This article kicks off a trio of pieces on other locations related to the history of Myanmar. Each has multiple then-and-now sliders, though some are less well aligned than usual as I was frequently short of time. First will be Bagan, then Mawlamyine, and then the Dali area of Yunnan Province, China.
Though the historical record is murky, we can say with some confidence that Bagan was founded around the 9th century by the Nanzhao people. The Nanzhao had migrated there from what is now Yunnan province in China (hence our journey there in a future article), and are the origin of the Bamar ethnic group today. Most historical sources refer to the city as Pagan, so I’ll use the terms interchangeably throughout this article.
Pagan was initially one of several competing city states, but gradually grew in size and influence, until the birth of the legendary king Anawrahta around 1014. Anawratha wrestled control of the kingdom from his foster-brother, and through a successful career of conquest turned the Pagan Kingdom into the Pagan Empire. Though the exact reach and shape of the empire isn’t well agreed, it stretched across much of what is Myanmar today, with Bagan at its centre.
This was the golden age of Bagan, and most of the significant original temples were built over the next 250 years. It was a large and rich city, a cosmopolitan centre of learning and commerce. Though Theravada Buddhism had already emerged as the dominant school, alternatives also thrived – as did Hinduism and native Nat worship. Previous city walls of mud were replaced with stone around 1020, of which one gate still survives today.
The Pagan Empire collapsed around 1287. The most commonly cited explanation for this is the Mongols, whose nigh-unstoppable armies invaded after the king refused to bend the knee. The king was killed by one of his own sons after fleeing south, and with royal authority shattered, the various vassal states of the empire – Mon, Arakan, Shan – all declared independence.
However, things in the empire were already looking bleak before the Mongols rode down from the hills of Yunnan, and the many spires of Bagan hint at one of the reasons why: Buddhism was central to the Pagan state, and its subjects were desperate to obtain religious merit to ensure better reincarnations. Popular ways to gain merit were building temples and donating land to the religious establishment, and so huge proportions of land were donated tax free to monks and monasteries.
One historian suggests that by 1280 more than a third of all land in the Kingdom had been donated to religion. Happily in control of huge swathes of the country, the clergy resisted any attempts to reclaim donated land, and exercised considerable wealth and political influence as a result. This wealth and power came at the expense of the Kingdom itself, which was unable to reward its administrators or military with land, leaving it in poor condition to resist the Mongol incursions.
The earliest photographs of the temples were taken by Linneas Tripe in 1855. Tripe was part of a delegation from British-controlled Lower Burma to the court of King Mindon in Amarapura. By this time power had long since moved from Bagan, but their journey included some time there and Tripe took some wonderful photographs of the temples. If I’d had more time I would have loved to repeat some of these.
By this point Bagan seems to have been reduced largely to a pilgrimage destination, with visitors focused on the larger, more famous temples. Most of the smaller temples fell into disrepair, and were damaged by repeated earthquakes.
Unsurprisingly Bagan was also an attraction for colonial visitors to the country – but not a hugely popular one. Though the many visitors to Mandalay would pass nearby on an Irrawaddy steamboat, the site itself was not so easy to get to. Their boats would pause briefly at Nyuang-U, five miles away, but often only long enough for a visit to the Shwezigon pagoda. They would then proceed to Mandalay, and after that up into the Shan hills.
One striking feature of older photos of Bagan is the lack of trees. My first assumption was simply that since people lived around the temples, the trees would have been felled for firewood and to make space for farming.
When I put this to a resident of Bagan, they claimed that there was more to it: when the military government was debating how to make the site appeal to international tourists, they visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia – a logical choice given some of the similarities of the two sites. They noticed that tourists spent much of their time admiring the trees that grow all over the temple complexes, and thus it was determined that Bagan would have trees too.
Slightly dubious stories like this are common given the lack of transparency in government decision making, so I’m rather sceptical of it. But trees aren’t the only similarity with the example of Angkor Wat. There the colonial French government removed a monastery and various other housing, since they blocked views of the site and were generally considered a bit of an eyesore. In Bagan in the 1990s the people living in communities based around the temples were also forcibly removed, and relocated to the area that is now the village of New Bagan.
Again, lack of government transparency makes the motivation and execution of this decision murky. At the time New Bagan was reportedly little more than undeveloped fields with not even basic amenities, and residents were only given a week’s notice before their eviction. Government claims to be protecting the temples are further undermined by the fact that hotels were subsequently built in the Old Bagan area (though these now face an uncertain future too).
However, the clearing of the temple area did help with the problem of looting. This was a constant issue, with both people from Myanmar and overseas reportedly helping themselves to antiquities from the abandoned temples.
Soon after a 1901 visit to Bagan by the Viceroy of India, the Archaeological Survey of India created list of sites in the area to be protected. Here western ideas of preservation butted up against Buddhist traditions, who saw this as interfering with their traditions of refurbishing the temples, and the backlash became so strong that the list was abandoned. This tension between conservation and use of religious architecture in Myanmar continues today, and relationships between national and international actors around heritage have remained challenging.
After independence the government sought to develop Bagan for international visitors, but early work with UNESCO fell off after 1997, when the first attempt for world heritage status led to a ‘referral’, meaning that additional information was required. In Bagan’s case, this related to defining and protecting the core heritage site, and to some concerns around the golf course built nearby and a road cutting across the site.
Referrals are not uncommon; six other sites experienced the same in 1997, all of which were granted world heritage status after providing the necessary information. However the Myanmar government perceived the referral as a rejection. This incorrect interpretation seems to have lodged itself in the historical record – I was certainly under the impression myself that the 1997 attempt had been rejected.
After 1997 the government went its own way with heritage management, with mixed results. In 2005 an enormous viewing tower was built in the heritage zone, and was joined soon after by the Golden Palace. This is supposedly a reconstruction of Anawratha’s royal palace, but the actual design and location of the original are completely unknown. Instead the reconstruction seems to be based on the 19th century royal palace in Mandalay.
Perhaps most jarring are the renovations made to original pagodas, many of which followed earthquake damage. Many of the people involved in these renovations will have genuinely wanted to help preserve Bagan, but unfortunately due to the breakdown of the relationship with actors like UNESCO, and foreign governments in general, they did not have access to the required training and materials.
Bagan was finally made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2019, after the 2010 election allowed a reset in relations. This new era of cooperation is much needed, as another major earthquake rocked the area in 2016. This time UNESCO is working with the government to survey and address the damage.
I lived in Myanmar for several years and never tired of visiting Bagan. Though many of the smaller temples have fairly unremarkable architecture, what distinguishes Bagan is the sheer scale and dispersion of the site. Thousands of monuments are spread over the area, and crowds thin away from the larger temple complexes. There is a real magic to exploring a random cluster of temples in some corner of the site and finding yourself alone, enjoying a new and always extraordinary view across the ancient city.