There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: 1) stupas, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture; 2) temples, place of worship somewhat similar to a church; and 3) monasteries, which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.
The main building types found at Pagan and at other ancient and historical sites—and modern places too—are stupas, temples and monasteries. Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas such as the Myazedei that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines. A third building type of which there are abundant examples is the monastery that can be either a one-room building or a vast complex of buildings.
The lotus motif is a decorative feature found on the architecture of Buddhist shrines and sacred depositories such as chedis (stupas). The upper part of a chedi just below the pinnacle consists of the diamond bud—the pennant-shaped vane. The umbrella (hti) is an elongated bulbous portion of the chedi known as the banana bud. Just below it is the Kya-yint (Mumifh) that is a motif of large lotus petals encircling the chedi. Next is the Kya-lan (Mumvef), which is the part of the chedi that resembles a spreading upturned lotus flower. Then comes the Kya-nu which is a motif of small lotus petals. And lastly is the Kya-Hmauk (MumarSmuf), which resembles an inverted lotus flower. These motifs add to the grace and beauty of chedis. The lotus motif also decorates the pinnacles of tiered roofs of monasteries and palaces and there is also a vessel somewhat like a fruit stand decorated with lotus petals for offering food and fruits at sacred Buddha shrines. The exotic lotus is a motif which also adorns the gold thrones on which we place Buddha images.
Ordination halls in temples and monasteries in Myanmar are called Thein in Myanmar, from the Pali “Sima.” They are used not only for the ordination ceremony itself but also for other such ceremonies as the confession by monks.
See Separate Article factanddetails.com
Pagodas and Stupas
Burma is famous for its large and graceful pagodas. A pagoda. in Southeast Asia. is cone-shaped monumental structure built in memory of Buddha. But in the Far East a pagoda is a tower-like, multistoried structure of stone, brick. or wood. usually associated with a Buddhist temple complex. The pagoda derives from the stupa of ancient India, which was a dome-shaped commemorative monument usually erected over the remains or relics of a holy man or king. The hemispherical domed stupa of ancient India evolved into several distinct forms in various parts of Southeast and East Asia. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]
The finial, or decorative crowning ornament of the stupa, became more elongated and cylindrical until the stupa's upper portion took on an attenuated, tower-like appearance. This stupa form was adopted by Buddhism as an appropriate form for a monument enshrining sacred relics and became known to Westerners as a pagoda. The Buddhist pagoda was elaborated in Tibet into a bottle-shaped form; it took pyramidal or conical designs in Burma. In Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, Korea and Japan it evolved into the best-known pagoda form. =
The stereotypical east Asian pagoda is a tall tower consisting of a vertical repetition of a basic story unit in regularly diminishing proportions. The stories can have a circular square or polygonal plan. Each story in an East Asian pagoda has its own prominent projecting roof line. and the whole structure is capped by a mast and disks. The pagoda form is intended primarily as a monument and has very little usable interior space. =
The traditional Burmese urban home is raised on four posts and has a concrete base. There are two or three rooms partitioned with plywood sheets that have curtains instead of doors. The main room is reached by the front door which sits at the top of a small flight of stairs. There are many rooms in the Bamar traditional house. Firstly. you will get to the living room at the entrance of the house. There, traditional Bamar food and drink, betel boxes, pickled tea leaves, cheroot and green tea pot are displayed. There is sometimes a well, granary and bullock cart in the courtyard.
According to the Joshua Project: Various types of houses can be found in the Burmese villages. The wealthier people often live in sturdy, mahogany homes that are raised off the ground and have plank floors and tile roofs. Those with lower incomes may live in thatched roof, bamboo houses that have dirt floors. All activities take place on the dirt floors, including eating and sleeping. Therefore, it is extremely impolite to enter a Burmese house wearing shoes.
According to Countries and Their Cultures: “The traditional house is made largely of bamboo. Flattened pieces of bamboo made into large plaited sections are used to make the walls. The floors are made of bamboo planks or wood. The frame of the house is made of wood, with hard and durable wood being used for the house posts. Roof coverings are made of a variety of materials, including thatch made from broad-leafed grass or palm fronds. Roofs may be covered with tiles, wooden shingles, or zinc sheets. Some old houses use whole tree trunks for pillars and have splendid teak paneling. The front of the house usually has a veranda that is raised a few feet off the ground. This is the public area where guests are entertained. The center of the house is the living area for the family. Behind it is a covered cooking area where rice is stored. Especially in urban areas, these houses are being replaced by more generic ones made from cement. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]
In the Irrawaddy Delta area natural materials such as thatch from the palm trees and shrubs that grow across the delta provided cheap, rainproof, and relatively cool roofing. In the old days houses in rural areas were mostly built of bamboo, thatch or palm leaves and rattan was used instead of iron nail for tying the structure together. Rattan is a wild creeper which grows profusely in many forests of Myanmar. It is a very resilient fiberous gift of nature which Myanmar people have been using for various purposes since time immemorial.
Some ethnic minorities have distinctive styles of houses.Many Palaung traditionally lived in multiple-family houses. Today, these structures are very rare, and most Palaung live in single-family houses. See Individual Ethnic Groups
Describing the inside of a Kachin house, Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “Their house was a modest structure of concrete and wood but the sitting room was decorated with an impressive collection of posters. Among them was a concert shot of the Scorpions and, next to that, a classic of Bruce Lee that I hadn't seen since my youth: the scene from Enter the Dragon in which Bruce is sporting two dramatic claw marks across his chest, his mouth wide open mid-caterwaul. High up on the opposite wall was a shelflike shrine supporting the images of Jesus, Mary and the Buddha. Though I have spent the better part of two decades in Southeast Asia, this was the first time I had seen Christ and the Buddha share the same household altar. I was admiring the shrine when Myo Aung entered the room. “My father was Burman and my mother was Kachin. Burmans are always Buddhist but many Kachin are Christians.” [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]
Early Pyu Period (2nd century B.C. to A.D. 1050) Architecture
Beikthano is the oldest urban site so far discovered in Myanmar and the oldest of the three ancient centers of Pyu civilization (the other two being Srikestra and Halin). The structures, found there date from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Of the over one hundred debris mounds that are present at Beikthano, twenty-five of them were excavated between 1959 and 1963 (new excavations, it is reported, are presently underway). While artifacts, and coins have come to light, little is known concerning the details of the physical structures at the site since they now exist only as fragmentary foundations. The foundations of a number buildings made of large, kiln-fired bricks were unearthed, among them are two halls with wooden pillars, possibly audience halls; a large rectangular monastery building containing multiple cells; and the foundations of several circular, stupa-like structures, a few of them situated on square bases. These stupa-like foundations were in several cases closely associated with numerous burial urns containing the ashes and bones of cremated human bodies.[Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“To the north of the palace site lies the most important structure at Beikthano: a large multi-room building that was almost certainly a monastery. The structure of the building was made of well-fired bricks with wooden doors and window frames. This building, evidently used as a residential dwelling for monks, was destroyed by fire as indicated by the charred remains of its wooden fittings. The remains of the brick walls now rise to about 8 feet. The building consisted of a main rectangular structure measuring about 100x35 feet with a smaller rectangular projection on the east side. The floor plan consists of ten rooms: one entrance hall on the east occupying the projection, one long corridor hall occupying the eastern half of the main rectangle and eight small square rooms to the west of the long hall. The wall opposite the only exit on the east leads to a long corridor, which is connected by a large door to all of the small rooms. The several, small and identical rooms within this building resemble those of Buddhist monasteries at Nagarjunakonda in Andrha State of South India. Since this building is found in close proximity to one of the stupa-like structures, it was almost certainly built as a residence for monks. This structure can be dated by an impression in clay discovered within that was stamped with a circular seal containing four letters in Brahmi script that are datable to the A.D. second century. =
“Among other structures exposed at Beikthano is a cylindrical building with four rectangular projections outside two concentric retaining walls that resembles the typical Andhra type of stupa found at Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in Southern India. The Andhra stupa type typically has rectangular ayaka platforms that project at ground level from the cardinal points. Here the projections are very prominent but do not support any inscription pillars nor is the drum of the stupa decorated with sculptured stone slabs as in the Indian prototype. =
“Another type of religious or ritual structure that was uncovered in three excavations consists of a square base on which originally stood a cylindrical structure, perhaps surmounted by a low hemispherical dome, which would be like the stupas at Nagarjunakonda. There were no projections from the drum itself but a rectangular wall projected from one side only and is a feature peculiar to Beikthano. Burial urns were found associated with these structures, though not actually enshrined within them. The urns typically were found in groups buried along the outer perimeter of the structures in close proximity to the square foundation base.=
“An extended human skeleton and two groups of human bones were recovered outside the south and north walls of one of these structures. It is evident from the stratigraphy that the urns and bones were buried at the same time in a single layer. The absence of religious objects at this site and the definite association of the structure with burial urns as well as human skeletons strongly suggest that the building was used for funereal purposes. Also unearthed were the rectangular foundations of two halls built with brick floors having openings for wooden pillars. These are located near buildings thought to be monastic establishments, an arrangement that also has South Indian precedents. Importantly, the placement of burial urns around the foundation of these structures is a trait unique to the Pyu culture of Burma and is not found in similar structures in South India.” =
At Halin, another Pyu site: “The structures within the walls consist of square or rectangular buildings that in several instances have a quadrangular projection from one side. Earthen funerary urns were found buried both within and outside these structures. Since these building reveal no evidence of a religious purpose, they are thought to have been used solely to house funerary urns. At a site situated near the “palace” a large rectangular hall made of brick, possibly serving as an assembly hall was exposed. The charred remains of 84 wooden pillars in four ranks are evidence of how the roof or superstructure was originally held in place. Charred remains were also found of the wooden gates that once stood at the entryways to the city. An analysis of charcoal specimens from this structure thought to be an assembly hall has produced a date of A.D. 6th century. Charcoal from two of the wooden gates indicate a date to the A.D. 2nd or 3rd century.
Srikshetra: Later Pyu Period (2nd century B.C. to A.D. 1050) Architecture
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Although a number of structures still exist at Srikshetra such as temples, and stupas, there is a growing consensus among scholars that only the stupas date to the Pyu period. The temples were most likely constructed during the Pagan period; many for the re-installation of older Pyu images. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“At Srikshetra, the ancient ruins are concentrated in the elevated southern half of the city and also outside the fortress-like walls, while burial mounds containing urns were found scattered throughout the area. The three most salient monuments today are all stupas and are found outside of the city wall: the Bawbawgyi to the south, the Pyagyi to the northwest, and the Pyama to the north. The Bawbawgyi, the tallest of the stupas is 153 feet high and consists of a massive cylindrical column that rests on a base of five concentric terraces. The upper portions of the main cylinder have fallen away over time and the truncated form has been fitted with a tower that resembles the Burmese crown or hti (hti: umbrella). It is therefore unknown what originally crowned this monument, as well as the other stupas at the site. However, this cylindrical stupa form that tapers towards the top is peculiar to Burma and to Pyu culture and is believed to represent a closed lotus bud. This form is more completely retained by the two other important stupas at the site, the Pyama and Pyagyi. The stupa in the form of a lotus bud can be seen in its entirety on many of the numerous votive tablets found at the site. =
“The Bawbawgyi is not an entirely solid structure as it may appear at first sight. Indeed, the cylindrical body is hollow up to about two-thirds of its height and in this regard, differs from most stupas in Burma that are typically solid and cannot be entered. There is an opening at the base and another aperture high up in the opposite wall. Inside the stupa was found a small ceramic vase containing excerpts from Buddhist manuscripts that were written in Pali (=sacred language of Buddhism) on twenty sheets of gold and silver. The script used in writing these passages has been dated to the mid 5th to mid 6th century AD, which dates the structure to well within the Pyu period. Also, clay votive plaques inscribed with the name of the first great king of Pagan, King Anawrahta, were found inside the stupa in an especially created chamber. This too is a clear indication that the structure predates the Pagan Period and is therefore no doubt Pyu. King Anawrahta’s continued reverence for the Bawbawgyi is bitter-sweet, however, in that when the votive tablets were placed inside, the relics contained in the stupa were evidently looted to be taken away to Pagan to be re-enshrined there. =
“The stupas at Srikshetra lack the decorative architectural moldings and motifs that are found on modern stupas which some scholars see as an indication of their antiquity. However, others believe the decorative elements were originally created in plaster and they fell away long ago.
Notable in architectural features although less in height than the above mentioned stupas are three temples, the Bebe, the Lemyethna, and the East Zegu. The Bebe and the Lemyethna are situated outside of the surrounding walls while the East Zegu is located inside the perimeter of the city. The Bebe temple, made of brick, has a small square sanctuary with a porch facing east. On top of the hollow base are three receding terraces on which stands a plain cylindrical pinnacle with a rounded top. The sidewalls have attached columns with false arched doorways on the exterior and arched niches inside. A sculptured stone slab bearing a seated Buddha flanked by a disciple on either side rests against the west wall. The Lemyethna is a small square temple with four entrances. The core is solid and is surrounded by a narrow corridor and four porches. Originally, each side had a stone slab bearing a seated Buddha image. It has a terraced roof but the pinnacle no longer exists. =
“Both the Bebe and the Lemyethna were made using the same building techniques and ornamental forms that were used later in Pagan buildings. The apparent re-installation of several Pyu images within these temples indicates that they are obviously later constructions, thus later Pagan Period creations. Pointed arch and form of door-surround like those found on temples at Pagan Therefore, some scholars have considered the small temples at Srikshetra to be the prototypes for the much larger temples at Pagan. Most scholars now accept that these temples are provincial constructions dating to the Pagan Period and are not Pyu at all.” =
Pre-Pagan Mon Architecture (A.D. 825-1057)
Describing the structures at Mon city Thaton, Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Of the two stupas situated between the palace site and south wall, the Shwezayan is the largest. Across the road from the Shwezayan stupa is the Kalyani Sima, a hall built especially for the ordination of monks. On the sandstone boundary pillars that surround the Kalyani Sima, the stories known as the Ten Great Jatakas may be seen. These carvings illustrate the last 10 lives of the Buddha before he was reborn as Gautama, the historical Buddha who gained enlightenment. An inscription on one of the pillars dates them to the 11th –13th centuries. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The original form of the Swezayan, stupa, said to have been built in the 5th century B.C., is difficult to ascertain since it has been repeatedly rebuilt and expanded. As it stands today, the stupa has a circular base and its overall structure resembles that of a bell. Found within the compound of the Swezayan stupa are several inscribed stones, five in the Mon language of the 11th century. These stones are now preserved within the stupa compound. =
“Also found within the building are several stone sculptures, loosely dated to the 10th-11th centuries. One of these is a relief carving on sandstone of a standing Buddha. His right hand held at his side points downward with the palm facing outward in the wish-granting gesture known as varada mudra. His left hand is held upwards against his chest with the thumb and index finger pressed together in the argumentative or teaching attitude known as vitarka mudra. Above the Buddha’s shoulders are the figures of hamsa birds facing each other. =
Pagan Architecture (A.D. 1044 to 1287)
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The remains of a variety of building types are found at Pagan including stupas, temples, monasteries, ordination halls and libraries. Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas such as the Myazedei that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines. A third building type of which there are abundant examples is the monastery that can be either a one-room building or a vast complex of buildings. Libraries and ordination halls appear to have been infrequently built but are also found among the structures at Pagan. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Domestic architecture, including the royal palace, was constructed of wood and consequently, has completely vanished. The only trace of these wooden buildings is the pattern of the post-holes that were dug to contain the supporting timbers. The structures at Pagan vary greatly in scale from very small one-room structures to enormous temples with multiple floors and shrines that soar to 200 feet. The eleven largest buildings at Pagan are all royal foundations that were built before 1300. Each contains within its mass more than fifty times as much material as the average temple or stupa. Therefore, the volume of these eleven buildings is equivalent to one quarter of the building activity during the Pagan Period. =
Temples and stupas, even though adjacent to one another, were generally designed to stand alone as single buildings without planned relationships between one another. A boundary wall, thought be a protection against fire, surrounded the largest and most important buildings.
These enclosing walls were usually square with an entrance in the middle of each side. The main buildings, at times raised on a platform, were located in the center of this large enclosure with smaller structures placed around them.
Pagan Architecture: Materials and Techniques
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “All Pagan structures were made of brick plastered with stucco except for three buildings that were made of stone or were faced with stone. The bricks were kiln fired, regularly shaped and thinner but much larger that the standard western brick. The average brick measured 36 x 18 x 6 centimeters. It is known that many bricks were brought to Pagan by boat because the village of their origin is stamped on the brick and some locations are known today. Many other bricks were produced at Pagan as indicated by large depressions along the banks of the Irrawaddy where clay was gathered for brick making. This craft is still practiced at Pagan at present. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Bricks were laid with great care, especially the outer bricks that were visible. The only mortar used was clay, at times with a considerable admixture of sand. If more complex organic binders were used, as mentioned in inscriptions, they have now disappeared and do not appear in chemical analyses of mortar samples. Interestingly, the high-quality mortar used as plaster on the exterior of the buildings was never employed as a binding agent for the masonry itself, even though this would have created a more lasting and stronger bond. =
“A remarkable technique used at Pagan for the construction of vaults and arches was the pointed arch created with voussoirs. The extended use of this technique is only found in Pagan Period buildings (and some later Burmese copies) and sets the architecture of Pagan apart from contemporary monuments elsewhere in Southeast Asia as well as in India. Although probably originating in India, the technique was never widely used there and was never employed in complex ways to span broad spaces as is found at Pagan. =
“The architects in Pagan used the vaulting technique quite differently than their counterparts in Europe. Bricks used to create arches and vaults were specially shaped into a trapezium with its two longer sides splayed radially so that these bricks resembled a slice of pie with the tip cut off. To form an arch, bricks were arranged vertically with the broadest, flat side towards the viewer – unlike the western technique where the thin edge of the brick is turned outward. The bricks would then be fitted tightly together to form a pointed arch and then mortared in place. Mortaring successive layers of brick voussoirs in front of one another created a pointed vault that could be put in place with few supports or scaffolding. =
“The Pagan architects were sophisticated in their use of this technology and systematically employed relieving arches. These were multiple, free standing arches that were set above one another in a wall to assure that the wall would hold, even if one of the arches failed. Difficult features such as sloping vaults over staircases or voussoired flat arches were also successfully used. In addition, the corbelled vault or arch was also appropriately used to span narrow openings as is seen in many monastery buildings.” =
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The typical form of the Pagan stupa was clearly derived from earlier examples found in India and Sri Lanka. Major differences between the earlier stupa prototypes and the later Pagan structures can be seen in their larger proportions as well as in the more pyramidal shape of the terraced base. The dome remained the major architectural element in the Burmese stupa and was made more bell-like, developing a shoulder and a slight concavity at the base of the bell. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“These changes constitute what became the classical model for the Burmese stupa that has a square base of several recessed terraces provided with a stairway on each side that leads up to one or two octagonal terraces upon which sits a circular bell-shaped dome that extends upward into a conical, ringed spire. Although this model is thought to be typical for most Pagan Period stupas, it appears in only a few monuments of great size, such as the Shwezigon Stupa or the Mingalazedi. However, this is the stupa type that is most often copied during later periods, for example the Kuthawdaw Stupa built in Mandalay in 1857. =
“Another stupa type rarely found at Pagan has a bulbous profile and dome that the Burmese see as gourd-like and is considered to be Pyu in origin. The riverine Buhpaya or “Gourd Stupa” and the Ngakywenadaung are among the few extant examples. Exact copies of the cylindrical or columnar type of Pyu stupa as seen at Srikshetra are not readily found at Pagan. An exception, however, might be King Anawrahta’s Lokanada Stupa that marks the southern extent of the ancient city. Unfortunately, it has been extensively repaired and reshaped) with the passage of time. =
“The crowning finial placed on all stupas, today, as well as during the Pagan period, is the metal hti (umbrella) or tiered sunshade that closely resembles the Burmese royal crown. When stupas fell into disrepair, they are often encased by a later generation of devotees with a new, thick covering of brick and stucco. The ruined remains of many stupas at Pagan reveal their earlier encasements that in form, size and detailing are often markedly different from the visible exterior. Therefore, the outer, visible surface of the stupa is not a reliable indication of the shape or decoration of the original stupa. The exteriors of both temples and stupas were embellished with similarly patterned carved and molded stucco decorations. Often a frieze consisting of demon masks (kirtthimukhas) disgorging strings of pearls and foliage was attached to the top of a temple wall and around the middle of the stupa bell. Plaster ornaments were also used to cover pilasters and to create the prominent moldings that appear around any opening on the outside or inside of a building. =
Famous Pagan Stupas
In Myanmar, there are four big Pagodas bearing the name “Shwe Sandaw”. They are one at Taungoo, an ancient capital about 180 miles to the north of Yangon, one at Pyay another ancient town about 160 miles to the north of Yangon, one at Bagan another old capital in Central Myanmar and one at Twante. As the name suggests these pagodas are the religious movements in which the sacred hairs of Lord Buddha were enshined. The legends of these Pagodas were associated with Myanmar history. Bagan Shwe Sandaw Pagoda was built by King Anawrahta (A.D. 1044-77) after his conquest of Thaton in A.D. 1057. Its legend claims that some sacred hairs of Gotama Buddha which were obtained from the ruined pagodas in the Mon country were enshined in it. Pyay Shwe Sandaw Pagoda, according to its legend, was built during the lifetime of Lord Buddha who came to that place in the 8th year of his Buddhahood. Later in the 101st year of the Buddhist Era King Duttabaung repaired and enlarged the Pagoda. Taungoo Shwe Sandaw Pagoda was the merit of Thiha Thura Maha Dhamma Raja commonly known as Min Khaung the younger brother of the conqueror king Bayint Naung ( A.D. 1551-81). The King of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) presented to Bayint Naung eight sacred hairs of Lord Buddha and Bayint Naung kept 4 strands for worship at his own shine and gave away the rest, one each to his four younger brothers-Lord of Pyay, Lord of Martaban, Lord of Inwa and Lord of Taungoo. Min Khaung the Lord of Taungoo built a pagoda at Taungoo in A.D. 1570 and enshined his share of the sacred relics in it.
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Lokananda Stupa is believed to have been built in 1059 by King Anawrahta. It is located on a promontory above a small bay in the east bank of the Irrawaddy that probably served as a port for Pagan and marked the southern extent of the city. Today, the structure displays a columnar bell with vertical sides resting upon three octagonal terraces, two of which are connected by a short staircase. The exterior decoration or this stupa has been repeatedly refurbished and changed over time and has recently been encased in gilded metal plaques. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The Shwesandaw stupa is popularly believed to have been built by King Anawrahta at the symbolic center of his square Mandala plan for Pagan. It was built to enshrine the sacred hair relic (= Shwesandaw) that he had taken from the Bawbawgyi stupa in Srikshetra. This is the first stupa in Burma to have a pyramidal base of tall, steep terraces connected on each side by a medial stairway. Also, it is the first instance in Burmese history of a bell-shaped dome that has a concave profile instead of the convex or vertical profiles of the Pyu types. This bell-shaped dome with a flared base became an important part of the prototypic stupa that was replicated in Burma for the following nine hundred years. Important by its absence from this Burmese prototype is the cubical harmica box situated between the dome and the finial cone that is found elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Although the harmica is retained especially in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and is occasionally found at Pagan (e.g., the Sapada and the Pebingyaung stupas), it is not retained in the typical Burmese stupa. =
“The unusually steep elevation of the lower terraces, allows the visitor to view from the base of the dome the four stupas that mark the boundaries of Pagan. (The Lokananda Stupa is now obscured by vegetation.) The outer face of the terraces were inset with glazed ceramic plaques that each in a single depiction represent one of the many past lives of Gautama Buddha, The Jataka Tales. The use of such plaques continued an Indian tradition and they decorate many later Burmese monuments of great size and importance. =
“Interestingly, the Shwesandaw is also known as the Mahapeinne, or Ganesha Stupa. So named for the Hindu God, Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva who as a protector - doorman removes obstacles from the path of those who wish to legitimately enter. It is probable that stone images of Ganesha originally guarded the stupa because broken images of Hindu Gods have been found scattered about its base. The four corners of the base were guarded by the earliest examples of manoukthiha, images of double-bodied lions made of brick and plaster, that continue in use till today to protect the foundations of Burmese stupas. =
“The last major edifice to be erected at Pagan , the Mingalazedi, is also perhaps the most visually satisfying in terms of pleasing proportions and fine details, such as the glazed Jataka plaques that ring its four lower terraces. King Narathihapati constructed it in 1284, a few years before the Mongol incursions that lead to the decline of Pagan. Small stupas that appear at the corners of the stepped terraces have the form of the kalasa Pot and are covered with white glazed tiles decorated with a molded kirtthimukha frieze. Atop the third terrace, there are four larger, conical stupas that together with the subsidiary corner stupas and the medial stairways enhance the majestic effect of the edifice that culminates in a tapering finial above the bell. “ =
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Shwezigon, a massive stupa built during the 11th century, has aptly been called the most 'national' of all Burma's pagodas. It became the prototype for the form and decoration of subsequent Burmese stupas, has received constant devotional and financial support for a thousand years, and is a principal destination for pilgrims to Pagan. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“This solid stupa, which is 102 feet tall, was built to enshrine several sacred relics of the Buddha, including his collarbone, frontlet bone and a duplicate tooth relic brought from the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka. Sandstone was used to construct, most, if not all, of this frequently repaired structure. King Anawrahta is credited with constructing the lower three terraces that comprise the square pyramidal base. A staircase connects these terraces halfway along each side, and there are small stupas at the terrace corners. The massive bell-shaped middle part of the stupa, completed by King Kyanzittha shortly after 1086, rises from an octagonal band above the three terraces. The ringed cone as well as the lotus-bud finial surmounting the bell has frequently had to be replaced owing to earthquakes (e.g., after the earthquake of 1975) and general deterioration. Inset in the lower brick terraces are over 500 stone or terracotta, green glazed plaques that illustrate in simple terms events from the previous lives of the Buddha (=Jataka stories). This use of Jataka plaques as architectural ornament first occurred on stupas constructed by King Anawrahta then continued throughout the Pagan and later periods. At the Southeast corner of the stupa is found an imposing double-bodied lion, the only remaining stone manoukthiha at Pagan. It is one of four that originally held guard at the four corners of the stupa’s base. A cult has recently developed around this image where devotees can be senn making offerings of flowers and food. =
“The stupa stands at center of a very large walled compound in which there are a wide variety of structures including several Nat shrines, rest houses and small temples. The Stupa could be approached from the Irrawaddy by the north gate. The primary east gate as well as the south gate have long covered walkways, regularly filled with vendors.. The beginning of the infrequently used west gate is guarded at a distance by two stone lions, the oldest at Pagan and in fact, in Burma. This is the continuation of an Indian tradition of placing guardian lions, known in Burmese as chinthes, at the entrances to stupas - a tradition that continues until today. =
“In post Pagan Periods, gigantic guardian lions were erected in brick and stucco on either side of the entrances on the East, South and West sides of the compound. On the north side, the chinthes appear along the stairway that leads up from the river landing, not adjacent to the entrance. At each of the four cardinal points round the base of the stupa, opposite the staircases, is a freestanding secondary shrine referred to as a “perfumed chamber” (gandhakuti) due to the aromatic incense offered there. In each of these shrines stands one of the four largest bronze Buddha images in Pagan, each towers nine feet above the kneeling devotee. These images are of interest, also, because they were created by hammering a thin sheet of bronze to form only the front half the image, although the visual effect is that they were cast-in-the-round. =
“It was here at the Shwezigon, according the Glass Palace Chronicle compiled in 1829, that the Pagan kings placed images of the indigenous Nats so that those who came to pay their respects to the Nats would learn of Buddhism. As part of this arrangement a Buddhist deity known by several names, Indra – Sakka –Thagyamin, was appointed as head of a new Pantheon of Thirty Seven selected Nats. Today, images of the entire Nat Pantheon are housed in a Nat shrine located in the Southeast corner of the compound. Only three of these wooden images are ancient: a Pagan Period image measuring 8 feet 8 inches has its own chamber in the east end of the shrine and is the earliest known image of Indra - Sakka - ThagyaMin. Archaic images of the Animist brother- sister leaders of the Nats, Min Mahagiri and Shwemyethna, have also been placed within the shrine and consist of faces painted on gilded wooden planks. =
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Pagan temples may be divided into two basic types according to floor plan: one type has an open central sanctuary and the other has a solid core that is ringed by a corridor. The two types, however, were at times combined in a single structure in which the solid core was hollowed out to create a sanctuary that was then encircled by a corridor. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“An example of the first type, the most rudimentary temple, of which there are several hundred at Pagan, consists of a one storey square shrine that is typically entered from the east by a door which opens into a small vestibule area located directly in front of the primary cult image that sits against the west wall. The interior may be illuminated by light from the door or by windows in the north and south walls. Larger temples having a sanctuary were often built on a cruciform plan where the central shrine can be entered from all four sides. At times these temples have four Buddha images seated back to back at the center or a screen wall is erected inside against which the major cult image is placed. Often, one of the four entrances is developed into a hall that may then open directly into the sanctuary. =
“The second main type of temple has a solid core that is ringed by a fairly broad circumambulatory corridor that then serves as a continuous sanctuary. These temples are most often square having a door in each wall with the major images placed in a niche facing each entrance. These four images may represent by their differing iconography the Four Great Events in the Buddha’s life – Birth, Enlightenment, First Sermon, Death – or four identical Buddhas may represent the four previous Buddhas of our era. When a fifth Buddha, the future Buddha, Maitreya, is included, a pentagonal plan was devised by adding a fifth side with requisite door, image and niche while using the same structural devices as found in a quadrilateral temple. =
“There are some temples that combine both principal types and hence are almost always among the larger temples at Pagan. These temples usually have a square central sanctuary lit by light shafts in the ceiling that is surrounded by a circumambulatory corridor with an entrance hall and porch on one side. Windows in the three outer walls illuminate the inner corridor. The primary Buddha image in the central shrine faces the entrance, and numerous smaller images fill niches throughout the temple whether they are located in the shrine, in the corridor wall, or in the entrance hall. Such is the floor plan of Nagayon Temple. =
“Temple roofs were made of bricks that were laid in a slightly curved profile during the 11th and early 12th centuries but were flat thereafter. A stair-step pyramid of terraces, usually three, sits atop the roof and forms the base for the massive tower. These towers were usually shaped like a circular stupa or were square with a curvilinear profile, a form referred to as a shikhara. These shikhara towers were also frequently crowned with a small stupa. =
“The exterior decoration of almost all temples of Pagan consists of stucco applied to the brick surfaces and then sculpted. Any opening in a temple was bordered by elaborate stucco decorations that are most ornate around the main temple door. In temple interiors, particularly after the first quarter of the12th century, the stucco moldings are replaced by trompe l’oeil wall paintings. The base of the temple as well as the roof terraces in larger temples may be enhanced with glazed ceramic or stone Jataka plaques or other ornaments such as glazed tiles in the shape of lotus petals or leaves.” =
Evolution of the Pagan Temple
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The precise evolution of Pagan architecture is difficult to establish. Only a few buildings have retained their dedicatory inscriptions, so the founding date for the majority of buildings is unknown. A general dating, however, can be attempted by comparing the architectural details of the few dated structures with those of unknown date but this process is confounded because some features continued throughout the Pagan Period without change and other features that did change were later revived as a deliberate archaism. Also, the buildings did not develop from simplest to most complex because many of the early building were royal donations and as such were particularly elaborate and sophisticated. Small, simple temples were built throughout the entire period, but particularly during the thirteenth century. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“A general evolution in three stages for the Pagan temple has been established, however, and involves a change from the early Mon style through a transitional stage to the fully developed Burmese style. The earliest temples at Pagan belong to the Mon phase of development and have the following features: a one storey structure with a dimly lit interior resulting from of the relatively small doorways, and windows that are screened with a stone or brick lattice. Primary icons are lit by rays of light that are admitted from shafts cut through to the terraced roofs. Roofs slope downward rather than being flat as in the later temples. This temple type takes its name from the Mon language captions that identify the subjects of wall paintings that decorate the inner walls, not from their having been donated or built by members of the Mon ethnic group. =
“The Pagan temple changed with the slow evolution of upper floors. The Ananda Temple is transitional to the new type because even though it is structurally a single storey temple its external fenestration of two separate rows of windows located above one the other creates the appearance of two floors. Importantly, these windows do not employ the lattice-like screens of the earlier Mon temples. It is unknown what language was used to identify these wall paintings because they have been completely covered with white wash and only slight traces remain indicating their existence. =
“During the twelfth century, the Burmese type fully appears with the development of a true second floor. Positioning a small shrine on the roof of the entrance hall was the first step in this development. This small shrine was situated in front of the main tower and above the central shrine. As additional buildings were constructed, the small shrine was progressively enlarged and moved back under the tower to create a large, centered, second storey room capped by the main tower of the temple. This transformation was structurally possible because the first floor sanctuary was replaced with a solid core of masonry while retaining the first floor circumambulatory corridor. The solid core on the first floor then served to support the second floor sanctuary including its considerable tower. Thus, a complete second storey developed that for structural reasons was always smaller than the ground floor. Brick staircases were built into the thickness of the outer walls to allow access to the roof of the entrance hall and hence to the main sanctuary and the entire upper story. Most of the large, two storey temples follow this plan with a solid core and a circumambulatory corridor on each floor. Only a very few temples were built with three or four floors and, curiously, always appear to have only two floors when viewed from the exterior. =
Nagayon Temple: a Mon Temple Type at Pagan
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Nagayon temple, built by King Kyanzittha about 1090 AD, is a good example of the Mon temple type. It is a single storey structure consisting of an entrance hall and a square, central shrine that are connected by a circumambulatory corridor which passes in front of and completely surrounds the inner shrine. The roof slopes upwards to three broad terraces that are surmounted by a convex shikhara tower, crowned by a stupa. Smaller shikharas and stupas stand on the terrace corners.” [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The Nagayon, like other early temples at Pagan, has narrow window openings filled with a dense brick lattice that allows very little light to enter. The temple or gu was dimly lit because it was meant to resemble a mountain cave where the religious might worship and meditate – a concept also found in India. The central shrine contains a most unusual arrangement of three colossal images of the standing Buddha that are made not of sandstone but of brick and stucco; they are dramatically lit by a shafts of light entering through ducts in the roof terraces. The use of Mon language, and not Burmese, for the captions below the wall paintings found in these early temples led G.H. Luce and other scholars to refer to this early temple type as “Mon” as distinct from the later “Burmese” type. =
“The Nagayon is a testament to King Kyanzittha's love of glazed surfaces and sandstone. The exterior sandstone garth as well as the floors of the interior have glazed stone paving while glazed decorative tiles outline each of the roof terraces. Also, there are 70 large sandstone images located in niches in the entrance hall and along both sides of the ambulatory corridor. Below the exterior entablature is a Kirttimukha frieze of grotesque heads made of finely carved stucco. A massive brick wall with impressive gatehouses that retain their original wooden beams encloses the whole temple compound.” =
Ananda Temple at Pagan
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Ananda, one of the largest and most imposing of the early Pagan temples is transitional between the Mon and the Burmese type. Built about 11l2 AD, it is the masterwork of King Kyanzittha. Though the Ananda is a single storey building, the external fenestration produces an illusion that there were two storeys because the inner corridor is so tall as to accommodate two windows one above the other. Importantly, the two levels of superimposed windows in the exterior walls lack the lattice filling of earlier temples and thus more light is allowed into the interior. Window-like cross passages that cut through the interior walls between the corridors align with the windows in the exterior wall to provide well-modulated interior light into the innermost corridor. These cross passages also provide unexpected internal views through the temple. This feature marks the Ananda as transitional to the slightly later, well-lit Burmese temple type. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The cross-shaped plan centers on four shrines set back-to-back around a solid core. Instead of the single inner sanctum of his earlier Nagayon temple, four tall niches have been cut into the central core. Each niche is occupied by a colossal wooden image of a Standing Buddha that measures over thirty feet in height. Two to the four images are original and are iconographically unique in world of Theravada Buddhist imagery. These two images stand with their hands in the gesture of Turning the wheel of the Law or dharmachakra mudra. Other than during the reign of King Kyansittha, this gesture is used to indicate the preaching of the first sermon for either Gautama Buddha or Maitreya Buddha but only while they are seated. =
“Each of the four colossal Buddhas face one of the four pillared entrance halls that form the arms of the Greek Cross plan. The head of each standing Buddha is beautifully illuminated by a ray of light that shines down through a shaft from a small false shrine located above each entrance hall. At the feet of the Standing Buddha in the western alcove are life-size statues popularly believed to portray the temple’s founder, King Kyanzittha, and the Buddhist Primate of Pagan, Shin Arahan. Two footprints of the Buddha (Buddhapada) carved into the top of a stone pedestal are located in the western entrance hall. Each footprint bears the traditional 108 auspicious marks as enumerated in the Pali commentaries, although they have become very faint today from being touched. =
“The Ananda is the most all-encompassing storehouse of sacred images at Pagan. There are approximately 1,500 images on the exterior of the temple and another 1,500 on the interior. The two circumambulatory corridors provide niches for well over 1,000 images on as many as seven levels above the floor. Its treasures include: the four tallest standing Buddha images in Burma; on the exterior plinth, 554 green glazed terracotta plaques depicting the defeated army of the tempter Mara together with the victorious devas; lining the roof terraces are 912 glazed green terra-cotta Jataka plaques recounting, in a complex but precise, chronological arrangement, scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha; and, in the interior halls and corridors, there are niches for 1535 large sandstone images carved in high relief that illustrate events from the historical Buddha's life.=
“One set of 80 carvings located in the exterior wall of the outer corridor is the most extensive visual account in sculpture to be found anywhere in the Buddhist world of the events in Gautama Buddha’s life from conception through enlightenment. This comprehensive visual account is based on a Pali text, the Nidanakatha narrative, and illustrates a number of events that are rarely depicted in Burma or elsewhere. Fortunately, these sculptures are among the finest found at Pagan and are among the best preserved. =
“The temple measures 160 meters in width and 172 feet in height. On the roof of the 33 feet tall main building, with its two sloping roofs, three terraces rise to a tall, square shikhara surmounted by a stupa capped by a hti. Small stupas or diminutive replicas of the shikhara are placed at the corners of each of the roofs. Double bodied lions, Manukthiha, guard each corner of the base and also appear at the corners of the roof terraces. Glazed ceramic plaques that depict all 550 Jatakas are inset in the roof terraces =
“Unfortunately, the plastered walls are today whitewashed both outside and in, thus completely covering the original wall paintings. The enclosing compound wall with four massive gatehouses continues the symmetrical plan of the temple and is the only compound wall at Pagan with extensive decoration on its outer surface, in this case, 1,000 stupas in high relief. Several buildings are located within the walled compound of the Ananda including a reconstructed temple interior that houses one of the finest crowned Buddha images from the Pagan Period.=
Thatbyinnu Temple: Burmese Temple Type at Pagan
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: Built between 1150 and 1160 “late in the reign of King Alaungsithu, the Thatbyinnyu, is the most elaborate temple of the transitional period. This enormous construction, the tallest at Pagan, soars to 201 feet in height and its square plan enclosing four floors is the most complex among the 3,320 structures at Pagan. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“In plan, two of the four floors are contained within each of two cubic masses; the smaller cube is set atop the larger.. Between the two cubic forms are three terraces. Each storey contains one or more square circumambulatory corridors forming a circuit within the building: the first, third, and fourth storeys have a single corridor, while the second storey has two concentric corridors. On the third story is the main sanctuary, encircled by a single corridor. The most important innovation at Thatbyinnyu was to place the principal image in this elevated sanctuary, rather than on the ground floor, as in all earlier temples at Pagan. An entrance hall is located at ground level along with a corridor that leads to porches on the three other sides and is lit by windows extending to the ground. A grand, central staircase connecting the first two storeys is aligned with the building’s main axis and not located in the exterior walls as in earlier temples. =
“The corridors on the second and fourth storeys are bare and whitewashed (although with faint traces of wall paintings) and have no pedestals or niches for images - a marked contrast to the nearby, but slightly earlier, Ananda temple. It is likely that these two novel storeys are the result of an attempt to save building materials rather than to create additional space for any ritual or sacerdotal necessity. In later buildings, such as the Htilominlo, the two extra storeys are enclosed and sealed within the structure. The structure on the third storey is entered by a major, bridge-like staircase, which rises from the flat roof of the main entrance hall. In the main sanctuary on this floor, the principal image seated in this wide central chamber is bathed in natural light, the tall windows extending to the floor are completely open. The brick or stone lattices have completely disappeared. Sets of stairs within the walls of the sanctuary lead to the fourth storey and then to the tiered roof. Small bell shaped stupas on cube-shaped bases occupy the corners of the many receding roof terraces. The temple is crowned by a relatively small, square shikhara terminating in a bell-shaped stupa, an arrangement that creates an explosive visual tension with the burgeoning cubic masses below. The limited use of plaster ornament on the exterior as well as the empty niches provided for Jataka plaques may indicate that the temple was never fully completed. A rare feature located just southeast of the temple entrance is a pair of finely carved stone pillars once used to support a huge bell. “ =
Htilominlo Temple at Pagan
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Htilominlo is an excellent example of one of several late Pagan temple types. It was built about 1211 by King Nantaungmya, known popularly as Htilominlo ('as the umbrella willed, so the king, he became'). The Htilominlo is a larger version of the Sulamani Temple built by his father, Narapatisithu, who reigned 1173-1210 AD. Its outward appearance is similar to that of the Thatbyinnyu: two cubic masonry masses, one set atop the other, with an entrance hall projecting slightly towards the east. However, the temple differs in several significant ways. Only the first and third storeys were designed to be accessible to the public: the second and fourth storeys were sealed within the mass of the temple. Although completely empty today, the sealed corridors were originally filled with images and votive plaques, enabling the donors to make merit and simultaneously to increase the sanctity of the temple. The main staircase does not follow a medial path as in the Thatbyinnu because this would have necessitated entering the closed second floor. Instead, the stairs to the upper floor are located within the width of the external walls as in earlier temples. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“A large image of the Buddha is situated on the ground floor, set against the central block at the back of a small shrine. This image, although recently painted and restored, is one of the few extant and intact 12th-14th century images that is made of brick and stucco rather than sandstone and, even in its 'restored' state, conveys some of the grandeur of images made by this technique. Almost every brick-and-stucco image at Pagan has been destroyed by vandals in their attempts to obtain the contents of the small deposit boxes located in the throne, and behind the neck and navel. Much of this vandalism was carried out in ancient times when the Pagan area was a scene of military conflict and individuals were in search of relics to insert in new images and foundations. =
“The entrance hall of the main sanctuary on the upper ('third’) storey is reached by a bridge-like exterior stairway that reaches from the flat roof of the entrance hall to the second floor sanctuary and in form is similar to that used at the Thatbyinnyu. The upper terraces slope more steeply, and the shikhara - albeit restored - is proportionately taller than in the Thatbyinnyu. The stucco decoration on the exterior is among the most finely executed at Pagan and is highlighted with small green and yellow glazed ceramic plaques. =
“The Nathlaungkyaung is the only Hindu temple at Pagan and except for the exterior terrace (Mandapa dance platform that extends across the front of the temple and the Hindu images within, it is in plan, structure, and material identical to the early Mon temple type. Although the temple was dedicated to Vishnu and there are separate niches for each of his 10 avatars within, a large image of Shiva was found in the temple when it was cleared of debris. The outer wall of this temple has completely collapsed so that today the inner wall of the circumambulatory corridor is exposed and appears as if it were the original exterior wall. =
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The monasteries at Pagan can be categorized into two major types: the most common type consists of a single, enclosed, two-storey brick building with a timber pavilion for preaching and assembly attached to one exterior wall; the second type is also made of brick and consists of many small, single-cell rooms that surround and open into a rectangular courtyard. Entry is through a hall at one end that is directly opposite the main shrine at the other. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The first type is usually found within the compounds of major temples or stupas. Interestingly, the main shrine is located outside in the center of the main façade of the building under the timber pavilion. A central block containing a library - sacristry occupied the center of the first floor around which there was a circumambulatory corridor with doors opening to the timber pavilion and to the outside. The second floor was reached by stairs built into the thickness of a sidewall and usually consisted of a central room ringed by a hallway. A second staircase led to the flat terraced roof. =
“The external pavilion, usually located on the east side of the building, was constructed of wood, and consequently, none have survived till today. These pavilions are clearly evidenced, hhowever, by their stone foundations and by the imprint their triple roofs left in the plaster facade of the brick monastery building. Two storey brick Monastery with imprint of pavilion roof on facade and niche at ground level for major image The second type of multi-cell monastery is quite similar to earlier monasteries built in India at Nalanda, Ratnagiri, and Mainamati and are referred to in Burma as kala kyaung or Indian monasteries. This monastery type often had two-storeys and the main shrine may be enhanced with a circumambulatory corridor. Or, the central courtyard was roofed over allowing access to the multiple cells through the corridor. =
“The extremely dry conditions at Pagan allowed for the “Indian” type of monastery to be dug out underground. A rectangular courtyard was cut directly into the soil and provided with a staircase connecting ground level and the bottom of the courtyard. Monk’s cells with connecting tunnels were then cut into the vertical walls of the open courtyard. At times a well was dug in the courtyard. Large monastic complexes began to appear at Pagan after the 13th century that consisted of many separate buildings usually located within two concentric compound walls. Within such a double enclosure may be a temple, a stupa, a multiple-cell monastery building, an Indian brick monastery with timber "teaching" pavilion, a school, an ordination hall, hostels for students, a residence for a head monk, and an inscription shed. =
Ava Period (1364-1555) Architecture
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Buildings constructed during the Ava Period perpetuate the "Burmese" types of stupa, temple, and monastery that had evolved at Pagan. However, in comparison to the interest in building and renovating stupas, very few temples were erected. There is little that remains of any monuments from the early Ava Period. One of the few structures that still stand within the walls of Ava is the Leidatgyi temple that dates from the seventeenth century. Although it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1839, it is obvious from its double fenestration, radial vaulting, the design of its elaborate stucco work and the seated lions above the main portal that it was intended to be a copy of the Ananda temple at Pagan. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Many large stupas were regularly built during the Ava Period although large temples seem to have fallen from favor. Also, older revered stupas were often repeatedly enlarged and reconstructed. Among them is the Htilainshin Stupa in Ava that was built by the great Pagan King Kyanzittha although its present shape is the cumulative result of many later repairs and additions. Renovation and refurbishment became so widespread at this time that the most revered stupas in Burma were transformed into their present shape, even if the outer surfaces have been more recently reworked. This includes the Shwedagon in Rangoon, the Shwesandaw in Prome and the Shwemawdaw in Pegu. =
“Stupas during the Ava Period continued the Pagan model although there were changes in proportion and detail as well as the occasional innovation. The pervasive trend was to merge the separate elements of the Pagan model into a continuous conical profile. This was accomplished by multiplying the number of small stepped tiers between the ground and the base of the bell and by giving an inclined outline to the lower terraces. This change became so pervasive that in more recent stupas the shoulder of the bell and its concave face were suborned to the overall conical shape. The Htupayon Stupa in Sagaing, begun in approximately 1460 but never finished, retains the bell-shaped dome of the Pagan period. The rows of niches, however, that occur in all three of its circular terraces are an innovation. =
“Although the Kaunghmudaw Stupa was created in 1636 to commemorate the establishment of Ava as the royal capitol, it is located across the Irrawaddy from the city, about six miles northwest of Sagaing. One of the largest and most unusual stupas to be built during the Ava Period, its broad, hemispherical, lotus bud-like dome set upon three, circular terraces is a copy of the famous Mahaceti Stupa in Sri Lanka. The huge dome measures 151 feet in height and 900 feet in circumference. Only the lowest terrace of the stupa has niches and each of these was filled with one of 120 images of spirits (nats) or gods (devas). Another innovation is found in the ring of 812 stone pillars, measuring five feet high, that encircle the base, each having a niche to hold an oil lamp. In late October lamps are placed in each column for the annual Thadingyut Light Festival that marks the end of Buddhist lent. The Pagan monastery types constructed of brick and stucco were not continued after the fourteenth century. Although there are numerous written records recording the construction of wooden monasteries during the Ava Period, little remains today of these early structures that were built of perishable materials. =
Konbaung Period (1752-1885) Architecture
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Patodawgyi Stupa, built outside the city wall in 1816, is one of a number of Konbaung stupas to be modeled on the Shwezigon at Pagan. Although it continued the Pagan tradition of depicting the Jataka stories on the lower terraces, in this case, the Jatakas have been sculpted on small marble slabs instead of being fashioned of clay or sandstone.[Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“King Pagan built the Kyauktawgyi Temple near Taugthaman Lake in 1847 as a replica of the Ananda temple at Pagan. The exterior form approximates that of the Ananda whereas the interior is dramatically different. Wooden rafters and beams replaced the extensive use of brick vaults and arches. Although the Greek cross ground plan was retained, the interior is generally open without the two circumambulatoy corridors connecting the four inner shrines. Instead of four colossal standing images of the Buddha, there is a single, seated Buddha image in bhumisparsa mudra that was carved from a huge block of Sagyin marble. There are four entrance halls, two of which are adorned with wall paintings that use novel, often "western", pictorial devices to represent religious and secular buildings in a continuous landscape. =
“The Nagayon Temple, built within the city of Amarapura, has the exterior form of a dragon or naga. This is the Naga Muchalinda who protected the Buddha while he was meditating and is usually depicted immediately behind and above an image of the meditating Buddha. In this case, an enormous Naga looms protectively above the entire temple building that within shelters an image of the Buddha. =
“The most remarkable structure to be built during the Konbaung period was certainly the temple at Mingun, located across the river and approximately ten miles north of Amarapura. When King Bodawpaya began construction in 1790, he intended it to be the tallest Buddhist monument in the world and to reach 500 feet in height. It was to have an enormous shikhara tower modeled on the temples at Pagan. Construction by a vast force of conscripted laborers continued for twenty years before the project was abandoned upon the king’s death in 1819 when only the base had been completed. An attractive series of terracotta plaques with new themes were produced for insertion in the niches on the exterior of the temple but installation was never carried out. A colossal pair of guardian lions were constructed in brick and stucco at the river landing which served as the main entry to the temple. Bowdawpaya had the largest bell in the world cast as an intended fixture of the temple. It weighs 90 tons and still rings from its pavilion near the temple base. =
King Bagyidaw built the Hsinbyume Stupa just north of the Mingun temple in 1816. Its novel form mimics the mythical Sulamani stupa where the Buddha’s shorn locks were enshrined after he shaved his head to become a monk. The Sulamani Stupa is located in Tavatimsa Heaven atop Mt. Meru and is accessed by a tripartite, jeweled staircase. The Buddha visited Tavatimsa Heaven to tell his Mother (then reborn as a God) of his Enlightenment. His ascent and descent was via the tripartite, jeweled staircase. The Hsinbyume has the elided form of both stupa and temple. Its plan is entirely circular including two sets of graduated terraces. The lower terraces have undulating exterior walls representing the oceans surrounding Mt. Meru while the seven upper terraces represent the seven lesser mountain ranges below Mount Meru. The small vaulted chamber at the crest can be entered and vacated by a tripartite staircase that descends towards the East. =
“In 1784, King Bawdawpaya made a successful conquest of the kingdom of Arakan, which was located along the coast between central Burma and Bengal. Unlike his predecessors, he successfully obtained what is reputed to be the oldest and is certainly the most sacred image in Burma, the Mahamuni. He transported the image to the Mandalay area and had it installed in a temple slightly north of the city of Amarapura. This seated image is more than twelve feet in height and has been covered by the faithful with so many sheets of gold leaf that the body of the image is now completely obscured. Since the style of the face is not early, the image is believed to be a pastiche of several images particularly because the chronicles state that on earlier occasions when efforts were made to obtain the image, it was broken is several pieces. Badawpaya also obtained five Hindu images from Arakan that once stood in the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. These were placed in a shrine in the compound where they may be seen today.
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “In 1853 King Mindon began construction of the Kyawktawgyi Temple at the foot of the southern stairway to Mandalay Hill. Although the temple was modeled on the Ananda Temple at Pagan, it contained only a single enormous seated image of the Buddha when finished in1878. This, however, had been carved from a gigantic block of white marble that had taken 10,000 men to transport the stone from the Irrawaddy to the temple site. This is the largest stone image of the Buddha in Burma. An innovative feature of the temple not found at the Ananda or elsewhere was the inclusion of marble images of the Buddha’s eighty-eight disciples in large niches in the compound wall. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The Shweyattaw temple was built by King Mindon approximately half way up the southern approach to Mandalay Hill. to house an enormous standing image of Gautama Buddha that dramatically points to the royal palace on the plain below - the reification of the Buddha’s prophecy that a great Buddhist metropolis would appear there. The building is of interest because the names of Burmese lay donors cover the interior walls. =
“The stupa at the center of the Kuthawdaw complex, the Mahalawka Marazein, is also a distant copy of the Shwezigon stupa at Pagan although generally much smaller in size. Filling the large compound around the stupa are 729 stupa shrines that each contain a marble tablet on which, for the first time, the entire Tripitaka was inscribed in Pali script. This text was prepared for inscription by 2,400 monks during an International Buddhist Synod that King Mindon convened in Mandalay in 1872. The complex is often referred to as "the world’s largest book" and is most impressive when seen from Mandalay Hill. =
“The Sandamuni Stupa, a complex very similar to the Kuthwdaw, was built adjacent to its neighbor in 1866 by King Mindon. The central stupa, erected over the burial place of the King’s younger brother, is encircled by 1,774 stone tablets that record commentaries on the Tripitaka – an addition credited to the remarkable hermit of Mandalay Hill, U Kanti. =
Shwedagon in Rangoon
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “According to legend, the Shwedagon was first created as a repository for eight hairs from the Buddha’s head that had been given to two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Bhallika, who had gone to India from Okkala village, now Rangoon, to worship the Buddha. If true, the Shwedagon would have been founded in the 5th century B.C. while the Buddha was still living. King Anawrahta is reputed to have visited the Shwedagon during his military campaign to the south and had to be dissuaded from taking its hair relics back to Pagan. The earliest reliable records report that the stupa was renovated in 1372 by King Byinya U and again fifty years later by King Binnyagyan who raised the height of the stupa to 295 feet. The present shape and form of the stupa is the result of donations made by Queen Shin Sawbu who ruled from 1453-1472 and gave her weight in gold, 90 pounds, to be used to plate the exterior of the stupa. Earthquakes damaged the structure several times in the 17th and 18th centuries and it was again repaired. The Konbaung king Hsinbyushin replaced the hti in 1774, thus raising the monument to its present height of 330 feet. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“The stupa was built on the crest of a large hill, the top of which was leveled to create a spacious square plaza. This area was walled and, over time, has become progressively filled with numerous lesser shrines and buildings that ring the base of the main monument. The plaza is reached by four covered stairways that pass through the center of each wall. Each staircase opens onto the promenade circuit that connects the four major shrines, which are situated at the base of the stupa. Each of these shrines contain a number of virtually identical, Mandalay style Buddha images that are the major focus of worship. =
“The form of the Shwezigon is one of the most complex in Burma. Inside the circular promenade course and above the main platform is a massive, square plinth terrace over 20 feet high that holds 68 small stupas. This area is used by men for meditation. A series of narrow terraces that progressively change in shape from square to octagonal to circular create a smooth transition from the square base to the dominant circular bell. Above the bell, the most highly ornamented section of the stupa consists of rings of lotus petals. Above these rings is a tapering section that resembles a lotus bud. A thirty-foot, gem-encrusted hti adorns the top of the lotus bud and this is crested by a gem-covered vane and orb. The profile of the monument closely approximates that of a regular and continuous cone and has become the emblem of Burmese Buddhism today. =
Burmese Wooden Monasteries
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The brick monasteries of the Pagan Period were not built after the 14th century. Instead, wooden monasteries appeared in great numbers throughout central Burma that are particularly Burmese in design. These structures were often of great size, some measuring up to 250 feet long by 45 feet wide. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“This monastery type is raised on pilings and consists of a single, long building having several rooms that rest on a wooden platform, which extends outward from the exterior walls, thus creating a terrace around the entire structure. Massive staircases made of brick and stucco give access to the main platform and serve to buttress the super-structure that was made entirely of wood. =
“The monastery building itself had several rooms or spaces that were in linear alignment from east to west. The first room is a room where Buddha images and sacred texts are stored and, at times, informally displayed. This important space is marked by a tall tower and is linked to the main hall by a transitional, lower space where the head monk resides. The most important part of the building is located at its symbolic center and is a large rectangular hall divided into two square rooms by a partitioning wall. The room nearest the eastern entrance is a public space where a Buddha image is displayed and rituals involving both monks and laymen are celebrated. The western room is reserved for activities in which only monks are involved. To the West beyond the main hall, a storeroom is situated that may be attached or unattached to the main structure. =
“The entire structure is visually unified by the continuous horizontal terraces and eaves of the various roofs. The exterior walls of the monastery as well as the terraces were lavishly decorated with wood carving often depicting Jataka tales in high relief. The multiple levels of the roof were also profusely adorned with fine carvings of flora, fauna, minor deities and humans. =
Colonial Architecture in Yangon
Yangon’s colonial architecture is a legacy of the British Empire at its height. Most of Yangon's colonial-era Baroque and Beaux Arts-style buildings — the largest collection in Southeast Asia — were erected between 1900 and 1920. After the 1948 independence of Burma they housed government agencies — until 2005, when Myanmar's secretive military government relocated the capital 200 miles north to Naypyidaw.
Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote:“There's nowhere in Asia like it any more: a cityscape studded with hundreds of grand and humble buildings from the colonial era amid multiethnic communities that have remained intact, vibrant and colorful for a century and more. Yangon has been bypassed by the rapid modernization that has bulldozed the past in virtually every other Asian metropolis. Yangon is being described as "a city that captured time." [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, June 26, 2012]
From “The Strand, a legendary hotel built in 1901 along the riverside promenade and near jetties where tourists disembarked to enter a land once known as Burma...in less than an hour's stroll, visitors are treated to a smorgasbord of structures and styles from the British colonial era: Victorian, Queen Anne, Neoclassical, Art Deco and an amalgam of British and Burmese. Many of the buildings are clustered along streets laid out in a chessboard pattern centered on the Sule Pagoda, with its soaring, golden spire.
“Sarah Rooney, author of the just published "30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon," says her favorites include the Pegu Club and the Lokanat Gallery Building. The club, built of teak, is rather derelict, and thus more evocative and atmospheric, she says, than many heritage buildings in Asia that have been subjected to extreme makeovers. Once the colony's most exclusive and snobbish enclave, it hosted the likes of Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have written his rollicking poem "The Road to Mandalay" after drinks with soldiers returning from that city in 1889. The Lokanat building, Rooney says, is "the symbol of Yangon's cosmopolitanism." Erected in 1906 by a Baghdadi Jewish trader, it was once the city's most prestigious business address, housing a Filipino hairdresser and Greek leather merchant along with purveyors of Egyptian cigarettes, German beer and British candy.
“Thant Myint-U, a Western-educated historian who heads the Yangon Trust, noted that within a square mile of The Strand stood Roman Catholic, Protestant and Armenian churches, Shiite and Sunni mosques, a Jain temple, Hindu shrine and a newly refurbished synagogue, once the center of one of the biggest Jewish communities in Asia. Attracted by the country's immense natural resources, especially teak, oil and rice, fortune seekers and poor laborers poured in from around the world, turning Yangon into an international city. At times in the 1920s, it welcomed more immigrants than New York. Then came World War II and in 1962 a military coup, which ushered in a half-century of isolation, authoritarian rule and economic stagnation, which may well have been key in freezing Yangon and its residents in time.
“Some state-owned or fully utilized landmarks appear secure, including the British Embassy, Yangon General Hospital, St. Paul's School and City Hall, a mingling of European design and ornamentation inspired by Burmese temples. So is the most spectacular one of them all, the former Secretariat Building, seat of British colonial power. It was in this vast Victorian edifice that Aung San, revered father of Myanmar's independence and of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947. Bids by a foreign investor to convert the building into a hotel sparked a public uproar, a hopeful sign that Yangon's citizens are prepared to stand up for their heritage.”
The Los Angeles Times reported: “The downtown grid on which Yangon's colonial "golden mile" rests was laid down after 1860 by British planners who demolished local huts and filled in swamps. Over the next 60 years, courts, post offices, police stations and customs and port authority buildings were erected.Although a few Burmese architects, such as Si Thu U Tim, managed to incorporate some Burmese design elements, notably the multi-tier roofs and spires on City Hall and the Central Railway Station, most of the structures were designed by far-off British architects who never visited Yangon, then called Rangoon. [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011]
The British Empire had consolidated its position, with key social institutions "civilizing the natives," historians said. But the buildings also carried a subliminal message to locals: Be awed by Britain's power and superiority. Vertical designs that carry the eye upward, together with oversized foundations evoking strength and permanence placed in a symmetrical grid demanding order and control, helped achieve this effect, architects and historians said. "If you were Burmese in 1910, it would be quite awe-inspiring," one conservationist said.
Decay of Yangon’s Colonial-Era Buildings and Fear of Chinese Developers
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011: “Preservationists fear that Yangon's several hundred colonial-era buildings will succumb to voracious Chinese property developers with a history of building tacky shopping malls for a quick buck. "As more money comes in, particularly Chinese money, we'll see wholesale demolition," said Ian Morley, a research assistant professor of urban history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Yangon presents itself as a city that time forgot. But I'd say it's a city that captured time." [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011]
“Rumors, often the only available information because of the regime's media restrictions, suggest that Chinese investors have purchased several downtown colonial sites to level and redevelop once Myanmar's consumer economy picks up. Few expect the Chinese, who are Myanmar's closest ally and biggest investor, would be interested in preserving a colonial legacy bequeathed by a country with which China fought the Opium Wars.
“The British colonial-era buildings in Yangon are in dire need of repair after years of neglect. Some of the buildings are now caged behind chain-link fences, windows sagging and roofs collapsed, the smell of crumbled brick and rotting wood wafting onto the broken sidewalks. Others still stand proud, like the Immigration Building, once among Asia's largest department stores, and the stately red High Court building with its six-story clock tower, yellow detailing and domed roof.
“Although many Asian cities would welcome such a legacy to distinguish themselves, vision remains in short supply in a country struggling to build basic housing. Nor are all the 200-plus buildings worth saving, most agree, given the longtime deterioration, uneven quality and outdated layouts often unsuited to modern lifestyles. Aung Soe Min, owner of Yangon's Pansodan Gallery, unrolls several British and Japanese imperial maps in his collection, pointing out changes over the years to street names and the cityscape. Far from appreciating a downtown once described as the "garden city of the East," he said, landlords here often underplay a building's age — the facade of his building reads 1995 rather than the 1936 reality — fearful of government condemnation. In March 2010, a 15-year-old girl was killed after a decrepit building on Shwe Bontha Street collapsed.
Preserving Colonial Era Yangon
Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: Now, as Myanmar opens its long-closed doors to the outside world, including a rapidly growing number of tourists, a major effort has been launched to preserve both Yangon's architecture and enchanting atmosphere from rampant development and decay. "We have a gift in Yangon but we need to act urgently or it will be lost forever," Zin Nwe Myint, an expert on urban issues said at conference organized by the newly founded Yangon Heritage Trust.[Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, June 26, 2012]
"In Yangon, we still have a lot of living heritage as well as atmosphere and social networks that have been built up around and grown within these old buildings over many decades," said Hlaing Maw Oo, an official with the Ministry of Construction, urging that this heritage must be nurtured along with Yangon's extensive green spaces, lakes and gracious suburban villas. Other recommendations include setting height limits on new construction, conservation training, an awareness campaign and a listing, with solid legal research, of all buildings that cannot be demolished. The municipality currently provides a measure of protection for 188 sites.
“Also being debated is how best these sites can be utilized for the benefit of both Yangon residents and tourists. There is general consensus that some will have to be turned into profit-making hotels and commercial enterprises while others should house art galleries, museums and schools that would probably need subsidies. "We are at the watershed of this city's history," Yangon Mayor Myint Swe told the conference. "We want to see Yangon as a 21st century city but also want to preserve the best of our heritage. I have no illusions about the challenges we face, but we will learn from the mistakes of other Asia cities."
“Many buildings that used to house government departments have been left vacant since 2005, when the regime moved the capital to Naypyitaw and put them up for sale. Fear is that some will deteriorate beyond repair or be bought and demolished by developers. Many privately-owned buildings, still unprotected, have already been torn down and invariably replaced by ugly, multistory structures that are breaking up the once uniform skyline.”
The Los Angeles Times reported: “The military government placed 189 religious and colonial-era buildings on a preservation list in 2001, but saving old buildings isn't its top priority, given ethnic unrest, criticism over November's rigged election and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's recent release after years in detention. "Anyone can make a list," said Chris Davy, a Myanmar Times photographer. The regime mostly focuses on its new center, Naypyidaw, a shiny propaganda showcase that is largely bereft of history or character. [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011]
“Yet local government and civic groups have some interest in preservation to bolster tourism. "There's huge potential," said Aung Myat Kyaw, marketing head of the Yangon-based Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board. "But it's difficult." Those supporting preservation lack money, expertise or approval from the ironfisted regime. "The problem is that orders come from other places," said Si Thu Mying Swe, a principal with Yangon's ST&T Architects. "You have to be careful not to rock the chairs." Cities in neighboring countries, such as Malaysia's Malacca, have seen their restoration efforts energized after obtaining UNESCO World Heritage Site status.”
“Over at the 5th Street Bar in the dilapidated old downtown area, plaster has been stripped away to reveal original brickwork and expansive ceilings as part of one of the few completed renovations. Other reconstruction projects include the elegant white Strand Hotel with its columns and elaborate covered walkway near the waterfront, reported to have cost $38 million, and $150,000 in renovations to the interior of the white Myanmar Times building, once a government printing office, opposite St. Mary's Cathedral. "Chinese trading companies would rather destroy these and make a bright shiny office building," said Anthony Alderson, the 5th Street Bar's owner. Renovations are expensive, and the government's stingy lease and visa policies with regard to foreigners discourage smaller investors from opening boutique hotels and up-market restaurants, Alderson and others said.
Local opinion on the buildings, difficult to gauge precisely in a nation without free media or any form of polling, seems ambivalent. "They're all right, but many are a bit old-fashioned and unsafe," said a teacher in front of the fenced-off red-brick Railway Administration Building. Nor has Myanmar placed much value on preserving even its own traditional structures, some said, with new rulers frequently razing and rebuilding capital cities. That's led some to question the "we know what's best for you" tone of preservation supporters. "As foreigners, we really have to think about our own motives," said Davy, who hopes to photograph the structures before it's too late. "Admiring a run-down building is a lot different than living in a run-down building."
Foreigners who fear Myanmar will repeat the West's urban planning mistakes, including ugly highways and slapped-together structures, say neighborhood groups, tourism companies, developers and the government should cooperate to save this valuable legacy. But optimism, along with the requisite budgets and political will, is difficult to come by. "In reality, no one's really offering up an effective plan," Davy said. "I don't know anyone who holds out great hope." "People must recognize that life moves on and not try to turn this into Disneyland," said Amelie Chai, American co-principal of Yangon-based Spine Architects who, with her Burmese husband, oversaw the renovation of the Myanmar Times newspaper building.
Saving Yangon’s Colonial Buildings in the Face of Rapid Development
Kate Linthicum wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The lack of Western investment had an unexpected benefit for preservationists: Much of Yangon was left an architectural time capsule... Scores of Victorian, Art Deco and neoclassical buildings still line downtown Yangon's noisy streets. These relics tell the story of Myanmar's modern history, he said, of its decades under British colonial rule and fight for independence. [Source: Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2014]
Hundreds of colonial-era structures have been destroyed in recent years to make way for modern ones like the Centrepoint tower. Completed last year, the glassy 25-story skyscraper looms over a historic block that includes the dilapidated 100-year-old Supreme Court building and City Hall, which, with its white paint and intricately tiered roof, draws easy comparisons to a wedding cake.
The condition of many older buildings makes them targets for tear-down. The Corinthian columns have crumbled at the building that once housed Sofaer's department store, and mildew has sprouted from its domed tower. Other once-grand buildings have been subdivided into crowded apartments, with residents stringing laundry across staircases.
Developers from Thailand and China helped lead a building boom here in the 1990s, when sanctions against the ruling generals kept European and American firms out. Those strictures were dropped in 2012 after President Thein Sein loosened government reins on the media and free speech and released Suu Kyi, who had been confined to house arrest.
A gold rush has followed, with investors seeking to profit from Myanmar's oil and natural gas riches. In Yangon today, rent in air-conditioned office buildings is higher than in downtown Manhattan as international firms flock to build power plants, develop telecommunications networks and improve Myanmar's notoriously bad roadways. Coca-Cola and Nissan are among the major brands opening plants.
Dinis Madaleno Rodrigues, a Portuguese hotelier with slicked-back hair and a booming baritone, relocated to Yangon this year to explore investment opportunities. Over drinks in the smoky bar at the Strand Hotel, he cited a recent report from McKinsey & Co., a U.S.-based consulting firm, that predicts nearly 20 percent growth in the tourism industry in coming years. "There's a certain excitement to go to a place nobody has ever gone to before," Rodrigues said. "Basically this is the last frontier. If you want to be modern, you want to go somewhere nobody has ever been."
Thant Myint-U, Myanmar’s No.1 Preservationist
Thant Myint-U, a Burmese academic bought up in New York, is arguably Myanmar’s No. 1 preservationist. Kate Linthicum wrote in the Los Angeles Times, He “is worried that Yangon could lose even more of its cultural heritage and become just another Southeast Asian metropolis crowded with soulless office buildings and boxy apartment towers." Are we going to destroy this heritage in the next few years, or are we going to incorporate it into a modern fabric?" he asked the investors, each word chiseled with perfect pronunciation. "If there is a will, we still have the critical window to get things right." [Source: Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2014]
The Cambridge-educated scholar has written extensively about Myanmar's history. Now he is trying to shape it. Thant Myint-U was born in Myanmar, also known as Burma, but grew up far from here in a sprawling home on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City. The estate in an upscale neighborhood was the official residence of U Thant, a former secretary-general of the United Nations and Thant Myint-U's grandfather. The compound was "a small slice of Burma," Thant Myint-U remembers, a gathering place for expatriates with a Buddhist altar on the first floor and a kitchen that smelled of curry.
In the summer, Thant Myint-U and his family would travel to Yangon, the British-built city also known as Rangoon, to visit relatives and make offerings at temples. Because of his pedigree, the visits weren't always easy. U Thant had been a close advisor to the first prime minister of independent Burma, who was overthrown in a 1962 coup. Despite his position as the country's top diplomat, U Thant was distrusted by the military leaders, and when he died of cancer in 1974, they decreed that he be buried without an official ceremony.
After a junta took power in 1988, Thant Myint-U stopped his trips to Myanmar. By then he was a student who was working with the country's political exiles to call for international sanctions. In 2006, after a stint with the United Nations, he wrote a bestselling book that told the story of Myanmar from the days of its earliest empires to its modern period of self-imposed isolation. The book mentions some of the buildings that Thant Myint-U's nonprofit, the Yangon Heritage Trust, is now working to protect. One is the Pegu Club, a teak-built mansion that served as an all-white gentlemen's club for officers in the British army. There's also the Secretariat, a sprawling Victorian marvel that was the site of the assassination of Gen. Aung San, the architect of Myanmar's independence and father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Drawn back to Myanmar to do aid work in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the 2008 storm that took more than 100,000 lives, Thant Myint-U took on new roles when the country's military leaders finally started to loosen their grip on power in 2010. Over the last year, his organization has surveyed and collected the stories of hundreds of structures in Yangon: banks, schools, theaters and a large collection of government-owned buildings that were abandoned in 2005 when Myanmar's leaders abruptly moved the country's capital away from Yangon. The group has helped place many of the structures on a list of protected heritage sites, making it more difficult for developers to knock them down. Recently it helped stop construction of a 40-story office tower downtown and save an architecturally significant hall dedicated to Mohandas K. Gandhi from the wrecking ball.
Thant Myint-U’s Effort to Bring Balanced Development to Yangon
Kate Linthicum wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Thant Myint-U and his team, which includes a well-known local architect and an urban planner from Italy, know that new development is inevitable. An estimated 10 million people are expected to move into Myanmar's large cities in the next decade and a half, drawn by opportunities for work, and they are going to have to be accommodated somehow. [Source: Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2014]
But the preservationists insist smart development is possible. New housing should be built apart from the several square miles in downtown Yangon where most of the city's colonial structures are clustered, they say, and older buildings should be renovated. "There is a place for high-rises and there is a place to not have them," said Thant Myint-U, who lives in an older apartment building downtown. "A lot of buildings have gone up that have no harmony with the built architecture."
Rodrigues had listened to Thant Myint-U's presentation on preserving Yangon's historic buildings and came away inspired. He said he wanted to renovate one of downtown's colonial buildings to turn it into a boutique hotel. The Strand, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, is proof that such a project is possible. Formerly a rotting Victorian-era building known as the place George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling once stayed, it was transformed several years ago into a luxury hotel. The cheapest room goes for more than $400 a night. Thant Myint-U cites the hotel as evidence that the effort to preserve the downtown blocks isn't obstructionist. Speaking to the investors, he made his pitch in terms they could understand. "If we can make Yangon the most attractive, beautiful, livable city in Southeast Asia," he told them, "this is an asset worth billions of dollars."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014