Various estimates put the population of Bagan Empire as anywhere between one and two and a half million but most estimates put it between one and a half and two million at its height. The number would be closer to the upper end, assuming that the population of pre-colonial Burma remained fairly constant. (The size of population in medieval times tended to stay flat over the course of many centuries. England's population between the 11th and 16th centuries remained at around 2.25 million, and China's population until the 17th century remained between 60 and 100 million for 13 centuries.) Bagan was the most populous city with an estimated population of 200,000 prior to the Mongol invasions. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The kingdom was an "ethnic mosaic". In the late 11th century, ethnic Burmans were still "a privileged but numerically limited population", heavily concentrated in the interior dry zone of Upper Burma. They co-existed with Pyus, who dominated the dry zone, until the latter came to identify themselves as Burmans by the early 13th century. Inscriptions also mention a variety of ethnic groups in and around Upper Burma: Mons, Thets, Kadus, Sgaws, Kanyans, Palaungs, Was and Shans. The peoples who lived in the highland perimeter were collectively classified as "hill peoples" (taungthus, although Shan migrants were changing the ethnic makeup of the hill region. In the south, Mons were dominant in Lower Burma by the 13th century, if not earlier. In the west, an Arakanese ruling class who spoke Burmese emerged. +

To be sure, the notion of ethnicity in pre-colonial Burma was highly fluid, heavily influenced by language, culture, class, locale, and indeed political power. People changed their in-group identification, depending on the social context. The success and longevity of the Bagan Empire sustained the spread of Burman ethnicity and culture in Upper Burma in a process that came to be called Burmanization, which Lieberman describes as "assimilation by bi-lingual peoples, eager to identify with the imperial elite". According to Lieberman, Bagan's imperial power enabled the "construction of Burman cultural hegemony", evidenced by "the growth of Burmese writing, the concomitant decline in Pyu (and perhaps Mon) culture, new trends in art and architecture, and the expansion of Burmese-speaking cultivators into new lands". +

Nonetheless, by the end of Bagan period, the process of Burmanization, which would continue into the 19th century, and eventually blanket the entire lowlands, was still in an early stage. The first extant Burmese language reference to "Burmans" appeared only in 1190, and the first reference to Upper Burma as "the land of the Burmans" (Myanma pyay) in 1235. The notion of ethnicity continued to be highly fluid, and closely tied to political power. While the rise of Ava ensured the continued spread of Burman ethnicity in post-Bagan Upper Burma, the similar emergence of non-Burmese speaking kingdoms elsewhere helped develop ethnic consciousness closely tied to respective ruling classes in Lower Burma, Shan states and Arakan. For example, according to Lieberman and Aung-Thwin, "the very notion of Mons as a coherent ethnicity may have emerged only in the 14th and 15th centuries after the collapse of Upper Burman hegemony". +

Social Class and Slaves in Bagan

Bagan's society was highly stratified among different social classes. At the top of the pyramid were the royalty (immediate royal family), followed by the upper officialdom (the extended royal family and the court), lower officialdom, artisans and crown service groups, and the commoners. The Buddhist clergy was not a class in the secular society but nonetheless represented an important social class. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The majority of the people belonged to one of four broad groups of commoners. First, royal servicemen were bondsmen (kyundaw, of the king, and were often assigned to individual headmen and officials who acted as the king's representatives. They received land grants from the crown, and were exempt from most personal taxes in exchange for regular or military service. Second, Athi commoners lived not on royal land but on communally-held land, and owed no regular royal service but paid substantial head taxes. Private bondsmen (kyun, owed labor only to their individual patron, and lay outside the system of royal obligation. Finally, religious bondsmen (hpaya-kyun,) were also private bondsmen who owed labor only to monasteries and temples but not to the crown. +

Of the three bonded (non-athi) classes—which were essentially slaves—royal bondsmen and religious bondsmen were hereditary while private bondsmen were not. A private bondsman's servitude to his patron stood until his debt was fully repaid. A bondman's obligations ceased with death, and could not be perpetuated down to his descendants. On the other hand, royal servicemen (kyundaw) were hereditary, and were exempt from personal taxes in exchange for royal service. Similarly, religious servicemen (hpaya-kyun) were hereditary, and were exempt from personal taxes and royal service in exchange for maintaining the affairs of monasteries and temples. Unlike royal servicemen or even athi commoners, the religious bondsmen could not be conscripted into military service. +

Religion in Bagan

The religion of Bagan was fluid, syncretic and by later standards, unorthodox—largely a continuation of religious trends in the Pyu era where Theravada Buddhism co-existed with Mahayana Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, various Hindu (Saivite, and Vaishana) schools as well as native animist (nat) traditions. While the royal patronage of Theravada Buddhism since the mid-11th century had enabled the Buddhist school to gradually gain primacy, and produce over 10,000 temples in Bagan alone in its honor, other traditions continued to thrive throughout the Bagan period to degrees later unseen. While several Mahayana, Tantric, Hindu and animist elements have remained in Burmese Buddhism to the present-day, in the Bagan era, however, "Tantric, Saivite, and Vaishana elements enjoyed greater elite influence than they would later do, reflecting both the immaturity of Burmese literary culture and its indiscriminate receptivity to non-Burman traditions". In this period, "heretical" did not mean non-Buddhist, merely unfaithful to one's own scriptures, whether Brahmanic, Buddhist or whatever. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Other traditions also continued to thrive not only at the village level but also at the nominally Theravadin court. One powerful group was the Forest Dweller or Ari monks, who enjoyed wide influence at the Bagan court. Contemporary inscriptions show that the Aris ate evening meals, and presided over public ceremonies where they drank liquor and where cattle and other animals were sacrificed—activities considered scandalous by Burmese Buddhist norms of the 18th and 19th centuries. Aris reportedly also enjoyed a form of ius primae noctis, at least prior to Anawrahta. (Though Anawrahta is said to have driven out the Aris from his court, they were certainly back at the court by the late Bagan period, and continued to be a presence at the later Burmese courts down to the Ava period.) Ari Buddhism itself was a mix of Tantric Buddhism and local traditions. For example, ceremonial animal slaughter and alcohol consumption long antedated the Burmans' arrival, and continued in remote parts of mainland and maritime Southeast Asia until recent times. +

The state also accommodated the powerful animist traditions, as shown in the official spirit (nat) propitiation ceremonies, and in the court's sponsorship of an elaborate nat pantheon that sought to assimilate local deities and persons of prowess to a more unified cultus. The Burmans may have derived the concept of an official pantheon from Mon tradition. Likewise, the early Bagan court worshiped snakes (nagas) venerated in pre-Buddhist times. To judge by 14th-century patterns, sacrifices to nat spirits mediated by shamans, were still a central village ritual. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, homosexuals or transvestites (who already inhabited two "incompatible" realms) as well as women who provided a shamanic bridge from the human world to the that of the spirits. +

Theravada Buddhism in Bagan

One of the most enduring developments in Burmese history was the gradual emergence of Theravada Buddhism as the primary faith of the Bagan Empire. A key turning point came circa 1056 when the Buddhist school won the royal patronage of an ascendant empire with Anawrahta's conversion from his native Tantric Buddhism. According to mainstream scholarship, Anawrahta proceeded to revitalize Theravada Buddhism in Upper Burma with help from the conquered kingdom of Thaton in 1057 in Lower Burma. More recently, however, Aung-Thwin has argued forcefully that Anawrahta's conquest of Thaton is a post-Bagan legend without contemporary evidence, that Lower Burma in fact lacked a substantial independent polity prior to Bagan's expansion, and that the Mon influence on the interior is greatly exaggerated. Instead, he argues that it is more likely that Burmans borrowed Theravada Buddhism from their neighbor Pyus, or directly from India. The Theravada school prevalent in the early and mid Bagan periods, like in the Pyu realm, was probably derived from the Andhra region in southeast India, associated with the famous Theravada Buddhist scholar, Buddhaghosa. t was the predominant Theravada school in Burma until late 12th century when Shin Uttarajiva led the realignment with Ceylon's Mahavihara school. [Source: Wikipedia +]

To be sure, the Theravada Buddhist scene of the Bagan era had little semblance to those of Toungoo and Konbaung periods. Much of the institutional mechanisms prevalent in later centuries simply did not yet exist. For instance, in the 19th century, a network of Theravada monasteries in every village used Burmese-language manuscripts to provide youths from diverse backgrounds with basic Buddhist literacy. This was a reciprocal exchange: monks relied on villagers for their daily food, while villagers depended on monks for schooling, sermons, and an opportunity to gain merit by giving alms and inducting their young men into the community of monks, the sangha. Such arrangements produced a male literacy rates of over 50 percent, and remarkable levels of textual Buddhist knowledge on the village level. But in the Bagan era, key 19th century elements were not yet in place. No village-level network of monasteries or meaningful interdependence between the monks and villagers existed. The monks relied on the royal donations, and those from major sects, which had vast landed holdings, did not have to rely on daily alms, inhibiting close interaction with villagers. The low levels of interaction in turn retarded literacy in Burmese, and limited most commoners' understanding of Buddhism to non-textual means: paintings at the great temples, pageants, folkloric versions of the Jataka stories of the Buddha's life, etc. Most commoners retained the worship of nat spirits and other beliefs. +

King Anawrahta and Theravada Buddhism

Aruguably King Anawrahta’s greatest and most lasting achievement was was the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma after Bagan's conquest of the Thaton Kingdom in 1057. Supported by royal patronage, the Buddhist school gradually spread to the village level in the next three centuries although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. [Source: Wikipedia]

A war broke out between King Anawrahta of Bagan and the Mon King Manuhar. when King Manuhar refused to hand over sacred Buddhist texts to Bagan. After the war. King Manuhar was captured and was kept under restrictions for a long time in Bagan until his death. He built Manuhar Temple while he was there.

According to “Anawrahta was a king of strong religious zeal as well as one of great power. His clay votive tablets, made to acquire merit, are found widely in Myanmar from Katha in the north to Twante in the south. These votive tablets usually have, on the obverse, a seated image of the Buddha in the earth-touching attitude, with two lines underneath which express the essence of the Buddhist creed: ‘The Buddha hath the causes told/ Of all things springing from causes; / And also how things cease to be, / 'Tis this the Mighty Monk proclaims.’ On the reverse would be the prayer: ‘Desiring that he may be freed from samscira the Great Prosperous King Aniruddha himself made this image of the Lord.’” [Source: **]

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

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

Burmese Script and Language in Bagan

The primary language of the ruling class of Bagan was Burmese, a Tibeto-Burman language related to both the Pyu language and the language of the ruling class of Nanzhao. But the spread of the language to the masses lagged the founding of the Bagan Empire by 75 to 150 years. In the early Bagan era, both Pyu and Mon were lingua francas of the Irrawaddy valley. Pyu was the dominant language of Upper Burma while Mon was sufficiently prestigious for Bagan rulers to employ the language frequently for inscriptions and perhaps court usages. Inscriptional evidence indicates that Burmese became the lingua franca of the kingdom only in the early 12th century, and perhaps the late 12th century when the use of Pyu and Mon in official usage declined. Mon continued to flourish in Lower Burma but Pyu as a language had died out by the early 13th century. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Another important development in Burmese history and Burmese language was the rise of Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. The use of Sanskrit, which had been prevalent in the Pyu realm and in the early Bagan era, declined after Anawrahta's conversion to Theravada Buddhism. +

The spread of Burmese language was accompanied by that of the Burmese script. The script was developed from either the Mon script or the Pyu script. Mainstream scholarship holds that the Burmese script was developed from the Mon script in 1058, a year after Anawrahta's conquest of the Thaton Kingdom. But recent research by Aung-Thwin argues that the Burmese script may instead have been derived from the Pyu script in the 10th century, and that the Burmese script was the parent of the Burma Mon script. He argues that the Mon script found in Burma was sufficiently different from the older Mon script found in the Mon homelands of Dvaravati or Haripunjaya (in present-day Thailand) with no archaeological evidence to prove any linkage between the two. On the other hand, Aung-Thwin continues, the latest archaeological evidence dates the Burmese script 58 to 109 years ahead of the Burma Mon script. The earliest Burma Mon script (at Prome) is dated to 1093 while the earliest Burmese script (the copper-gilt umbrella inscription of the Mahabodhi Temple) is dated to 1035. Indeed, if a recast 18th century copy of an original stone inscription is permissible as evidence, the Burmese script had already been in use at least since A.D. 984. +

Culture and Literature in Bagan

The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. By then, the Burman leadership of the kingdom was unquestioned. The Pyu had largely assumed the Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma. The Burmese language, once an alien tongue, was now the lingua franca of the kingdom. Theravada Buddhism slowly began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. Bagan's rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Bagan capital zone of which over 2000 remain. The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Whatever the origin of the Burmese script may be, writing in Burmese was still a novelty in the 11th century. The Burmese script became dominant in court only in the 12th century. For much of the Bagan period, written materials needed to produce large numbers of literate monks and students in the villages simply did not exist. According to Than Tun, even in the 13th century, "the art of writing was then still in its infancy with the Burmans". Manuscripts were rare and extremely costly. As late as 1273, a complete set of the Tripit.aka cost 3000 kyats of silver, which could buy over 2000 hectares of paddy fields. Literacy in Burmese, not to mention Pali, was the effective monopoly of the aristocracy and their monastic peers. +

At Bagan and at main provincial centers, Buddhist temples supported an increasingly sophisticated Pali scholarship, which specialized in grammar and philosophical-psychological (abhidhamma) studies, and which reportedly won the admiration of Sinhalese experts. Besides religious texts, Bagan's monks read works in a variety of languages on prosody, phonology, grammar, astrology, alchemy, and medicine, and developed an independent school of legal studies. Most students, and probably the leading monks and nuns, came from aristocratic families.[89] At any rate, local illiteracy probably prevented the sort of detailed village censuses and legal rulings that became a hallmark of post-1550 Toungoo administration. +

Art in Bagan

When King Anawrahta of Bagan brought the relics of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures to Bagan from the Mon capital Suvunna Boumi, various gold and silver artifacts were included. Popular copper items include Buddha images, gongs, bells, and round cattle bells. Monasteries and pagodas are decorated with intricate patterns of stucco works. The artisans produced wood products using the turner's lathe. This craft also owed much to Mons of Suvunna Boumi.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The broad art historical significance of the Bagan Period is that Burmese forms in art and architecture were invented and broadly articulated that were often copied in later periods. It is these forms that have continued as “classic forms” until today. Great wealth was spent during the Bagan Period not only on the construction of so many religious foundations but also in providing for their perpetual upkeep. The considerable lands as well human laborers donated to the temples and monasteries escaped in perpetuity royal taxation so as the temples prospered, the state was progressively deprived of its tax base. By the end of the 13th century, this process seriously undermined the economy so that when the Mongols threatened to invade from the North, the king could not mount an effective response and the kingdom shortly thereafter broke apart into smaller polities. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Myanmar's woodcarving emerged before the Bagan period and subsequently improved in the middle of the Bagan era. The temples and palaces of the old were magnificently decorated with carved wooden gables and eaves, and other fabulous ornamentation comprised of the most creative and intricate woodcarvings. It is a pity that many examples of the true genius of Myanmar wood carvers have suffered in the course of time but, fortunately, some of the most exquisite woodcarvings still survive in monasteries and pagodas. The Shwezigone Pagoda in Bagan, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay contain ornamentation of filigree-like woodcarving with scrolls, flowers, animals and supernatural-beings arranged in intricate patterns. Carvings of nats, or mythical traditional spirits, marionettes, and figures of animals still flourishes today. [Source: ++]

The craft of turnery started to develop in the Bagan period around the 8th century A.D. The artisans produced wood products using the turner's lathe. This craft also owed much to Mons of Suvunna Boumi. The turner produced items of diverse shapes such as boxes, bowls, containers, beads, and kitchen utensils. Now this craft thrives mostly because of the tourism industry. ++

Precious metalwork is one of the oldest Myanmar crafts, dating back to pre-Bagan times. Artistic Pyu silver ware was discovered in the mounds of the old shrines of Srikshetra. When King Anawrahta of Bagan brought the relics of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures to Bagan from the Mon capital Suvunna Boumi, various gold and silver artifacts were included. In antiquity, royals, nobles and the wealthy used gold and silver utensils as status symbols. Silver items such as vases, trays, silver Buddha statuettes were also used for religious purposes. The art of making gold leaf is a renowned Myanmar craft. Gold leaf is popularly used by Buddhist devotees and is pasted on Buddha images as part of their offerings. The process of pounding gold nuggets between layers of leather to get paper-thin gold foils is an intricate art, which is mos prevalent in Mandalay. ++

The 11th century Bagan mural paintings have strong Indian influence and floral patterns are the main elements of the paintings. The Bagan period artists excelled in line drawing, and popular techniques included fresco, oil painting and tempera painting. Most of the paintings depict the 550 Jatakas (Buddha stories). Inwa paintings began depicting the social life of the people, and only red and green paints were mainly used in the murals. ++

Masonry attained its zenith during the Bagan dynasty, and Southern Indian culture and Mon culture contributed much to the Bagan architecture. During that era, many religious edifices were built by the kings and lay people alike. The masonry works are remarkable for their strength, grandeur, beauty of designs, ornamentation, lighting and ventilation which hold spectators in awe. Bagan became the wonder and the pride of Myanmar, and set the example for later endeavours. ++

Bagan Painting

On wall paintings during the Bagan period (1044 to 1287), Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The interior decoration of Bagan temples consisted almost entirely of wall paintings that covered the ceiling vaults as well as all of the interior walls. Painted designs were fitted into a framework of architectural moldings that could be executed three-dimensionally in stucco or two-dimensionally in trompe l’oeil painting. More than 387 Bagan Period temples preserve some trace of their once colorful interiors. The style of wall paintings at Bagan was derived from the Pala style first developed in India. A major characteristic of this style is the outlining of all forms with a black or red line and the absence of shading and modeling when coloring the enclosed areas.” [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 make the wall paintings at Bagan: “The walls were first prepared with several coatings of fine mud or stucco that were let thoroughly dry before receiving the multi-colored hues produced from natural colorants. Scenes were created from preliminary drawings whereas stencils were probably used for motifs that were repeated. =

“The program of paintings within a temple usually included a Bodhi tree realistically painted above the brick and stucco image of the Buddha that served to frame and emphasize this central feature. On the wall on either side of the three-dimensional Buddha image were painted images of the Buddha’s attendants and disciples, often Mogallana and Sariputta. A frieze encircling the remaining three walls of the major shrine might be composed of large tear-shaped Bodhi leaves or kirtthimukha masks. Below this often appear images of the Twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, while lower down are painted scenes of the Buddhas life, usually the Eight Great Events. Elsewhere within the temple, often on the walls of the entrance hall, appear small squares each representing one of the 550 former lives of the Buddha referred to as Jataka Tales. Below each square the chapter number and name of each Jataka was written in Mon or Old Burmese so that each scene is easily identified. The decorative programs in a few temples include scenes from the history of Buddhism, the Buddha’s footprints and horoscope, or a Buddhist cosmological map. The ceiling vaults were most often covered with small, identical, endlessly repeated motifs of small seated Buddhas, a motif known as The Thousand Buddhas. =

“Paintings on cloth from the Bagan Period were unknown until in 1984 when a fragment was found wrapped around the arm of a stucco figure in temple number 315. Eventually, with expert restoration, some 30 fragments have been identified as belonging to the same painting that depicts a Jataka tale in long horizontal registers that include captions. The style of painting is exactly the same as the wall paintings found in the Lokateikpan and the Myinkaba-Kubyaukgyi and therefore can be dated to around 1113 AD. Thus, this is the earliest known narrative scroll in the Pala style in existence. All Pala style paintings in India have disappeared due to the more demanding climate. =

Bagan Sculpture

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The buildings still standing at Bagan are impressive, not only in their numbers but also in their architectural techniques, size, decoration, and creative floor plans. This leads logically to an expectation that there would also be a vast number of extant images since each temple would have had at least one major cult image and no doubt several secondary images. Surely, there would have been also an abundance of small images for personal use in household shrines during a prosperous period of more than two hundred years. Alas, that is not the case. Other than images that have remained within the temples, there are relatively few images extant from the Bagan Period numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands. [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 situation is explained in part by the fact that the major image(s) in most temples were made of brick and stucco and, over time, all of these images were gutted by vandals while seeking the contents of the small deposit boxes that were placed behind the neck and navel. If this explanation accounts for the brick and stucco images, why then are there so few images of stone or metal? (Sandstone was primarily used for secondary images placed in temple niches for only a short period during the late11th & early 12th centuries and was then abandoned.) Why there are so few metal images remains a mystery. =

Stone and Metal Sculpture from Bagan

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “ Stone and metal images in Burma most often depict the Buddha seated with legs crossed on a stylized lotus throne with both soles of the feet visible (= padmasana). The right hand, palm inward, points downward across the middle shin and the left hand, palm upward, rests in the lap (bhumisparsa mudra). Depictions of the Buddha in this position first begin to predominate during the Bagan Period, a trend that has continued to the present day. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“There are, however, a few images that show the Buddha in other body positions - as dictated by the event being depicted - such a standing, walking or lying down. These body positions are most frequently used when depicting the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life or the events of the Seven Weeks after Enlightenment, in which there was a particular interest during the Bagan Period. The convention used at Bagan to indicate walking is of interest because it does not show the body or feet in motion (as later, in Thai art). Instead, body movement is shown by having the Buddha’s robe swing asymmetrically to one side or by placing one of the Buddha’s feet at a slightly higher elevation than the other. =

“There are at least two styles of sculpture that date to the Bagan Period. One style best evidenced by the early stone images found in Mon temples is derived from the Pala style of Bihar and Bengal of the 8th to 10thcenturies. This style juxtaposes the bold, smoothly modeled forms of the human body against precisely detailed ornamentation – often of a throne backing. The body is full and plump without any indication of the muscle groupings or bones within the body. The shoulders are broad and round while tapering to a relatively narrow waist. In standing images the thighs appear as effeminately full and round, a visual expression of the canonical dictate that the Buddha should have thighs that resemble the buds of a lotus flower. The head has sharply defined features and may be triangular to oval with a pointed chin and flat cranium. The hair is represented by small, snail shell curls. The cranial protuberance or usnisha , sits well back on the head, is relatively small and may terminate in a small flame-like finial. The eyes are half closed and look downward (rather than directly at the worshiper, as is frequently the case with Buddha images in Thailand). The long, aquiline nose is almost continuous with the broadly arched eyebrows. The mouth is small and pursed, with the upper lip often slightly protruding. The ears are long, do not touch the shoulders, and appear concave when viewed frontally. The neck is of normal length and often has three semi-circular lines or wrinkles considered to be beauty marks. The fingers are of normal length. The monastic robes, consisting of two parts, clings to the body and is almost invisible except for the hems that are lightly incised across the chest and are more boldly indicated around the wrists and shins. A third robe, folded into a rectangle and draped across the shoulder terminates, in fish tail folds. This Pala style image is generally replaced by the middle of the Bagan Period by a Burmese Style of image, and is revived in later periods only when there is a conscious desire to imitate the classic age of Bagan. =

“The second style is evidenced at Bagan by number of seated Buddha images that typically have a more corpulent body, a head that is tilted forward with a short-to-non-existent neck, long earlobes that may touch the shoulders, and fingers of uniform length. This style becomes part of the mainstream of Burmese art and examples frequently occur during later periods. =

“Among the objects unearthed among the temples at Bagan are three elegant bronze lotus buds held upright on elaborately decorative stems. The eight petals of each open outward to reveal a seated Buddha, a stupa or a shikhakra temple at its center. On the inside of each petal is depicted one of the Eight Great Events in Buddha's life. Similar lotuses have been found in Nepal and Tibet and all were probably used ritually on a temple altar. =

“The finest caving that has survived from the Bagan Period is found on a series of over forty-seven miniature stone plaques that are carved from a fine-grained steatite (andagu – Burmese). These carvings most often represent the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life with the Enlightenment being placed in the center. A particularly Burmese sub-set of these plaques includes in an inner band of small images representing the events of the Seven Weeks after Enlightenment. At times, the central Buddha image is shown wearing a crown. =

City Plan of Bagan

Burman immigrants are believed to have either introduced new water management techniques or greatly enhanced existing Pyu system of weirs, dams, sluices, and diversionary barricades. The techniques of building dams, canals and weirs found in pre-colonial Upper Burma trace their origins to the Pyu era and the Bagan era. Bagan's several water management projects in the dry zone provided Upper Burma with an enduring economic base to dominate the rest of the country. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The city of Bagan unlike the Pyu cities does not have an outer perimeter wall. Instead, there is a walled compound located in the very bend of the Irrawaddy that by its small size corresponds to the palace compounds of the earlier Pyu sites. This walled royal enclosure measures less than a square mile and occupies the Northwest corner of a twenty-five square mile area over which are scattered more than 2,000 religious buildings and structures. Within this walled area were situated the royal palace, court buildings, and a few religious monuments. Kyanzittha’s royal palace was near the center of the rectangular enclosure, beside the Thatbyinnyu, the tallest monument at Bagan and, just inside the city wall from the king’s most famous temple, the Ananda. [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 form of the royal compound roughly approximates a square Mandala. However, over time the river has completely washed away the western wall. Within the remaining walls, two major streets can be traced that originally connected the four major gates. A large undated stupa is located at its center where these streets cross. =

“Recent excavations have shown that the wall was built in several phases and included massive gates, guardrooms and hidden passages – all of which were encircled by a moat. Of the city entrances identified, only the Eastern gate, the Tharaba Gate, is in a fair state of preservation. Here on either side of the entrance are found nat shrines, probably added by King Kyanzittha, to honor the brother-sister heads of the Pantheon of the 36 Nats. These two Nats in particular are thought to live on Mount Popa, a volcanic cone that can be seen - on a clear day -some thirty miles east- southeast of the gate.” =

Bagan Architecture

Bagan is well known today for its architecture, and over 2000 remaining temples that dot the Bagan plains today. Other, non-religious aspects of Bagan architecture were equally important to later Burmese states. In the areas of city planning and temple design, Bagan architecture borrowed heavily from existing Pyu architectural practices, which in turn were based on various Indian styles. Bagan-era city planning largely followed Pyu patterns, the most notable being the use of 12 gates, for each of the signs of the zodiac. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Although the Burmese temple designs evolved from Indic, Pyu (and possibly Mon) styles, the techniques of vaulting seem to have developed in Bagan itself. The earliest vaulted temples in Bagan date to the 11th century while the vaulting did not become widespread in India until the late 12th century. The masonry of the buildings shows "an astonishing degree of perfection", where many of the immense structures survived the 1975 earthquake more or less intact. (Unfortunately, the vaulting techniques of the Bagan era were lost in the later periods. Only much smaller gu style temples were built after Bagan. In the 18th century, for example, King Bodawpaya attempted to build the Mingun Pagoda, in the form of spacious vaulted chambered temple but failed as craftsmen and masons of the later era had lost the knowledge of vaulting and keystone arching to reproduce the spacious interior space of the Bagan hollow temples.) +

Another architectural innovation originated in Bagan is the Buddhist temple with a pentagonal floor plan. This design grew out of hybrid (between one-face and four-face designs) designs. The idea was to include the veneration of the Maitreya Buddha, the future and fifth Buddha of this era, in addition to the four who had already appeared. The Dhammayazika and the Ngamyethna Pagoda are examples of the pentagonal design. +

Bagan Stupas and Hollow Temples

Bagan stands out not only for the sheer number of religious edifices but also for the magnificent architecture of the buildings, and their contribution to Burmese temple design. The Bagan temple falls into one of two broad categories: the stupa-style solid temple and the gu-style hollow temple. The Evolution of the Burmese stupa is illustrated by the progression from 1) Bawbawgyi Pagoda (7th century Srilsetra) to: 2) Bupaya (pre-11th century) to: 3) The Lawkananda (pre-11th century) to: 4) Shwezigon (11th century); to 5) Dhammayazika (12th century); to 6) Mingalazedi (13th century). [Source: Wikipedia +]

A stupa, also called a pagoda, is a massive structure, typically with a relic chamber inside. The Bagan stupas or pagodas evolved from earlier Pyu designs, which in turn were based on the stupa designs of the Andhra region, particularly Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in present-day southeastern India, and to a smaller extent to Ceylon.[94] The Bagan-era stupas in turn were the prototypes for later Burmese stupas in terms of symbolism, form and design, building techniques and even materials. +

Originally, an Indian/Ceylonese stupa had a hemispheric body (Pali: anda, "the egg") on which a rectangular box surrounded by a stone balustrade (harmika) was set. Extending up from the top of the stupa was a shaft supporting several ceremonial umbrellas. The stupa is a representation of the Buddhist cosmos: its shape symbolizes Mount Meru while the umbrella mounted on the brickwork represents the world's axis. The uppermost parts of the domes usually contain encased relics of the Buddha and small Buddha images, and sometimes jewels. Damage to them is taken as an especially bad omen. Sometimes they come crashing down during earthquakes. +

The original Indic design was gradually modified first by the Pyu, and then by Burmans at Bagan where the stupa gradually developed a longer, cylindrical form. The earliest Bagan stupas such as the Bupaya (c. 9th century) were the direct descendants of the Pyu style at Sri Ksetra. By the 11th century, the stupa had developed into a more bell-shaped form in which the parasols morphed into a series of increasingly smaller rings placed on one top of the other, rising to a point. On top the rings, the new design replaced the harmika with a lotus bud. The lotus bud design then evolved into the "banana bud", which forms the extended apex of most Burmese pagodas. Three or four rectangular terraces served as the base for a pagoda, often with a gallery of terra-cotta tiles depicting Buddhist jataka stories. The Shwezigon Pagoda and the Shwesandaw Pagoda are the earliest examples of this type. Examples of the trend toward a more bell-shaped design gradually gained primacy as seen in the Dhammayazika Pagoda (late 12th century) and the Mingalazedi Pagoda (late 13th century). +

In contrast to the stupas, the hollow gu-style temple is a structure used for meditation, devotional worship of the Buddha and other Buddhist rituals. The gu temples come in two basic styles: "one-face" design and "four-face" design—essentially one main entrance and four main entrances. Other styles such as five-face and hybrids also exist. The one-face style grew out of 2nd century Beikthano, and the four-face out of 7th-century Sri Ksetra. The temples, whose main features were the pointed arches and the vaulted chamber, became larger and grander in the Bagan period. +

Bagan Monuments

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Most of the major monuments at Bagan were built in the century following the death of King Anawrahta, particularly during the reigns of his son) King Kyanzittha (1084-1112) and King Narapatizithu (1170-1211). In fact so many temples were constructed that the 12th century is known as the Golden Age of Burmese Temple Building. The prototypic forms for both the Burmese stupa and the Burmese temple date to this time, although in later periods the stupa instead of the temple becomes the preferred building type. Also in the 12th century Bagan became an international center for Buddhist learning. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“Burma became more culturally cohesive under King Anawrahta’s second successor, King Kyanzittha, who was also an ardent Buddhist.. Kyanzittha was a builder of impressive temples such as the Nagayon, the Abeyadana, and the Ananda - one of the few temples to remain in constant use since it was created and the object of national pilgrimage. With in the brick walls of Bagan, he also built a fabulous palace that he had described in great detail in a lengthy inscription. The third great king Narapatisithu, constructed three great temples including the Dhamma-yazika stupa, one of the largest pentagonal buildings in the world. =

The workmen employed for the building were free men who had to be provided with board and wages. Princess Asawkyun made this list of expenses for the building of a temple: A) Grand total of silver, 1747, (ticals) 3 pay; B) Grand total of copper, 74, viss; D) Grand total of loincloth, 113, pieces; E) Grand total of gold for smearing the spire, 23, ticals; F) Grand total of quicksilver, 92, ticals; G) Grand total of paddy, 1867'/2, baskets; H) Grand total of areca nuts, 2, barrels and 1166; I) Grand total of black pepper, 7/23, viss; J) Grand total of salt, 754, viss; K) Grand total of copper for the spire, 66, viss.

See Bagan, Places

Temple Donations at Bagan

Religious enthusiasm, brought about by the Theravada Buddhist desire to earn merit, inspired the people of Bagan to undertake great works of merit and to give lavishly to for the construction of temples and other acts of religious devotion: The donation of a noble lady is thus recorded: “When our Lord Kinkathu passed away, our Lord's wife, who loved her husband as her own life, was agitated at the law of instability and made three dwellings to the Three Gems. Out of a heart of boundless faith she built the three dwellings wishing that the merit of her good deed would go to the three persons: her deceased lord, her mother and her father. Her private property, the nine kinds of gems, her gold and silver, red copper and white copper, iron, lead, her outward property, such as boats, elephants, cattle, buffaloes, goats, ivory, and her slaves and lands and gardens-in order that such property might be a support to the Religion, she offered them without stint to the Lords"s Religion and allotted them to the three dwellings, and, calling the earth to witness, she poured the water of offering. [Source: **]

The usual goal of religious donations was to earn merit, be reborn at a higher level in the celestial realms, to meet Metteyva, the next Buddha, and eventually to attain nirvana. But sometimes the aspiration would rise higher-to that of Buddhahood itself. A good example of this aspiration is provided by the dedicatory prayer-written in elegant Pali verse-offered by King Alaungsithu (1113-1163) on building the Shwegugyi temple in 1131:

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

Whatever the aspiration, the merit acquired by the donation was not meant for the donor alone, but for all. Thus Queen Pwa Saw made this prayer of dedication: May my noble husband lord the king, my son the king, my grandson the king, these three kings, and all the future kings to come share equally with me the merit of this work. May the princes and princesses, the queen and all her ladies-in-waiting, the ministers and all the hosts, the Thagya, Brahma, the four Guardians of the world and all the spirits, Tataw the Yama King, men and other beings who dwell in our would-system and other world-systems from Avici hell below to the celestial realms above also get a share of my merit. May they escape the miseries of samsara and reach nibbana which is free from misery." With great magnanim-ity, then, Queen Pwa Saw shared the merit of her act with all beings of the thirty-one realms: the twenty celestial realms of the brahmas, the six celestial realms of the thagyas or devas, the mundane realm, and even the four hells.

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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,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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