Bagan was the first capital city of Bagan Kingdom from 11thto 13thCentury about two and half centuries. It covers an area about sixteen squares miles (41 km). Our Bagan become an UNESCO World Heritage Site, since July 2019. There were over 40,000 temples, stupas, pagodas and monasteries in Bagan during 11thand 13thcenturies. It still survive over 3,000 monuments at the present day. Some of the main pagodas are well maintained and preserved, it can be seen mural painting, frescoes, glazed plaques and amazing architecture with ancient bricks. You can not expect to visit all pagodas within short time periods of your vacation. But you should not miss these top 5 pagodas in Bagan when you visit.
Shwezigon – Largest Sandstone Stupa
Shwezigon Pagoda was founded in the 11thCentury and 12thCentury according to the Glass Palace Chronicle records. Shwezigon which is mentioned number one in the inventory list of Ancient monuments and it is one of the main and top destinations in Bagan . It is situated the west of Nyaung U off the main road to the old Bagan. It is quite similar to Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon. It is virtually the prototype of later Myanmar stupas. According to the legend, it is recorded that King Anawrahta finished three terraces which are adorned with Glazed Jataka plaques and then King Kyanzittha completed the dome shape.
Myanmar people believed that it is enshrined forehead bone of Buddha and tooth-relic chamber which is given by King from Sri Lanka to King Anawrahta. Shwezigon was renovated by many different kings in different centuries. In 16thCentury, King Bayintnaung (1551-1581) gilded the whole structure of stupa and donated the bell (weighing – 3429 kg) which is mentioned three languages, Burmese, Mon and Pali. That bell is recorded as world memorial record of UNESCO in 2017. It can be seen inside the Shwe Si Gone Pagoda compound. In 18thCentury also, King Hsinphyushin from Ava, near Mandalay came to Bagan and donated some buildings during Konebaung Period.
Even though Shwe is gone was founded in Bagan period, it can be seen many different art and architecture designs from different era. You might think Shwezigon is made of bricks same as other temples, but it is made of sand-stone pagoda in Bagan. Inside the pagoda compound, you will see different buddha shrines and different buildings. Some buildings are traditional Myanmar style and some are blending Myanmar and European style during Konebaung period. As soon as you go inside from the Southern entrance, you will see amazing wood curving building, showing the stories of moral lessons on your right side. It is worth it to visit early morning or after sunset time with night light. You will meet only domestic visitors. Otherwise it is crowded with tourists during day time.
Ananda Temple – Masterpiece of Bagan
Ananda Temple is the finest and most famous temple in Bagan. It is a masterpiece of perfect proportions and architects. It is just like a museum for Myanmar people. Using Mon language captions under the glazed plaque, it was built in 12thCentury by King Kyansittha. According to tradition, it was inspired the cave on Nandamula Hill in the Himalayas. Before 19thCentury, it is called Nanda Temple based on that story, it is changed Ananda Temple later. Ananda temple seems to be the very first largest temple in Bagan. It is a unique temple at Bagan for many reasons. So I will tell you what we can see inside the temple. When you arrive Ananda temple, I recommend you to start and enter from northern entrance. As soon as you go inside, you will see mural paintings if you look at them carefully.
At the entrance, you will see amazing and big wooden doorway from 18thcentury. The entrance halls were completely covered with many layers of limewash paint. It were whitewashed in 18thor 19thcentury. After cleaning all limewash paints, original mural paintings are coming out in the north and east entrance halls. After that, you will see the figure of 9 m high standing buddha statue. There are four buddha standing statutes inside the temple including that one. We believed that the buddhas on the north and south are from the ancient Bagan period and the others on the east and west were replaced around 18thcentury. Because it was destroyed by fire which are made of wooden images.
My favorite image is from south side. When you start going inside from the north, you will see gilded eighty stone sculptures which are narrating the story of Buddha life starting from his birth on earth and ending with the enlightenment. Seeing those sculptures, you will amaze the costume and art from Bagan period. Then you will arrive west entrance hall and see the another standing buddha image and buddha footprint on the huge circular stone slab which are covered under the money donated by visitors. After that you can go outside to see the whole structures of Ananda Temple and you will have chance to take photos there. You will also see the glazed plaques surrounding the temple. Then you go inside again from south entrance to see my favorite buddha statue. If you look at the buddha face from far away, buddha face was smiling at you. When you go close, no more smile. The trick is lighting system from the above small dormer window. There are three long corridors on the west, south and north sides, all combined European and Myanmar style architectures. So go to east side to see the whole temple without corridor, you can take photos. I recommend you to visit there in the morning time.
Thatbyinnyu Temple – The Tallest
Thatbyinnyu temple is situated near the Ananda Temple. It is famous for its height and tallest temple in Bagan with 61 meters height. According to traditions, it was built by Alaungsithu, grandson of King Kyansittha who donated the Ananda Temple and probably built the middle of 12thcentury. The name, Thatbyinnyu (Sabbannu in pali) means ‘Omniscience’, Not like the other temples, you will not see any buddha images on the ground level, at the entrance. Buddha shrine was seated at the upper storey. When you enter by the east entrance, there are two standing figures of guardians by the stairway. Some original murals painting are still remaining inside the temple.
Large sized paintings are belonging to the 14thor 15thcentury on the right side and left side of temple.On the west side of hall, a queen of King Bodawpaya left ink inscription about her donations at the temple during the period of late 18thcentury or early 19thcentury. It records her visit to Bagan and mentions the first donor of the temple was King Alaungsithu. She donated the building for visitors and restored damaged the stucco and plaster curving. According to the documents. King Bodawpaya from Amarapura, ordered the whitewashing of the temple of the walls. Inside the temple compound, there is another what you can see is two square stones pillars which were supported the huge bronze bell. But the bell has been missing for many centuries. Those square pillars were badly damaged in the earthquake and then renovated it. The temple was very damaged and was restored later. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to climb up the upstairs after an earthquake in 1975. If you do not like crowded places, this temple is the good option to visit.
Dhammayangyi Temple – The Largest
Dhammanyangyi temple is the largest of all the temples in Bagan and it is visible from all Bagan area. You will see most finest brickworks of outer walls and temple itself. The name, Dhammayangyi is recorded by an ink inscription in the east hall. It is resembled the Ananda Temple Layout plan. Donor was King Narathu the successor of King Alaungsithu who donated Thatbyinnyu Temple. According to the legends and chronicles, King Narathu killed his father and elder brother to become a king, Then he regrets from killing them and he donated this temple. Because of that reason, you will see two buddha statues when you enter the temple from the west. And also he even killed his queen who was from Sri Lanka. So the troops from Sri Lanka came to Bagan and assassinated him before he finished the temple. Some researchers mentioned that there is no invasion from that small island kingdom Sri Lanka. Not like the Ananda Temple, the inner corridor was closed and blocked at the time of its construction for unknown reason. Perhaps the brick workers and masonry felt the temple would be unable to support the weight of the top of temple before they finish the construction. The top of the temple (Sinhalese) was disappeared before the 1975 earthquake. No one can imagine how the temple looks like. If it is restored, it would be quite similar with Ananda Temple. If you go inside the temple, you will see some large wall paintings from 14thcentury. It can be found some stone inscriptions inside the east and north entrance halls. It is mentioned list of donation record for the temple such as caretakers, singers, dancers, a monastery, 48 cattle and paddy fields. But it is not mentioned about the name of the temple. We can say exactly this stone inscription was for the Dhammayangyi temple. Another stone inscription from the east entrance, it is shown the cursing people who destroy the temple ‘Whatever they eat food or drink water, it would be poison for them’. There are so many stone inscriptions can be found in many places. Some stone inscriptions are mentioned donor records and some are mentioned about curse. This is also interesting stories for me when I visit the temples. When you arrive the temple, you should try to go from outside, you would see the temple which resembles the pyramids of Egypt and remained stucco in few places. There is one ruined monastery at the northwest corner of the temple. You will get some good photos of temple from that corner. I recommend you to visit the temple in the evening time and try to take photos of temple from the southwest corner of temple from outside. If you’re lucky, you may catch up the horsecarts with temple background.
Sulamani temple is very closed to Dhammayangyi temple. According to my personal feeling, I feel like Sulamani temple was the most beautiful one in Bagan. But the top of the temple was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake and it is still under restoration now. It was donated by King Narapatisithu during the period of 12thcentury and it was prosperous time in Bagan. During his reign of Bagan, so many pagodas and temple were built in Bagan.
The name of temple, Sulamani means “small ruby” and King Narapatisithu found a small ruby in that spot where the Sulamani Temple after he came back from Tuyin Taung (Tuyin Mountain). After that he donated this temple on that spot. Sulamani temple architecture is quite similar to Thatbyinnyu temple, Htilominlo temple and Gadawpalin Temple. As soon as you arrive the temple, you can take some photos at the entrance using arch of gateway with temple background.
Even though it was built in 12thcentury, it is famous with mural painting from 14thcentury and 18thcentury itself. Original painting is still remaining in the vaulted ceilings. However, the walls were covered with murals from the late period. Long time ago, people used the east entrance, nowadays people are using the west corridor. The walls of north side are filled with late 18thor early 19thcentury large sized mural paintings such white elephant, large buddha images and buddha sheltered by snakes.
My favorite murals are existing on the walls of south corridor. It is showing 28 buddhas on the top row from left to right, and another one is the sense of his eight victories as a second row. Then the third row was the Buddha in the centre, Shin Sariputta and Shin Moggallana at the both sides and the others monks. Forth row and fifth row are shown the people who achieved the enlightenment during the lifetime of Buddha. In those senses, it can be seen the ways of life of the people from the Konebaung period. Outside corridor also, it is still remaining the finest stucco and ogre faces at the corners of west and south sides. I recommend you to visit this temple in the evening time.