Bagan: "Buddha Eternal"

Bagan, Myanmar
January 22,, 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

"Min gala ba" -- Hello.

Just over the wall is the main road. I can hear the occasional grind of a motor bike, a pleasant beep of a bus, the clippity-clop of a horse pulling a small, covered, upholstered cart -- my choice for getting around Bagan.

Just across the road is the long promenade to the Swezigon Paya (Pagoda or Temple).

"Supposedly, the Shwezigon was built to enshrine one of the four replicas of the Buddha tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka."

"The stupa's graceful bell shape became a prototype for virtually all later stupas over Myanmar. The gilded zedi sits on three rising terraces. Enameled plaques in panels around the base of the zedi illustrate scenes from the previous lives of Buddha."

"At the cardinal points, facing the terrace stairways, are four shrines, each of which houses a 4m-high bronze standing Buddha. Gupta-inspired and cast in 1102 AD, these figures are Bagan's largest surviving bronze Buddhas. Their left hands exhibit the vitarka (exposition) mudra while the right hands are held palms outward, fingers straight up, portraying the gesture of abhaya (no fear)."

The description above is taken from the twenty-four page special insert in my guidebook - color photos, maps, lists, drawings and a good summary of The Bagan Archaeological Zone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are more than 2000 temples, stupas, pagodas....more than 2000!

I cannot describe Bagan. Let me refer again to the guide book:

"Bagan is the most wondrous sight in Myanmar, if not in Southeast Asia. Across 40 sq km of country, stretching back from the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, stand thousands of stupas and pahto (temples). In every direction you'll see ruins of all sizes - huge and glorious temples like the Ananda Pahto soar to the sky; small, graceful zedi (stupas) stand alone in the fields. Some come with all manner of historical tales, while others are identified only by a number."

"Bagan entered its golden period in 1057 AD. Just over 200 years later, Bagan declined, and in 1287 was overrun by the Mongols of Kublai Khan. But what fantastic effort went into those two and a half centuries! It's as if all the medieval cathedrals of Europe had been built in one small area, and then deserted, barely touched over the centuries."

For two full days I visited many of the sites by horse cart. I attempted the bicycle but there's too much traffic and many deep sandy roads. Maybe next year.

Bo Bo, my driver, took me to the major temples. Small convoys of tour buses and taxis. Mostly Germans and French. Japanese groups follow the leader who holds a little white flag aloft. Dozens of young girls enthusiastically, charmingly, and firmly draw me to their "shop."

Bo Bo also understood my need for the "road not taken." Lonely dirt roads winding through parched fields. Grazing herds of restless goats. Beautiful spots. A small, locked temple. Through the window I could see only the feet of the Buddha. A sitting Buddha? A reclining Buddha?

I found the caretaker of the temple. He unlocked the gate. We entered the dark room. A Sleeping Buddha! The image extended almost wall to wall. Contented, comfortable, peaceful Buddha. The Buddha sleeps and creates intimacy and warmth. The Buddha fills the inner space.

The caretaker was happy to point out the frescoes and ancient Burmese script. He guided me to the carvings on the exterior walls and lintels.

"Je zu de mai," ("Thank you") I said. And I hopped aboard the cart.

Bo Bo and I were headed for one enormous temple with four enormous standing Buddhas. To climb the tower. To see the sunset.

And what words can I use? Are there any words to convey my feelings and experience? A poetic attempt?

"Bagan Buddha Eternal"

Far, far beyond an ancient river.  A red sun quickly slides behind green misty hills.

A final stream of light, A glaze of golden brown baked on the host of yearning giants.  Rising from the endless plain.

Temples of The Buddha.
Temples to The Buddha.
Temples with The Buddha.

Temples waiting.

A final stream of light travels beyond imagination.
And returns.
To set.
To fill the inner space.
To fill the heart.

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