Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bagan - A Cultural Monument to the Human Spirit!

13 April 2015

We took the bus from Mandalay to Bagan - and, well, that was an adventure all by itself.

I know it doesn't look very far on the map, but this was a five hour trip.  Plus the bus left one hour later than we had been told it would.  And the bus was packed.  Full.  People sitting on the luggage all the way in the back, behind the seats.  People on jump seats that fold down into the aisle.  People on little plastic stools up front around the driver.  Ah well, at least no one was sitting on the roof, nor clinging to the sides of the bus - we saw people doing that on some of the other buses we passed.

Our bus looked like a luxury bus.  We had curtains to block the sun, with a blue-tasseled pink velvet valance.  And light fixtures with dangling crystals.  A television up front broadcasting Myanmarian music videos.  But the AC conked out soon into the trip, and the day hit 108 F (42 C?) - so while our bus looked good, well, it was horrendously hot.

The people watching was great, though, while we sat on the bus waiting to leave.  Cute little nun novices in their pink robes wandering around, looking very self-confident as they found their buses.  Women selling wares, walking from bus to bus with huge trays on their heads.  People on their way to their home towns for the holidays - first the water festival, then the new year.  And of course young people, usually young men, with a small backpack for luggage and a huge water pistol in hand.

Young men seem to favor garish hair colors, sometimes just on the top of their heads, with their natural dark black hair showing around the sides.  I think my favorite guy was the blond dude with the glittering baseball cap, sunglasses, and the giant water gun looking like a bazooka.

There's also a cosmetic people wear here, made of a tree that is ground up on a stone and then mixed with water.  People apply this to their face in various designs, usually large patches on the cheeks to block the sun.  But other people use it to decorate their faces, so there were some people with patterns of dots across their cheeks.  It's a little startling at first, but then you kind of get used to it.

This part of Myanmar is hot and dry - it looks almost like a desert, but there are scattered trees so it isn't a true desert.  Maybe more of plains?  I don't know the geographic term - and I'm not sure if this area is naturally dry with limited vegetation, or if over the centuries people used the trees and didn't plant more, or what.  There are areas that are green, so obviously there are water sources.  But much of the trip we just saw sparse burned grass and dry trees.  Summer in Myanmar.

There are also temples, pagodas, and dotting the landscape, usually on top of the occasional hill, or on a huge boulder.  And of course cows that wander across the road, stopping traffic.

We finally arrived in Bagan (pronounced ba-GAHN, sounding like bah-gone but definitely accent on the second syllable).  There's Old Bagan and New Bagan - Old Bagan being the part of the town that dates back to about 800 CE.  New Bagan being the part of town where people live, and where you find hotels and restaurants and such.

Bagan was the capital of Myanmar from the 9th to 13 centuries CE.  During that 400 or so year period, there were fifty-five kings who ruled the country.  The rulers were very benevolent, and took are of their subjects by providing food and shelter for everyone.  Or everyone who worked.  Anyway, because the people were taken care of by the kings, they built pagodas and stupas to show their gratitude as well as their piety.  Or everyone built the pagodas and stupas so that they were working, and therefore the king would provide for their needs.  (It was unclear from the description my taxi guy gave me - there's always the issue of translation as well as accent, so this part was a little confusing.)  

Sunday, I went around with a driver to a variety of temples and pagodas.  The kings built the large and fancy temples, while the smaller pagodas and the stupas were built by families or individuals.  

And there are some 3000 or so of these structures here in Bagan!!!!  I saw only a small fraction, but they are amazing - and surprisingly individual and different!

Most of the structures are brick, but some are covered with cement or stucco and then painted, usually white (or maybe whitewash).  Some are left grey, others are painted in sort of a gold color.  Most of the spires have little golden crowns with bells.  

Inside - wow!  There are always Buddha statues inside.  Depending on the size of the temple, there might be multiple Buddhas - most people go inside and pray to the Buddha in the front, but there are almost always halls that run around the perimeter of the building and lead to more Buddhas along the sides and backs.  So I'd wander around and find a reclining Buddha, or more sitting Buddhas, or walls covered with alcoves and niches, each with a small golden Buddha.  One temple, Ananda-Phaya, had four huge standing golden Buddhas, which were phenomenal - each one is roughly 30 feet (10 meters) tall!!!  Absolutely incredible!

One of the older temples was in the "Indian style," I was told - the main dome was more in a cropped pyramid style, four-sided with the point cut off.  The four sides were made up of tiered niches, bigger toward the bottom and smaller at the top, and each niche held a Buddha appropriate to the size.  This temple claimed there were 465 Buddha statues on the exterior of the building!

And then frescoes - they have frescoes inside many of the large temples!  Wow!  Who knew?  Frescoes of Buddha and his disciples, Bodhisattvas, elephants, in a variety of styles.  Most of the paintings were similar to ancient Indian or Asian art, but a few were almost medieval Italian, with Buddha and his followers all lined up in rows, each with their own glowing halo - or maybe an aura, since this is Buddhist.  I finally asked a tour guide about the origins of the frescoes, and he said most art historians believe the people of this area learned fresco techniques from people in India, since the murals are stylistically similar.  Fascinating!

My driver told me the different poses of Buddha - sitting in various poses, standing, and reclining - show the four different kinds of meditation.  I know in other cultures the different poses of Buddha indicate different virtues, or the various steps on the path to enlightenment.  So this was an interesting interpretation.

And of course I met a couple of little girls who acted as my guides - one bright thirteen year old took me all over the temple, chatting along the way, her little sister following along.  I didn't buy their lacquerware (which is gorgeous, I could buy up a suitcase full of souvenirs here!) - but I did give her a little money and tell her to save it for school.  (This is one of the reasons I've started just hiring a taxi driver for touring around - this way I know the money goes to an individual who needs it, rather than to a corporation.  The other reason is then I get to move at my own pace, and not hurry around sites to get back to a bus on time.)

The thing to do is tour around in the morning, and then take a break about noon, when it is truly too hot to walk barefoot around the temples and such.  Then go out again about 4 or 4:30, visit another pagoda or two, and then head to one of the biggest temples for sunset.  So that's what I did.  The point is to get some elevation to see the sunset, as well as the flat plain of Bagan dotted with stupas and pagodas, with a few hills topped by temples.  

The temple I went to had exterior stairs - tall steps, steep stairs, and narrow walkways with extremely low parapets.  Not the best place for someone with vertigo to wander around as the sun began to set, but absolutely the best place for unbelievable views!!!!  

(Myanmarians are very friendly, and young people would come over to chat, as well as the kids who always seem to find me.  I kept telling them they were so lucky to live in this beautiful place - that people come from thousands of miles away to see what they get to see every single day!)

I met another little girl, a six year old, who insisted on borrowing my sunglasses for a few photos.  She was quite the cutie, with so much personality in her face - and a friend of the family is supposed to check in with the blog and show the child's photos to her mother.  Yes, I met the whole family, and family friends, and we made that arrangement.  No one had email, so this slightly convoluted process was the only way I could figure out for the mom to see her cute daughter's photos.  (And of course the child had to look at each photo on the camera and tell me if it was okay or not.)

Richard keeps asking me what I like about stupas, temples, pagodas, whether I get a spiritual lift from visiting them, or what.  And perhaps this is difficult for a non-art person to understand.  But for me, it's all about the art.  I like the design, the shape, the variety of architectural styles.  I like thinking about the people who built them.  I like the secrets they hold - I try to imagine the Buddha statue hidden inside the stupa, or the gems and gold buried underneath.  I like the variety of Buddha statues, each face a little different.  I like the human creativity and ingenuity that went into creating all this beauty.

I also think about the fact that humans have a need to beautify their surroundings, and tend to do most of this in the name of religion.  That we have a universal belief in some power outside our selves, and we take the best of our efforts to please that unseen presence.  That we have a need to create, and make things more beautiful.  That this is a universal constant.

I'm not sure I get a spiritual lift from visiting churches, temples, pagodas, mosques.  Mostly, I feel uplifted by the human spirit.  I feel hopeful for the future of the world - if people, for thousands of years, could focus on creating beauty just for the sake of beauty, then maybe we really can figure out how to save the world, achieve peace, clean up the mess we've made.  All that.  So maybe not a spiritual lift, more a philosophical lift.

Anyway, here are some photos (probably too many) of the beauty of Bagan, and why travellers come here.  Including travellers from all over Myanmar, not just the rest of the world.  Because the appreciation of beauty, and appreciation of the human spirit, is universal as well.









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