Introduction to Bagan
Bagan is an ancient city that was the capital of the prosperous Bagan empire that, at the time, controlled most of Burma. During the height of the empire’s power between the 11th and 13th century, more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were built. Bagan became a center for Buddhism attracting monks from far away countries.
Today, about 2,200 monuments remain in various states of repair. It has the densest concentration of temples and pagodas in the world. Some are very well maintained and have been restored, while others are neglected and overgrown with vegetation.
Bagan is an excellent place to see a number of ancient monuments built in various architectural styles. At the site, you can see the development in architecture and design over the course of several centuries. Kings over the years left impressive monuments as a legacy for future generations. UNESCO has placed the Bagan archaeological zone on its tentative list as a future World Heritage Site.
Bagan is located in the dry zone of Central Myanmar, east of the Irrawaddy River. It receives little rain and is desert-like in many areas. While we were there, we didn’t have any rain, even though it was the rainy season. In fact, it was beautiful weather with sunny afternoons and warm evenings.
One thing I forgot to mention is that our group was very much reduced as the Canadian family left before we began excursions in Bagan. It was nice because there was now only the couple from Washington D.C., Shawn and myself. We had our own van and were able to leave quickly not having to wait for anyone.
So our first excursion was to a lacquerware workshop. We were met at the entrance by the cutest little puppy.
The first order of business was an explanation of the lacquering process. Our guide was very knowledgeable in the whole process. The following is a short version: Burmese artisans cut strips of bamboo and it is used as the inner part of the lacquerware. It is softened and worked to give a shape of the desired object.
Lacquering begins in the interior with a resin paste with lacquer and mixed ashes. It is probably lacquered at least seven times – all coated by hand. We discovered that most of the workers come from generations of craftsmen.
The lacquered object is then placed in a safe, moist place. The duration of drying is about a week. Next, the lacquered object is carefully washed and sandpapered with charcoal. Finally, the painstaking polishing takes place. Each layer goes through the drying process seven or eight times. It is only on the last layer that color is added.
Decoration comes from the engraving done by hand using a stylet and a brush. Many objects are made – boxes, bowls, objects of worship, pieces of furniture, cupboards, tables and some very large decorative pieces.
After a thorough explanation of the process, we walked around the workshop and took photos and watched as the craftspeople did their work. We did have an opportunity to browse through the gift shop. The prices weren’t cheap but after you saw the process and how time-consuming it was to complete each object, it was worth buying some of the lovely pieces. I bought a box for my box collection and a few other small things as gifts.
View From the Temple Top
We jumped back into the van and our guide told us that the driver knew of a temple where we could climb to the top and take photos of the view. In the past, tourists had been able to climb the temples to watch the sun go down or rise but recently a ban had been placed on all climbing in order to preserve the ancient monuments and also to prevent erosion and destruction of the buildings. We were taken to a temple that did not have any gates or ban signs and so we made the climb with our guide as the leader.
The next post takes you to Ananda Temple (our boat is named after this temple) and a horse-cart ride that gave us a sampling of Bagan’s Pagodas.