If you approached me at a party or coffee shop and casually asked what was the overriding impression of my recent trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma), I would say without a doubt. The Pagodas.
So exotic. So prolific. So remote. So unlike my Midwestern experience.
Gold. Gold. And more Gold. Cone shaped. Decorated. Shining along the river banks. Rising over the cities. Lit up dramatically at night. Almost hidden behind trees. Truly Myanmar is a land of thousands of Pagodas. Actually I read that a half a million fill the Southeast Asian country. I believe it.
Fascinating. My first clue that they would dominate the landscape was flying into Mandalay from Bangkok. As we slowly swooped down to the runway, I looked out the window and saw the golden cones dotting the landscape. Here. There. Over there. Right below. Next to that village. In the middle of the village. Along the river. In the middle of a field.
What flashed through my mind were views of flying into midwestern towns and seeing all the red barns and patchwork fields. There seemed to be as many pagodas as we have barns. Maybe more.
I soon learned that the word pagoda in Myanmar is a term to label the religious structure, typically cone shaped and covered in gold. Some times they are white. Sometimes they are decorated and sometimes left unadorned.
A pagoda can take two forms and often both forms are sometimes found together in the same compound. A temple is a building that you can go into and a stupa is a solid structure. Stupas contain relics of the Buddha or copies of relics. Temples are gathering places, contain statues of Buddha and other alters and components of religious life. Both are referred to as Pagodas.
Some are very large and famous like the Pagodas in Yangon or Mandalay or Bagan. Typically a Temple is guarded by lions—sometimes really big ones.
Others are smaller and we saw by the hundreds along the Ayeyarwady River.
Why so many? Historically the kings supported religion in Burma and this meant building glorious pagodas. But every day people do too. Building a stupa is a way to “earn merit” the Buddhist religion, paving the way for a better life the next go round.
The statues of Buddhas in side or near the temples were captivating. Mesmerizing.
The Buddhists cover the Buddhas with gold leaf. Only men can do this and over time the Buddhas have become deformed, so much gold leaf has been applied. Women aren’t allowed to venture into the inner sanctum.
The Burmese cover the domes of the Pagodas with gold leaf as well. After learning this from our guide, my husband calculated that one of the larger Pagodas we visited would cost five million dollars to cover with gold leaf and it needed to be done every five years. Interesting to me that religion is so important that the people spend their money on gold leaf, not necessities of life.
I found seeing the people gathering at the Pagodas a fascinating look at the culture in Myanmar. They socialized. They gave alms. Families and friends gathered to attend Festivals and to meditate.
They visited temples like tourists. They cooked meals. They took pictures of each other. And they took pictures of us….yes, I was asked to pose….being such novelty in some of the places we visited. They lit candles in honor of the Buddha. They chanted.
The Pagodas are truly the center of religious and community life. Images of them will be with me forever.
For more about Myanmar, click here for a previous post.
The professional and well thought out arrangements for our travel was made through Belmond (formerly Orient Express).