Tag Archives: Mon

Mystery and Man at Bagan

22 Oct
Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan.

Dhammaget Temple (left)

Dhammayangyi Temple (left) – Built in 12th Century

DSCN2366Like a mantra those words cycled in my brain during my 2-hour flight on Air Bagan from Yangon.  When the small plane took off and went above the monsoon blanket above the city and into crystal blue sky, excitement slapped me in the face. Despite the awesomeness of the Schwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Bagan was going to be the highlight of my trip to Burma. There are places you remember — so massive in impact and experience — that they elude the grasp of words. I spent 3 days pedaling around on a bicycle and basically had the whole archaeological park to myself. That’s not an exaggeration. At the risk of minimizing this spellbinding and enchanting place, let me first provide a few facts about the old Kingdom of Bagan (formerly, Pagan). It was the first true “capital” city of Burma and is located smack in the center of the country. Its central geography and layout alongside the Irrawaddy River allowed for easy access and trade within the country as well as with foreign peoples. From the Gulf of Mottama in the south, Sinhalese sailors were able to steer their boats up the Irrawaddy to Bagan where they stopped  for trade, supplies, and rest. They also brought with them their Theravada faith which spread like wildfire amongst Bagan’s Mon inhabitants. From the west and north, Indian and Chinese merchants came to Bagan and brought with them the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist schools along with Hindu and Vedic traditions.

Bagan Skyline

Bagan rooftops

Between the 9th and 13th centuries,  Bagan ultimately became the center of Buddhism in the world. Its plains swelled to over 10000 temples and pagodas at its zenith. There were over 3000 monasteries and all Buddhist traditions were represented and studied there alongside traditional Mon religious and folk teachings. No question though that Theravada Buddhism left the most enduring legacy here. Each King who came to rule Bagan during its 500 year reign sponsored the construction of his own set of temples and pagodas.  These temples all rose into the sky with pinprick accuracy in dimension and purpose and featured elaborately designed corridors, stairways, altars, and chambers.  During my drive from the airport, I was whisked through “new” Bagan which was a blur of grey cement buildings and dusty roads where Burmese citizens today live. I then passed through a tree-lined road that led to “old” Bagan — the archaeological park. I was lucky enough to be staying in a bungalow in old Bagan so I would have access to the park as soon as I left the hotel compound. It was 3 days of exploration absorbed through flared nostrils, chapped lips, and bleary eyes. It felt like a safari.  I would get up early, do a bike ride to a different area of the park, walk and climb into and atop temple after temple, and then head back to my hotel at sundown. There were large black scorpions squashed on pathways and huge colonies of bats in some temples. Some gates to temples were locked and others had dark tunnels and passageways that could only be passed through with a flashlight. But, these gave way to secretive frescoes, mosaics, and the most amazing statues of the Buddha “in situ”. That was the best part.

DSCN2241 DSCN2393Within most of the temples in Bagan are multiple statues of the Buddha — each unique in their image and effect and some powerfully set off with electric lights within the dark chambers where they stand or sit. Each face conveys a specific feeling. Somehow these statues had not been stolen away by imperialist or marauding powers and ended up in a faraway museum. They were still here — sitting or standing in the exact spots where they had first been placed. Some may have been falling apart — alabaster coverings gone, paint chipped away, pieces lopped off by earthquake or pillage — but most were largely intact.

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Elephant fresco - Sulamani Temple

Elephant fresco – Sulamani Temple (12th century)

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Only an incredibly devout people could have so carefully chiseled, molded, and gilded these Buddha statues through each passing century of Bagan’s heyday. But, then in the late 13th century, the Mongols swept down into Burma from China and the inhabitants of Bagan had to desert the city and no further temples or pagodas were built there afterwards. Over 2000 temples and pagodas have survived to the present day.

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The Golden Sikhara of Ananda Temple in background

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Bupaya (originally built in 9th century) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

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Shwezigon Pagoda (11th century)

The lust to see every major temple and pagoda in the park drove me to push myself beyond exhaustion and common sense. I ran out of water at one point and was way out in the north-west reaches of the park where there was absolutely nothing but parched brush-land and remnants of brick structures.  There was no shade in order to ward off the pounding of the sun. There was no trail or path for my bike to take and I had no choice but to walk and carry my bike on my shoulders in some places.  To make matters worse, my bike’s rear tire was flat.  In the distance I saw what appeared to be a modern building — like some kind of watchtower. I thought it was a mirage because there was nothing else around it and it seemed ridiculously out-of-place. As I walked up to it, I looked up in bewilderment. It was indeed a watchtower — complete with an elevator that took you to the top in order to survey the plains of Bagan stretching out below.  I went inside and found a restaurant on the first floor, but there was not a soul there. I paced back and forth and made some noise until one person finally came out to greet me. I bought 3 bottles of water and hydrated myself. This person did not speak English, but I could tell he was amused by the sight of me chugging down the water in breathless gulps. I made it back to my hotel that night with my legs and back annihilated. Yet, I got up the next day and repeated the experience — this time to the far southern area of the park.  I dug deep into every corner of Bagan that I possibly could — spelunking through temple caves, inhaling the musty odors of untouched corridors, and sitting in chamber rooms in quiet contemplation. But, it was not enough.  You cannot condense a 500 year epoch into 3 days on a bike.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The highlights of my wanderings through the temples and pagodas of Bagan were: Bupaya (the oldest /and smallest pagoda first built in the 9th century – it sits right above the Irrawaddy River and was likely the first consecrated Buddhist site in Bagan);  the Shwezigon Pagoda (which is thought to have served as the template for the design of most other pagodas in Burma);  Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan — almost Mayan in design and aura); Dhammayazika Pagoda (a compact, faded golden pagoda); Ananda Temple (likely the most glorious temple in Bagan with 4 incredible standing Buddhas inside 4 separate chamber rooms); Thatbyinnyu Temple (tallest structure in Bagan); Sulamani Temple (magical frescoes); and Shwesandaw Pagoda (thought to contain a hair relic of the Buddha).

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple (12th century)

On the afternoon of the second day, as I was pedaling around and a bit lost, I saw a familiar pyramid-like spire in the distance. When I arrived at the structure, I was surprised to see a very accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple found in Bodh Gaya, India. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya was built in the 5th or 6th centuries and was constructed at the site of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most important temple in Buddhism. (See “Pilgrimage – Part I” http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f). King Htilominlo of Bagan had commissioned the construction of a temple based on the designs and specifications of the Mahabodhi Temple. It was finished in 1218 AD. It was a revelation for me to see that here in Bagan which is many thousands of miles away from Bodh Gaya, the King and his people were able to construct such an accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple — about 700 years after the Mahabodhi Temple itself had been built! They did not have the benefit of photographs or the ability to share information and images like we do today with such ease. The King had to have received handwritten sketches and designs of the Mahabodhi Temple which were most likely carried overland from India to Bagan. And then — one hard to actually build the temple based on those sketches and designs.

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Although the Mahabodhi Temple of Bagan is smaller in size and doesn’t dominate the skyline like the original Mahabodhi, it contains the same intricate square patterns of Buddha engravings that run up the length of each side of the main temple structure in the same way as in the Mahabodhi. I was blown away by the way these people had exchanged ideas in such a progressive manner.

Thatbinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple (12th century)

On my last day, I climbed to the top rung of the Shwesandaw Pagoda with wobbly legs, found a flat stone, and sat down waiting for the sunset.  A light wind whistled through the plains and swirled around the pagoda. I looked out toward the north of Bagan and tried to envision how each of the temples that dotted the landscape before me had been built. For 500 years, this place had been the center of the center — a bustling crossroads between India and the Far East. Teeming with monks, buzzing with scholarly debate, and filled with streams of students from all the great Buddhist traditions of the time. Ruled over by Kings and served by a unified populace who must have reached deep with themselves and found the belief that caused them to literally move mountains in order to create temple after temple on these plains.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda (11th century)

Then, it all stopped. The monks and people vanished. The Kings moved south to rule. All that was left were the temples. I slowly scanned the scene before me starting from my far left and moving to my right. I noticed an almost supernatural symmetry in how the temples and pagodas before me were spaced between one another and within the framework of the mountains that bordered these plains.  We often look back at our ancestors of long ago with wonder — but it is sometimes the wonder of disbelief tinged with the presumption of our own superiority.  When we dismiss the accomplishments of our ancestors with questions or statements of “how could they do that” with their “primitive tools” and “lack of technical knowledge or science”, we ultimately shortchange ourselves.  Mankind has always wanted to fundamentally understand the following: Why Are We Here?  What Came Before? and What Comes After?  The quest for answers to these 3 questions has driven us to continue to strive further into the physical and metaphysical — into ourselves, the environment, and space. Yet, despite the modern age and its global connectivity which allows for the passing of knowledge across thousands of miles with a double-click, we are perhaps ultimately no closer today to answering these 3 questions than those Buddhists who had meditated on them through 5 centuries at Bagan. These were centuries similar to mankind’s more recent achievements in the industrial age, and likewise, witnessed the incredible exchange of ideas and concepts between different cultures and culminated in the construction of skyscraping monuments. I gripped the stone beneath me hard.  I wanted the mineral deposits from the stones seeped into my skin and underneath my fingernails. Human hands had built this place. Hands that belonged to a powerful and determined people — moved by something profound.  I wanted to be moved by that as well.

Enter The Pagoda

21 Jun
2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

Its name can be broken down as follows: “Schwe” (or Shwe) meaning “Golden”; and “Dagon” meaning something like “hilltop” and also refers to the name of the northern district of Yangon where it sits atop Singutarra Hill. This hill is about 58m (100ft) tall, but it is wide and spans a large area. The pagoda itself rises to a height of 111m (328 ft) and tapers into a gem-laced spire that is capped with a 78-carat diamond. Recent news stories have shown barefoot dignitaries walking around the base platform of the Schwedagon. But, the first thing one must consider before making the climb towards the top is which entrance to use. There are 4 entrances – from the North, South, East, and West. Each of these entrances has its own ambience and distinct features. So, your ascension to the Pagoda platform will provide you with a different sensory (and likely spiritual) experience depending on which entrance you choose. I arrived near the West entrance of the Schwedagon in the late afternoon out of breath and off-kilter due to my experience with William at Ngahtatgyi Paya. I was about to purchase my ticket and take off my shoes before entering when I noticed that this particular entrance had a series of escalators that moved upwards under a covered corridor. Something about having my first visit to the Schwedagon occur via an electric peoplemover rubbed me the wrong the way, so I didn’t enter from the West Entrance.  Instead, I weaved my way around traffic and potholes in the sidewalk for another 45 minutes or so in order to get to the South entrance. When I arrived at the South Entrance and faced the 2 Chinthes standing sentry (half lion/half dragon statues), I could tell this was the proper entrance to use for one’s first visit.

Southern Entrance - Schwedagon Pagoda

South Entrance – Schwedagon Pagoda

I paid a $5 entry fee and camera fee, took off my shoes, and handed them to a clerk who tucked them away in shoe locker area. I entered a cavernous covered corridor of rising steps. These steps were not crumbling old stone steps. They were sleek marbled steps and cool to the feet. I saw vendor stalls on both sides of me where various trinkets, souvenirs, photographs, offerings, books, paper umbrellas, and depictions of the Schwedagon, the Buddha, and other famous Buddhist sites around Myanmar were being sold.

Interior - Southern Entrance

Interior – South Entrance

As I walked up, I noticed that every once in while there was a gap in the covered entryway where one could go outside. So, I darted through these openings and went outside to look around. I was able to see people ducking in and out of small buildings that were in the middle-area of the hillside, and then saw a tall modern-looking tower on the eastern side of the hill, which I realized was a huge free-standing elevator shaft that was used by those pilgrims and individuals who  were not able to walk up to the Pagoda. When I turned back towards the outside of the entryway itself, I was able to pick out some details that I would have never seen had I not gone outside. In one particular section there were 2 large wooden balustrades carved into giant crocodiles. The roof itself was a cascade of green corrugated iron with beautiful and intricately gilded trim. I could have spent an hour or more just wandering around the middle areas around the hillside absorbing all the incredible nuances of the design of the South Entrance and the life that had sprouted around it. But, I hadn’t yet been to the Pagoda itself and I knew that it would take me a few hours to complete one circuit around the base platform. I went back into the entranceway and continued to walk to the top without stopping.

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim - Southern Entrance

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim – South Entrance

The anticipation in me swelled as I got closer and closer. The Schwedagon is believed by the Burmese to be over 2600 years old and the hill on which sits was originally used as an internment spot for previous incarnations of religious and spiritual significance conducted by the people who lived in the area at that time. Inside the core of the Pagoda, 8-hairs of the Buddha are encased. Unlike other body relics of the Buddha which are contained in the Stupas, Dagobas, and Pagodas around the Buddhist world, these hairs were not taken after the Buddha’s death. Instead, the story is that the Buddha himself during his life plucked these 8 hairs from his head and gave them as a gift to 2 brothers who were from Burma but who had been in north India trading at the time they met the Buddha. The Buddha had just become awakened — enlightened — after spending 49 days meditating in what is today Bodh Gaya. [See previous post “Mahabodhi”: https://startupkoan.com/2012/07/24/mahabodhi%5D. The 2 Burmese brothers came across the Buddha and upon seeing him and being overcome by his presence and enlightened state, they gave him a gift of some honey cake. The Buddha had been fasting during his meditation so he gratefully accepted the food. In exchange, the Buddha gave the brothers the 8 hairs and the brothers — understanding the significance of their fateful meeting with the Buddha — were determined to take back the hairs to King Okkalapa in Burma. On their travel back to Burma from India, the brothers were robbed and 4 of the hairs were lost. However, when they opened the box containing the hairs in front of the king, they were amazed to see that there were 8 hairs again! The king seeing this as a sign made the proclamation to inter these hairs in a pagoda he would build atop Singuttara Hill. An unbroken chain of monks have guarded the hairs and the Pagoda ever since. Though the Pagoda has been attacked, burned, stricken by earthquakes, and rebuilt in parts through the centuries, it still is the single most important Buddhist shrine in Burma and perhaps the oldest Stupa in the world.

the Golden Hilltop

the Golden Hilltop

When I took my first step out from the covered walkway and onto the marbled platform of the Pagoda, I was hit by something which I can only describe as an oxymoronic — there was a harmonious cacophony of dueling and glittering colors, theme-park like festiveness juxtaposed against disciplined spiritual practice, and frenetic yet controlled circuitry. People from all walks of life were strewn around the base platform — the plinth. Some on the ground, others sitting under roofed pavilions, and others performing blessings, prayers, and prostrations in front of select posts and pillars. There were all kinds of statues — like nats (spirits from Burmese, pre-Buddhist tradition), 3-headed elephants, and all sorts of Buddhas holding every pose and mudra imaginable. There were 2 large iron bells, Bodhi tree offshoots, hundreds of mini-chedis (small Stupas), separate prayer rooms, and a menagerie of other stone, wooden, marble, and painted depictions of Buddhist iconography. I twisted my head and neck around as I tried to focus on these sights, but as I did so the slick and wet marble platform underneath my bare feet betrayed me and I nearly fell horribly on my back. I could have been seriously hurt from the fall which would have been a disaster. But, somehow I caught myself. I took a deep breath and steadied my balance. My heart was beating fast as if in syncopation with the swirling sky above. Sun and clouds kept playing hide and seek. I was game.

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