The Way to Mandalay
WQ Firsthand Reports
Pagan, Burma [now Bagan, Myanmar] has the distinction of having the most number of temples in the entire world. It is like a "merit ghost town." Thousands of stone structures were built with the idea that building a vihara (monastery) or stupa (reliquary) garnered the builder the most merit. Pagan is a must see destination particularly on route to the grandeur of Mandalay.
Much like the competition with totems on Easter Island, prosperous Buddhists out bid one another to build the grandest and most beautifully decorated religious sanctuaries. There are thousands still standing across the valley in a vast expanse of northern Myanmar open to visitors who are willing to brave the dilapidated infrastructure, political corruption, social unrest (Karen tribes versus government forces), and moral dilemma of whether or not to visit a country ruled by a ruthless totalitarian regime.
Life lists: Pagan
(Smithsonian magazine, January 2008)
On the banks of the Irrawaddy River, more than 3,000 temples stretch across a 30-square-mile plain in Pagan, Myanmar (formerly Burma). Most were constructed between 1057 and 1287 during a building frenzy initiated by King Anawrahta, who formed the first Burmese kingdom in 1044.
Nearly a thousand years after Anawrahta's reign, visitors can climb to the top terrace of his Shwesandaw Paya, or "Sunset Pagoda," to enjoy panoramic views of the sprawling city. Many flock to monasteries, which display ornate murals, such as the Ananda Temple's 554 scenes from past lives of the Buddha.
Over the centuries, Pagan's architectural wonders have survived pillaging by armies, as well as natural disasters, including a devastating earthquake in 1975. But many experts worry that they may not withstand the inauthentic restorations recently sanctioned by the country's military junta. "The real crime is that the temples are being rebuilt without attention to their original appearance," says University of Texas art historian Donald Stadtner.
Still worse crimes are being committed against Burmese citizens. After bloody attacks by the junta on monks and other pro-democracy protesters in 2007, some dissidents are asking prospective tourists to carefully consider whether the regime deserves their monetary support. Those who do decide to visit should check State Department advisories before venturing into the region (called Bagan by the current government). If history is any guide, Pagan will endure. Its majestic skyline, studded with gold, white and earth-red temples topped by bell-shaped towers and gilded spires, remains one of Southeast Asia's most exquisite sites.
Richard Covington (Smithsonian magazine, Dec. 2002)
“Dhammayazika,” he informs me as we bounce past a golden, bell-shaped dome with red banners and a flashy marble walkway. “Secretary Number One paid for the restoration himself.” Secretary Number One is Gen. Khin Nyunt, one of the two strongmen leading Burma’s repressive military junta. Kyaing, an affable scholar dressed in an immaculate white shirt and green longyi, the traditional wraparound skirt favored by both Burmese men and women, is showing me an archaeological disaster—the best and the worst of the government’s recent efforts to restore the ancient temples.
In 1996, the junta invited sponsors across Asia to donate money to help the Burmese rebuild the crumbling temples, but they spurned any professional assistance from international conservators. The resulting hurried and often sloppy restorations have risked destroying the very treasures that make Pagan unique. “The restoration campaign is catastrophic,” says Pierre Pichard, a French archaeologist long familiar with Pagan.
Like many of Afghanistan’s archaeological treasures, Pagan’s temples may fall victim to politics. But there are signs of hope. Pagan attracts nearly 200,000 foreign visitors a year, 12,000 of them American, despite the U.S. government’s imposition of economic sanctions in April 1997 and the country’s repressive regime. With the May release of Burmese dissident and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 57, from house arrest... More>>