In Focus

Bagan Cultural Heritage

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U Win Kyaing (Principal, Field School of Archaeology, Dept. of Archaeology and National Museum), Photo - Myo Sway Than

Bagan is an extensive landscape in the central dry zone of Myanmar, and was created across a floodplain at a strategic bend of the massive Ayeyarwady River. Human habitation in the region dates to at least the Paleolithic period (about 60,000-10,000 years ago). During much of the 1st millennium CE, the landscape included villages supplied by the network of streams, tanks and ponds flowing down from the Tuyin Range to the southeast. A group of Pyu villages, according to tradition, was drawn together into a federation in the 2nd century CE. From the 9th century CE, evidence of Buddhism becomes clearer with an associated rise in social stratification, kingship and Bagan as a capital.

 

Bagan was the heart of the largest Buddhist Empire of the medieval world, a centre of an economic, socio-political and cultural network in active exchange with other parts of the region. The Buddhist culture of Bagan, enriched by its synthesis of Pala Indian styles and local doctrines, generated religious and royal interchange and attendant administrative hierarchies demonstrated in the extensive architecture, paintings and epigraphy. The cultural and economic life was informed by its extreme environment, creating a substantial city in a resource-poor zone requiring constant and growing quantities of goods flowing in from its tributaries.

The construction of religious monuments at Bagan enabled donatory exchange to and from the court.

Bagan emerged as the capital of this empire from the 10th century CE, with its pearl period from the 11th to the 13th Centuries CE, and it was the primary focus of religious activity in this period - the Bagan Period. The Buddhist tradition of merit-making was a powerful force in the creation of Bagan, and remains strong to this day. After the decline of the empire and the shift of power to other centers, Buddhist patronage continued at Bagan albeit at a diminished scale. Bagan continued to be occupied and remained an important place of Buddhist pilgrimage and donation from the 13th century CE to the present day.

The landscape continues to be one of dispersed villages and towns, some with origins in the pre-Bagan period, as well as fields and monastic communities set amongst ancient and living temples, stupas, monasteries, small spirit shrines and remnant fortifications.

Bagan is exceptional, early and continuing testimony to the important cultural tradition of Buddhist merit-making on an impressive and unprecedented scale, and also as exceptional testimony to the peak of the Bagan civilization in the 11th-13th century CE as the capital of a powerful and the most influential regional empire.

It is an outstanding example of a rich ensemble of Buddhist architecture reflecting the strength of religious commitment in and wealth of the first and the most influential Buddhist Empire in the region, and to continuing religious commitment.

Bagan includes 3,595 surviving monuments set in the landscape (stupas, temple monasteries, ordination halls, a palace site and fortifications, sometimes as part of complexes, associated inscriptions, sculptures, murals and cloth paintings, and associated objects re-located to the Bagan Museum), as well as archaeological deposits and water management features. While the majority of structures date from the Bagan period, ongoing religious practice is reflected in wonderful temples and mural paintings from the 14th to the 19th centuries CE. This practice is also reflected in the reconstructed temples and stupas from recent decades.

It is estimated that extensive and largely intact archaeological deposits survive as demonstrated by initial excavations and survey of the palace sites preceding the present walled enclave which is traditionally dated to the 9th century CE. The property includes two reservoirs and numerous other water management features whose proximity and relationship to the monuments indicates they may date from the Bagan Period.

The Buddhist traditional merit-making practices include festivals, celebrations and rituals as well as contributions made to the maintenance, repair and reconstruction of monuments.
The property incorporates 7 villages or parts of them, and parts of two towns. Continuing and strong Buddhist culture pervades the daily lives of the local community, including festivals and holidays linked to a number of monuments. Some monuments are under the custodianship of the sangha (monastic community) through lay Pagoda Trustee Committees, and others through their geographical proximity or traditional associations to villages.

Merit-Making and Monuments

Bagan is exceptional, early and continuing testimony to the important cultural tradition of Buddhist merit-making on an impressive and unprecedented scale, and also as exceptional testimony to the peak of the Bagan civilization in the 11th-13th century CE as the capital of a powerful and influential regional empire. 

Buddhist merit-making through giving (dana) was a way of life in the 11th-13th century CE Bagan Empire. This cultural tradition was and remains based on the principles of cause and effect (kamma) and rebirth over endless time (samsara). Meritorious deeds enabled tangible advancement in this life and laid the foundations for a future escape from cycles of rebirth for all classes of society at Bagan.

The endless vista of monuments scattered over the Bagan landscape represents an unprecedented concentration of merit-making through donations, shared across all social strata. This visual representation of dana was without precedent, and subsequently became a model for Theravada Buddhist practice across Southeast Asia. It is only after Bagan that the practices of temple and stupa building in a community context became a constant feature in regional Buddhism.

The construction of thousands of monuments by kings and commoners is very obvious and tangible testimony that the teachings of the Buddha were not just ideals but were very much living social practices. The cumulative success is demonstrated by the acceleration of monument construction from the 11th century CE, which peaked in the 13th century CE, dispersed across about 50 square kilometers.

Bagan is exceptional testimony of this tradition through the sheer scale of evidence, especially in the form of monuments and associated attributes, because of its early and continuing practice, and because the evidence demonstrates the range of merit-making reflecting all levels of the society - from very modest to quite substantial donations related to the means of donors. The scale of evidence at Bagan is far greater than is found anywhere throughout the Buddhist world.

Inscriptions, Wall Paintings and Records

Though there are few contemporaneous inscriptions from the early Bagan period, later palm leaf manuscripts refer to numerous acts of donation from the time of Anawrahta (reigned 1044-1077 CE), Bagan's first great historical king. The building of monasteries and temples, and donation of statues are some of the acts of donation.

The Myazedi Inscription, listed on the Register of Memory of the World, dates to 1113 CE and is an early example of the acts of generosity that underpin Myanmar Buddhism. This inscription, written in four languages - Pali, Mon, Old Myanmar and Pyu - describes the building of one of Bagan's most sensitively designed and decorated temples, Kubyauk-gyi (Myinkaba). This inscription records the meritorious act of Rajakumar, who built the temple in honour of his father, King Kyanzittha (Myazedi Quadrilingual Stone Inscription 2015). This inscription also frames the importance of monastic education in the development of Myanmar language and literary traditions.

From the 12th century CE onwards, inscription stones tell us that people from many backgrounds donated lands, livestock and slaves (temple workers who managed the upkeep of these donations and tended to livestock and crops) to monasteries and temples. Many of these inscription stones are now in the Bagan Museum. Acts of merit-making donation are also recorded in many of Bagan's wall paintings, their creation acts of merit-making in themselves: In addition to these specific acts of donation, long-term practices were established that have contributed to Bagan's longevity and also to that of Buddhist sites across the country. Lands donated for religious purposes were to remain only for this purpose. Inscriptions record the rededication of pagoda lands in the early 13th century CE and rebuilding of pagodas. This is amongst the earliest evidence of renewal as part of merit-making.

Today, the practice of renewal is integral to Bagan. Rebuilding on existing sites is an act of merit-making, connected to the practice of rededication of religious lands. This is more than an act of donation, it is also a gesture of respect for the Three Jewels, by rejuvenating the good kamma associated with the original donation. Donors are not only 'Burmese, but Buddhists world-wide who wish to associate with a site that symbolizes the practice of kamma as a path to Enlightenment.


Bagan Civilization

Bagan is exceptional testimony to the prosperity and organisational prowess of the Bagan civilization as the capital of a powerful and influential regional empire. The emergence and flourishing of this highly-centralized Buddhist Empire embodied the peak of state formation in Southeast Asia during the 9th -13th centuries CE. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan was at its peak as both a regional political power and centre of new Buddhist scholarship and literature. The underlying conceptual link between the king and religious benefaction, forged amongst the independent city-states of the first millennium CE, was enriched in the multi-cultural empire of Bagan.

Bagan was exemplary within the territorially expansive powers of this era in its codification of secular and religious norms. These included legal, administrative hierarchies and religious patronage of lands, goods, villages and labour in perpetuity. Complex royal, religious, 'legal and military systems were recorded through a body of ink and stone inscriptions.

Effectively administered over vast lands, the Bagan civilization arose after more than a millennium of settlement in the region, and then maintained its peak for over two hundred years. With its outstanding and unique combination of religious commitment and creativity under the patronage of Buddhist kings, the Bagan civilization coalesced into a specific form on a scale with no equal. As the capital of the empire, Bagan was its political and religious centre. The power and wealth of Bagan is still very much evident, especially in the vast number of surviving monuments, and in their impressive scale and design qualities.
Other important evidence of the civilisation includes the full range of attributes such as the inscriptions, murals, sculptures, fortifications, archaeological deposits, water management features and objects. Bagan is the outstanding testimony of the civilization given the scale and range of surviving attributes - no other contemporary sites from its period comes close to presenting such evidence.


Bagan Buddhist Art and Architecture

Bagan is an outstanding example of a rich ensemble of Buddhist architecture reflecting the strength of religious commitment in and wealth of the first and the most influential Buddhist empire in the region, and to continuing religious commitment.

By the 11th century CE, the leaders and people of Bagan shared the belief that the act of constructing religious monuments was meritorious and contributed to the donor's accumulation of good kamma, bringing them closer to their goal of attainina eventual nibbana—the final release from sufferina. Architects and artists responded to this religious imperative. Led by royal example, donors used the surplus of a burgeoning agrarian economy to fund construction of brick temples, stupas and monasteries, displaying a great richness of form, size and decoration. Forty-six monuments are attributed to the 11th century CE, according to the Inventory of Monuments at Pagan (Pichard 1992-2001), used as primary data source herein. In the 12th century CE, 214 monuments were built additionally, and during the 13th century CE at least 2,084 monuments were constructed moreover.

The conjunction of religion, art and architecture is evident particularly in the temples, which are not observed in such concentration in any other Buddhist sites in world history. Their interior walls depict illustrations relating to the cycles of rebirth that were of such concern to the donors, using the birth stories of the Buddha (the jatakas) as their key inspiration. Mural paintings survive today in 8 of the 11th century CE temples, in 72 of the 12th century CE temples, and in 361 of the 13th CE century temples. The paintings fill the walls, ceilings and niches of the monuments. This is the largest surviving body of ancient mural paintings in Southeast Asia. The art program initially reflected the painting styles of North India, but a distinctive Bagan style developed quickly from these origins. Likewise, the many thousands of Buddha images, while also referencing Indian Pala models, by the early 12th century CE, had developed their own distinctive local form (Galloway 2006). One unique feature at Bagan was the emergence of glazed terracottas plaques, nearly 1,500 of them on one building alone—Ananda temple—schematically illustrating the stories of Buddha's last and previous lives.

Temple architecture can be seen to evolve over time as the builders extended their ability to use the voussoir (wedge-shaped) brick vault to create increasingly complex interior spaces, and at the same time, in order to achieve an increase in relative height. The illusion of height was enhanced by the use of the flaming pediment. The vault, as an art style, seems to have come from India, although the surviving Indian examples are very few and in poor condition.

A Bagan temple, depending on the budget and wishes of the donor, could be a vaulted chamber containing a Buddha image, or a building with a solid core surrounded by a vaulted corridor, and multiple images of the Buddha made from painted plaster over a brick base attached to the core. Larger temples might have a core and multiple corridors. The architects knew their limitations, and did not try to create great domed spaces. As time went by they were able to extend their structures to two, three and even four storeys, relying on the central core and associated vaulted corridors for stability. The exteriors of temples show a complexity and diversity in brick profiling. The architecture was complemented by stucco, terracottas and glazed ornamentation. There are 1,181 temples attributed to the 11th-13th century CE period.

Along with temples, the spires of stupas dominate the architectural ensemble and its landscape. These solid-bodied structures served as repositories for Buddhist relics and other valuable donated items.

There are 723 stupas from the 11th-13th century CE, in 23 major types. Within each category each stupa displays individual characteristics, adding to the architectural richness of the property. Inscriptions indicate that in Bagan a stupa was of equivalent spiritual value to the donor as a temple. Monasteries and their adjunct elements such as image houses, schools, dhammasala (preaching/community halls), ordination halls, wells and water tanks provided learning centres that maintained and supported the sangha (monks) while also reflecting the religious merit of the donor. These structures completed an architectural ensemble that reflects Bagan's commitment to Buddhism. This vast assemblage was dedicated to one notion that through a donational path of rebirths, towards attaining Nibbana, the construction of Buddhist monuments was a commendable act that would accumulate merit. Bagan is the world's most extensive example of this expression in brick, stone, plaster and paint of a collective spiritual ambition. It provided a template for similar though less extensive sites across Myanmar and the Southeast Asian Buddhist world. Despite earthquakes and general deterioration over time, Bagan has survived over the centuries and continues to stand as a focus of Buddhism. Bagan was the first and most influential Buddhist empire in the region, when specific elements of religion, art and architecture came together to create a rich architectural ensemble which has no equal.


Bagan Living Tradition

Bagan is a supreme example of the key historical and living Buddhist tradition of and beliefs associated with merit-making, expressed through the remarkable number and density of Bagan's surviving stupas, temples and monasteries, and continuing religious activities.

Representing the key foundations of the Theravada school of Buddhism, the monuments and monasteries that characterise Bagan are the tangible evidence of kamma earned through merit-making that established Bagan as the world's leading centre of Buddhism during the 11th-13th centuries CE. These temples, stupas and monastic centres, large and small, are visible testimony to the rulers' support of Theravada Buddhist doctrine. Following each king's leadership, the populace also participated in merit-making in this visual form. Today,

Bagan's relationship with these traditions is two-fold. First, the site offers evidence of the place where rituals still being carried out today were first established and codified. Second, and most critically here, the rituals and activities that developed around merit-making activities are integral to the current daily life at Bagan. They represent a continuity of tradition that has influenced Buddhist practices far beyond the confines of the site. Bagan's monuments attest to collective and enduring support of the Three Jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha, Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha) and Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks).

Bagan remains a site of Buddhist pilgrimage, as regards to relics that are believed to be located in key monuments, and the historical Buddhist significance of specific temples. Today, with improved ease of access, Buddhists worldwide travel to Bagan with this purpose of paying respect and earning merit. Pilgrimage to Bagan is also an important activity for many Myanmar Buddhists who grew up in the region but no longer live there. Returning for annual temple festivals associated with their family histories is a particularly significant act. These historic monuments remain sites of merit-making and active participatory engagement, embedding this tradition within a local, national and international Buddhist world.

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