Land of 3 million Buddhas 

copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved 

5/7/98 Bagan, Myanmar

I'm in Bagan, one of the historical focal points of the Buddhist religion. Starting around 1057, Kings, Princes, and just about everyone began erecting temples here, and the process continued for 250 years until it was trashed in a conquest from the north. Then Bagan was abandoned, like the town had died and everyone should leave. What's left today are are 2200 temples clustered at the edge of the Ayeyarwaddy river, and I think he my local guide wants to take me to every one.

There is a feeling around this place that, yes I'll say it, inspires awe. Now as a deep cynic, awe comes hard to me. It's easy to say, "Yeah, yeah, a long time ago a bunch of  zealots got it in their heads that they had to build lots of monuments to further their chances in the afterlife." But you spend a day here, climb to the top of one of these mammoth constructions, and look around at the thousands brick pinnacles, and awe enters your mind. Maybe it's just the heat.

Yesterday, about three o'clock in the afternoon, with the sunlight just starting to tilt to that dramatic sunset angle, I just started giggling. It's 113 degrees and I'm pedaling my one-speed bike down a dusty dirt road through the desert. I can't see any form of life in any direction for a mile, and I stop at a non-descript temple, hoping I can find the stairway to the top so  I can get a nice photograph of the last temple I visited 30 minutes ago, which is now glowing in the sunshine screaming in from the west.

This temple is completely abandoned, with the exception of the one remaining Buddha image in the back beconing me in. The rest of the place has been completely pillaged of all adornment, but I do find the dark, three-foot high entrance to the stairs and cautiously crawl up the steep steps to the roof and the wide open view of the desert and surrounding monuments. So this is what independant travelling is all about. Great feeling, average photograph, but awe nonetheless.

I don't know why one thousand years ago that this was the place the culture decided to undertake all this work. From paintings I saw at the new museum, Bagan was a thriving metropolis. This is the desert, and by my account, the middle of the middle of nowhere. Granted it's the end of the dry season, and the late afternoon dust storms make it seem completely inhospitible, but there must have been something.

The amount of sweat that went into building the temples is mind-boggling. some of them are two-hundred feet high, built brick by brick in the 11th century. And every brick was made by hand, every piece of sculpture, every sheet of gold leaf, all the tools, the scaffolding. It's just amazing.

I never really thought about it before my visit here, but finding myself inside a huge spire looking at a painting about the life of Buddha painted by monks seven-hundred years before the United States even existed. Another moment of awe. The same feeling is missing when you're at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City looking at an ancient sculpture in a glass case. 

I think I'm beginning to understand. Awe is good.


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© (1998) James Waldron Design --