Bagan is an ancient city in central Myanmar (formerly Burma), southwest of Mandalay. Standing on the eastern banks of the Ayeyarwady River, it’s known for the Bagan Archaeological Area, where more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments tower over green plains. Holy sites around Old Bagan include ornate Ananda Temple, built in 1091 and topped with a golden stupa. Nearby is the vast 12th-century Dhammayangyi Temple.
Dhammayangyi Temple, Central Plain
Despite occupying the throne for only a short time, Narathu is remembered as the founder of Bagan’s largest shrine, the Dhammayangyi Temple, which rises from the scrub a short stroll southeast of the Shwesandaw. Deeply concerned about his karma for future lives after having murdered his father and brother, Narathu built the Dhammayangyi intending to atone for his misdeeds. It is today the best-preserved temple in Bagan, with a layout similar to that of the Ananda but lacking the delicate, harmonious touch of its prototype. The brickwork and masonry, however, are without equal.
Local legend asserts that Narathu oversaw the construction himself and that masons were executed if a needle could be pushed between the bricks they had laid. The building, however, was never completed. Before work could be finished, Narathu himself was assassinated by an Indian suicide squad dispatched by the father of one of his wives, whom he’d had executed because he disliked her Hindu rituals. Disguised as Brahmin priests, the assassins drew swords as soon as they’d been received by the king, then slew one another.
Ananda Temple, Northern Plain
Just to the east of the old city walls, the Ananda Temple is considered the masterpiece of Bagan’s surviving Mon architecture. Completed in 1091, it was, according to The Glass Palace Chronicle, inspired by a visit to Kyanzittha’s palace by eight Indian monks, who arrived one day begging for alms. They told the king they had once lived in a legendary Himalayan cave temple and, using meditative powers, made the mythical mountain landscape appear before Kyanzittha’s eyes. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the vision, the king immediately decided to build a replica of this snowy abode at Bagan and is said to have been so awe-struck by the result that he personally executed the architect to ensure the temple could not be duplicated.
The structure of the building is that of a simple corridor temple. Four large vestibules, each opening out symmetrically into entrance halls, surround the central superstructure, which itself is inlaid with four huge niches. The entire enclosure, 53 metres (174ft) on each side, is in the shape of a perfect Greek cross. In the alcoves facing the four cardinal points are four 9.5-metre (31ft) –tall teak Buddha images, dimly lit from the slits in the sanctuary roof. The north- and south-facing statues are originals, but those facing east and west are later copies.
The roof above the central superstructure consists of five terraces, covered with 389 terracotta-glazed tiles illustrating Jataka tales. Together with those inside the temple and at its base, they represent the largest collection of such tiles in Bagan.
Capped by a golden stupa that reaches 51 metres (168ft) above the ground, Ananda’s beehive sanctuary tower (sikhara) rises from the tiered roof. Smaller pagodas, copies of the central spire, stand at each of its four corners, creating the impression of a mountainous Himalayan landscape.
Upali Thein, Northern Plain
About 1.5km (1 mile) down the main road from the Ananda Temple towards Nyaung U, the 13th-century Upali Thein or hall of ordination, was named after the monk Upali. Although of brick construction, it is said to resemble many of the wooden buildings of the Bagan Era which have long since disappeared. The roof has two rows of battlements and a pagoda at its centre. The Konbaung dynasty undertook extensive renovations at the end of the 18th century, re-painting the beautiful frescoes of Buddhas and Jataka stories that adorn the walls.
Abeyadana Temple, Myinkaba
On the river-side of the road, the Abeyadana Temple was named after Kyanzittha’s first wife, whom he married as a young warrior. Local legend insists it is situated at the place where she waited for him during his flight from Anawrahta. Abeyadana, originally from Bengal, was probably a follower of Mahayana Buddhism: the frescoes on the outer walls of the corridor represent Bodhisattva, or future Buddhas, and on the inner walls are images of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, and other gods of the Hindu pantheon paying homage to the Master, along with 550 wonderful Jataka murals.