Burma: Splendor and Miseries


In the 1970s and early 1980s, when I first went there, Burma could both repel and charm. General Ne Win had seized power in 1962 and set the country on a wayward course, what he called “the Burmese Way to Socialism,” different from all others and puzzling to political theorists. The Union of Burma was closed off from the rest of the world, its economy nationalized and allowed to stagnate. Such funds as were available from the sale of drugs and timber (there was extensive deforestation) were spent on arms to crush various ethnic minorities who wished to secede as well as political rivals to right and left.

Burma had been a major exporter of rice before the Japanese invasion during World War II; but by the 1980s only just enough was being produced to feed the ethnic Burmans of the central Irrawaddy valley—pious Buddhists who seemed content if they had some to spare for the begging bowls of the innumerable monks and also, perhaps, a little cash to buy gold leaf for the embellishment of stupas, pagodas, and statues.1 Burma has been called the most religious country in the world. It was said that when an international organization demonstrated the way rice harvests in Burma could be doubled by adopting new farming methods and new types of fertilizer, Burmese farmers welcomed the innovations and eagerly adopted them—only to cultivate in future half the number of paddy fields, to allow more time for meditation. This may be only a slight exaggeration of an attitude of mind that enraged bien-pensant agronomists and economists, who ranked Burma among the ten poorest countries in the world, although it is potentially rich in oil and minerals as well as rice.

Burma was less firmly closed to the outside world than Cambodia, Laos, or Albania, but visitors were allowed to stay for no longer than seven days. Travel beyond Rangoon, only by air or rail, was limited to the towns of primary interest to tourists, Pagan, Mandalay, and Taunggyi. Journalists were excluded altogether, and other writers were obliged to sign a declaration that they would publish nothing about what they had seen, done, or heard.

Yet Burma’s isolation could seem an almost heroic gesture of renunciation. When we arrived from Bangkok, the total absence of pollution—whether atmospheric (no heavy industry and very little motor traffic), aural (no transistors), or visual (no advertisements)—was certainly soothing. Rangoon remained unchanged since the British left in 1947; even the street names survived—Godwin Road, Dalhousie Street, Scott’s Market, and so on. Time seemed to have stopped even earlier in the Strand Hotel. It was still just as it was in the 1930s when Somerset Maugham stayed there and enjoyed luxurious accommodation then rare in Asia: large fan-cooled bedrooms, spacious bathrooms with tubs in which one could float full length, and, mercifully, no TV sets or refrigerated mini-bars that switch themselves on and off throughout the night.

A showcase of lost property by the reception desk displayed, among other relics of former days forlornly waiting to be reclaimed, the ignition keys of a Morris Cowley and its carnet de voyage dated 1938. In this time warp it was culpably easy to ignore what life was like for a population spared the evils of the modern world but also denied its advantages: medicine, labor-saving appliances, soap, and toothpaste, not to mention democratic government, an uncensored press, liberty to travel inside the country and abroad, and freedom from constant fear of arbitrary arrest. With an enjoyment later to be dismissed as “Orientalist,” I responded ingenuously to the spectacle of a traditional way of life of bullock carts, working elephants, colorful local dress (even mechanics and office workers wore longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong), spontaneous demonstrations of Buddhist piety, and wholly unspoilt and uncontaminated ancient monuments.

I had been interested in Burma since childhood. At my school in England in the early 1940s, there were two Burmese boys from the Shan states. With their delicate physique, refined features, and pale honey-colored complexions they were conspicuous among the thirty or so beefy, ruddy-faced British boys in my “house,” but well liked even if envied because they were excused attendance at our long Anglican religious services. They were rumored to spend the time playing tennis rather than in Buddhist meditation. Their father was Saohpa of the Shan people, that is to say hereditary ruler of a large region in eastern Burma with the authority if not quite the wealth of an Indian maharaja. In 1947 he became the leader of the Saohpas, who agreed to form a single Shan state as part of the Union of Burma, retaining full autonomy for local administration and with the right to secede after a trial period of ten years. He became the first president of the democratic Burmese republic, between 1948 and 1952, only to be imprisoned after the coup by the military leader Ne Win, and was never to be seen again. One of his younger sons was shot. Other Saohpas treated in the same way included Sao Kya Seng, whose liberal ideals and fate are touchingly recorded by his Austrian-born widow, Inge Sargent, in Twilight Over Burma.2

My schoolfellows were spared to live on in Burma albeit in reduced circumstances and were often in my mind as I read of Ne Win’s remorseless but unsuccessful campaigns against the Shan who were demanding their right to independence. There were intermittent reports of fighting in other frontier regions, but Burma did not come into the forefront of international news until 1988 when more than a thousand unarmed demonstrators were killed by the army in Rangoon and other cities. In the same year Ne Win announced his withdrawal from politics, but he remained, as he had in fact long been, a sinister unseen presence—as faceless as Pol Pot in Cambodia—usually known as “the old man,” rarely named. Executive power was handed over to the generals of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, with the appropriately repulsive-sounding acronym SLORC.

Almost simultaneously a campaign for democracy was launched by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the hero of the Burmese struggle for independence against the British who was assassinated in 1947. As a revered national hero, Aung San is comparable to Garibaldi in Italy. A prominent monument to him is to be seen in every Burmese town, his portrait appears on Burmese bank notes. With all this behind her and the force of her own charismatic personality, Suu Kyi immediately won widespread support—and was put under house arrest by the SLORC. Free elections were allowed in 1990 but the result, a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy, was quashed. Today, the situation remains unchanged. Aung San Suu Kyi, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, is still confined; the SLORC imposes its rule on the center of the country and carries on its relentless campaign against ethnic minorities in the outlying districts.

In 1989 the SLORC decreed that Burma should henceforth be named the Union of Myanmar, to indicate that it incorporates the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Arakanese, and other ethnic groups with their own languages and cultural traditions, as well as Burmans. The name was also changed to wipe out a record of British imperialism. (British spellings of place names were also revised: Rangoon to Yangon, the Irrawaddy River to Ayeyarwady, and so on.) “Burma” as a geographical expression was invented by the British to designate their expansion of the Indian empire to the frontiers of China, Laos, and Siam (as Thailand was then called). The region had never been an entity of any kind, far less a united country. Myanmar is a transliteration of the Burmans’ name for their homeland in the Ayeyarwady valley, where successive kingdoms had expanded and retracted from century to century and were known to outsiders by the names of their capital cities. The British governed this central region directly while the Shan and Karen and other outlying areas were administered through their hereditary rulers such as my school friends’ father. So the area that the SLORC is fighting to dominate and Burmanize is that established artificially, not to say arbitrarily, by the British, mainly to protect India from the Chinese and, especially, the French in Indochina.

The British ruled Burma as a province of India, and its arts came to be regarded as “provincial.” They are still grossly underrated in the West. Bagan (formerly called Pagan) with the accent on the last syllable, is one of the most poetically inspiring and artistically distinguished of the ancient ruined cities of Asia—second only to Angkor. From the mid-eleventh century it was the capital of a kingdom which disintegrated after a Mongol invasion under Kublai Khan in 1283-1285. The city was looted (not sacked as is often stated) and its population declined, unable to subsist on the agricultural produce of a curiously arid region despite its lying in the basin of a great river. Wooden palaces and houses perished, leaving more than two thousand brick-built Buddhist stupas and temples scattered over a wide plain of some sixteen square miles (nearly as large as Manhattan) in a bend of the Ayeyarwady. Although never deserted, it lost its political importance to capitals of later kingdoms established elsewhere, at Ava higher up the river, at Pegu in the delta, and finally, after 1857, at Mandalay.

In the late eighteenth century the king of Ava initiated restoration work at Bagan. A few Europeans went there and briefly recorded their impressions but there was no sense of dramatic discovery as with Angkor. Access was neither hazardous enough to lure romantically inclined adventurers nor easy enough for tourists. The Burmese railroad built by the British in the late nineteenth century passed some fifty miles to the east, a long way by bullock cart, horse, or elephant. So, in fact, Bagan remained accessible only by river, two days downstream from Mandalay. G.E. Mitton, author of A Bachelor Girl in Burma3 took a cabin on a cargo boat but was able to land for no more than an hour and then only to gaze from the far side of the river

across a stretch of pure lavender colored water extending for over a mile, edged by a strip of drab sand, and a long range of pagodas of varying heights and shapes presenting somewhat the aspect of a forest of fir-trees.

She appreciated that “days and even weeks” might be spent happily among “these magnificent ruins,” but passed on like most of her compatriots.

In 1899 a German had stayed long enough to remove some sculpture and paintings while preparing the first book on Bagan, no doubt intended partly to increase the value of the objects he sold to museums. Two years later, after a visit by the viceroy, Lord Curzon, the region was put under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. Systematic study of the site was begun and the results published in learned periodicals and books, notably by an Englishman, Gordon Hannington Luce, a master of epigraphy, who, with the aid of Burmese scholars, translated inscriptions that revealed the foundation dates of the most important monuments. An earthquake that destroyed some buildings and seriously damaged many more in 1975 made Bagan headline news for the first time. UNESCO provided aid for restoration and also sponsored the preparation of a full inventory of architecture, sculpture, and painting, which is now underway.4

Excellent though they are, these detailed studies have not reached, let alone caught the imagination of, a wide public. To date, Paul Strachan’s Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma5 provides the only accessible scholarly account of its subject, well illustrated and written with infectious enthusiasm as well as great knowledge.

Despite the current explosion of popular interest in archaeology and the history of architecture, attention has been deflected from Bagan by the state of affairs elsewhere in the country. Flagrant abuse of human rights under the dictatorship of Ne Win and the rule of the SLORC, and the complexities of shifting animosities and alliances between political parties and ethnic groups, have naturally claimed the attention of most recent writers about a country that, almost uniquely, remains visually unspoiled.6 As one of them points out, the key problem facing any writer on the subject is to explain how the interrelation between Burma’s booming drug production, insurgency, and counterinsurgency came about. Some 70 percent of the world supply of heroin is produced in the northeast of the country, and the profits finance what has now become a longstanding, fluctuating civil war. The SLORC claims that its brutal campaign against ethnic minorities is a war on drugs and has apparently succeeded in persuading the US Drug Enforcement Administration of this. To make matters worse, the warlord and drug king Khun Sa poses as the leader of a Shan separatist movement. It is hardly surprising that the splendors of Burma’s past, the monuments of a great civilization and a noble and pacific way of life, should have been overshadowed by the miseries of the present, or that the SLORC should be anxious to divert attention from those miseries.

With this in view, the SLORC recently performed one of its precipitate about-turns. Travel restrictions were suddenly eased, places formerly off-limits became accessible, visas were issued for more than just one week, tourists were welcomed once again. Next year is to be “Visit Myanmar Year.” New hotels are being hurriedly constructed for the 500,000 visitors who it is hoped will come, each changing on arrival US $300. A statement issued by the SLORC declares: “Other countries lure visitors with Westernized attractions, but we are proud and will give them the real thing—Burmese culture.” The best introduction to Burmese culture today, however, is the collected writings of Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear, edited and with a moving introduction by her husband Michael Aris.7


The SLORC’s Yangon does not at first sight look very different from Rangoon as it was a decade ago, though driving in from the airport I noticed that it seemed to have been cleaned up a bit. “They’ve washed blood off the streets,” I was told. Façades have recently been repainted, by order of the SLORC and at the expense of the householders. There are many more private cars; but they are no longer driven on the left as in neighboring Thailand and India, a new rule of the road having been recently and suddenly imposed to supersede that inherited from colonial times. Long, low, nineteenth-century British buildings that made the center of Rangoon look like a tropical South Kensington still survive, though some are under threat of demolition and placards on building sites show that the numerous new joint-venture hotels will be high-rise. The unique cityscape, where, as yet, only pagodas are higher than the palm trees, will vanish. Signs of brutal repression have been discreetly veiled. Even the military guards posted outside the tree-shaded suburban house where Aung San Suu Kyi has been under arrest for the past five years have now been removed. Only the barrels of their rifles are visible, poking out through the barbed wire on top of the surrounding wall.

The Shwedagon Pagoda, the most interesting and, for Buddhists, the most sacred building in Yangon, stands on a hill dominating the city. A stupa raised over venerated relics of the Buddha had been here for a long time before it was enlarged to its present conical form in the late eighteenth century and given its crowning element a hundred years later. Remembering this stupa vividly from a former visit, I went there early on my first morning in Myanmar last fall, a bare-foot climb—“no foot-wearing permitted”—up a steep covered stairway flanked by shops selling flowers for offerings, amulets, and a great deal of trash for tourists. On the platform at the top, tourists were greatly outnumbered by men and women in longyi, which are as colorful as they are comfortable in a hot climate, though youths and men are constantly undoing and opening them, like butterflies settling on a leaf or flower. If they are worn nowadays “on the advice” of the SLORC, they remain nevertheless an essential part of the Western vision of Burma. The vision brightens into reality at the Shwedagon Pagoda to the sound of tinkling bells from on high, the booming resonance of those below; whiffs of incense mingle with the smoke from enormous cheroots in the mouths of very old women. The myriad shrines have an overabundance of intricate woodwork enclosing statues of impassive Buddhas, all surrounding the great stupa, which is thickly coated with gold leaf.

There is nothing visible here of antiquarian interest or even of romantic appeal to connoisseurs of the patina of centuries. It all looks garishly new as a result not of restoration but of constant renewal and embellishment by generations of devotees who have applied gold leaf on gold leaf, stucco on stucco, paint on paint, adding such materials of their own times as Art Nouveau or even Art Deco tiles, glitzy mosaics of looking glass and neon lights. The stupa so dazzles the eye that the complexity of its form is not immediately apparent: a square base with rounded corners supporting three octagonal terraces from which the conical upper part seems to have been drawn upwards from a gigantic mass of molten gold. Concave curves lead the eye up to the tip of the mast 380 feet above the platform.

The embellishment of a pagoda is believed by Buddhists to be a meritorious act, one that may be rewarded by a good reincarnation, so long as it is not done with that end in view (a somewhat casuistical point) and so long as the good work continues. Ne Win has even founded his own so-called pagoda in Yangon, the Maha Wizaya not far from the Shwedagon—so called because it has only the exterior form of a solid stupa. Inside, an ambulatory with diorama views of the most famous Burmese religious buildings and sites surrounds a central space where the walls and domed ceiling are covered with plastic imitations of native trees, all labeled with their botanical names in Latin. If constructed as an installation in a New York art gallery it might win plaudits for postmodern wit; but in Yangon it is a chilling reminder of relations between religion and politics.

In the Union of Myanmar there are Christian, Muslim, and Hindu minorities, many of them among the insurgents. But most Burmans are Theravada Buddhists, that is to say strict adherents to the teaching of the historical Buddha (dismissed as Hinayana or the lesser path by followers of the Mahayana or greater path). Buddhist abhorrence of violence and its doctrine that all desires should be quenched encourages docility, and Ne Win has attempted to incorporate Buddhism in the ideology of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Monks who dissented were persecuted, and many were among the demonstrators mowed down by the army in 1988. The SLORC also professes to be guided by Buddhist principles, and in frequent televised ceremonies the leading generals are seen donating gold to pagodas and prostrating themselves before russet-robed sayadaws—venerable monks, usually abbots—who are too innocent or too cautious to refuse the act of homage. The hollowness of Ne Win’s pagoda is symbolically appropriate.

Stupas are gigantic signifiers, built, enlarged, embellished, and also visited in reverence for the doctrine they symbolize and the Buddhist relics they enshrine. Their form derives from Indian burial mounds and they are quite different from structures designed for congregational worship such as mosques or Christian churches. One of the most celebrated in Burma after that at the Shwedagon is at Bago (formerly called Pegu), some fifty miles northeast of Yangon. It was founded in about the eighth century, frequently enlarged, reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1930, rebuilt and recovered with gold leaf in the early 1950s. At Bago there is also a famous reclining Buddha 180 feet long and probably the largest in the world, thickly plastered and painted over a core that may date back to the tenth century, much venerated by Burmese Buddhists, though its late-nineteenth-century iron and glass pavilion may appeal more to Westerners tuned in to industrial and railroad architecture.

Bago was off limits for foreigners in the 1980s but is now being developed for tourism, the road from Yangon widened to a two-lane highway with broad-leaved teak saplings planted on either side for shade. Nothing remains of the fine streets of “buildings made of wood all over gilded, with fine pinnacles and very costly work, covered with plates of gold” which impressed a Venetian merchant in the sixteenth century, when Pegu was the capital of a fabulously rich and independent kingdom. To compensate and provide an attraction for tourists who tire of religious architecture, a reconstruction, necessarily largely imaginary, is going up on a recently excavated site where the royal palace is believed to have stood until it was sacked in 1757.

I went upcountry by road, stopping about fifty miles north of Yangon at Pyi (formerly Prome), a spruce little town on the Ayeyarwady with municipal gardens at the waterside where there was once a busy port for river traffic. A huge pagoda on a hilltop, with an elevator up to the main platform, is a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. But I went there to see the nearby remains of the ancient city of Sri Kshetra, founded in about the second century AD by the Pyu, a group of people from the Himalayas who had settled in the fertile valley and were to be among the ancestors of the Burmans. The city walls, now reduced to earthworks, enclose an area some three miles across, most of which was cultivated for subsistence, not crowded with houses like the walled cities of medieval Europe which were much smaller.8 It is still composed of paddy fields. When I went there the tracks between them were flooded after the monsoon rains and the ruins could be reached only by bullock cart—hired with some difficulty since most had been requisitioned that day for a religious procession.

Three village boys dressed in princely finery, with gilded parasols held above their heads, were accompanied by musicians and dancers, parents and relations and school friends all clad in brilliantly colored longyi. The boys were being conducted to a monastery for their initiation ceremony as novice monks, a sacramental reenactment of Siddartha’s renunciation of the world to become an ascetic and eventually the Buddha. Every Burmese boy from a Buddhist family spends part of his childhood as a novice monk, head shaved, dressed only in a swathe of russet cloth, following the rule of abstinence (no food from midday until the next morning) while learning about the “four noble truths” and the “eightfold path” central to Buddhist doctrine. This rite of passage seems to be peculiar to Burma. In Thailand some young men take vows as monks for a short while, usually in the rainy season before they marry. In Sri Lanka monastic vows are binding for life. And this may partly account for the diversity of Buddhism’s impact on daily life in these three Theravada countries.

The monumental ruins of Sri Kshetra, reached after an hour or more jolting and slithering along in a bullock cart, appeal to the eye mainly for their setting in the lush tropical landscape. A stout 160-foot-high cylinder of solid brickwork topped by the remains of a bell-shaped stupa is the most impressive. It originally enshrined relics removed by King Anawrahta of Bagan, who extended his realm through the valley of the Ayeyarwady in the mid-eleventh century. Two small temples, probably dating from the ninth century, are of historical interest for their interiors with true (i.e., not corbeled) arches and vaults of wedge-shaped bricks. This system of construction was introduced from India, where it had been adopted for Buddhist monasteries but was discontinued after the decline of Buddhism. Subsequently it was to be developed on a grand scale at Bagan but, strangely, transmitted no further east.


From Pyi, two young Burmese friends drove me the following morning at 5 AM into the misty dawn, which failed, however, to come up “like thunder” as Kipling would have it. In the villages monks were already filing out of their monasteries with begging bowls. Nuns of all ages but mostly young, their heads shaved and distinguishable from men only by their marshmallow pink robes, were also passing from house to house in twos and threes. Along the way girls and boys with tin bowls collecting money for the decoration of pagodas halted every passing car and were happy to be given a few kyats. Single kyat notes (worth about one US cent) were handed out by the driver to youths who guided the car over muddy tracts which had until a week before been flooded and impassable. On higher ground we paused to see Beikthano, a Pyu city founded in the first century BC, before Sri Kshetra, though a few low walls of large flat bricks are all that survive among the cactuses.

Arriving at Bagan I noticed a few unwelcome changes. The village with small shops and restaurants that used to be near the hotel had vanished: it was bulldozed in 1990 and its inhabitants obliged to build themselves new houses some miles away. As a result this extraordinary place seems still more deserted than before and no less bewildering—a plethora of monuments, some whitewashed, a few with gilded tips to their stupas, the majority of reddish brown brick, dispersed over flat land without any apparent plan. Most of them were built between the mid-eleventh century, when King Anawrahta took over the delta of the Ayeyarwady, adopting Theravada Buddhism (in place of Mahayana and Hindu cults) as the state religion, and the late thirteenth century, when the Mongols arrived. They differ from one another in shape and size (up to two hundred feet high), richness and severity of decoration, and reveal few clear lines of stylistic evolution. Nor is any one of greater artistic interest than several others. A walled area smaller than the Pyu cities and probably reserved for the king and court contains no building more imposing than those outside. All were originally surrounded by wooden structures in which a vast number of monks passed their contemplative lives in open country—an indication of the peace that reigned undisturbed for more than two centuries.

The Shwezigon Pagoda, far beyond the city walls, has been a place of Buddhist pilgrimage ever since it was founded in the late eleventh century, at about the same time as the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain and the Romanesque churches of the pilgrimage roads across France—an odd coincidence. Some statues and green glazed terracotta reliefs date from this period, and the great bell-shaped stupa, so different from the hemispherical stupas of India and Sri Lanka, seems to have set the pattern for the characteristically Burmese type, called by Freya Stark “the apotheosis of a turnip.” Much of what is visible is the result of restoration and embellishment carried out since the eighteenth century. The stupa set on terraces painted dark red is thickly coated with gold leaf; inscriptions over the entrance to the enclosure record the weight of the larger quantities of gold leaf donated by individuals, including recently some Americans.

The practice of gilding stupas may have originated in Bagan. Marco Polo, who was in the entourage of Kublai Khan in 1283 when the Mongols began to invade the Ayeyarwady valley from China, was impressed by what he heard of one in the magnificent capital city which he called Mien. It was covered with gold plate and hung around with “small bells of gold and silver which sound when put in motion by the wind.” But he mistakenly supposed it to be a royal mausoleum. The largest stupas were built by kings who were styled dhammarajas—protectors of dhamma or Buddhist doctrine—and sometimes believed to be potential Buddhas. They were not dynastic monuments. Kings of Bagan may have exploited Buddhism as an instrument for social and political control. But the funds they lavished on religious buildings weakened the economy, while their encouragement of monasticism drew an increasing proportion of the population away from productive life, leaving the country prey to invaders. The most richly decorated and elegant of the pagodas at Bagan, the Mingalazedi, was also the latest in date, built for the king who fled at the approach of the Mongols in 1287.

Prominent in Bagan architecture is what might be called the “elevated stupa,” a stupa, usually quite large, crowning a truncated pyramid of several terraces linked by precipitous flights of steps designed for the rite of circumambulation. The terraces, repeated at every level, carry great series of reliefs illustrating the Jataka stories of the Buddha’s previous avatars as a man or animal. Each a moral exemplar, they inculcate compassion, gentleness, selflessness. Borobuder, the ninth-century Buddhist “holy mountain in Java,” was similarly intended for circumambulation at ascending levels and has relief carvings of greater refinement. But it does not culminate in a single soaring stupa like the elevated stupas at Bagan, which are more unified in conception, more rhythmical in composition, more imposing architecturally.

Moreover they are never repetitious. A continuous ripple of variations on the basic design animates them: the relationship of width to height of the base, the degree of curvature of the crowning upper part, the presence or absence of small stupas at the corners of the terraces. All were originally covered with whitewashed stucco or clad with glazed bricks. And despite the continual subtle variations in detail, each remains symmetrical, presenting the same outline from every viewpoint, as firmly grounded and cohesively solid as the doctrine they symbolize. This is an architecture of mass, but one quite unlike that of the Egyptian pyramids. For all their bulk, these buildings are not oppressive: they seem to invite visitors to walk around them and climb up to the platform from which wave after wave of other stupas can be seen rising above the low vegetation of the great plain.

In design Buddhist temples may be differentiated from stupas by their accessible interiors which determine their exterior forms. Many enclose small dark chambers evoking the caves to which the first Buddhists retreated for meditation in the belief, as John Donne was to write two millennia later, that “churches are best for prayer that have least light.” (A modern and much frequented meditation center at Bagan has underground cells.) Others enshrine statues of the Buddha in lofty halls surmounted by pyramidal terraces reached up winding staircases. Since Bagan was a kind of Buddhist university, some temples were designed for teaching, most notably the Ananda, founded a few years after the Shwezigon Pagoda but as different in function as in its widespreading form, a Greek cross with a solid center supporting a 160-foot-high tower and spire. A profusion of pinnacles on the roofs and prickly gables over the pointed arches of doorways and windows give it a curiously Gothic appearance.

Running round the Ananda’s exterior at eye level there are some five hundred glazed reliefs of the Jataka stories. Inside, the arms of the cross provided halls in which four groups could be given instruction at the same time. They also give access to two concentric corridors with statues of the Buddha and relief carvings of scenes from his life. Illumination is controlled with remarkable sophistication, daylight from windows in the outer corridor being filtered gently into the inner one, which remains rather dark except where it passes four shrines cut into the central block. Thirty-foot-high statues occupy the shrines and glimmer in a mysterious glow from unseen windows above the halls in the arms of the cross. These statues represent the historical Buddha, Gautama, and his three spiritual predecessors, who had achieved supreme wisdom and nirvana before his time. Circumambulation of the Ananda thus follows the progressive spiritual transition from the moral precepts exemplified by the Jataka stories outside to the transcendental heart of Buddhism—a summa of the Theravada.

There are paintings on the walls and ceilings of many temples, hard to see in the darkness, even at midday. But in the flicker of candlelight, myriad images of the Buddha slowly materialize, meditating side by side, row on row, or set against backgrounds of dense jungle foliage which have the effect of finely woven silk. The demonic army of Mara—the force of evil defeated by the Buddha’s gesture—is sometimes depicted, with a brio that suggests the artists welcomed an alternative to beatifying visions. Interspersed are various scenes from the Jataka stories including glimpses of daily life in the painters’ own times, enacted by slender figures with typically refined Burman physiognomy.

Some of these paintings may be as early as the twelfth or thirteenth century and are comparable to fragments of about the same date removed from Buddhist monasteries in Central Asia, now in the museums of New Delhi and Berlin. Many others, and by no means the least accomplished, date from the first half of the nineteenth century, contemporary with those in the huge monastic buildings in Bangkok. Paintings cover a larger area in Bagan than anywhere else in South and Southeast Asia, and the daunting task of cleaning and stabilizing them has now been begun with aid from UNESCO. Little studied as yet and seldom reproduced, they are virtually unknown to all except a few specialist scholars.

Sculpture is even more profuse than painting. Glazed terra-cotta reliefs, of a type peculiar to Bagan, glisten on the exteriors of many buildings. Each one bears a simple composition of a few figures, usually illustrating a Jataka story. In comparison with the famous relief carvings of seductive dancing girls and aggressive marching men at Angkor, which are of almost exactly the same date, they may seem naively spiritual in their gently voiced exposition of a joyfully pacific ideal. Innocently informal: whereas the Khmer figures are carefully posed with premeditated gestures, the Bagan reliefs recount episodes only, fleeting moments almost, in a timeless web of Buddhist legend, not a precisely considered narrative as at Angkor. Only occasionally is a sterner note struck by grotesque heads of guardian figures baring their teeth, incised in the stucco cladding on external walls.

Most of this external stucco work, originally picked out in bright colors, is of leaf ornament burgeoning with a kind of baroque exuberance over doorways or spread evenly, as on the remains of many buildings in Thailand.9 Colossal statues, not carved but built of bricks, were similarly covered with stucco, an impermanent medium all too easily renewable. Of one nineteen-foot-high seated Buddha little more than the core survives, the barely articulated forms of head, torso, and arms. It is one of the few Burmese sculptures illustrated in histories of Asian art. But bronze statues, presumably cast from stucco models, reveal the high level of artistic as well as technical accomplishment achieved by sculptors in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Among the finest works of sculpture of its period anywhere is a standing Buddha some four feet tall, right hand raised in the mudra or conventional gesture signifying fearlessness, the left holding the hem of his garment in delicate fingers, an expression of physical tenderness and spiritual strength on his face. It is still owned by a monastery and visible only when the abbot has given permission and summoned monks to unfasten the three large and heavy medieval-looking padlocks on the door of its shrine.

Large blocks of stone were in short supply at Bagan, for sculpture as well as for building, so the large sandstone reliefs in the mid-eleventh century Nanpaya temple are exceptional, and the handling of the very sensuous basreliefs suggests a sculptor accustomed to working in wood rather than stone. Likewise the miniature reliefs in a close-grained stone called “dolomite” found in various locations at Bagan. No more than six inches high, showing the Buddha surrounded by scenes from his life story as in earlier and much larger Indian stelae, they are carved with the precision of the finest—and coincidentally contemporaneous—Romanesque ivories. They have been found only at Bagan and appear to be the products of a single workshop, perhaps of a single carver. Three are now displayed together with some of the only slightly less fine woodcarvings that must once have been ubiquitous, in the excellently installed octagon of the new museum.

In the grounds of the museum, spacious and open long galleries have been erected to give asylum to the statues rescued from robbers in the more remote and vulnerable temples. Although they include a few alabaster Buddhas of the type that has given Burmese art a bad name in the West, most of them date from the centuries of Bagan’s prosperity. But what they gain from being exhibited in the clear light of day hardly compensates for what they lose by being isolated from their devotional context. They seem to demand individual attention as “works of art,” although they were never intended to display artistic individuality. Fortunately the integrity of the interiors from which they have been removed has been preserved by substituting plaster casts that are indistinguishable to the naked eye in the half-light. In the great shrine of the Kyauk-ku monastery—covered by a vault, with great pointed arches and built in about 1060, some time before the European Gothic churches it brings to mind—the statues niched in the walls and the innumerable images of the Buddha painted on the ceiling unite to create an atmosphere of meditative concentration.

This temple is inaccessible by road so, on my last afternoon at Bagan, I went there by boat, half an hour or more upstream from the busy little river port on the Ayeyarwady. Even more solitary and remote than any of the temples of the plain, there are now only two monks living in the monastery, though others, including occasional laymen, come here to meditate. When I left the sun was setting behind the mountains on the far side of the Ayeyarwady toward Bangladesh and India, and in that brief moment of tropical twilight the modern world and its problems could seem illusory.


Bagan remains in the mind not just as the once great capital of a Buddhist civilization but as a still active and pious religious center—more obviously so than any of the other great ruined sites in Southeast Asia, Angkor in Cambodia, Sukhodaya in Thailand, Borobudur, and Prambanam in Java. Bagan is still sanctified by a living faith that commands respect even from the most casual visitor. But will the hordes of tourists who are now being wooed and invited to “visit Myanmar” respect it? Steps have already been taken to protect monuments from physical damage. Some of the upper terraces have been made inaccessible. Several temples with wall-paintings and sculptures are now locked and may be visited only with authorization. So the more people visit Bagan, the less will they be able to see.

To accommodate them new hotels must be built, and these will change the landscape unless great care is taken. And wherever tourists come, son et lumière is seldom far behind, with its plastic chairs, arc lights and neon lights, and cat’s cradles of wires. Will they come, however, while the SLORC remains in power? Although they will have nothing to fear for their own safety (as they might well have in Cambodia or Egypt) and will be allowed to see no signs of discontent or misery, they can hardly remain unaware for long that they are in a country ruled by a ruthless military junta which they help to survive by bringing in hard currency.

In Bagan and elsewhere I noticed large red billboards with inscriptions in curly Burmese lettering. They stated, I was told:

Only where there is discipline will there be progress. Crush all destructive elements. Observance of discipline leads to safety. Anyone who is riotous, destructive, or unruly is our enemy.

In the eyes of the SLORC “destructive elements” include Aung San Suu Kyi and the great majority of the population who voted for the National League for Democracy in 1990. To maintain “discipline” the SLORC has an army of a quarter of a million men. It is a crime for a Burman to discuss politics with foreigners, but in conversation with a cultivated youth some old English books about Burma were mentioned. H. Fielding Hall’s The Soul of a People,10 an earnest attempt at empathy by a British colonial official, seems to be still known today if rarely read, but, strangely enough, not Norman Lewis’s wonderful travel book Golden Earth,11 the best ever written about Burma. Orwell’s name came up, of course. “I don’t like Burmese Days,” the youth remarked, “But I love Animal Farm, it’s just like Burma today.” He criticized the SLORC only for the “Visit Myanmar Year” project, the first step on the downward path to Bangkokization.

  1. 1

    I use the word “stupa,” derived from Sanskrit, for the solid structure that is the most prominent feature of Buddhist architecture in South and Southeast Asia, called a zedi in Burmese; I use the European word “pagoda” for a precinct including a stupa.

  2. 2

    University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

  3. 3

    A book that has slipped through the net of publishers now busy reprinting travel literature (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907), p. 237.

  4. 4

    Pierre Pichard, Inventory of Monuments at Pagan, Volumes I and II (Paris: UNESCO, 1992). Five further volumes are to follow.

  5. 5

    Whiting Bay, Arran: Kiscadale Publications, 1989.

  6. 6

    Personal accounts of visits to areas held by insurgents and under attack from the Burmese armed forces include Edith T. Mirante, Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution (Grove, 1993). Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (Zed Books, 1991) provides a good account of Burmese history from the colonial period but mainly since independence. Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgence Since 1948 (Westview, 1994) is longer and more fully documented, with invaluable appendices, including a month-by-month chronology and biographies of the most important insurgent leaders.

  7. 7

    Penguin, 1991.

  8. 8

    See Janice Stargardt, The Ancient Pyu of Burma (Cambridge: PACSEA, 1990), particularly valuable for its account of the elaborate and important irrigation systems at Sri Kshetra and Beikthano.

  9. 9

    The date of the stucco work at Bagan remains to be determined. Much of it is probably contemporary with that on buildings at Ayudhya in Thailand, which are traditionally supposed to date from the fourteenth century, though this is now doubted. The revisionist historian Dr. Piriya Krairiksh recently and convincingly proposed that none is earlier than the eighteenth century. “A Revised Dating of Ayudhya Architecture,” Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 80 (1992), Part I, pp. 36-55, Part II, pp. 11-26.

  10. 10

    London: R. Bentley, 1898.

  11. 11

    London: Jonathan Cape, 1952. Reissued in Norman Lewis Omnibus (Picador, 1995).