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.

Blogger RWordplay said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 5, 2012 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

My Dear Boym,
A rather sad commentary. So often we are compelled to look backward in time to discover/rediscover beauty, order, meaning. It is also true that what we enter when we experience these places are "ghost" towns. Imaginaries which we populate, in this case with Buddhist Saints, enlightened monarchies, and calm people. These dreamscapes, whether Venice, the Il Saint-Louis, or even pre-postmodern New York are simulacra.

The places of our own time are not only at risk—see Sandi and our upcoming Presidential election—but are conceived as temporary. At the best, we propagate "Global Good Taste," Robert Sawyer's description of the architecture, design, cuisines, etc, consumed by an increasingly narrow global "elite." At worst, we configure experiences and objects, which dilute the meaning of being human for those whose relevance and, in fact, existence is held with virtually no regard(see Haiti or military drones).

Some consider the fetishizising of places like Bagan or Venice can only end with creating the equivalent of monstrous cabinets of curiosities. Me? I've a great love of stone and ruins. Something in me requires the quietude found among them. Perhaps it absolves me of the obligation to make, save, or care deeply.

I've watched my New York vanish before my eyes and have come up with the theory that one's place lasts little over 30-years, while one's sense of place is embedded in his or her DNA. I'm glad you shared these pictures and told this story. As you note the beautiful and profound "came and went a thousand years ago." Today, across the world, we both wake to a "sad reality." One that can be avoided only by averting our eyes and turning them, and our hands, on those things that bring us, and those we love, pleasure.

November 5, 2012 at 11:50 AM  

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