Bagan is not a single place but a string of settlements on a bend of the Irrawaddy River with a plain stretching eastward for many miles. It’s on the western edge of the tourist track, an oval-shaped circuit of the country with Yangon (Rangoon) in the south, Mandalay at the northern end and the Inle Lake Region to the east.
The number of temples on the plain is incomprehensible, thousands, old ones and new ones, built in the towns and alongside roads and populating the countryside in all shapes and sizes. Most are off the paved roads that are mostly close to the river, on a vast network of dirt tracks and sandy paths, some only accessible by bicycle or on foot.
In an effort to get a better idea of the phenomenon that they are I hired a charming man and his car to drive me around to the bigger and most famous temples and also to small ones built by individuals for merit which, with their quiet mystery and intimacy, had an allure that the most visited ones could not claim.
The largest of the temples are like villages in themselves with constant streams of pilgrims arriving and departing. Shops fill entryways or grounds. Families, some with monk relatives of whom they’re clearly proud, stroll in groups around these eastern equivalents of cathedrals. There are as many designs architecturally as there are temples, the variety astounding. And every one I saw, no matter the size, is the home of at least one Buddha and in the biggest, many Buddhas. These, too, come in seemingly unlimited shapes and the design of them must reflect the fashions of the eras in which they were born, so different are the styles one from another.
The images are contained within grottos so in the huge temples one has the feeling of being inside a mountain and the Buddha in his cave. But in the smallest temples the scale is human and home-like. One cannot help but sit on the stoop to peer through the grate into his dim domain, no one nearby to distract from the wonder of it, thoughts accompanied only by the sounds of insects.
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