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Bagan History

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The monuments seem to overwhelm the landscape. There are about 2,000 of them covering an area of 16 square miles on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady in central Myanmar. They are in different sizes and in a bewildering variety of shapes. They are also in varying stages of preservation and disrepair. Some of them throb with life, visited by devotees, a few have become little more than piles of bricks.

Whence do they come, these monuments? Who built them? Why?

To find an answer to questions such as these one has to travel back in time, to a time when Bagan flourished as a royal city, the heart of a great kingdom.

Tradition has it that Bagan was founded by Thamoddarit in the early 2nd century. But perhaps it would be better to date the Bagan of the monuments from its establishment as a walled city, with twelve gates and a moat, by King Pyinbya in 849. The chronicles give a list of kings who reigned at Bagan from Thamoddarit onwards, with Pyinbya as the 34th king. But legend is inextricably mingled with history, and sometimes overshadow it, in the accounts of the kings in the chronicles, and it is only with the 42nd king in the list, Anawrahta, that Bagan emerges into the clear light of history.

The two and a half centuries from Anawahta's( 1044-1077) accession to the throne in 1044 to the flight of Narathihapate (1256-1287) from the capital in 1283 in the face of the Mongol invasion were the years of Bagan's greatness. The kingdom stretched from Bhamo in the north and far down to the south, from the Thanlwin river in the east to the Western Yoma in the west. Bagan was known as Tattadesa, the Parched Land, to the Mons, and not much rice was grown in the environs of the capital itself. But the royal city could draw upon the rich rice granaries of Kyaukse, 90 miles to the northeast, and Minbu, 70 miles to the south. The Ayeyarwady river linked it to the sea and to the commerce of the Indian Ocean. There was much intercourse with neighbouring countries. Support was given to King Vijaya Bahu I (105 9-1114) of Sri Lanka to sustain him in his struggle against the Chola of southern India to help him re-establish a purified Buddhism. Missions were sent to the northern Song capital of Kaifeng. Repairs were made to the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in northern India.

Perhaps more salient than all these indications of economic well-being and political power was the fact that Buddhism flourished exceedingly in Bagan. Tradition, basing itself upon the Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahavamsa, attributes the origins of Buddhism in Myanmar to the mission of Sona and Uttara who, in the 3rd century B.C., came to Suvannabhumi, usually identified with That on, on the Gulf of Mottama. Some modern scholars dispute this point. But even if tradition is to be ignored, there can be no denying that Buddhism was already flourishing in Myanmar in the 1st century A.D., as attested by the archaeological evidence at Peikthanomyo (Vishnu City), 90 miles southeast of Bagan. Buddhism was also an invigorating influence at Thayekhittaya, near modern Pyaymyo 160 miles south of Bagan, where a developed civilization flourished from the 5th to the 9th century.

Notwithstanding the fact that Buddhism had enjoyed a long history in Myanmar before the 11th century, the reign of Anawrahta provided a landmark in the development of Buddhism in Myanmar. Anawrahta was a king of strong religious zeal as well as one of great power. His clay votive tablets, made to acquire merit, are found widely in Myanmar from Katha in the north to Twante in the south. These votive tablets usually have, on the obverse, a seated image of the Buddha in the earth-touching attitude, with two lines underneath which express the essence of the Buddhist creed:

The Buddha hath the causes told
Of all things springing from causes;
And also how things cease to be,
'Tis this the Mighty Monk proclaims.

On the reverse would be the prayer:

Desiring that he may be freed from samscira the Great Prosperous King Aniruddha himself made this image of the Lord.

The chronicles relate that a monk from Thaton, Shin Arahan, came to Anawrahta in Bagan and preached to him the Law, on which Anawrahta was seized with an ecstasy of faith and said, "Master, we have no other refuge than thee! From this day forth, my master, we dedicate our body and our life to thee! And, master, from thee I take my doctrine!" Shin Arahan further taught Anawrahta that without the Scriptures, the Tipitaka, there could be no study, and that it was only with the Tipitaka that the Religion would last long. Anawrahta, informed that there were thirty sets of the Tipitaka at Thaton, sent an envoy with presents to its king,Manuha, and asked for the Tipitaka. Manuha refused, on which Anawrahta sent a mighty army, conquered Thaton, and brought back the thirty sets of Tipitaka on Manuha's thirty-two white elephants, as well as Manuha and his court and all manners of artisans and craftsmen.

From its patronage by Anawrahta is usually dated the flourishing of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, and the monuments of Bagan, with only a few exceptions, are all monuments of Theravada Buddhism.

The establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religion of Myanmar did not preclude the existence of other schools and beliefs. Prior to the coming of Buddhism there existed in Myanmar a folk religion which involved the worship of nats or spirits to whom offerings were made. The spirits were not only those of nature, but also of personages who had died a violent or tragic death. At Bagan the cult of the Mahagiri ("Great Mountain") rato-brother and sister who had their abode at Mount Popa, 40 miles to the southeast of Bagan-was particularly strong This folk religion persisted in a symbiotic existence with Theravada Buddhism at Bagan. But that was not all. Mahayana Buddhism, with its pantheon of Bodhisattvas who had postponed their entry into nirvana to help their fellow creatures find salvation, also continued to have a tenuous presence at Bagan, a presence which can be detected in some of the details of the monuments. There was a presence too of Hinduism, which the court drew upon for some of its rituals and ceremonies.

Religious fervour, brought on by the flowering of Theravada Buddhism, inspired the men and women of Bagan to undertake great works of merit and to give lavishly to the Religion. The donation of a noble lady is thus recorded:

When our Lord Kinkathu passed away, our Lord's wife, who loved her husband as her own life, was agitated at the law of instability and made three dwellings to the Three Gems. Out of a heart of boundless faith she built the three dwellings wishing that the merit of her good deed would go to the three persons: her deceased lord, her mother and her father. Her private property, the nine kinds of gems, her gold and silver, red copper and white copper, iron, lead, her outward property, such as boats, elephants, cattle, buffaloes, goats, ivory, and her slaves and lands and gardens-in order that such property might be a support to the Religion, she offered them without stint to the Lords"s Religion and allotted them to the three dwellings, and, calling the earth to witness, she poured the water of offering.

The usual aspiration in these religious donations w as to acquire merit, be reborn in the celestial realms, to come into the presence of Metteyva, the next Buddha, and finally to attain nibbana. But sometimes the aspiration would rise higher-to that of Buddhahood itself. A good example of this aspiration is provided by the dedicatory prayer-written in elegant Pali verse-offered by King Alaungsithu (1113-1163) on building the Shwegugyi temple in 1131:

By merit of this act I would behold
Metteyya, captain of the world, endued
With two and thirty emblems, where he walks
Enhaloed on a rainbow pathway fair
Like Meru King of mountains, and sets free
Samsara's captives by his holy words.
There might I hear good Law, and bending low
Offer the four things needful to the Lord
And all his monks, till clad in virtues eight
Informed by such a Teacher, I become
A Buddha in the eyes of spirits and men...

A noble aspiration indeed! But whatever the aspiration, the merit acquired by the donation was not meant for the donor alone, but for all. Thus Queen Pwa Saw made this prayer of dedication:

May my noble husband lord the king, my son the king, my grandson the king, these three kings, and all the future kings to come share equally with me the merit of this work. May the princes and princesses, the queen and all her ladies-in-waiting, the ministers and all the hosts, the Thagya, Brahma, the four Guardians of the world and all the spirits, Tataw the Yama King, men and other beings who dwell in our would-system and other world-systems from Avici hell below to the celestial realms above also get a share of my merit. May they escape the miseries of samsara and reach nibbana which is free from misery." With great magnanim-ity, then, Queen Pwa Saw shared the merit of her act with all beings of the thirty-one realms: the twenty celestial realms of the brahmas, the six celestial realms of the thagyas or devas, the mundane realm, and even the four hells.

The donors of Bagan indeed gave lavishly to the Religion. But what were the expenses of building the pagodas and temples which they built in such profusion? It is to be remembered that the workmen employed for the building were free men who had to be provided with board and wages. Princess Asawkyun le this list of expenses for the building of a temple:

Grand total of silver 1747 (ticals) 3 pay
Grand total of copper 74 viss
Grand total of loincloth 113 pieces
Grand total of gold for smearing the spire 23 ticals
Grand total of quicksilver 92 ticals
Grand total of paddy 1867'/2 baskets
Grand total of areca nuts 2 barrels and 1166?
Grand total of black pepper 7/23 viss
Grand total of salt 754 viss
Grand total of copper for the spire 66 viss

The builders of Bagan built both with wood and with brick, but the wooden buildings have been destroyed and only the brick remain. Since brick structures abounded at Peikthanomyo in the 1st century, there was already a millenium-old tradition of brick masonry when the men of Bagan began to give expression to their religious fervour in brick. The builders of Bagan built in brick with masterful ease and the brickwork of the Bagan monuments is excellent-the bricks are fashioned with care and made to fit together with so little intervening space that the mortar is hardly visible. Not only have architectural forms derived from India been assimilated and reshaped but the true or voussoir arch-unknown in India - and its extension, the vault, is used with great effectiveness.

 

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