The Ancient City BaganBagan (pagan) is the most amazing sight in Myanmar, if not South-East Asia. Across 40 sq km of country, strectching back from the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy), stand literally thousands of stupas and temples. In every direction you look you'll see ruins of all sizes huge and glorious temples like the Anada soar towards the sky, small, graceful zedis stand alone in fields. Some come with all mannner of historical tales, while others are identified only by number.
One could easily spend a week or more exploring the Bagan area. In addition to the more well-known monuments found in the main archaeological zone of Old Bagan, there are sites worth visiting in several other nearby towns and villages.
Historically, the extraordinary religious fervour that resulted in this unique collection of buildings lasted two and a half centuries. Although human habitation at Bagan dates back almost to the beginning of the Christian era, Bagan only entered its golden period with the conquest of Thaton in 1057 AD. Just over 200 years later, Bagan declined and in 1287 was overrun by the Mongols of Kublai Khan.
Originally, this bend in the Ayeyarwady River was occupied by a stable and thriving Pyu city-state, perhaps allied with Beikthano and Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra) to the south as well as Hanlin to the north-east. Excavations along the ruined city walls indicate that by 850 AD the city had reached comples proportions. The name 'Bagan' may in fact derive form 'Pyugan', a name first written down by the Annamese of present-day Vietnam in the mid-11th century as 'Pukam'. In post 18 century Burmese parlance the name became 'Bagan' which was corrupted as 'pagan' by the British.
Bagan's prime began with the Burman King Anawrahta's ascent to the throne in 1044. At this time, Myanmar was in a period of transition from Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs to the Theravada Buddhist beliefs that have since been characteristic of Myanmar. Manuha, the Mon King of Thaton, sent a monk to convert Anawrahta; the letter met with such success that Anawrahta asked Manuha to give him a number of sacred texts and important relics. Manuha, uncertain of the depths of Anawrahta's beliefs, refuse the request, Anawrahta's reply to this snub was straightforward - he marched his army south, conquered Thaton and carted back to Bagan everything worth carying, including 32 sets of Tripitaka (the classic Buddhist scriptures), the city's monks and scholars and for good measure, King Manuha himself. All in all some 30,000 Mon prisoners of war were brought to Bagan from Thaton.
Immediately Anawrahta set about a great programme of building, and some of the greatest Bagan edifices date from his reign. Amongst the better-known monuments he constructed are the beautiful Shwezigon Pagoda, considered a prototype for all later Burmese stupas; the Pitak Tike, built to house the scriptures carried back from Thaton by 30 elephants' and the elegant and distinctive Shwesandaw Pagoda, built immediately after the conquest of Thaton. Thus began what the Burmese call the First Burmese Empire, which became a major centre of Theravada Buddhism and a pilgrimage point for Buddhist throughout South-East Asia.
Anawrahta's successors, particularly Kyanzittha, Alaungsithu and Narapatisithu, continued this phenomenal building programme, although the construction work must have been virtually non-stop throughout the period of Bagan's glory. pali inscriptions of the time called the city Arimaddanapura ('City of the Enemy Crusher') and Tambadipa ('Copper Land'). Marco Polo described the city-state in his famous 1298 chronicle;
"The towers are built of fine stone; and then one of them has been covered with gold a good finger in thickness, so that the tower looks as if it were all of solid gold; and the other is covered with silver in like manner so that it seems to be all of solid silver... The king caused these towers to be erected to commemorate his magnificence and for the good of his soul; and really they do form one of the finest sights in the world, so exquisitely finished are they, so splendid and costly. And when they are lighted up by the sun they shine most brilliantly and are visible from a vast distance"