The Ananda temple seen from a rare angle

 

By Hpone Thant 

Photos: Sonny Nyein

When visitors come to Bagan they marvel at the magnificent architecture of the ancient pagodas, the intricacy of the stucco work and the mural paintings they see on the walls. However, no one remembers that these magnificent structures they admire or the walls that provided the spaces for the painters are made of  bricks.  But bricks are so ordinary: what could possibly be so interesting about them? Many notice only the difference in size between the bricks from the Bagan era and contemporary bricks and others think that bricks are just basic building materials. Beg to differ: look closely at the bricks of Bagan and we can hear what they are saying.

The bricks were not only building materials, they were also used as sculpting mediums. They  were cut into shapes, such as large Buddha images or the body might be of brick while the face is of stone. In some instances bricks were used to form the embossed portion of an Image on a wall, creating a figure in relief. Many ornamental  statues in front of the religious buildings such as lions were first made with bricks and then covered with stucco.  Bricks allow us to visualize the scenes of the early days of Bagan. In fact they are telling us about the history of Bagan, its greatness and rich culture.

The popular belief is that Bagan became a parched land because trees were cut down to bake the bricks and construct the pagodas that we see today. The immense Dhamayazika pagoda at Bagan is estimated to have needed about six million bricks. To compare, one academic calculated that 7000 workers produced around 2 million bricks per day at the rate of 300 bricks per worker when the Mingun Pagoda near Sagaing was being constructed.
    According to the inventory of the Archaeological Department there are over 2000 pagodas in Bagan that are under its care. But the locals believe that there were more than 4000 stupas, temples and pagodas at Bagan when it was at the apex of its power-There is a local rhyme "the creaks of the oxcarts' axles" which if put into numerical notation equals the number of pagodas at Bagan. Even now the phrase "Big Red Brick Temples" is used to note the number of remaining stupas and pagodas (more than 2000) under the Department's care. Various bricks have been found in Bagan.
Some bear traces of dried paddy stalks, some contain more sand then others. Some were made only of mud. There are many with letters imprinted on them, names of  villages or names of the donors. Some of these places, presumably  where the bricks were produced,  still  exist today.

 
 


 

 

The Dhammayangyi Pagoda (left) is the most massive brick structure in Bagan

The Pyathatgyi Pagoda (above) showing the double arch of bricks

 

Bricks are used to sculpt the form of the
leograph in front of the Shwezigon Pagoda

 
 

A brick plinth for a
a Buddha Statue

A piece of brick sculpture found in Bagan
during excavations
.

 
 

 

 

 

Bricks are still produced in age-old methods.
Bricks being sun-dried before baking

 

Thus we can see that the bricks were not all baked at Bagan. The  regions that were under the rule of the Bagan  had to send in their quota of bricks to the capital.  Bricks with traces of  paddy stalks might be from places where paddy was cultivated, or bricks that seem a little sandy might be from  inland villages and bricks that contain more clay might be from a town on the shores of a river or a lake.
 Just imagine the activities that accompanied the sending of these bricks to Bagan ! The Lord of the town would be resplendent in his ceremonial clothes. His retinue  in their finery, would  be there. Maybe the Lord was on his elephant. Musicians would be playing their hearts out: for was it not a great honour to be commanded by the King to send bricks to build pagodas and participate in this opportunity to earn merit? Such good fortune for a small town to be recognized by the royal court in this way!
Also visualize the scene at the construction site. There would be stone masons, and  brick layers. Undoubtedly there would be court officials to oversee the works.  Stalls selling  refreshments would be at a discreet distance .

What about the umbrella hoisting ceremony when the pagoda is finished? It would be both a joyful and religious time.
The King and his court would be there for a grand parade - first the monks, then the King on top of his  elephant and his Queen beside him and nobles following. At the edge of the festival ground there would be stage plays and other entertainments  as well as stalls selling native products.    These huge red bricks temples  that dot the Myanmar landscape, be it at Bagan or Mandalay or elsewhere,  are testimonies to the deep religious belief of the Myanmar people: a piece of baked earth transformed into a symbol of merit. So when you visit Myanmar please not only look at the ancient pagodas and temples but try to hear what the ancient bricks are telling you.   

Hpone Thant is a regular contributor to Enchanting Myanmar and other publications, both local and international and writes mainly on nature, culture and traditions of the country. He can be reached at: harry@swiftwinds.com.mm


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