Bagan: An Empire in Decline

67 comments
Asia, Myanmar, Southeast
Gawdawpalin, Started by Narapatisithu and Completed by Htilominlo

Gawdawpalin, Construction Started by Narapatisithu and Completed by Htilominlo

Chapter 1, Part 16

Almost two centuries of endless temple construction which began during the reign of Anawrahta, the founder of the kingdom of Bagan, resulted in nearly two-thirds of arable land in the kingdom reserved for religious purposes. The construction of colossal temples and the increasing influence of the kingdom, as well as the need to secure its borders, required a huge sum of money. But as the amount of cultivable area shrunk, so did the source of income Bagan needed to retain its generous spending.

Htilominlo, the successor of Narapatisithu who ruled Bagan largely in peace for almost four decades, overlooked the imminent financial difficulties his kingdom was facing. Construction spree was still taking place with the completion of Gawdawpalin, an enormous temple started by Narapatisithu and completed by Htilominlo, and an even bigger temple which would be named after the new king himself.

After ruling Bagan for more than twenty years, Htilominlo was succeeded by his son, Kyaswa, under whose rule Bagan witnessed its economy declining even further. Unlike the kings before him, Kyaswa resorted to building smaller, unimposing temples. Pyathadar (Pyathatgyi) was built during his reign and it is obvious that the king abandoned the appetite for gargantuan monuments his predecessors were known to have a penchant for. Upon his death in the mid-13th century, Kyaswa inherited his son, Uzana, an ailing kingdom with faltering economy which would never see better days until its demise.

Uzana ruled only for five years, however during his brief reign, and despite the continued depletion of the royal treasury, several temples were built. One of the most notable among them is Thambulla, named after the queen consort of Uzana, located at Minnanthu in the outskirts of the center of Bagan – a trend started since the economic decline where rulers built temples further away from the inner part of the capital. Officially closed to visitors, James and I were lucky to be around the temple at the same time with a German couple who came with a local man, none other than the caretaker of the temple itself.

He let us roam freely inside the temple, while occasionally explaining about its history. Adorned with fading frescoes, the vaulted inner sanctum of Thambulla was like pages of a story book glued to the walls with statues of the four Buddhas looking out towards the cardinal directions. Thambulla’s modest size compared to the temples built by the previous kings of Bagan was compensated by its exceptionally intricate interior.

20 minutes later we walked out of the temple, and as we were about to tip the caretaker for allowing us to go inside, he politely refused, and said that he only wanted to help us. Such a kind-hearted, sincere gesture in an increasingly commercial Bagan where aggressive postcard vendors were far too common at the most popular sites.

Htilominlo's Own Monument

Htilominlo’s Own Monument Surrounded by Rice Paddies and Smaller Shrines

Htilominlo Temple

Htilominlo Temple

Pyathadar, A 13th Century Temple Built by Kyaswa

Pyathadar, A 13th-Century Temple Built by Kyaswa

A Small Shrine on Top of Pyathadar

A Small Shrine on Top of Pyathadar

Local People in Traditional Dresses

Local People in Traditional Dresses

View of Bagan Plain from Pyathadar

View of Bagan Plain from Pyathadar

Small Temples Near Pyathadar

Small Temples Near Pyathadar

Architectural Gem from the Past

Architectural Gem from the Past

Thambulla Temple, Built by Uzana's Consort Queen

Thambulla Temple, Built by Uzana’s Consort Queen

One of the Buddhas inside Thambulla

One of the Buddhas inside Thambulla

The Buddha in An Ornately Painted Chamber

The Buddha in An Ornately-Painted Sanctum

Frescoes inside Thambulla

Frescoes inside Thambulla

Upon Uzana’s death, the kingdom faced a power struggle long absent from Bagan’s political landscape with the chief minister opposing Uzana’s oldest son who claimed the throne. The influential minister had him arrested and appointed Uzana’s other son from a less important concubine as the new king. Narathihapate, as the new king was called, soon became an unpopular ruler for his lack of empathy towards his people’s suffering.

As if bad luck refused to forsake Bagan, a powerful empire from the far north was drawing closer to the kingdom’s periphery, the same empire that conquered eastern Europe and ransacked Baghdad, thousands of kilometers away from its center of power in the vast steppes of the Far East. The Mongol Empire is in fact the largest political entity the world has ever seen – at its height it controlled a much larger area than the Soviet Union, the largest country in the modern world.

The imminent threat from the powerful and hostile invading nomads, exacerbated by Narathihapate’s incompetence in governing Bagan, led to the conquests of the northern regions of the kingdom. The Mongols fell short of entering the capital of Bagan, but the king decided to flee his palace altogether and headed south.

The already abhorred king was further alienated not only by his people but also his sons. His death in the late 13th century marked the end of Bagan dynasty’s rule over much of Lower and Upper Burma for nearly 250 years. For his ignominious action the king is now remembered as Tayok Pye, ‘the king who fled from the Mongol invasion’, a moniker also attributed to a temple Narathihapate built.

The last rays of the sun shone over the temples at Minnanthu, turning them into glowing monuments from the past. A solemn reminder of a once great and powerful kingdom whose marks still inspire people in the 21st century.

Different Architectural Styles

Different Architectural Styles

Payathonzu, A Tantric Buddhist Temple

Payathonzu, A 13th-Century Tantric Buddhist Temple

Payathonzu's Spire

Payathonzu’s Spire

Tayok Pye, Built by the King who Fled the Mongolian Invasion

A Shrine near Tayok Pye

Tayok Pye Close-Up

Tayok Pye, Built by the King Who Fled the Mongolian Invasion

Tayok Pye's Lintel Decoration

Tayok Pye’s Lintel Decoration

Mythical Beast, Tayok Pye

Mythical Beast, Tayok Pye

A Path to the Past

A Path to the Past

Dusk over Bagan

Bagan’s Minnanthu Group of Temples at Sunset

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

67 thoughts on “Bagan: An Empire in Decline”

  1. Lagi lagi postingan tentang sisa kerajaan Bagan bikin saya sangat mupeng, Bama. Bahan bangunan candi-candinya terbuat dari batu merah tapi masih utuh dan dipakai untuk beribadah. Sungguh kebalikan dengan peninggalan abad ke-14 negara Indonesia seperti Majapahit. Sejarah sudah bercampur foklor, bangunan kerajaannya tinggal reruntuhan. Sungguh penanganan heritage di Myanmar bisa jadi perenungan bagi negeri kita. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hehe, kamu pasti bakal sangat menikmati Bagan, Halim. Sebetulnya area Bagan itu juga rentan gempa, dan banyak candi-candi di sana pernah rusak akibat gempa. Tapi sepertinya penduduk lokal gak mempreteli batu bata penyusun candi untuk membangun struktur lain, mungkin karena mereka masih menganut agama Budha hingga sekarang. Beda dengan candi-candi di Jawa yang selain rusak karena bencana alam, juga batu-batu penyusunnya banyak diambil untuk membangun bangunan lain. Melalui blog kita bisa semakin menumbuhkan kesadaran betapa pentingnya menjaga warisan nenek moyang. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Melihat gambar dan membaca info apapun tentang Bagan termasuk penjelasanmu di atas selalu membuatku membayangkan bagaimana agungnya bangunan-bangunan tersebut pada masanya dan berapa banyak dana yang dimiliki oleh kerajaan tersebut untuk membangun ribuan pemujaan yang berada di tanah mereka.

    Bangunan yang sengaja dijaga oleh sejarah ini juga menunjukkan bagaimana suatu bangsa itu dapat tumbuh besar berabad-abad, namun kemudian runtuh dan hanya menyisakan jejak kejayaan, bahkan terkadang hanya menyisakan cerita, Ini seperti pengingat, bahwa kemungkinan bangsa kita pun bisa bernasib sama suatu ketika nanti, jika kita tidak belajar dari kegagalan masa lalu.

    Btw, ini pengambilan fotonya jam berapa sih Bam? Lightingnya pas banget. Dimensi bangunannya bisa terasa, tone nya pun pas. Suka!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Saat ini ada 2000an candi yang masih berdiri di Bagan, dan itu hanya sebagian dari total keseluruhan candi yang pernah berdiri di sana. Siapapun yang datang ke Bagan pas masa kejayaannya sepertinya memang dibuat terpesona sih. Tapi ya itu, bangunan-bangunan megah itu butuh dana besar untuk membangun dan memelihara, dan lama kelamaan kerajaan Bagan kesulitan dana juga. Mengunjungi tempat-tempat bersejarah semacam Bagan ini memang sangat membuka mata, Bart, salah satunya mengenai bagaimana kita ingin bangsa kita seratus tahun lagi dari sekarang, bagaimana kita membangun, mengelola sumber daya alam, merencanakan segala sesuatunya, dll.

      Selama di sana aku selalu pergi pagi habis sarapan, dan sore sekitar jam 3-4an gitu. Siang biasanya makan dan balik hotel, leyeh-leyeh. 😀 Thanks Bart!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jadi ingat pas tour de Java tahun lalu. Kalau siang itu waktunya siesta! hahaha …

        Duh pengen banget ke Bagan ini. Kayanya aku akan menggunakan ritme yang sama dengan dirimu juga Bam. Pergi di saat sinar matahari memberikan sudut terbaik untuk meng-capture bangunan-bangunan lawas yang mempesona itu.

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      • Haha iya, persis kayak waktu kita roadtrip. Di Bagan mendingan kamu sewa e-bike, jadi bisa keliling candi-candi kapanpun kamu mau.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dan ramah lingkungan. Cuma ya itu, kalo tiba-tiba baterenya habis agak repot, tapi untung penduduk sana baik-baik. Aku sempet kejadian sekali baterenya hampir habis, pas kebetulan ada delman lewat. Kusirnya nawarin bantu aku telfonin tempat sewa e-bike, dan dia gak minta imbalan apa-apa. Sekitar 5 menit kemudian orang dari penyewaan e-bike datang dan bawa e-bike pengganti.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Harus cek baterenya dulu ya sebelum diambil. Hmm seberapa tahan lama baterenya? Jangan-jangan emang udah bocor tuh.

        Duh baiknyaaa. Aku suka terharu sama orang-orang local di tempat-tempat terpencil, mereka itu tulus-tulus baiknya.

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      • Sebenernya sih tiap pagi aku selalu dapet e-bike yang baterenya penuh. Tapi kayaknya pas di satu hari itu dapet yang baterenya udah tua kali, jadi baru setengah hari udah hampir habis. Padahal e-bike di hari-hari lainnya baik-baik aja sampe sore.

        Nah, kalo di tempat terpencil wajar kan. Ini aku pas di Yangon juga ketemu orang baik yang tampangnya bikin aku awalnya curiga. Memang bener kata orang, jangan menilai buku dari sampulnya. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dan dengan jalan-jalan itu kita bisa punya pengalaman bahwa terkadang seseorang memang berbeda dari sampulnya, dalam arti yang positif.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ami. Since Myanmar opened up to the world more than four years ago, it is increasingly more and more accessible with flights from major cities in Asia. Hope you’ll make it to Bagan sooner than later. Thanks for reading and for your kind words!

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    • Thank you, Charlotte. I’m glad this post gave you that feeling, because we live in a beautiful and wonderful world after all, despite the negative news we have been bombarded with.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Marta, and thank you for your reading. So you went to Bagan just after Myanmar opened up to the world? It must have been even more magical. I only went to Yangon in 2012, and the city has changed a lot on my last visit late last year.

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      • I was there in 2012 and it was a great experience! I thought that it would be the case – the longer the country is opened, the more tourists come and the changes are unavoidable. I’d love to go there again anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Looking at the speed of mass tourism development in the country, I have a feeling that in the not-too-distant future Myanmar will be like Thailand.

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  3. That is insane that 2/3 of the arable land was used for temples. I get the feeling that this is one of those places you have to visit to appreciate the scale.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The previous kings should have foreseen the financial difficulties the kingdom would face. But I guess most of them, as well as later kings, simply ignored it for building magnificent temples was more important to win people’s hearts. Bagan is very expansive and I think the best way to explore all those temples in by renting an e-bike. It’s environmentally friendly, easy to use, and can take you to places a bit further away from the main sights.

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  4. How lucky you were to get into that temple almost alone! I particularly love the photos of the temples rising up from the rice plants and other greenery – great combination of warmth and softness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James and I were very very lucky. As for that photo of the temples rising up from the greenery, we were in fact a little lost as we couldn’t find a way to get to Htilominlo temple from the southern side (most tourists approached the temple from the northern side). But then I noticed this small road and decided to turn there, and we were presented with that magnificent view!

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  5. What an amazing time it was that gave rise to the thousands of temples of Bagan. It’s surreal really, to think that so many rulers and their consorts built so many temples regardless of the “state of the nation”. Apparently there used to be about ten thousand temples!
    Lovely photos Bama. My favourite is the first one of Tayok Pye – beautiful orange light.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • The pride of the nation was often far more important than anything else, and in some countries it still is. Can you imagine how cosmopolitan Bagan must have looked like during its heyday? Indeed there used to be a lot more temples in the plain, but earthquakes destroyed many of them.

      Thanks Alison! That afternoon the sun was so beautiful. It looked like a duck egg yolk, and it created a lovely bright orange hue over the temples.

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  6. nyonyawhitfield says:

    Wow! Bagan has always been on my list but seeing this post makes me realise that I shouldn’t wait any longer.. and I may have to go there soon next year. Please write more posts on your Myanmar trip I would like to catch some tips! Always enjoy ‘camping’ in your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Myanmar is one of those places you’d rather visit sooner than later because I witnessed how much the country (at least its biggest city, Yangon) has changed in three years. I do hope the government is able to balance tourism development and cultural preservation, because harmonizing both is key to retaining Myanmar’s charm, the very reason for people to visit. My next post will be on a less-known place in the country. Thank you for camping in my blog! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. If not at the detailedly carved decorations, you had me at the sunset picture. Stunning! I keep admiring what a great photographer you are!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bagan lagiiii… gemes ih, jadi pengen kesana lagi hahaha… Sekarang ada e-bike.. lumayan dong ya.. aku dulu naik delman, enak sih jalannya pelan-pelan bikin ngantuk tapi rambut jadi keras karena debu.
    Aku suka foto yang ada local ladies with traditional dress itu.. warnanya jadi ramai… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, aduh.. kalo gemes jangan cubit orang ya mbak. 😀 Naik delman sebenernya lebih tradisional sih ya, tapi enaknya e-bike itu bisa mblusuk-mblusuk ke jalan setapak. Nah, aku kan agak jarang foto orang, pas banget liat mbak-mbak pake baju tradisional Myanmar itu dan bapak yang pake longyi.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hahaha cewe banget ya kalo gemes suka nyubitin hahaha… ketauan sudah sering jadi korban rupanya.
        Pake e-bike itu emang asik mau kemana aja. Soalnya aku aja rasanya udah banyak banget ke candi2 itu tapi kok ngliat postingan Bama lhaaa… banyak juga yg ga aku masukin… whoaaaaa….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hahaha, dulu waktu kecil mbak, waktu masih chubby. 😀 Mbak Riyanti dulu sempat ke area Minnanthu juga kah? Agak jauh sih dari pusatnya Bagan, tapi candinya bagus-bagus.

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      • Jangan disesali mbak, disyukuri aja. Bersyukur jadi punya alasan untuk balik ke Bagan, hehe 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. And the royal intrigue continues! Bama, this is a lovely way to round off your series on Bagan. I wonder why the shrine atop Pyathadar was so small – given the size of the platform, I guess the temple was intended to be much more impressive. And we were so fortunate to be at Thambulla at just the right time. The frescoes inside, the solitude and the late afternoon light made it stand out from many of the major temples we visited. It’s easily my favourite place in Bagan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Makasih, James! In the span of two centuries, Bagan surely witnessed a fair share of royal intrigues within the kingdom. Pyathadar might have been intended to look bigger, but it was built when the kingdom’s economy was already in decline. And Thambulla, oh we were so lucky to be there at the right time! Truly an impressive temple it is, and its ornately-decorated lintel is one of the most well-preserved of all temples we visited in Bagan. Me and ornate carvings… you know. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m slightly a little upset…because your shots with all that greenery are sooo delightful, and all of mine are brown on brown!! I do like reading about the history of the places you visit, it brings the place more alive, makes them more real. Is a consort queen not a wife, I wonder? And what is even more interesting is your photographs. These are some of the best I think I’ve seen from you…though you have many great ones. For some reason I like the gem from the past, though it’s not as “pretty” as some, the detail is very cool. The angle you shot the Buddha with all the arches is also cool. And the one I just want to hate is Htilominlo’s, with all the temples around it…and ALL THAT GREEN GRASS growing…just lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Badfish! Don’t be. You traveled to Bhutan afterward anyway, land of happiness, as well as one of the places I most want to go in my life. According to some sources, a consort queen is in fact a wife, wife of the reigning king to be precise. I too love the details of that photo of gem from the past. From top to bottom you can see all the different carvings, patterns, and shapes, and the whole structure resembles a giant bell, doesn’t it? Many many thanks, Badfish. Always appreciate your kind comments. Actually this morning I read an old magazine and there was an article about Bagan. It said the best time to visit is between November and May, or something like that. So technically you went at the ‘right’ time. But weather these days, so unpredictable.

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    • A big group hug it is. 🙂
      Sunset at this part of Bagan was magical. I had never seen ancient temples so bright and orange. Thanks Sreejith.

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  12. These are fabulous ruins and excellent photos Bama. I’ve never been to Myanmar, but why have I never heard of these ruins. It looks like a huge area, and given the state of preservation, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a Smithsonian article on it. Maybe I just missed it. Thanks for the intro. BTW, you may have noticed that things have been quiet at Gallivance lately. Terri blew here knee out and had to have a total knee replacement surgery recently, so as you can imagine, her recovery and care have kept us both pretty busy. She’s progressing well, but it’s slow going. We haven’t forgotten about our friends and look forward to things getting back to normal. In the meantime, thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James

    Liked by 1 person

    • James, I did notice that your blog has been more quiet lately, but I didn’t know that Terri had an accident. I’m really sorry to hear that, and I’m wishing a very fast recovery for her. I can imagine her frustration to not be able to walk for a while, especially since both of you love traveling so much. Thanks for letting me know.

      As for Bagan, maybe it does not get much coverage in the US. But it’s quite well-known here in Asia (and probably also Europe), particularly since the country opened up to the world a few years ago. When Terri has fully recovered, maybe both of you should do a celebratory trip to Bagan. 🙂

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