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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.

Part II (Cont’d) – Fire

18 Aug

It is said that for any Hindu the most auspicious place to die is at Varanasi. If the person dies in the Ganges river itself or water from the river is splashed on the person as he dies, then this results in the attainment of supreme salvation. The person escapes the perpetual cycle of reincarnation and is transported to Mt. Meru which is the center of the universe and is similar to the Western concept of heaven. I could see the smoke billowing and smearing into the hazy bend of the Ganges before me. Manikarnika was the last major ghat at Varansi and was located at the far end of the city from where I was. I began the long walk towards the smoke. This would not be the first time I had observed the ancient rite of the Hindu funeral pyre.

Cremations at Pashupatinath – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

I had seen my first cremation in 2007 in Pashupatinath, which is a large Nepalese Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in Kathmandu. Pashupatinath has its own cremation ghats which have been constructed on the banks of the Bagmati river and cremations take place 24 hours a day. Observers can walk over a bridge to the other side of the river and can watch the cremations talking place from that vantage point. Some of these ghats have roofs and raised platforms and these were where the wealthy had their funeral pyres. Those of less means were cremated right on the concrete slab of open air ghats that were nearest the river bank. What do we know of funeral pyres in the West? Certainly, we have cremations, but those are done in the back room of a crematorium with such technological gadgetry and speed that you get an incineration. So, as with many aspects of the way we live life in the West, we can choose to have instant gratification in death. The Hindu cremation is almost artistic in its ritual and choreography. The fact it can be viewed out in the open by non-family and strangers gives it the added element of the public theatre. It may take up to 6 hours for the pyre to burn itself out in some cases. How to describe the first cremation I watched at Pashupatinath? The first thing I can say was that I had to accept the decision I made to watch. I felt I would be invading the privacy of the family who was conducting the ceremony and I did not want to just gawk. At the same time, it would be ridiculous to sit on the other side of the river and pretend that you were not there to observe the cremation. When the body appeared, it brought everything into focus real quick.

Anointment – Pashupatinath

My eyes locked onto the scene, and in fact, I think it would have been disrespectful if I hadn’t held my gaze. It would have been disrespectful if I had looked elsewhere while this most shared actuality of the human existence was taking place. The body was carried by 3 men who shuffled down the steps and laid the man down on the pyre that had been prepared close to the river bank. He was wrapped in deep orange-colored robes. His head, hands, and feet could be seen. Then, other individuals – who appeared to be family members of the man — applied ointment to the man’s face, hands and feet. This ointment was a kind of cow butter and then other offerings like camphor, mango leaves, tumeric powder, and juniper or sandalwood were placed on or near the man’s body. The actual wood used for the funeral pyre was corkwood I think. After the anointing was finished, another man ambled out of the temple doorway above the ghat and approached the body with a torch that had been lit from a flame inside the temple. There were dried fronds of some kind placed on top of and around the sides of the body, and then the man carrying the torch began to light these fronds one by one in a clockwise manner. These fronds produced a dense smoke and triggered the wood below to begin to burn. As the smoke rose and blew across the river, I caught a faint scent of what seemed to me to be like candle wax. I could detect nothing more. The family members chanted a few refrains as they walked around the body clockwise. Some of them turned and sat down on the stone benches above the pyre.  I then noticed that another pyre that had already been burning for some time before I had arrived was about finished. A man showed up with a broom and began to sweep the ashes and remnants of the corpse directly into the Bagmati river. After a few strokes, nothing remained of the existence of that person. He had been swept into the everlasting right before my eyes and the river had taken it from there. I watched the river flow away from that spot and could see far downriver without obstruction. There was a man who appeared to be standing in the river and brushing his teeth. A couple of semi-clothed kids were swimming and playing just a little further downriver from the man. “How the swift current of life continued – uninterrupted,” I thought as I got closer to Manikarnika. But, the river I was walking alongside now was the Ganges whose source was the Himalayas and here at Varanasi it was starving without the rains of the monsoon. There were only a few rowboats that were crossing between the sandbars and carrying people across from one side to the other.

Boats waiting for the Monsoon – Varanasi (2009)

Most boats were drydocked or stranded on the land waiting for the rains to come. But, as I neared Manikarnika there was suddenly a crush of boats and people were just sitting in the boats looking at the activities going on in the ghat. The buildings of Manikarnika Ghat were charred by thousands of years of smoke. They stood like blackened sentinels from another time and were strikingly absent of the color and light that characterized the other ghats. This part of the Ganges was like the River Styx. It was the underworld and like any underworld there were guardians. The guardians of Manikarnika I learned were called Doms — a caste of untouchables. I almost got run over by 3 of them when I was craning my neck to look at one Manikarnika’s buildings and unknowingly walked across the main throughway of the temple when the Doms blasted out carrying a body on two long bamboo rods. The Doms of Manikarnika Ghat earn their living by conducting the funeral pyres for those Hindus fortunate enough to make it to Varanasi. The Doms charge fees for burning bodies that scale from a base price to an “all the frills” package depending on what the family wants to do. Paradoxically, as untouchables, the Doms are the only Hindus expected to touch the corpses, and so they complete the ceremony by sweeping the ashes and throwing any remaining bones of the body into the Ganges. Unlike Pashupatinath, where I observed the cremations from across the river, I was right in the middle of the cremation ghats at Manikarnika. I was only a few meters away from where the pyre burned. I watched for about 30-minutes before I felt soot falling on my shoulders and face and then realized I was breathing in the ashes of human flesh. This didn’t unsettle me. I understood the shared mortality between myself and these ashes that were being carried up in smoke. I understood the meaning of what the Buddha had said to those who surrounded him as he succumbed to his own death that day in Kushinagar. Nothing is permanent – everything transitions into something else and you have to work out your salvation yourself. What I was observing (and inhaling) was one Hindu’s last step toward a salvation that he had journeyed to during his mortal days on earth. This person had lived, loved, been angry, sad, forgiven, grown, apologized, and died. Now, he was breaking free and ascending to Meru, or heaven, or nirvana. And I breathed it in. I became lost in this realization and watched the fire burn.

Periphery of Marnikarnika Ghat

When I finally snapped out of it, I noticed the sun was getting lower in the sky and I had to make my way back to another ghat where a ceremony was to be performed. This ceremony was a blessing to the Ganges that Hindus conducted at sunset of each day of the year. It was called the Ganga Aarti and it took place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.  When I arrived at this ghat, there were throngs of people already claiming spots on the steps and they crowded near 5 raised concrete platforms that faced the Ganges. There were lights in the shape of parasols above each of these platforms and bells hung from iron bars connected to these lights.  As the sun set, the ghat was packed and 5 priests — who looked very young — took their position on each of the platforms. A man who sat behind them with a couple of musicians began chanting and singing through a microphone. Then, each of the priests began performing the ritual of the blessing in unison. Each priest carried with him 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space (in the form of ether) that were symbolized by a flower, a water spray with a handkerchief, a brass lamp, a peacock fan, and a yak-tail fan. As each element was introduced and offered to the Ganges, the priests waved the materials clockwise and given the dust that was still in the air  and the twilight conditions, each item created a kind of vapor trail that clearly hung in the air around the priest before dispersing.  Each element took on an ethereal form and I guess that was the idea of the blessing — to have the faithful experience a tangible divine connection with the Maa (Goddess) Ganges who begat and sustained life. The ceremony lasted for an hour and at the end the priests walked down from their platforms towards the Ganges. They each kneeled down and placed a circular candle with flowers (called a diya) in the river which was slowly carried off by the current. There was a congruence between what I had experienced at Marnikarnika Ghat and the Ganga Aarti blessing. Each day Hindus gave thanks to the Ganges through a spiritual and symbolic offering at Dashashwamedh, and then just a few hundred meters away, they sought salvation through the physical offering of their bodies at Marnikarnika. That was the supreme personification of balance. That is Varanasi.

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