Temples of Pagan: A Selection
1: Nanpaya, mid-11th century
See also: Rulers and Monuments Table
Pagan is located on a bend of the Irrawaddy River, about 100 miles southwest of Mandalay, in the middle of Burma's dry zone (map). Inhabited since the mid-9th century, Pagan developed into an empire that unified Burma under the military conquests of King Anawrahta ("ann-ARE-uh-tuh", 1044-1077). Anawrahta also made Theravada Buddhism the state religion, and began an extensive program of temple-building that lasted, like the Pagan Dynasty itself, until the Mongol conquest of 1287. During this time the Khmer empire (800-1300) was also flourishing to the east, but did not impinge on Pagan due to the presence of Thai buffer states between them.
Cultural influences on Pagan include India and Ceylon. Anawrahta considered himself to be a chakravartin (universal monarch) on the Ashokan model, imported Brahmins from India to fill administrative roles at court, and initiated religious and diplomatic exchanges with Ceylon. Buddhism itself was never very concerned with secular matters, so ideas of governance (including administration and court ritual) had to be imported from Hinduism. Ideologically, according to Strachan (p. 10), the kings of Pagan considered themselves to be avatars of Vishnu in the service of Buddha if true, this is a rather unusual theology that would repay much closer academic study.
The site today contains 2,217 individually identified monuments (Strachan, p.1), all of them Buddhist, scattered in an area of approximately 40 square miles around a half-dozen villages on the plain. As of 2018, Pagan has applied but not yet been designated as a World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, dozens of impressive restored temples and stupas, many with beautiful interior carvings and murals, can be visited. Photography of the paintings is not generally permitted, but a good selection can be seen in Claudine Bautze-Picron's book, The Buddhist Murals of Pagan: Timeless Vistas of the Cosmos.
Recommended websites about Pagan:
The Art and Culture of Burma: Chapter 3 (Richard Cooler)
Asian Historical Architecture: Bagan (Robert D. Fiala and other contributors)
Bagan (Jean-Claude Morin and Yves Michel)