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Bagan, Myanmar – the process of becoming a UNESCO heritage site

Bagan

by Catherine Evans

Shock and disbelief best describe my reaction on learning from Khin, my site guide, that Bagan was not one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.

Instead, Myanmar’s only inscribed site to the prestigious list of Who’s Who in heritage and cultural is Pyu Ancient Cities. I hadn’t heard of Pyu until I looked on UNESCO’s list to verify Khin’s claim.

I discovered that the three Pyu ancient cities of Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra were brick, walled and moated centres that flourished along the Ayeyarwaddy River for over 1,000 years between 200 B.C and 900 A.D.1  None of these sites find their way onto many tourism itineraries and lack the draw of Bagan – another major archaeological centre of this nation. 

Bagan, the capital city of the first Myanmar Kingdom, encompasses nearly 3,000 Buddhist monuments (temples, stupas, monasteries and palaces) that were built between the 10th to 14th centuries AD. When I first came to Pagan (so named at that time) 30 years ago, this place left an inedible mark on my mind and soul.  I recall climbing steep steps to gain access to temple platforms high above the plains of Central Burma, and the morning sunrise over temples near and distant. As the light of day intensified, additional temples became visible, revealing what must be the greatest concentration of ancient Buddhist structures on the planet.  By foot, pony cart and bicycle – it was, and still is possible to temple crawl for days. 

My recent journey earlier this month, only heightened the sense of incredibleness of what lies on this arid plateau – beautiful and bountiful heritage attracting Myanmar pilgrims and international travelers alike to the tune of nearly ½ million annually.

There was Boulethi and Shwe San Daw Pagoda – attracting sunrise visitors. The glistening golden dome of Shwe-zi-gon (recently re-gilded) and the temple courtyard continue to inspire daily worship rituals.  Dhamma-yan-gyi, largest of all the temples in Bagan, built during the reign of King Narathu in the 12th century is imposing as ever. Su-la-mani and Thatbyinnyu Temple, are two architecturally impressive monuments built by King Narapatisithu in the 12th century in similar architectural fashion. The frescoes of Sulamani are no longer accessible due to damages sustained in the large earthquake of 1975, and then the subsequent powerful quake in August of last year but one can visit some of the 300 other temples that contain murals or frescoes detailing the religious history of the Kingdoms of the time. How could all of this not be of outstanding universal value?

Khin explained that past efforts were made to get the site listed in 1996, but were unsuccessful. Those applications had been submitted under General Than Shwe during the military junta’s rule when world-wide economic sanctions against the regime included funding for archaeology. And when UNESCO representatives complained about shoddy restoration efforts that had ruined original art or construction, they were ordered out of the country.  Efforts to restore and manage Bagan were left to untrained locals with some limited assistance from the neighbouring nations of India, Japan and China. Substandard modifications, ruined frescoes and new construction was evident at several of the temples I visited. Out of place best described the newly built 200-ft viewing tower complete with elevator and bar at the west end of the ancient city. 

I have subsequently been reading of the debates brewing between archaeological scholars, folks at UNESCO, and the Archaeology and National Museum Department of Bagan that suggest Bagan has or has not maintained authenticity, adequately protected or sufficiently managed this site. 

Quite a lot has changed in Myanmar since Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s and the National League for democracy took power in 2011. The Director-General of UNESCO returned to Bagan in August 2012, with a team of experts to launch a preservation and sustainable management plan. UNESCO Myanmar is now working alongside Bagan’s archaeological group to enhance their conservation and restoration skills and appears to be supporting the new government in its January 2017 bid to re-apply for World Heritage status. Renovation on the first group of 41 “priority monuments” is underway and expected to take around two years.

And while new controversy surrounds the expected management guidelines imposed by UNESCO, local and international stakeholders seem ecstatic with the changes.  I know I will celebrate once Bagan becomes inscribed.

*1 whc.unesco.org/en/list/1444

*2 http://aseanforum.asia/myanmar-tourism-numbers-all-time-high/

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Category: Asia