Two Types of Temples

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A vast plain of temples some 800 to 1,000 years old lies down the Irrawaddy River south of Mandalay. The plain covers 16 square miles and includes more than 2,000 temples. This is Bagan, the most important archeological site in the country of Myanmar (Burma). 

In 1287, Kublai Khan and his Moguls invaded and broke up the Burmese kingdom, which had one stretched from India to the Mekong River, and for several hundred years, the jungle grew and reclaimed the stupas and temples. In 1975, an earthquake toppled half of the 4,400 temples that had remained, leaving them in a sorry state of disrepair.  

Then, discovering that the site was important archeologically, the military government began to clear farmers from the area in 1993, and today tourists are pilgrims to the once important center of Buddhist studies.  

Intricate carvings on
Vishnu's Temple
Lord Shiva with his trident

Some of the temples are massive in size, rising 50, 60 or more feet. The interior and exterior stairs are steep and narrow, but the views from the tops of these structures are spectacular -- even in rain, as we mostly saw them. Many of the stupas, with various spindle shapes, once were covered with gold.  

Some temples still shelter giant figures of Buddha, others have traces of frescoes that decorated the walls and ceilings. Precisely located windows provide cross ventilation to keep the cave-like interiors cool. On the exteriors, there are some remnants of stucco that once gave the red brick buildings a glorious skin of religious significance.  

Very few of the temples look as they once did. Instead, this setting resembles a chess game with the rooks and bishops, knights and pawns abandoned by players who went out for tea. Because the restoration efforts have been less than delicate, and because a golf course and tower-like hotel have been built on the site with the government's blessing, Bagan does not have UNESCO's designation as a World Heritage Site. But it is in its way a mystical place, full of haunting images.


In another setting, this time in Khajuraho, India, is a group of temples that are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. These tall and stylized temples are  beautifully restored to its 10th Century grandeur of northern Indian architecture, carved of sandstone rich in minerals that allow them to endure through time. 

Famous for their depiction of the Kamasutra or manual of erotic love that show 84 sexual positions, the temples are among the most famous inIndia. All of the parts were constructed on the ground and fitted together without mortar. Each temple sits on a platform and each follows a pattern of entry way, vestibule, hall and inner sanctum. Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi are the gods honored here, and their images are found in the innermost and dark interior rooms.  

Built by Chandella family of kings, whose symbol is the lion, the temples and the kingdom were abandoned when the Moguls invaded. A British engineer rediscovered the tree-covered edifices in 1858. While few in number, these temples are wonderfully imposing with soaring spires and fabulous carvings, surrounded by well-kept gardens and lawns that set off their intricacies.