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First Impressions of its Significance


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Vol. 1, No. 4, 1953

I write about Pagan neither as an historian nor as an archaeologist, though some history and some archaeology inevitably enter any discussion of that extraordinary capital of the first Burmese Dynasty. The curious thing about Pagan is that we know so little about it, that is we of the West. We have been brought up to know and appreciate the temples of Karnak, the pyramid tombs, the exquisite and magnificent glories of Greece and Rome, the great flourishing of Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture. We are not wholly unfamiliar with the arts of Peking and Nara and Kyoto. Even fabled Angkor has been pictured in the magazines of America ; but Pagan, as so much else in Burma, has been relatively unknown, and this should not be.

The reasons for our ignorance are not difficult to discern. The Burmese historical Chronicles are untranslated and are unknown except to rare students. Burmese history had been buried for a century or more as part of " Farther India." Burma herself lost much of her energy and much of her spirit after the great 18th century thrust of Alaungpaya. Her sons and daughters during the past few decades have been more concerned in achieving independence than in acquiring the laborious skills necessary for scholarship in history and the humanities. For these and perhaps other reasons that will suggest themselves to the reader, Pagan is relatively unknown in the West and this, as I said before, should not be.

It may be instructive to turn to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, even the latest edition published in 1946. A half paragraph is given to Anawrahta and Pagan. He is cited as a contemporary of William the Conqueror. The founder of the Pagan Dynasty in the 11th century is designated as the first real ruler of Burma. He is the king who "forcibly imported the purest form of Buddhism, monks and scriptures from its seat at Thaton." Ananda is mentioned as the "gem of the Pagodas." And that is all. The space given to the very next article on the Burmah Oil Company, Ltd., is a little bit longer!

To a Burmese audience it will be a commonplace for me to say that Pagan began as a cluster of villages, probably in the 9th century, as Furnivall pointed out as far back as 1911. In contemporary terms ancient Pagan might be described as a refugee center for those who came after the fall of Prome. Why your ancestors stopped at Pagan we will never know. Some speculate on the possibility that the climate of upper Burma had been better in ancient times than to-day, but one of the Talaing-Mon inscriptions of Kyanzittha calls Pagan "the torrid country."*

However, there is Frequently in history no good reason why people settle at one place rather than another. They just do. Witness some of the awful places in my own country in which people have settled on their long trek from coast to coast. In any event, Pagan was a handful of villages in the 9th century.

Indian-Hindu influences must certainly have been the strongest if not the earliest influence upon that countryside. The Sarabha Gate, still standing, is commonly associated with 9th century King Pyinbya. It is the frontispiece to what will become Pagan a century and half later. It is Hindu in design and structure. This great out reach of Indian-Hindu style is also evident in some 9th century ruins surrounding Angkor Wat. This Hindu push through India, Burma, Thailand, Indochina and Indonesia must have been an extraordinary one, certainly equal to the Graeco-Roman thrust on the Mediterranean cultures. It left behind an indelible imprint upon the civilizations of those two peninsulas of Asia stretching deep into the Indian Ocean. The mark of its art, architecture, and its religion are still to be found in these Buddhist and Moslem countries. Like the Greek it suffered from the inability to maintain its organization, and so the Hindu push gives way, leaving here and there remnants of its culture, its artifacts and its religions Hinduism and Buddhism. It is the latter which has taken root in Burma (and in other countries) and it is the latter—Islam came later—which serves as the great energizing force of non-Indian peoples as they move on to the stage of history and present in turn their civilizations.

Pagan became the seat of the first dynastic capital of Burma under the rule of Anawrahta and his sons. But Pagan would not have become religiously significant and architecturally magnificent if it had not been for the conquering of Thaton and the forced transplantation of the Mon population. The Pagan Dynasty was founded by a Tibeto-Burman people, the present Burmese, who grafted on to their energy the Buddhism of India, dedicated themselves to it, helped to purify it and thus make possible the preservation of Theravada Buddhism as a Mon Burman-Singalese achievement. To the glorification of this religious culture, dedicating all its creative energies, using slave and Free labor, as in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, it built its monuments. In a sense we have in Pagan kings another illustration of DeMandeville's aphorism, " Private Vices are Public Benefits."

Anawrahta was the first of the Pagan kings. His son Kyanzittha was probably the greatest. It was he who completed the Shway Zigon which Anawrahta started. And it was his son, Prince Raja kumara, who gave to us the Myazedi Pagoda and the Myazedi stone, which like the Rosetta stone, helped scholars decipher a lost language, in this case Pyu. I can well imagine the satisfaction of Duroiselle when he published the text of its fourfold story describing Kyanzittha's reign in Pali, Mon, Pyu and Burmese in the Epigraphia Birmanica. When a copy of the stone was pointed out to me by U Lu Pe Win on my visit to Pagan, I heard in his voice all the satisfaction of the archaeologic and linguistic scholar who displays his most treasured possession. I said that Kyanzittha completed the Shway Zigon Pagoda and caused to be inscribed the Myazedi stone, but his chief claim to fame is the Ananda Pagoda. How many other Pagodas and shrines Anawrahta and Kyanzittha had caused to be built in the fabulous 16 sq. mile area perched above the Irrawaddy River we do not know. We do know, how ever, that their zeal was passed on to Kyanzittha's grandson, Alaungsithu who gave us the Thapyinnyu Pagoda. Other sons in this dynasty built many hundreds of temples including the Mahabodi in imitation of the Buddha Gaya.

It is true that in Burma, Ananda is regarded as the great Pagoda, second if at all only to the Shwaydagon. But during the few days that I spent at Pagan, thanks to the initiative and leadership of the Hon'ble U Win, I was torn between Ananda and Thapyinnyu. Ananda is the greater marvel and, of course, houses in its " courtyard " the collection which some day soon should form part of the great museum of Burma. But Thapyinnyu has always seemed to me to be unique in Burma. It has mass and grace, it has cool and shadow, it has light and dark. High above as you climb its steps and look over the countryside, even today, you get the "feel" of Burmese working and praying. When I was there, off in the distance there were three cultivators who were singing. You could hear their voices. They were there like countless generations of their ancestors.

Thapyinnyu stands favourable comparison with any of the great Romanesque buildings of the world. It is said that Kyanzittha was so entranced by Ananda that he "broke the mold by executing the architect.** I could more readily believe that this oral legend would have applied to Alaungsithu and Thapyinnyu. Paraphrasing Dr. Johnson's famous comparison of Dryden and Pope, I would say If the towers of Ananda are more delicate Thapyinnyu's are more sturdy. If of Ananda's decor one is astonished, Thapyinnyu gives more quiet satisfaction. Ananda often surpasses expectation, and Thapyinnyu never falls below it. Ananda immediately excites admiration, and Thapyinnyu offers perpetual repose.

But it is not my purpose to contrast Shway Zigon, Ananda, Thapyinnyu and the others. Nor is it my purpose to describe the sculpture of the 1500 Mon plaques illustrating the Jataka stories at Ananda. Others who have written on the history and architecture, the frescoes and the sculptures of Pagan have done and will do that better than I can. But, perhaps no one will pen a page about Pagan to surpass in appreciation the summary made by Harvey. It is worth repeating.

"Thus perished Pagan amid the blood and flame of the Tartar Terror. Her wide dominions were parcelled out into Shan satrapies owing fealty to China and Siam, her kindly peace fled before the advancing shadows of internecine strife. If the men whose day-dreams became incarnate in the temples of Pagan were also tyrants whose peevish frown spelt death, whose harems were filled with slave-women, that is only to say they were as other kings of their time. But whatever they were, the legacy of their fleeting sway has enriched posterity for ever. It was they who made the sun-scorched wilderness, the solitary plain of Myingyan, to blossom forth into the architectural magnificence of Pagan. If they produced no nation-builder like Simon de Montfort, no lawgiver like Edward I., they unified Burma for more than two centuries, and that in itself was an achievement. But their role was aesthetic and religious rather than political. To them the world owes in great measure the preservation of Theravada Buddhism, one of the purest faiths man kind has ever known. Brahmanism had strangled it in the land of its birth in Ceylon its existence was threatened again and again east of Burma it was not yet free from priestly corruptions but the kings of Burma never wavered, and at Pagan the stricken faith found a city of refuge... It is a mistaken sentiment which contrasts the old-time splendour of Pagan with the mat huts of today. Then as now hut jostled temple and housed even the great the two were not antithetic hut correlative these men's magnificence went to glorify their religion, not to deck the tent wherein they camped during this transitory life. Those who doubt the reality of a populous city given up to the spiritual, should read the numberless inscriptions of the period, richly human and intensely devout ; contemplate the sixteen square miles at Pagan, all dedicated to religion ;...reflect that each temple was built not in generations but in months remember how short was the period when Pagan was inhabited think of the literary activities of the Kyaukku Onhmin add to all this our natural preconception of the conditions necessary to the production of great religious art and then say whether those campaigns for a tooth, those heart searchings over the loss of a white elephant...are not rather possessed of a significance as deep to men of the age as the quest of the Holy Grail had for Arthurian knights."

No better epitaph to Pagan could be inscribed. To the historian and student of cultures. Pagan raises another of a series of interesting questions about the human spirit. What accounts for the great outbursts of creative energy from the 10th to the 13th centuries? In this part of the world it is Pagan ; in Indochina it is Angkor Wat ; in Europe it is the great Gothic cathedrals. It is almost as if there were a spontaneous combustion leading to a great firing of the human spirit at different places throughout the world, all expressing themselves similarly in stone and brick. There have been other periods in human history when there have been similar and simultaneous flourishings, in ancient times as well as in modern. Witness for example, the great splurges of the 17th and 18th centuries. But we still do not know how and why these occurred. The speculations of such historians and philosophers as Toynbee and Northrop have only begun to scratch the surface of this fascinating problem which may well engage future generations of trained scholars. This much we know in the rise and ebb of the cultures of peoples, national boundaries cannot contain such outpourings. They spill over—will not be confined. All races and groups of men seemingly move on to the stage of history at some time appropriate to their group—and leave behind a glorious monument to creation.

Before I leave my subject—can one ever really leave Pagan ? — I should like to turn to its contemporary significance. What should Pagan mean for Burma today ? Is it to be merely the great relic of an unrecoverable past ? Is it to be solely a place to which you take your visitors and shew them the once greatness of Burma ? Is it only to be enshrined in the sad cry of a poet, like Marlowe's lament over lost Beauty in those haunting lines given to Tamburlaine and beginning with " What sayeth my heart of Beauty, then..?

These are really rhetorical questions. Although history, art and architecture ever deserve a prime place in the civilization of a country and though Independent Burma would be derelict if it did not take immediate and urgent steps to preserve its past, still I think this sense of the past however real it is, is not the only significance of Pagan. Pagan was a rooted kingly civilization. Burma today is concerned with sending down the roots for its democratic dedication. Pagan was a great cultural center. Burma today must become concerned about food for spirit as well as the body. Even on the stage of world history Pagan was a great architectural achievement and Burma today has to learn the skills of the builder. What greater contribution can the First Dynasty make to the First Republic in Burma than to serve as an inspiration and a " school " for her sons and daughters ? Provision should be made to preserve and learn from antiquity. For otherwise the heritage of antiquity will disappear in the endless corrosion of the monsoon. If Burmese school children are to learn Burmese history they should be taken by boat, by train, by car, on regular excursions to the beginning of Burmese history. If Burmese history is to be studied and written, teachers and students at the University must utilize the inscriptions, the chronicles, and the vernacular literature that grew up during and immediately after the fall of Pagan. They must attempt to unravel these and other sources so as to lead to an understanding of the past in order to better enrich the present and look forward to the future. If Burmese artists, sculptors and architects are to rebuild and decorate Burma, they too will find much to learn in the First Dynasty.

The significance of Pagan for Burma is therefore both past and future. Pagan becomes not the relic of the past but an active, vigorous base serving the cultural and historical needs of the population of Burma. Pagan for the Burman becomes a hallowed center, preserved, eared for and studied. He says here is where my country began; here is where it threw tower; up to the sky as it reached for deliverance here is where I began, I a Burmese citizen.

Pagan in Burma is the root, the beginning of a nation. One must recapture one's beginnings. One must nurture the roots for the tree.

I shall be leaving Burma in a few days but I never would have begun to understand Burma without Pagan. By the same token I never would understand Burma today if I saw only Pagan. Burma today is Pagan plus the miracle of freedom and independence. Freedom and independence make possible the energy to preserve and to surpass Pagan—that is its true significance

* G. E. Harvey "History of Burma", Longmans Green and Co., 1926—Page 16.

** Harvey—Page 41.

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