by Abellio

Bangkok, 13 July 2016

My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.

Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.

A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.

But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.




Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:

The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand
(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)

It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.

The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.


No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain

this, Piranesi
this, Palmer
and this, Lear
In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.

As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.

See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.

But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)

Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.

Photos of Bagan: ours
Harold hit by the arrow:
Angkor Wat-1:
Angkor Wat-2:
Angkor Wat-3:
Cimitero monumentale, Milan:
Jewish section, Vienna Zentralfriedhof:
Roman ruins:
– Claude Lorrain
– Giovanni Battista Piranesi
– Samuel Palmer
– Edward Lear