Bagan's history dates back over a millennium, although it wasn't until the mid-11th century that work began in earnest on the huge array of temples visitors see today. The construction frenzy peaked in the 12th and early 13th centuries, by which time the temples were bigger and more complex. But despite the estimated 10,000-plus pagodas built here, Bagan's time in the sun was relatively brief and the city was abandoned in the late 13th century when the Mongols invaded.
Key Bagan Dates
- c 950
Evidence from the remains of Pyu-style buildings is the earliest indication of a settlement on this bend in the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy).
Temple building speeds up with the sacking of the Mon city of Thaton by Bagan’s warrior king Anawrahta, a newly enthusiastic devotee of Buddhism.
- c 1100–70
Temples become bigger and are better lit by broader windows, with more of an eye to vertical proportions than horizontal lines.
- c 1170–1280
Bagan’s late period of architecture sees more intricate pyramidal spires or adorning tile work added to the buildings, with an increased Indian influence.
Bagan’s decline is accelerated when the Mongols overrun the area, the Bamar having possibly abandoned the city already.
An earthquake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale hits Bagan; many temples are damaged, but major reconstruction starts almost immediately with the help of Unesco.
Military forcibly relocates a village that had grown up in the 1970s in the middle of the walled area of ‘Old Bagan’ to 2.5 miles south of the main archaeological zone.
Bagan is placed on Unesco's World Heritage Tentative List.
More than US$1 million is collected from local donations for the restoration of Bagan.
A re-creation of the 13th-century Bagan Palace is opened on a site opposite that of the original palace.
The Indian government pledges $22 million for the restoration of Ananda Pahto.
A 6.8-magnitude earthquake strikes central Myanmar, causing damage to hundreds of ancient temples in Bagan.
Myanmar officially petitions Unesco to designate Bagan a World Heritage Site.
Bagan’s two and a half centuries of temple building (from the 11th century to the 13th century) coincided with the region’s transition from Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs to the Theravada Buddhist beliefs that have since characterised Myanmar. Legend has it that a major player was the monk Shin Arahan, who came (sent by Manuha, the Mon king of Thaton) to convert Bamar King Anawrahta. To call his quest a success would be a landmark understatement. Inspired by his new faith, Anawrahta ordered Manuha to give him a number of sacred Buddhist texts and relics. When Manuha naturally refused, Anawrahta marched his army south and took everything worth carrying back to Bagan, including 32 sets of the Tripitaka (the classic Buddhist scriptures), the city’s monks and scholars and, for good measure, King Manuha himself.
The self-assured Anawrahta then turned to architects to create something to befit Buddha. They built and built, and many of the greatest Bagan edifices date from their efforts, including Shwezigon Paya, considered a prototype for all later Myanmar stupas; the Pitaka Taik (Scripture Library), built to house the Pitaka (scriptures); and the elegant and distinctive Shwesandaw Paya, built immediately after the conquest of Thaton. Thus began what the Myanmar people call the First Burmese Empire, which became a pilgrimage point for Buddhists throughout Southeast Asia.
King Anawrahta’s successors, particularly Kyanzittha (r 1084–1113), Alaungsithu (r 1113–67) and Narapatisithu (r 1174–1211), continued their incredible architectural output, although the construction work must have been nonstop throughout the period of Bagan’s glory.
Historians disagree on exactly what happened to cause Bagan’s apparently rapid decline at the end of the 13th century. The popular Myanmar view is that hordes of Mongols sent by Kublai Khan swept through the city, ransacking and looting. A contrasting view holds that the threat of invasion from China threw the last powerful ruler of Bagan into a panic. Legend has it that, after a great number of temples were torn down to build fortifications, the city was abandoned, so the Mongols merely took over an already deserted city.
Bagan scholar Paul Strachan argues in Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma (1989) that the city was never abandoned at all. Indeed evidence suggests that Bagan continued as an important religious and cultural centre into the 14th century and beyond, after which its decay can be blamed on the three-way struggle between the Shan, Mon and Bamar. People began moving back in some numbers only after the British established a presence in the area in the late 19th century, but by that point the plain of temples had fallen victim to frequent earthquakes (at least 16 trembles shook Bagan between 1174 and the big one in 1975), general weathering and neglect.
The enduring religious significance of Bagan is at the heart of the site’s recent transformation. It's been changed from piles of picturesque ruins to a practically complete 13th-century city, minus the buildings – such as palaces, homes and monasteries – that would have been made of wood.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bagan was massively reworked. Since 1995, more than 1300 Buddhist temples, monasteries and stupas had been speculatively rebuilt from mounds of rubble, and a further 700 damaged buildings received major repairs. This has caused much concern among international preservationists, who have criticised the poor workmanship and historically inaccurate methods, styles and materials often employed.
Putting this into perspective, recent renovations follow a pattern set by early builders. Between 1200 and 1280, construction appears to have begun on new monuments every two weeks. Down history, these hastily built structures have been patched up, repaired and rebuilt. Today’s dodgy contractors are only following in the footsteps of their quick-building ancestors.
A Living Religious Site
Following the 1975 quake, Unesco spent 15 years and more than US$1 million on restoration projects. But Bagan’s current advanced state of restoration is mainly due to a hugely successful donations program initiated by the government in the mid-1990s and enthusiastically supported by many merit-making locals. The result, according to some international observers, is more akin to a Disney-style version of a great historical site.
Defending the rebuilding program, Culture Minister Win Sein cited the nation’s duty to preserve, strengthen and restore all the cultural-heritage monuments of Bagan in perpetuity, and emphasised that the temples were still actively used religious monuments much venerated by the people of Myanmar. After the 2016 earthquake struck, Unesco and other international organisations were quick to proffer assistance, mindful of the type of hurried and slipshod renovations that happened in the past. The silver lining to the destructive earthquake is that much of the damage was localised to later add-ons rather than the original ancient structures. With any luck, the current restorations will more strictly adhere to original building designs and techniques – and bring greater authenticity to Bagan as a whole.