Once upon a time, there were as many as 10000 temples and pagodas in Bagan, an impressive testimony of the religious devotion of the people and rulers of Bagan. All 10000 do not exist today. Many were destroyed by natural disasters like an earthquake while a few bore the burnt of Mongol attack. At present, almost 2200 structures stand to make Bagan one of the richest archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The temples of Bagan are one of the major attractions of our Myanmar trip.
What is the difference between Temples and Pagodas?
When we visited Bagan, we noticed some were called temples while some pagodas. Well, there is a difference between the two. A pagoda generally contains a relic of Buddha or has been built to honour a notable person, or even bring lasting remembrance to an important family. The temples, on the other hand, were mostly inspired by Buddhist rock caves. The temples were usually built as a large multi-storied building where one could enter and worship. Temples had shrines and frescoes.
It is not possible to explore all the temples if you have lesser days like us. There are so many at every nook and corner of old Bagan. Here is a list of pagodas and temples of Bagan that should not be missed. These are our favourites as well.
Pagodas and Temples of Bagan
The 170 ft high gold hti (the umbrella or ornament that is found on top of most Burmese pagodas) can be seen even from a distance. Ananda Temple is one of the earliest temples to be built in Bagan. Said to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this is one of the finest, largest and most revered temples of Bagan. In 1990, on the 90th anniversary of the temple, the temple spires were gilded. Our guide informed that the exterior of the temple is actually whitewashed every year! We did not know what to say about this. The paintings inside the temple are quite impressive.
Bupaya Pagoda stands on the banks of Irrawaddy River. It has an interesting story behind it. Bupaya means “gourd shaped pagoda”. Legend has it that a gourd-like climbing plant “bu” infested the riverbanks of Bagan when Thamuddarit was the king. Pyusawhti was successful in getting rid of the plants and he was rewarded by Thamuddarit with the hand of his daughter. Pyusawhti thus became the heir of the throne and he built the gourd-shaped pagoda on the banks of Irrawaddy River. This is said to be the oldest pagoda in Bagan and was completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1975. But it has been rebuilt as a gold stupa over terraces. The best time to visit the Bupaya Pagoda is during the sunset. You get an absolutely stunning view of the river from here.
Shwe Gu Gyi Pagoda
Another beautiful temple of Old Bagan, Shwe Gu Gyi Pagoda was built by King Alaungsithu in 1131. “Shwegugyi” means “the Golden Cave“. There is a legend that says a 12 feet huge block of brick had sprouted from the ground as a result of the King’s greatness and accumulated merit. This huge block formed the plinth of the pagoda. From here, you would get a lovely view of Thatbyinnyu and other temples.
Standing just beyond the Dhammayangyi Temple, Sulamani Pagoda is known a the Crowning Jewel. It was constructed by King Narapatishithu, son of the infamous King Narathu in 1174 AD. The walls of the Sulamani Pagoda are decorated with beautiful ancient murals and frescoes. Sulamani has some of the finest ornamental works of Bagan. Sulamani Pagoda is also the favourite place of hawkers who would sell paintings, lacquer artefacts and many more. Be sure to bargain if you are buying anything.
Shwezigon Pagoda is located near Nyaung U and is quite impressive and glittery. This pagoda is also Bagan’s main religious site. This pagoda was commissioned by King Anawrahta but not completed until the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084-1113). Shwezigon Pagoda is said to have been built to enshrine one of the four replicas of the tooth relic of Buddha given by the king of Ceylon. The entire pagoda is golden in colour and we found it really hard to look at it in the blazing sun. The entrance pathway of Shwezigon Pagoda has a number of hawkers who would really persuade hard to sell their souvenirs which can be quite annoying at times.
The massive 12th-century pagoda looms over the landscape of Bagan. Said to be the largest pagoda visible from all parts of old Bagan, Dhammayangyi Temple has a gory history. It is said that King Narathu had built this temple for the atonement of his sins. He had killed his father and brother to death as well as one of his Hindu wives, an Indian princess for practising Hindu rituals. The eccentric King had ordered to build the temple in such a way that the mortar-less bricks would fit in tightly and even a needle could not pass through any two bricks. Any mason who failed in this task would have his arms chopped off! But he could not see the completion of the temple. He was assassinated by a few people sent by the father of the Indian princess to avenge the killing of his daughter. The inner passages of the temple were filled with rubble as a payback for his misdeeds. Whether they had done this for a payback or to ensure that the massive temple structure did not collapse, I do not know. Dhammayangyi Temple stands tall as a massive structure and looks spectacular during the sunrise and sunset. The temple has two original statues of Buddha placed side by side – one of Gautam Buddha and the other Maitreya (future Buddha).
Thatbyinnyu Temple towers over all the other temples of Bagan as a magnificent white structure amidst the green landscape. Thatbyinnyu takes its name from Omniscience of Buddha. It actually means “knowing thoroughly and seeing widely.” Standing tall at 63 metres, the temple surely sees widely. The temple was built by King Alaungsithu in 1144. The temple is a four-storeyed building with four corridors and seven terraces attached. Unfortunately, nowadays it is not possible to climb up the temple.
Shwesandaw Pagoda – best to view sunsets
Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the best places to view sunset in Bagan. From the terraces, you would get a lovely 360 degree view of the temples and the river. In the evening, the pagoda remains quite crowded, but the view from the top compensates for it. The graceful white pagoda is built like a pyramid and has stairs that would take you past the five terraces to the stupa top. The corners of the five successive terraces were said to have the images of Ganesha. King Anawrahta had built Shwesandaw Pagoda after his conquest of Thaton in 1057. Shwesandaw means ‘golden holy hair’. It is said that the stupa enshrines a hair relic of Buddha presented to King Anawrahta by the ruler of Bago.
Mahazedi Pagoda – best views of sunrise
Not very well known, but you can get a very good view of the sunrise from here. Mahazedi Pagoda is a small and relatively quiet one and has a number of terraces where you can go up for a view of sunrise.
This is one of the lesser known temples of Bagan, but we mention it because it is a treasure house of beautiful frescoes and paintings. This temple was built in the 11th century by King Kyansittha and named after his Bengali Hindu wife Abeyadana. It is said that Kyansittha while fleeing from his brother King Sawlu had met Abeyadana at this place. Abeyadana was perhaps the follower of Mahayana Buddhism and so the frescoes have the images of Hindu Gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva along with other Bodhisattva deities. With a torch you can make out the frescoes on the wall. The walls also have some scenes from Jataka stories.
The Mahabodhi Temple is modelled after the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya. This temple is a bit different from the rest having a tall pyramidal spire. White in colour, the temple has carvings of Buddha on the spire. We have included this in the list just because it looks so similar to the one in India!
Myoe Daung Monastery
Not a temple or pagoda, we chanced upon this beautiful teak structure on our aimless exploration on the third day of Bagan. Myoe Daung Monastery means monastery at the corner of the city. This is believed to be the oldest monastery in Bagan. The monastery has beautiful wood carvings. When we were there, the monastery was closed and by the look of it, the place seemed not well maintained. Anyways, we did like the wooden monastery in the middle of all the temples and pagodas.
Obviously, we could not see all the temples and pagodas in our limited time. These are a few of our favourites. Also the unnamed temple from where we watched the sunrise was also quite nice. Have you been to Myanmar? What is your favourite temple?
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