Known as the city of four million pagodas, Bagan sits on the eastern banks of the Ayeyrwady river (also Irrawaddy River) in central Myanmar.
It was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire, which began in the 11th century and lasted until the 13th century. During this time more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built on the city’s plains. Of this the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.
They are in different sizes and in a bewildering variety of shapes. They are also in varying stages of preservation and disrepair. Today, it is said to be one of the richest archaeological sites in south East Asia.
According to the Burmese chronicles, Bagan was founded in the second century. However it is better to date the Bagan of the monuments from its establishment as a walled city, with twelve gates and a moat by King Pyinbya 34th successor of the founder of early Bagan in 849. But it is only with the 42nd king Anawrahta than Bagan emerges into the clear light of history.
From Anawrathas accession to the throne (1044-1077) to the flight of King Narathihapate (1256-1287), Bagan was the capital as well as the political economic and cultural nerve centre of the Pagan Empire. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments (approx 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries) in an area of 104 square kilometers (40 sq miles) in the Bagan plains.
The prosperous city grew in size and grandeur, becoming a cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies, specializing in Pali scholarship in grammar and philosophical-psychological studies as well as works in a variety of languages on prosody, phonology grammer, astrology, alchemy, medicine and legal studies.
The city attracted monks and students from as far as India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as well as the Khmer Empire.
The culture of Pagan was dominated by religion. The religion of Bagan was fluid, syncretic and by later standards, unorthodox.
It was largely a continuation of religious trends in the Pyu era where Theravada Buddhism co-existed with Mahayana Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, various Hindu schools as well as native animist traditions.
While the royal patronage of Theravada Buddhism since the mid-11th century had enabled the Buddhist school to gradually gain primacy, other traditions continued to thrive throughout the pagan period to degrees later unseen.
Due to repeated Mongol invasions (1277-1301) the Pagan Empire collapsed. The city that was once home to some 50,000 to 200,000 people was reduced to a small town.
In 1297 when the Myinsaing Kingdom became the new power in Upper Burma the city formally ceased to be the capital of Burma. However Bagan survived into the 15th century as a human settlement and as a pilgrimage destination throughout the imperial period.
Some of the most prominent temples out of the thousands were the Ananda, the Shwezigon, the Sulamani the Htilominio and the Dhammayazika and a few other temples along an ancient road.
All the others thousands of them and less famous fell into disrepair, and most did not survive the test of time.
The Tharabar gate is the main gate of the east wall and the only structure left of the old city built by King Pyinbya. It was built in 849 A.D. during the 9th century.
The river washed the western and northern part of the city wall away. Of the 12 original gates to the walled city, this is the only one that remains. Tharabar is derived from Pali term “Sarabhanga” meaning “shielded against arrows”.
The gate is known to be guarded by spiritual beings. There are two massive shrines on each side of the gate, one housing an image of Maung Tinde and the other, and his sister, Thonbanhla. They are known collectively as the Lords of the high mountains.
The story of the brother and sister are that, according to tradition Maung Tinde was a blacksmith of great strength living in the country of Tagaung. Apparantely in his previous existence he had prayed “May I be a spirit whom kings shall worship!”. So great was his strength that the king feared for his throne. Men were sent by the King to kill him, but he escaped and went away deep into the forest.
The King then married the younger sister of Maung Tinde. He then asked his wife to call her brother back to be given office. However when the brother returned to the city, he was seized, tied to a tree and burned. His sister too, jumped into the burning flames and died together with him.
The spirits of the brother and sister continued to dwell in the tree. The tree troubled everyone who went near it, so it was dug up by the roots and floated down the Ayeyarwady.The tree eventually reached Bagan and there images of the brother and sister were carved and kept on Mount Popa.Every year, in the month of Nadaw (November-December), the kings of Bagan ascended Mount Popa to worship the Mahagiri spirits.
Today superstitious locals don’t venture through the gate by motorbike or car or horse cart without first paying a one-time offering to the nat (spirit) usually banana and a couple of coconuts to ensure protection against traffic accidents.