Ancient Pagan - Buddhist Plain of Merit
By Donald M. Stadtner
Photography by Michael Freeman & Donald M. Stadtner
Published by River Books
Available at leading bookshops, US$35
Reviewed by Michael Smithies
Special to The Nation
This is another River Books glossy, written by a noted authority on old Burma, with excellent photographs by various contributors, in particular the indefatigable Michael Freeman. It sets out to be an intelligent guide to the chief monuments of this extraordinary collection of Buddhist temples mostly from the 11th century onwards, right up to the restorations made necessary (and sometimes not) as a result of the serious earthquake in 1975.
The plan of the book is well adapted to its intentions. After the preliminaries, there are five chapters covering Pagan's history, religion, materials, architecture, and painting and sculpture. Then 33 of the most important temples are selected, from the vast number available, and described in detail, with generous illustrations of the murals, plaques and statues to be found in them.
It is rather sad to have to adjust to the reality that much of what we learnt about early Burmese history is perhaps an invention of the Glass Palace Chronicle, compiled in 1829 - the wagon-loads of booty from the conquest of Mon Thaton by Anawratha (who reigned from 1044 to 1077) and the establishment of the court at Pagan, for example, all graphically depicted in newish panels painted on a corridor of the Shwezigon.
Similarly, the idea of the decline of Pagan in the 14th century subsequent to a supposed Mongol invasion has to be abandoned, and no firm reason can be advanced for the shift of power to the northern region of Ava (here we should mention one minor caveat, the over-use of the word "likely", made interchangeable with "probably").
But Pagan itself was never completely abandoned, as the numerous structures and refurbishings from the late 18th and early 19th century testify, as seen in, for example, the Pitakat-taik and Upaili Thein.
Two things immediately strike one about the temples, in complete contrast with those at Angkor: the use of brick as the basic material (most often covered with decorative stucco), and the introduction of the centred arch. The thin binding mortar weakens over time and causes structures to implode. It is curious that, according to Stadtner, no ancient kilns for bricks have been found. The quantity of wood needed must have been considerable for the kilns, and may help in part to explain the desert-like plain of Pagan, made worse, of course, by it being in a natural arid zone.
The huge Ananda temple with its vast cruciform plan and double corridors around a central solid core, its 1,500 or so glazed tiles and its statuary never fail to impress, but for the adjacent and much smaller (and more recent) Ananda temple monastery, we have figures for the number of bricks needed (450,000) and the basic costs involved (3,950 ticals of silver).
Many of the temple interiors were whitewashed, and sometimes whitewash was later applied over murals in restoration projects. We are inclined to forget that the temples of Angkor, like mediaeval churches in Europe and classical structures from Greece and Rome, were painted, and murals, whether ancient or modern, tend to require a cultural adjustment. That so many have survived in Pagan can in part be attributed to the dry climate, and to the constant renovation of major shrines. As we have just hinted, the murals may not be to everyone's taste, but they often related graphically stories of the Buddha's life, and especially the Jataka tales. They may have had an instructive purpose, but given their position, often high up in dark corners, are more often decorative.
For the descriptions of particular temples, the book is divided into four geographic zones, north, south, east, and centre, plus the densely built old walled city and the Ananda. The Irrawaddy, of course, forms the barrier to the west. This arrangement is sensible, and the end papers are maps of the whole area so one can readily locate the chief monuments.
The book is printed on heavy art paper, which makes it rather too weighty to be carried around as one explores the different sites, but the colour illustrations probably required the use of such solid paper. We are treated not only to photographs of murals and structures, but also to some copies of watercolours by Colesworthy Grant from the mid-19th century, now in the British Library, and these are a delight.
But guidebook it is intended to be, with a page on accommodation, ballooning and travel agents, the information gathered in 2005 and thus likely to date quickly.
In sum, this is an excellent volume combining scholarship with visual beauty, and if you prefer to be an armchair traveller, it will be a good substitute to the reality of the buildings described.