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Bagan

Temples, Bagan
Old couple, Shwezigon Paya
Ananda Temple, Bagan
Ox cart and temples, Bagan

Founded in 849AD on the dusty banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan sprawls across central Myanmar and is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in all of Asia. The plains of Bagan are home to around 2200 temples, stupas and pagodas of varying shapes and sizes. In its heyday, in the 13th century, there were over 4000 temples, stupas and pagodas, many of which were covered in gold giving visitors of the day a not-so subtle clue as to the kingdom’s wealth and power. Today’s visitor can only imagine what it would have been like in the 13th century but enough temples remain to provide an amazing spectacle, even today. One of the highlights of a visit to Myanmar and most memorable for its tranquillity and the sheer scale of it all.

Bagan was founded in 849AD on the banks of the Irrawaddy River around 310 miles north of Yangon. Today it is only a small town but a small town with a grand history. Bagan was the capital of the first kingdom of modern day Myanmar whose sphere of influence covered roughly the same area as the present Burmese state.

The scale of Bagan is vast and it can be compared to Angkor, in Cambodia, in terms of size and archaeological significance. The site contains more than 2,200 temples, pagodas & stupas most of which are in reasonable condition. All of these monuments are packed into an area of about 25 square miles – the extent of classical Bagan. In its heyday Bagan was home to over 4000 monuments and you will see the ruins of those that didn’t survive as you tour the area.

Temples and pagodas had been constructed for a couple of centuries after its founding but Bagan's peak period was initiated by King Anawratha's who ascended to the throne in 1044 and then succeeded in unifying the north of the country. In 1056 King Anawratha was converted to Buddhism by a Mon monk, Shin Arahan, following which he went to war against the Mon town of Bago, in the south of the country, to gain possession of holy Buddhist scripts (the Tripitaka), which Mon King Manuba was unwilling to surrender voluntarily.

After a siege lasting several months Manuba finally surrendered. Bago was destroyed and the Tripataka was transported to Bagan on the backs of 32 white elephants. However the holy Buddhist scripts were not the only trophies gained from the war. The Burmanese army took 30,000 Mon prisoners of war to Bagan, among them numerous craftsmen and artisans, who in the following decades not only enriched, but even determined, Bagan's cultural style. The pagodas of the following period were almost exclusively built in Mon style. The integration of the Mon artisans and craftsmen caused the pagodas of the time to be built in Mon style and led to an unparalleled level of building activity over the next two centuries, that was largely responsible for many of the greatest temples on the plains of Bagan.

In 1287 hordes of Mongolian horsemen under Kublai Khan conquered Bagan. The town was destroyed with most of the wooden, secular buildings being burnt down. The kingdom of Bagan never fully recovered and eventually Bagan disintegrated into many smaller kingdoms.

After centuries of neglect further damage was caused to Bagan when, in 1975, a strong earthquake destroyed many smaller temples and damaged a number of the larger temples.

Bagan is a truly amazing place and we would recommend a stay of at least two days to adequately take in the main sites. If you would like to know how a stay here can be worked into your time in Myanmar please see our section on recommended itineraries.

 

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