Friday, January 2, 2015

Kublai Khan, Marco Polo and the towers of Bagan

Friday, September 26, 2014


In 1260 Kublai Khan established the Mongolian empire that united China. A few years later, Marco Polo arrived in China and remained in his court for almost 20 years. During that time Khan expanded to neighboring countries including Burma. Although there is debate that Marco Polo may never have gone to Burma, he describe Burma (called Mien in his journal) and Bagan (Amien). His sighting of Unicorns does lead to some doubt about his actual travel.
The Travels of Marco Polo
Below are some of his passages describing the journey to Bagan

You travel therein for fifteen days through a very unfrequented country, and through great woods abounding in elephants and unicorns and numbers of other wild beasts. There are no dwellings and no people, so we need say no more of this wild country, for in sooth there is nothing to tell..

And when you have travelled those 15 days through such a difficult country as I have described, in which travellers have to carry provisions for the road because there are no inhabitants, then you arrive at the capital city of this Province of Mien, and it also is called AMIEN, and is a very great and noble city. The people are Idolaters and have a peculiar language, and are subject to the Great Kaan.

And in this city there is a thing so rich and rare that I must tell you about it..

The upper part of these towers is round, and girt all about with bells, the top of the gold tower with gilded bells and the silver tower with silvered bells, insomuch that whenever the wind blows among these bells they tinkle. [The tomb likewise was plated partly with gold, and partly with silver.] The King caused these towers to be erected to commemorate his magnificence and for the good of his soul; and really they do form one of the finest sights in the world; so exquisitely finished are they, so splendid and costly. And when they are lighted up by the sun they shine most brilliantly and are visible from a vast distance.
The Travels of Marco Polo.
By Marco Polo, translated by Henry Yule

Whatever Bagan may have been at the time of Marco Polo, it disappeared soon after. It was a city of over 3000 pagodas and stupas with wooden buildings and structures all around. The Mongols left after looting and burning. In the time since then many ill-conceived restoration projects have rebuilt those pagodas and stupas into structures that little resemble what was before. The military dictatorship forcibly removed people living around these structures and the land has reverted to farms. In spite of all of that, what remains is a mystical panorama that draws you back to the time of Kublai Khan. Although it can not be a World Heritage Site, Bagan still causes your soul to soar.

We had docked on the Irrawaddy at the base of some ill maintained stairs that looked steep and hard to climb. In the morning we saw monks up early, and other boats downriver from us.
The steps turned out to be easier than we thought and  walked toward the bus.
On the way we passed some signs no doubt intended for the as yet unseen tourist the Military hoped to attract in droves.
The bus took us to the plains east of the river, passing a multitude of pagodas and stupas.
We stopped at the PyaThet Gyi Pagoda. It was glowing in the early morning light. A smirking Buddha awaited us. For some reason his expression reminded me of Garfield.

After going through brick halls, past images of Buddha, we climbed steep internal stairs.
And came out to see brilliant brickwork then scary external wall steps that took us to a platform at the top. We were the only people there that morning, the crowds have not yet found this site. What ever the original pagoda looked like, this reconstruction was magnificent. Years from now it will have guard rails and improved steps. I was glad it was early morning because the bricks would have been hot on our feet. Our guides planned our tour keeping that in mind.
From the platform at the top we had a glowing panoramic view of many of the pagados and stupas of Bagan. It was beautiful and exhilarating. 
Below us the farmers plowed and planted their fields.
Then we climbed down and said good bye to Bhudda.

We made a quick stop at the Thatbyinnyu Temple for outside pictures. Visitors are not allowed inside, but at least we could keep our shoes on. This was the first site where vendors approached us, offering precious gems that looked plastic. It was a taste of what will come to this area as more tourist visit.

Our next stop was one of the best preserved of Bagan's Temples, Ananda. It too had many vendors, but they did not pursue us when we went into the worship spaces.
The Ananda Temple is a marvel of light and with both old and new Buddhas. It was a feast of texture, light, and color.
It was also a victim of uneducated restoration in which ancient paintings were covered with red paint.
Current archeologists are learning how to remove this paint, and some of the ancient paintings have been restored.

The older Buddha’s had big smiles from a distance and slight smiles up close as they looked down on you. Up close you felt Buddha was really looking at you. The newer Buddhas could not replicate this illusion.
 The beauty of the light and colors was all around us as we walked through the temple.
We touched the footprints of Buddha to give us peace and health.
The tiles were hot to our bare feet outside, but by standing in the shadow I could ring the bell, three times of course.
The outside had not been "restored" and there was a beauty in the lines and shadows, and a hint of the color that must have been on all of the carvings. I can only hope that this will not be destroyed by future efforts.
On the way back to the boat for lunch we saw this boat under sail (although the motor was still in the water). The wind had picked up and the water was choppy because storms were approaching.

 In the afternoon we went to the Lacquer workshop and saw the materials and methods they used to make the objects out of bamboo or horsehair. Everything is from materials at hand and the lacquer is not a chemical concoction, but a sap. It is fine work and each layer takes time to dry in a cool room underground. The heat would not allow the lacquer to dry in normal air. The strong young man in the picture above was splitting bamboo and forming it into shapes.

Inside we watched the artisans forming object, covering them in the dark black sap, and painting them in intricate patterns.  
These are some examples I brought back from Bagan.
We heard thunder as we left for the Manuha temple and it began to rain. The marble tiles were slippery and full of children sliding and playing. 
A Buddhist festival day was approaching and large quantities of rice were being donated. The entry to the temple had a giant pot where the rice would be served to the monks and those visiting the temple.
The Manuha temple, which dates from around 1059, was named after a king who was held captive. It contains three giant Buddhas in very small rooms supposedly representing the confinement Manuha felt as a captive. 

 We saw two of the three giant Buddhas inside the temple after squeezing around the giant hand. 

Then we skated, as though on ice, on the sill wet tiles and went around back to the giant reclining Buddha. On the way to the bus there was a rainbow over the temple.
We saw another rainbow over a group of roadside pagodas  on the way to the Shwesandaw Pagoda.

The most iconic image I had seen of Burma was a picture from the top of the Shwesandaw Pagoda. Situated on the top of a hill in the center of Bagan it has a spectacular panoramic view of the temples, mountains and the river that has captured the hearts of visitors since the time of Marco Polo. Travelers from around the world gathered at the top to wait for sunset. 
The clouds broke a little as we climbed the steep stupa steps, up five levels. The steps were narrow and crumbling and you had to hang on to the rail for dear life. Only a few of us climbed to the top.

From the top the view was of endless pagodas and stupas. 
The clouds gained color from the sun, and though we did not see the red glow of and open sky sunset, many of the pagodas were offset by the color of the clouds behind them.

The top was like a UN, with people from many lands all waiting for the end of the day.  A couple from Sweden took my picture for me (my face showing fatigue from holding my smile too long as they searched for the button). After one last shot of the sky I noticed that everyone else was down and waiting. Then the steep climb down.

Back on the boat, after dinner we had a puppet show. The puppets were intricately managed, by a family for whom this is a traditional job. It was a father, son and daughter as puppeteers. MuMu, one of our guides, is from Bagan and she told of seeing the father and his father do the show years ago. Our business was important to the family, the money helped keep them going. It seemed important to MuMu to share her local customs as well. The story was sung in Burmese and hard to follow, and although the skill was impressive, it was no match for my fatigue.

What a day! I know Xanadu was not about Bagan, but somehow that song kept running through my head.

Mengala ba

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