Many of the temples in Burma were built to house relics of Buddha, Indian Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who some 2,500 years ago, renounced his wealth and taught his followers that they could experience enlightenment directly, without help from priests. The religion he founded now boasts some three quarters of a billion adherents, most of them in Asia. One of Buddha’s teeth, according to legend, is embedded under the graceful bell-shaped stupa (which became a model for all future stupas in Pagan) at Shwezigon Pagoda. A strand of his hair is purportedly preserved inside the stupa that tops the ShwezigonTemple (hence its name “shwe,” or “golden,” and “zigon,” meaning hair), which offers one of the highest vantage points in Pagan. There are no tombs, however, since Burmese Buddhists cremate their dead.
For a sense of Pagan, picture 2,000 cathedrals and churches of all shapes that vary in height from barely 12 feet to more than 200 feet, all squeezed into a parcel of land about three quarters the size of Manhattan. (At 200 feet, the ThatbinnyuTemple is about as high as Notre Dame in Paris and was built at roughly the same time.) Apart from the sheer number of temples in Pagan, the ancient city also has the greatest concentration of Buddhist wall paintings in Southeast Asia. As Scottish anthropologist James George Scott wrote in 1910 of Pagan: “Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of them can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament.”
The citizens of Pagan began their temple-building in the tenth century, more than 100 years after the kingdom was founded. In the 11th century, Pagan’s King Anawrahta returned from a pilgrimage to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), intent on converting his subjects from the animistic worship of nats, or spirit gods, to the austere Theravada school of Buddhism, which directs believers to attain enlightenment through meditation and meritorious deeds. About the same time, King Anawrahta began taking full advantage of the city’s strategic position on the Irrawaddy as a trading port linking China and India. Under the rule of Anawrahta’s son, Pagan continued to prosper, and the population swelled to 100,000 inhabitants. The nation’s overflowing coffers went into building elaborate Buddhist temples, monasteries, libraries, and housing for pilgrims. The court was so wealthy that children of nobility played with silver and gold toys.
By the time a king named Alaungsithu came to power in 1113, Pagan traders had become so skillful on the seas that the king himself captained an oceangoing ship with 800 crew on a trading mission to Ceylon, 1,500 miles southwest across the Indian Ocean. The ambitious explorer-king was also something of a poet, dedicating ShwegugyiTemple in 1131 with the lines, as translated from the Burmese: “I would build a causeway sheer athwart the river of samsara [worldly cares], and all folk would speed across thereby until they reach the Blessed City.”
Unfortunately, Alaungsithu’s treacherous son Narathu, impatient to rule, smothered him to death on a Shwegugyi terrace. After that, Narathu killed his uncle, as well as his own wife and son, poisoned an older half brother who was heir to the throne, and then married one of his father’s mistresses. When she complained that he never washed, the new king personally dispatched her with a sword thrust through her heart. When it came to ensuring his own afterlife by temple-building, the psychopathic Narathu was a stickler for precision brickwork. He insisted that the bricks in the 12th-century DhammayangyiTemple, the largest in Pagan, be set so close together that a needle could not pass between them. He was eventually done in by assassins.