple is just as good for watching the sunset and far less crowded; a great alternative for an astounding view. Location: This temple sits closely in front of Thatbyinnyu Temple.

Manuhar Pagoda
This complex has some attached drama into it. It was built by King Manuhar from the nearby kingdom of Thaton, a POW of King Anawratha. He sold his jewelry and poured out his pent up sentiments by constructing this temple. Location: The last major Temple at the southern end of Myinkaba Village along Bagan-Chauk Rd. and marked by a towering free-standing column. [more]

Dhamma Yangyi Temple
Another complex with an attached drama, this was commissioned by King Narathu to atone for his sins of assassinating his father, brother, and wife. The eccentricity of this king is reflected in the building's finely set brickwork (it was noted that he executed a bricklayer for his not too perfect masonry work - gaps are too wide) and its unfinished construction (work abandoned after he himself was assassinated). These generate so many riddles and mysteries that lead to be known as ghost haunted temple for some inhabitants. From estimates, there were roughly 6 million pieces of bricks used in the construction of this temple. [more]

Su-la-ma-ni Pahto
Nearby Dhamma Yangyi, but even more impressive since of the same architectural style but even better preserved. The decreasing six terraces and the main structure resemble the plan of a pyramidal shape. It was the copy of Ananda temple, and has two corridors inside constructed in a plan in perfect Greek cross. But the interior passage has been closed by bricks for unknown reason. The masonry job of this temple is so remarkable that even a needle can't penetrate between two bricks. Besides, the complicated architectural style of this temple creates the arguments on the number of floors and on the completion of the building. Location: A kilometer southeast off the southern stretch of Anawratha Rd. 

Gubyaukgyi Temple
This durian-shaped stupaed temple was modeled after Bodh Gaya in India. It has also murals depicting scenes from the Jataka tales. But the best feature in this temple is the rooftop view of the surrounding area even if it's not as high and acrophobic as those in its category. Access is guided by the caretaker who will reveal his intention after such a wonderful tour by soliciting appreciation for his sand paintings. Remember, nothing is free in Myanmar. Location: Better accessed through Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. although Anawratha Rd. is nearer but remote, just north of the dry creek.
Gawdaw Palin Temple - A fusion of Myanmarese and Indian styles, this temple has a beautiful courtyard with a medium-sized stupa and interesting bell hangers. Location: Inside Old Bagan, just north of the Archaeological Museum.

Bupaya Stupa
This lone golden gourd-shaped structure is sitting on a complex temple by the river. Location: Inside Old Bagan, a north bound road leading to it branches out from the main road as it turns south, the stupa is visible from the outside and not necessary to explore the temple complex. [more]

Shwezigon Pagoda
On the North bank of Nyaung U, this is one of the most important pagodas in all of Myanmar that was built 11th century and served as the original model for the pagoda of the same name in Yangon.


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