Brilliant, Blissful and breathtakingly beautiful…are probably the words that come to my mind as I think about Bagan, an ancient city in the Mandalay region of Myanmar, a mere four hour drive from its capital city of Naypyitaw and eight from its commercial capital, Yangon. Often compared to Angkorwat in Cambodia, Bagan is known for its numerous religious edifices built between the 11th and 13th centuries and ranks amongst the top tourist destinations of Myanmar.
I have to be honest here and admit that I did have my doubts when it came to choosing Bagan as our next holiday destination. Not that I ever doubted its beauty or sheer splendor. I had heard raving reviews from fellow travelers and seen some spectacular photographs splattered all across social media posted by my expat friends. My only worry was if a temple town like Bagan known for its pagodas and holiness was really my cup of tea. After all I came from Kerala, Land of thousands of Gods and countless places of worship, where it is considered almost impossible to cross any road, street or even an alleyway without sighting a temple, church or a mosque clustered in every nook and corner and therefore rightfully termed God’s own country.
As we approached Bagan, many aspects did remind me of the home, I bid adieu to a while ago. Gorgeous plush fields aligning the sides of dusty roads, bullock carts trundling hay and other produce to sell at the nearby village market and children gleefully jumping into muddy puddles, quite unaware of the threatening clouds that had started to form in the sky; were all reminiscences of my home back in Kerala.
That being the case, will Bagan offer enough to satiate the tourist in me or will it stand to disappoint? I wondered.
I was proven wrong almost instantly as we entered the premises of this World Heritage Site and I was certain that this holiday was going to be quite extraordinary. Visions of hundreds and hundreds of pagodas began to unfold in front of us, some glittering golden in the heat of the scorching afternoon sun and others displaying a reddish hue, quite characteristic of the baked bricks and sandstone used in the construction of many of these ancient temples.
A total of 2300 well-preserved temples stand tall today in an area stretching over 40 square miles, having survived earthquakes, fire and the Mongol invasions. Once there had been 10,000, each temple built as a sign of devotion, faith, offering or simply as a symbol of economic and political standing.
After having absorbed the beauty of the river Irrawaddy that flowed lazily in front of us, it was time to explore the sacred pagodas and temples. We immediately knew that it would take us days if we ever wanted to cover a reasonable number of these awe-inspiring structures and months to truly imbibe each of its historical and religious significance. So like most of the other tourists we decided to make the best use of our short stay here and stick to the top major attractions of Bagan
One can easily though expensively (costing $300 per person) catch the inexplicable beauty of Bagan on top of a balloon ride but no visit to this holy city is considered complete without paying your respects to this particular temple. Regarded the most important and amongst the most highly revered temples, a trip to Bagan without having visited its holy grounds is regarded incomplete and to an extend even inauspicious.
So it was no surprise that the Ananda temple resplendent in white and gold was our first obvious choice. We entered through the west entrance, quite crowded by pilgrims and vendors displaying a multitude of souvenirs, books on Bagan history and beautiful lacquer. But the setting within the temple was quite the opposite compared to the hustle and bustle that we just witnessed outside. A 31 feet tall image of Buddha awaited our arrival at the other end. Made in pure teak wood and adorned in glistening gold leaf, there were a total of four similar images each facing a particular direction, namely north, south, east and west.
The image that welcomed us at the west end had its hands stretched out in the form of abaya mudra, depicting a sign of fearlessness. The mudra in the north and south were the same, symbolizing Buddha’s first sermon while the one in the east was shown holding a herb, symbolizing dharma as the ultimate cure for misery and distress.
From the most prominent to the largest temple in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi Temple was our next stop. We were immediately welcomed by the sights of local artists skillfully replicating the splendor of Bagan in shabby canvases and friendly hawkers trying to make a sale by showing off their impressive yet limited knowledge of the English language.
The temple was built by King Narathu, when he came into power after killing his own father. The temple was a way to atone for his sins but call it Karma or simply fate, King Narathu was assassinated before it could have been completed. I wasn’t sure if it was the stories of murder and deceit, our guide eagerly elaborated or simply the dark claustrophobic passages within, I could definitely feel a sense of eeriness that had started to creep in. ‘Definitely need some fresh air,’ I joked to my husband.
And fresh air we got in plenty at our next stop and my personal favorite, Shwesandaw Pagoda. Probably Bagan is no place for adrenaline junkies but if you are still looking for some kind of a thrill amongst the sanctity and the calmness, Shwesandaw Paya is definitely the place for you. The Pagoda that has a total of five terraces and a set of rather steep 52 steps, leading to the top is considered to be one of the tallest pagodas and definitely the best place to catch a mind-blowing view of the sunset, when the entire scene turns color to a classic sepia tone.
The sun had set when we reached our last stop for the evening, the Shwezigon Pagoda, a gold-covered pagoda that continued to glisten quite untouched by the darkness that surrounded its shrine. Believed to preserve the bone and tooth of Buddha, this pagoda definitely reminded me a lot of the Shwedagon Pagoda back in Yangon.
A total of six temples, a horse cart ride to devour the external beauty of the other lesser known pagodas and a crazy climb at the Shwesandaw Paya, I now sat at a local restaurant devouring a plate of freshly made hot chapatis and vegetable curry recollecting all the grandeur that I had just witnessed.
Yes Bagan was a temple town just like I expected, Yes there was a religious structure in every nook and corner just like I expected and yes a lot of it did remind of my home back in Kerala, including the spicy curry that now warmed my throat. But what I didn’t expect was this feeling I felt within me, the sheer sadness that I would soon have to bid farewell to the truly mystique structures that stood in front of me. I knew there was so much more and felt I was probably denied my fair share of this magnificent city.
“I want to come back, I told my husband as we slowly made our way back to the hotel. “Please bring me back,” I whispered as I turned to take one last look at the stupas that slowly started to fade in the background.