In the middle of Myanmar’s central “dry zone” lies an area once home to tens of thousands of glittering temples, pagodas and monasteries – Bagan. Although it is not the very beginning of Myanmar history, it is possibly the first symbol of Myanmar’s glories and grandeur.
There is a saying in Myanmar that until you set foot on Bagan, you haven’t necessarily been to Myanmar. Bagan is so much cherished and valued with much sentiment by people across all backgrounds in Myanmar – be they Buddhists or those of other religious affiliations – that even after hundreds of years after this ancient city’s demise, it still remains atop the country’s travel list not just as a popular tourist destination but as the most sacred place of pilgrimage as well.
The history of Bagan is as mysterious as the city itself. Folklores date the city to as far back as the mid-to-late 9th Century AD. At the time of its founding, Bagan was just a city-state among many other competing warring city-states in the present-day Myanmar and some neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. It was in the mid-11th Century, however, during the reign of King Anawrahta (1044-1077AD) that Bagan’s political power spread beyond the central dry zone as Anawrahta successfully unified all the scattering countries and city-states into one big kingdom.
It was during his reign as well that Theravada version of Buddhism began to gain predominance over Hinduism and other sects of Buddhism that had already spread to the country since earlier times. The kingdom of Bagan, now both politically and economically prevailing , also became rich culturally – inventing Myanmar scripts based on Mon scripts, adopting a more organized system of governance, and acquiring skills of arts and crafts, raising the people of Bagan to a civilized status. The evidence of their civilization sure are those thousands of temples – all along with their architecture, engineering and fantastic craftsmanship – that still boasts as a city worth visiting to see the trails of Bagan’s ancient glories.
While the civil architectures of that era have been lost forever, many religious buildings built during the golden era of Bagan, paid for by the royal families and the well-off commoners alike – have survived to date, numbering more than 2,200, attracting millions of tourists and pilgrims every year. Natural disasters such as earthquakes have severely damaged the ancient temples many times but the original structures of those stupas still remain largely intact.
Bagan’s stars began to wane starting the late-13th century due to Mongol invasions and internal rivalries. The empire gradually broke into smaller kingdoms and city-states ever since. However, the heritage the city has left proves its glories once existent, and reminds us of both physical might and spiritual toughness of the people Bagan nearly 1000 years ago.
Processes are now underway now for the city to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.