Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Thousand Years Ago

The country of Myanmar (Burma) has just recently opened up for unimpeded tourist travel, and I jumped up at the opportunity to see this little-visited place. What I saw was an impoverished and polluted capital city, a lush but not spectacular landscape, vital street life so common in that part of the world – in other words, a not entirely unexpected picture.

Except for one thing.

Back in 10th century, in the middle of what now is Burma, there was a small but strong kingdom of Bagan. The story goes that a Buddhist monk had arrived to the court of Bagan’s king Anawrahta, and in a short period of time managed not only to convert the king to Buddhism, but to turn him into a true religious zealot. The king started construction of many temples, with more and more added by his successors. In the course of two and a half centuries, over 4000 temples were built on the planes of Bagan.  Most of them are still there. From high terraces, one can experience a breathtaking sunset view, the land alive with countless spires as far as the eye can see.

There is a great mystery in this solitary architectural breakthrough. Why did it happen there, and nowhere else? The scale, clarity, and pure beauty of the entire concept are simply unprecedented. The Burmese military government was fast to recognize the significance of Bagan temples, and they engaged in various measures of protection – from restoration of earthquake-damaged structures to forceful resettlement of local residents, whose shacks tended to “spoil the picture”.

On my way back, riding in an old taxi through beat-up streets of sprawling Yangon, I was thinking about the sad reality of a country, whose greatest achievement came and went a thousand years ago.