It’s not clear exactly what happened to Bagan and how one of the greatest cities in Southeast Asia was left abandoned. Perhaps it was an invasion by the Mongols… perhaps it was the fear of an invasion by the Chinese.
Regardless, historians agree that sometime towards the end of the thirteenth century the population fled and left the enormous complex of incredible temples and palaces to the will of fate.
As it so happens, much of ancient Bagan has survived until today and it’s now one of the most important sites in Myanmar – if not the whole region. The grand palaces, monasteries and official buildings would all have been made of wood and have been destroyed but the temples and pagodas were all made of stone and are still standing in surprisingly good condition.
From the top of the taller temples you can look out across the lands and see the religious structures for as far as they eye can stretch. It’s said there are more than 4,000 temples over an area of more than 20 square kilometres… but when you’re talking about numbers that large, it’s hard to be exact.
All through the bushland of the region, the buildings poke out, different shapes and sizes, like grand old monoliths breaking out through the ground.
For about four centuries after the builders of the great city left, the area was left relatively untouched. It was considered to be haunted and the local people avoided it as much as possible. It means that newer developments and communities didn’t overtake the land, so between each temple is just empty open space.
You could spend as long or as little time as you choose to explore the area. In one day, you can get around on a bicycle and see a large number of temples. Or you could spend several days and really explore the variety on offer. Inside many of them, small and large, are the faded remnants of murals on the walls and ceilings, or the religious relics the buildings were originally made to hold.
It truly must have been a grand city once. The main period of construction here was begun in the 11th century by a king called Anawrahta who had been converted to Theravada Buddhism and wanted to prove his devotion to his newfound faith. The building programme was continued by his successors during a period that would rival any great imperial expansion of the modern era.
The scale can seem daunting at first and it’s difficult to truly get a sense of how large the whole area really is. But slowly you begin to feel comfortable in the surrounds of the ruins. They have a calming effect – especially the smaller ones where quite often you will be the only person there. Walk inside and cool air will give you some respite from the beating sun outside. The noise of the world will disappear and the Buddha statues will almost speak to you with their ancient tongues.
The local Myanmar people were on to something when they felt that Bagan was haunted – but it’s not by evil spirits, as feared. It’s by the spirituality of a land where the total is more than the sum of its parts.
These days people still come and worship at the temples. It doesn’t matter they were built almost a thousand years ago – this is still a special and sacred place and to see it as a collection of ruins is to underestimate the connection between the earth and the divine.
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