PAGAN: HISTORY, ARCHITECTURE, ARCHEOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT

PAGAN

PAGAN (on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, a day-long boat ride from Mandalay) is one of the world's most awesome sights. Surpassed in Southeast Asia only by Angkor Wat, this ancient city covers an area of 42 square kilometers (26 square miles) and contains 3,317 temples, stupas and pagodas, along with 2,000 unidentifiable mounds and ruins. By some estimates, there were as many as 13,000 temples here during Pagan's peak in the 13th century— with earthquakes and the Irrawaddy River destroying 10,000 of them over the years. The shear scale of Pagan is what makes it so impressive: religious buildings are everywhere, and there are enough of them to go around so that no matter how many people are at Pagan it never seems swamped with tourists.

Pagan (pronounced pah-Gahn and also spelled Bagan) is the main tourist destination in Myanmar and the capital of the first Myanmar Empire. The magic of Pagan has inspired visitors to Myanmar for nearly 1000 years. Pagan is full of ancient architecture and ruins. Temples, pagodas, monuments, stone scripts, votive tablets, wall paintings, murals, stuccos carvings can be found in many places in Pagan. The Scottish anthropologist James George wrote in 1910: “Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of them can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament.”

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Pagan, at a bend of the Irrawaddy River in the dry zone of Upper Burma, is, with its almost 3000 recorded brick monuments, the world’s largest archaeological site related to Buddhism. During its heyday, in the 11th to 13th centuries, it was a big, international metropolis and a center of political and religious life. The murals of the temples suggest that monasteries and palaces made of teak as well as more modest bamboo houses, such as those that can still be seen in remote villages, were scattered among brick-constructed religious monuments. The founders of the greatness of Pagan were Burmese who are believed to have emigrated from South China to the Irrawaddy river area at some time in the 9th and the 10th centuries. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

Myanmar Tourism Services Pagan Office: Thiri Thandar Guest House, Main Road, New Pagan, Mandalay Division, Union of Myanmar, Tel: (+95 61) 653 74, 650 17, 650 23, Fax: (+95 62) 650 17 Accommodation: Pagan Thande Hotel was built for a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1922. It is often filled with European tour groups.

Boat Trip Between Mandalay and Pagan is, for many tourists, the highlight of their trip to Myanmar. Memorable scenes along the way include naked children swimming in the river, women pounding their laundry on the rocks, ox carts transporting goods, paddle boats plying the river and quiet villages. The 16-hour trip from Mandalay to Pagan on a regular ferry costs $10.

Thazi (on the main rail line between Yangon and Mandalay) is a hot, ugly town. Travelers bound for Inle Lake, Loikow and Pagan sometimes get off the train here to catch buses to their ultimate destinations. There is nothing to see in Thazi and it is good idea to get off the train and immediately try to find a bus to somewhere else. There are better places to spend the night. The people at the tourist office near the train station are helpful. They sometimes can provide you with information at where you can find working elephants.

See Separate Article on the Temples and Monuments of Pagan

Pagan is good for about a three or four day visit. It is recommended to spend the better of one day just sitting on one terraced temple—which remind some people of Mayan pyramids—looking around at the ancient monuments that spread out to the horizon in every direction on an arid, red plain, interspersed with villages, grassy fields and farms with millet, melons, sesame and peanuts.

The temples, stupas and pagodas of Pagan are packed into an area about the size of Manhattan and are linked by dirt paths. The best way to get around is on a bicycle that can be rented for a few dollars a day. Horse carriages with a driver can also be rented for a modest fee. Bring a flashlight to check the dark interior of some of the temples. The early mornings and late afternoons are the best time to wander around as it can be quite hot in the middle of the day.

Try to set out early before it gets too hot. Many of the temples are locked so that vandals, goats and cows do not destroy the murals and bas-reliefs. Sometimes the headman in the nearest village, or his grandchildren, have the key, and will let you in if you ask. The vendors around the major pagodas can sometimes be pretty aggressive.

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ Pagan's largest temples rival the cathedrals of Europe in size and age, but rather than being scattered across a continent, they are concentrated in an area about the size of Santa Monica...Despite the new construction, Pagan remains awe-inspiring. Climb up on one of the larger monuments and the temples seem to stretch across the dusty plain as far as the eye can see. Some of the larger monuments soar as high as 20 stories; many are decorated with tiers of stone spires and ornate carvings. Some of the largest temples house giant statues of Buddha covered in gold leaf, and some still have original frescoes depicting the life of Buddha.Scattered among the large monuments are temples as small as a one-room hut, often with a statue of Buddha inside, and squat, circular pagodas with a conical stupa on top and no entryway. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

“In Pagan, like the rest of Myanmar, the influence of the outside world is minimal and the archeological zone seems stuck in the past. Women carry goods in baskets on their heads, and oxen pull heavy loads, such as bamboo for building houses. Cars are few, and many people get around by bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The few decrepit buses are so overcrowded that many passengers sit on the roof. At many temples, residents volunteer to guide tourists, then plead with them to buy trinkets. Souvenir markets have been set up inside some of the biggest temples, where anxious vendors call out to customers, wave their merchandise and sound their gongs, resulting in a round of clanging and shouting every time a tour bus arrives.”

The best time to visit Pagan is just after the raining season when all the monuments and pagodas are washed by the rain and the environment is green. This is around October. If you want to learn about the local people and their traditions, you should go during the festival time, which is usually in February, but depends on the lunar calendar. Balloons Over Pagan (951-660-446) offers sunrise and sunset tours for $225 per person.

Amanda Jones wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “I would stop along the way to wander into the fields and meet the locals, who spoke only Burmese but seemed delighted to greet me nevertheless. In seemingly every field there were spectacular 11th century spires. Beneath them, dressed in their lungis (traditional skirts worn by men and women) and conical hats, farmers harvested squash and beans, accustomed to the glory of their surroundings. [Source: Amanda Jones, Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2013]

“I would arise early to beat the heat and the crowds at the popular temples in Old Bagan, such as the Ananda Pahto and the lovely Shwesandaw Paya. Later, rather than stopping at tourist stores, I'd ask to go to a workshop where I could see local crafts being created and buy directly from the makers. Lacquerware is Bagan's specialty, and the work is so heartbreakingly painstaking that it is difficult to appreciate the 15 layers of lacquer and intricate decoration without having witnessed it.

“At sunset I'd head out, either climbing a pagoda or taking to the back roads via buggy, mesmerized as the dropping sun ignited the golden domes and spires.” From the top of a pagoda, “The view below was a vast, hazy plain of green fields studded with spires of rounded pagodas, large temples and monasteries. Some gleamed gold in the sunlight, and some had the original reddish façade that dated as far back as the 11th century.

HISTORY OF PAGAN

Pagan's history has been carefully pieced together by a Burmese archeologist and monk named U Bokay, who has translated stone inscriptions, copper tablets and palm leaf manuscripts from the Mon, Pyu, Sanskrit and Pali languages into Burmese and English. See History

Established on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, Pagan was a great capital and wealthy trading port while Europe was in the Dark Ages. It was already a sizeable metropolis in the 9th century, when it was inhabited by Burman tribes who had migrated to the area in preceding centuries from China and Tibet. In A.D. 1057 King Anawrahta defeated the Mon Kingdom to the south, creating an empire that was nearly the shape and size of present-day Myanmar.

Anawrahta arrived at Pagan with 32 white elephants, carrying loads of Mon treasures and 30,000 Mon prisoner-artisans, which included, according to one inscription, "such men as were skilled in carving, and painting; masons, moulders of plaster and flower-patterns; blacksmiths, silversmiths, braziers, founders of gongs and cymbals, filigree flower-workers; doctors and trainers of elephants and horses; makers of shields...cannon muskets, and bows, men skilled in frying, poaching, baking...hairdressers, and men cunning in perfumes, odors, flowers and the juices of flowers."

Not long after defeating the Mon and unifying Burma’s ethnic groups in the 11th century, King Anawrahta converted to Theravada Buddhist and embarked on a merit-earning, temple-building frenzy that was carried on by his son and their successors. Most of the temples that stand in Pagan today were built in the 12th century at a rate of one or two a month, along with libraries, monasteries and housing for pilgrims. When Burmese civilization was at its zenith the great Pagan area was home to a perhaps a half million people, including pagoda slaves, who maintained the temples and their artwork.

Enriched through trade with China and India, Pagan became so wealthy the children of royalty played with gold and silver toys. The city was known as "the city four million pagodas" and described by Marco Polo as "a very great and noble city" with "the most beautiful towers in the world.” He probably didn't visit Pagan, he just relayed descriptions he had heard. Pagan reputedly once had 4,486,733 pagodas (although U Bokay says that a more likely figure is 5,000). Many were destroyed to build a defensive wall against of the horse-mounted Mongols army of Kublai Khan, which attacked in 1287 and defeated the Burmese in battle south of Pagan by outmaneuvering and "making pincushions" out of Pagan's "invincible" war elephants.

The Burmese king was forced to flee Pagan but the great city wasn't sacked, some say, because the Mongols couldn’t stand the heat and left within six months. Other says it was because Kublai Khan respected Buddhism and he ordered his troops not to destroy or loot the temples or their religious objects. This is one reason why there are so many temples in Pagan today.

Although Pagan, declined after the Mongol defeat, it continued to exist and temples and pagodas continued to be built. While large numbers of pilgrims continued to come temples were neglected and plundered by looters and treasure hunters, who broke open statues and dug under foundations in search of loot. This tradition was continued by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries with their booty being hauled off to European museums.

PAGAN'S MONUMENTS

PAGAN'S MONUMENTS are made mostly from fired red bricks, often with little or no mortar, and to a lesser extent carved sandstone. Some are heaps of rubble. Some are crumbling but intact ruins. Others are working temples with monks and worshipers. Many remain in good condition because they are still regarded as sacred by pilgrims, who have continued to visit Pagan and have taken care of its religious buildings long after the city outlived its usefulness as a political or economic center. Pagan is filled with pagodas because each wealthy family had to outdo the other in their devotion.

There are three kinds of religious monuments at Pagan: stupas and temples (known collectively as pagodas) and monasteries. Stupas are generally solid, bell-shaped structures that contain holy relics such as hairs or teeth from Buddha or a sacred Buddhist scriptures. Some have objects related to famous monks. Temples are places or worship. They generally contain images of Buddha and are places where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Monasteries contains living quarters and meditation cells for monks.

The monasteries at Pagan typically are made up small chambers arranged in a square plan around a central hall. The early temples were constructed as artificial caves and influenced by Mon, Pyu and Brahman styles of architecture. Those built at the end of the 12th century have a more uniquely Pagan style, with large open interior spaces, terraced platforms, high-arched entrances, and large windows.

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The ancient bricks and mortar were more durable than those used now. Even today, the old bricks are stronger than the new ones. Bang one of each kind together and it's the new one that breaks. The original bricks were made with clay and rice husks and, according to legend, kneaded by elephants. The mortar was made of molasses, buffalo leather, cotton and fermented peanut oil, archeologists say. The old mortar was put on as thin as superglue; the modern cement is laid on thick. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

Pagan's most unique structures are its 17 five-sided buildings. They were once surrounded by thousands of wood buildings—palaces, schools, colleges, and monasteries—that historian Gordon H. Luce wrote "must have lightened and set off to great advantage the brick masses in between." These wooden structures rotted away over time. The main four places to visit are Shwezigon, Ananda, Dhammayangyi and Thabbyinnyu Pagodas.

The chambers inside the temples were originally covered with plaster and decorated with frescoes, sculptures, colorful murals and glazed tiles. Some of the tempura-paint murals that remain depict Hindu myths; some chronicle the reigns of Burmese rulers; while others offer scenes of everyday life: musicians, archers, women leading children by the hand, birds, trees. Most recount the lives of Buddha and bodhisattvas. Most are in less than perfect condition.

Pagan once contained millions of Buddha images and other works of art. Many of the sacred objects and precious metals that were buried with rulers underneath the stupas, unfortunately, have been taken by looters, who also beheaded and eviscerated statues looking for treasures. Still, according to Burmese, there are still so many ancient objects around that "you can not move a hand or a foot at Pagan without touching a sacred thing."

Pagan's continued importance as a major religious centers does have its drawback though. Pilgrims at some temples have splashed whitewash over 750-year-old murals and painted crude images of flowers and animals in order to earn merit. Today, some of the dark tunnels in old temples are popular roosting places for bats, who stay out of the lit up chambers. PAGAN ARCHEOLOGY

Unlike Ankgor Wat and the Cham monuments in Vietnam, which were carefully studied and restored by the French, Pagan was surveyed and restored in a much more hazard manner by the British Archeological Survey of India, who enlisted the help of village headman to identify monuments. According to Russell L. Ciochon of Archeology magazine, "If the headman didn't know the name of a particular site, he would make a plausible holy-sounding name on the spot rather than disappoint his honored visitor, Some of these ad hoc names are still in use today."

Myanmar's isolation since independence in 1948 has prevented independent archeologists from working at Pagan. Most government funds allocated for work at Pagan has been earmarked for restoring monuments destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1975. Earthquakes over the centuries have destroyed more temples at Pagan than another cause. The buildings are restored by placing iron ties inside the bricks so that don't collapse during an earthquake.

The plus side of the 1975 earthquake is that it revealed many hidden artistic treasures. Inside cracked open Buddhist images, for example, were beautiful paintings and sculptures that had not been seen since they were sealed inside the images in the 11th and 12th centuries. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Archeology magazine, September/October 1992.

A third of Pagan and 30 of its temples have disappeared into the Irrawaddy River which erodes its bank eight times faster than the Mississippi River. In traditional funeral ceremonies it was customary to enter Pagan through the western gate which has vanished into the river. In funeral ceremonies held today, participants pretend the gate is still there and travel through the "gate" by boat.

PAGAN DEVELOPMENT

Pagan has been developed and restored in some strange ways, most of them not good. About a thousand pagodas have been rebuilt by the government, many in a slapdash manner with new pink bricks and concrete as mortar. Restored pagodas often look more like pagodas found in a miniature golf course than the real things. The local people find them just as ugly as foreign tourist and have nicknamed some of the pagodas after the generals who they say think will earn merit and gain magical powers from the project.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Myanmar government embarked on a major restoration of Pagan. In some cases small pagodas have been fixed up in three months at a cost of $1000 with pink tiles and bricks that look as if they were made at factory that makes patio tiles. To cut corners, interior walls have been whitwashed, in some cases covering up works of art. Art restoration work is often shoddy. One official bragged to the New York Times that the Myanmar government restored 840 priceless murals in less than two years and would have done it faster were they not slowed down by all the colors. In some temples the names of donors have been inscribed in red paint over 800-year-old murals. Some consider the damage that has been done on par with what the Taliban did in Afghanistan..

UNESCO worked at Pagan in the 1990s but left. The organization was not by the Myanmar government during their wave of restoration. In fact no independent or qualified conservationists have been consulted on the project. Foreign money is welcome—foreign tourist are encouraged to make donations—if they give enough they are given a tour of the pagoda they are helping to rebuild—but not foreign expertise. Buddhists give money to earn merit.

Villagers whose families have lived with archeological zone for decades have been moved to make way for a golf course and other additions.

The Myanmar government has erected a 60-meter observation tower at Pagan. The government tourism office claims the tower is a conservation effort that helps reduce the wear and tear of people walking on the pagodas. Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, The regime has begun “a building program that is changing Pagan's skyline. On the eastern edge of the cultural heritage zone, the government recently built a 154-foot observation tower that resembles a grain silo and sits alongside a new resort complex and golf course. For $10 -- two weeks' salary for a teacher here -- visitors can take an elevator to the top, have a drink and watch the sun set over the temples. In Old Pagan, workers have built a massive archeological museum and have nearly finished a huge palace designed in 19th century Mandalay style -- not 12th century Pagan style. Both grandiose structures seem out of place on the plain of temples. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

PAGAN’S FACELIFT

Darren Schuettler of Reuters wrote in 2006: “Unfurling a black-and-white drawing of a 700-year-old temple, Aung Chai scans the intricate sketch as diggers expose an ancient wall caked in red mud. "We'll need many new bricks for this one," the 52-year-old foreman said on a roadside in Pagan, Myanmar's mystical ancient capital where the rebuilding of temple 2610 is underway. But among the dark, weathered relics are spruced up stupas and new reddish-pink temples which have dramatically, and inaccurately, changed Pagan's character, critics say. More than 1,800 monuments have been fixed or rebuilt since the junta ordered the "beautification" of Pagan 10 years ago and shows no sign of stopping despite an outcry from foreign experts. [Source: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, November 13, 2006]

"It has become a kind of Disneyland," said Pierre Pichard, a French expert on the site built between the 11th and 13th centuries by King Anawrahta and his successors. "Tourists are not stupid. They can see it was built two months ago and there is no ancient part of the building," he said, referring to the modern bricks and cement used in many rebuilding projects.

“Restorations are not new to Pagan, a victim of many floods, fires and earthquakes over the centuries. A severe 1975 quake destroyed or damaged scores of clay brick and mud buildings and stunning wall murals some say are Pagan's greatest treasure. The junta allowed UNESCO experts in to help, but it later ignored the U.N. culture agency's recommendations for World Heritage status, which would have required a conservation plan and unwanted international scrutiny.

“After UNESCO withdrew in the mid-1990s, the generals launched their own restoration drive and solicited donations from wealthy Burmese and merit-seeking Buddhists from across Asia in pursuit of their own temple for the next life. "They just wanted it to look beautiful," said Gustaaf Houtman, editor of UK-based magazine Anthropology Today, who believes it is part of a wider campaign to rewrite history. "Generals sponsored the renovation of a pagoda as a merit-making exercise, as a way of demonstrating to the whole of Burma, and to the world, that they were in control," he said.

“A study by Australian archaeologist Bob Hudson says 650 complete buildings have had major repairs -- including new spires, roofs or corners -- since 1996. Another 1,200 -- anything from a section of wall to a mound of bricks -- were rebuilt based on historical documents and wall paintings of other buildings with similar floor plans. The regime says it is preserving Pagan as a living Buddhist site for thousands of worshippers from home and abroad who flock to pray at the temples on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.

"Our government values and cherishes cultural heritage," Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan told Reuters. "To turn Pagan into a Disneyland is, of course, out of the question," he said, dismissing critics who see an all-out effort to lure tourist dollars. They point to the 18-hole golf course in the shadow of pagodas, a gaudy new museum and a 60-metre-high (197 feet) viewing tower derided by some outsiders as an eyesore.

“More worrying to archaeologists is the proliferation of cookie-cutter monuments emerging from mounds of rubble like 2610. Pichard said restorers failed to recognize that temples or stupas could share the same floor plan but their shape and size varied widely, giving Pagan its rich diversity. "Now this is lost to something that is very uniform and stereotype," said Pichard, who believes only the 400 wall murals could qualify for World Heritage status today. Aung Chai, who has rebuilt or restored 50 monuments, says too much fuss is being made about a pile of old bricks. The surviving chest-high wall of 2610 will be torn down and used for the foundation of a new mini-temple sponsored by a Burmese family, their names to adorn a headstone when it is finished. "They only want a temple for their future life," he said as his crew, who earn 1,200 kyat (about $1) a day and are trained on the job, readied bricks and cement nearby.

“Myanmar's Department of Archaeology has defended the restorations publicly. But some within the department opposed it privately and left to earn more money as tour guides, Pichard said. "They have no choice. When a minister tells you to restore a temple and to make it as beautiful as possible, either you do it or you resign," he said. Some see the controversy over Pagan as a clash of Western and Asian views on how best to preserve culture, laced with overtones of Myanmar's struggle with the West on its human rights record and detention of political prisoners.

"I think this whole question is in a political framework instead of a cultural framework. You have to ask who is setting the standards, the Asians or the West?," said Oliver E. Soe Thet, general manager of the Pagan Hotel. "The difference is that Pagan is a living culture," said Soe Thet, who added many of his guests are Buddhist pilgrims. Others say the argument should be about what is good archaeological practice. They point to neighboring Laos where its ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang, has balanced the needs of tourism and preservation with guidance from UNESCO.

“Some experts believe the U.N. agency, which has toned down its criticism of the Pagan restorations, is trying a softer approach to get the junta to accept its advice.But the regime has a long history of thumbing its nose at the international community and it may be too late. "The damage has been done," said Houtman. "Anyone who looks at it now will see something very different from what it was 20 years ago."”

FROM RUINS TO RUINED

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The bricklayers are paid $1.35 a day to rebuild the ancient ruin: a small, 13th century temple reduced by time to little more than its foundation. But they have no training in repairing aged monuments, and their work has nothing to do with actually restoring one of the world's most important Buddhist sites. Instead, using modern red bricks and mortar, they are building a new temple on top of the old.They work from a single page of drawings supplied by the government. Three simple sketches provide the design for a generic brick structure and a fanciful archway. No one knows, or seems to care, what the original temple looked like. Nearby are two piles of 700-year-old bricks that were pulled from the ruin. The bricklayers use them to fill holes in the temple.[Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

“Known as Monument No. 751, the structure is one of hundreds of new temples that have popped up all over the ancient city of Pagan, which ranks with Cambodia's Angkor temple complex as one of Asia's most remarkable religious sites. Once the scene of an international rescue effort, Pagan is now in danger of becoming a temple theme park. The late Myanmar historian Than Tun called the restoration "blitzkrieg archeology." "They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy," said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. "It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there."

Many of the temples were damaged by a major earthquake in 1975. The military government at the time accepted international assistance, and experts from around the world spent years restoring some of the most important temples. Major temples restored after the quake remain in good condition. But after a new clique of generals came to power in 1988, interest in upholding international standards for historic preservation vanished. The regime rejected offers of continued foreign assistance and eventually dropped its plan to seek Pagan's designation as a World Heritage site, leaving one of the world's premier archeological sites without U.N.-protected status.

The government decided instead that turning Pagan, also known as Bagan, into a tourist destination could bring much-needed foreign cash. The generals set about making the archeological zone more appealing to visitors, particularly tourists from neighboring countries such as China and Thailand that are not so critical of the military government. One of the regime's first steps was to uproot all 3,000 residents who lived within Old Pagan's historic walls and move them to New Pagan a few miles south. "We were very angry," said one man who was 15 when his family had to pick up and move its small wooden house. "The older people were very sad. We had been there many generations." Where the homes used to be, the government began building hotels and restaurants. Much of the work was done with forced labor, a form of exploitation for which the regime is notorious. As in every aspect of society here, decisions on historic preservation are made by generals with no special expertise or training. Government archeologists say privately they have no choice but to go along. "If we disagree," one said, "they will send us to prison."

Untrained workers began covering old walls with plaster, obliterating the original contour of the brick. Statues were removed and replaced with no attempt to make accurate copies. The damage has been greatest to the medium-sized temples, many of which were neglected after the earthquake and then damaged by subsequent restoration work, said French architect Pierre Pichard, one of the foremost experts on Pagan. "The monuments have lost a great part of their authenticity and individuality," said Pichard, who worked extensively at Pagan after the 1975 quake and wrote an eight-volume catalog of the monuments published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Their missing parts, especially their upper superstructures, have been rebuilt without evidence of their former shape."

Pichard said the regime's building spree in Pagan was reminiscent of the monuments built by Mussolini during his fascist rule in Italy. "The more oppressive a regime the more prone to build this kind of huge, useless and ridiculous structure," he said. "They are terribly offensive to the landscape and were certainly not needed. To use so much money for these useless buildings in a country where most people do not have schools for their children, electric power, roads and other facilities is, I think, a crime."

For Myanmar's elite, Pagan has become a valuable source of good karma. Many Buddhists believe that those who contribute to the construction of a temple are rewarded with "merit" that improves their fate when they are reincarnated. Generals and top government officials have been among the largest donors. At the Archeology Department office in Pagan, officials keep a list of hundreds of temple ruins ready for rebuilding, and a price list showing how much donors would have to give for each one. The amounts range from $700 for a small pagoda to $275,000 for a large temple. Most are between $2,000 and $30,000.

The department is eager to accept donations and welcomed a recent visitor who inquired about the program. Staff members provided a tour of two temple ruins. One was available for $800, the other for $2,400. All that remained of the original structures were walls 1 to 2 feet high. Plans were already drawn up for replacements. The original walls would be demolished, the old bricks discarded and new materials used. The larger ruin would be turned into a 30-foot-high temple, the smaller a simple pagoda. The new temples would cover the footprints of the old.

Government archeologists acknowledge that no one knows what the original structures looked like and say their designs are a calculated guess based on other buildings that survived. Even so, the design for a new temple can be changed at a donor's request...Officials have said it would be too costly to copy the old materials.

To make the new temples look more like ruins, the bricks are coated with brown paint made from ground-up ancient bricks. The idea is to have them look like old structures that have lost their stucco. It doesn't take long, however, for the paint to wash off. "The new brickwork, therefore, clashes with the aged appearance of the surviving temples, the new monuments appearing like plucked, pink chickens amidst the ancient shrines," American archeologist Donald Stadtner writes in his new book, "Ancient Pagan, Buddhist Plain of Merit." In addition to their reward in the next life, donors get a plaque outside their newly built temples. Existing signs bear the names of generals and ministers as well as donors from such places as Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Switzerland.

Pichard and other Western experts say the rebuilding program has caused irreparable harm to Pagan. Stadtner says the damage caused by the 1975 quake was "benign" compared with the reconstruction of the last 15 years. "Up to 1990, Pagan was one of the best preserved sites and cultural landscapes in Asia, with a perfect blend of the rural life where peasants, villages and well-cultivated fields surrounded the monuments without any harm," Pichard said. "Now all actions result in disfiguring the site and endangering the ancient buildings. Sorry for the cliche, but Pagan is becoming a Disneyland, and a very bad one."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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