Bagan: History, Temples & Pagodas

Instructor: Kelly Bryan

Kelly has taught English in four different countries, mostly recently at Dongguk University in South Korea. She has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language.

Also known as the Land of a Thousand Temples, the ancient kingdom of Bagan in Myanmar is symbol of Burmese religion, history and culture. This lesson gives a crash course on the history of the Bagan kingdom as well as facts about important architectural works of its ancient capital.

Towering above the plains of Mandalay and cradled by the Irrawaddy River in the heart of the modern-day nation of Myanmar, the treasures of the ancient kingdom of Bagan have survived for centuries. Once a major power in Southeast Asia, Bagan is home to over two thousand Buddhist temples standing as symbols of Burmese history and culture.

What's in a name?

The ancient capital city of Bagan can be found in the Mandalay region of a country which calls itself Myanmar, and is recognized as such by the United Nations. However, some major world powers, including the United Kingdom and United States, officially refer to the nation by its former name - Burma. The reasons for the two names are tangled in the country's complex political history, but in short, the name ''Myanmar'' is favored by the military junta that controlled the country from the late 80's until the 2010's, and ''Burma'' is favored by the pro-democracy opposition. For the purposes of this lesson, the term ''Myanmar'' will be used to refer to the country, and the term ''Burmese'' will be used to refer to the language, people and culture of the nation.

The History of Bagan

The kingdom of Bagan began its ascendancy under King Anawrahta in the 11th century, though there was construction at the site in previous centuries. Two factors led to Bagan's rapid growth. First, the Burmese defeated the rival Mon kingdom in battle under King Anawrahta, allowing him to consolidate his power as their ruler. Second, King Anawrahta converted to Buddhism and had a sudden need for temples, and lots of them.

The century that followed is remembered as the Golden Age of Burmese Temple Building and also earned Bagan the nickname ''Land of a Thousand Pagodas.'' By the end of the 13th century, more than 4,000 religious structures were built in and around the kingdom's capital city. Though many temples have been damaged and destroyed by natural and manmade forces since then, over 2,000 temples and other structures survive until modern day, rivaling the more famous archaeological sites of Angkor in nearby Cambodia.

The temples of Bagan
Bagan Temples

The Land of a Thousand Temples

The people of Bagan practiced a form of Buddhism called Theravada Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the importance of finding enlightenment through one's own means and places a heavy emphasis on monastic life. It is the most common form of Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia.

The two main types of architecture found throughout Bagan are temples and stupas.

Bagan temples are unique among Southeast Asian architectural styles. They are characterized by central, square structures built around shrines, with interior passages supported by vaulted arches radiating outward, creating the shape of a cross.

Kiln-fired brick and stucco make up the interior of the temples. Archaeologists know that the bricks were made outside of Bagan and shipped in via the Irrawaddy River because each brick carries a stamp of the village in which it was made.

The outer structure of the temples' soaring, pointed towers are meant to reflect the shape of Mt. Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods, which is also held sacred by Buddhists as the center of the world.

The Ananda Temple

The Ananda Temple is by far the most famous temple at Bagan. It is one of the largest temples in Bagan and is considered by some to be a masterwork, with a reputation as the ''Westminster Abbey of Burma.'' The Ananda Temple is perfectly symmetrical, and its whitewashed exterior walls and gilded spire create a striking appearance. Statues of Buddha can be found in each of its four corners.

The Ananda Temple
The Ananda Temple, Bagan

The temple is built in a transitional style, featuring architecture associated with both the Mon and Burmese, reflecting the important historic transition of power from one to the other. Though the Ananda Temple is nearly 1,000 years old, it has remained in constant use by Buddhists since it was built, and is an important symbol of Burmese culture.

Pagodas & Stupas

Pagodas, also known as stupas, are other prominent architectural features of Bagan. While temples are meant to welcome the faithful, stupas are usually solid and have no entrance; instead they often house important relics, preserved pieces of the body of the Buddha or other Buddhist figures.

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