Known as the valley of 2,000 pagodas, the ancient city of Bagan is the highlight of any visit to Myanmar.
Located on the vast plains of Upper Myanmar on the bend of the Ayeyarawaddy, its beauty stems not just from its gilded pagodas and stone temples but its murals. And the frescos at one temple alone – the Sulamani – are worth a second and even third trip to Bagan.
“Sulamani means a small ruby,” says Naung Naung, my tour guide in Bagan, as we walk through the point-arched gateway. “The temple itself was built around 1181 by King Narapatisithu of Bagan.”
With its lush grounds, Sulamani Temple is one of the most-visited historical sites in old Bagan. Vendors line the approach to the temple, which combines the massive forms of the early Bagan period with the vertical lines of the middle period.
“The brickwork throughout the Sulamani is regarded as some of the best stonemasonry in Bagan,” says the guide.
“The building pretty much survived the 1975 earthquake, except for the gilded top that crashed to the ground.”
This is my second trip to Sulamani Temple.
Last year, I travelled in a small horse-drawn carriage across the dusty Bagan valley to the “small ruby” of Narapatisithu. Back then, I was stunned by the massive form and the height of Sulamani. I sat down under the tree and gazed at the majestic stupa without bothering to move inside.
On my second trip, I am tempted into the interior to see what one local intellectual describes as a “Siamese link” with the monastery. Tin Tin Aye – a member of the conservation group Bagan Heritage Trust – earlier told me about the Siamese influences on at least one of the frescoes and she showed me a photo of the mural painting, which shows the Lord Buddha seating under the hood of Naga, the serpent. The mural, Tin Tin Aye is convinced, is more Siamese than Burmese and now that I’m here, I cannot wait to see the fresco in question.
“There&’s much to see inside. Be patient, we will get to the piece that interests you the most,” says Naung Naung with a smile.
The Sulamani is erected on a rectangular base with Buddha images facing the four directions from the ground floor.
The interior passage and hallways are barely illuminated by the light coming in through the windows and porches. The base is covered with frescoes dating back to the 12th Century.
From the main entrance on the east, we stroll anticlockwise.
Reclining and seated Buddhas, finely decorated elephants, characters holding lotus flowers, and other scenes depicting the Lord Buddha cover the walls.
The corridors are narrow and there&’s not much light – enough to admire the beauty and harmony of the wall paintings but inadequate to take good photos. Still, I can’t help but be mesmerised by these images of such unexpected beauty.
“The frescoes here were painted in the 12th and 18th centuries,” says Naung Naung. “The earlier works are damaged and faded due to the sunlight.
When it comes to damage, he adds, unwise restoration by man has been much worse than that done by nature. The early frescoes were restored in the 18th Century. The artists repainted the faded mural in more vivid colours. Some original postures were repainted to make them, perhaps, politically correct. The painting of the monks around the Lord Buddha, for example, were reproduced from sitting upright to leaning towards Lord Buddha.
“The artists in the 18th century rubbed out the original painting by covering it with white plaster before recreating new figures,” says Naung Naung. “Ironically, if you look closer you will be able to retrace and figure out the original painting, which is way more beautiful.”
At the gallery in the Northern corridor we finally find what we’re looking for.
The Myanmar guide positions his flashlight on the wall to reveal a scene typical of praying. Villagers – both men and women – are seated together and leaning into the Lord Buddha. To be honest, the bare-chested men look good with their old-fashioned hairstyles. The women, with beautiful curvy lines and many small details, are way slimmer than the native girls of Bagan. And the portrait of Lord Buddha itself is very different from the Buddhas we saw earlier in the Eastern corridor. This mural painting emphasises the flame on top of Buddha&’s head, which is very common in the Buddha images found in Thailand. In Bagan tradition, the Buddha usually wears a topknot.
“We believe they’re Siamese. They’re Thai,” says the Myanmar guide.
I want to believe it too. With its sharp lines and paint strokes, the fresco reminds me of the mural paintings in Thailand&’s temples. It will have to remain a supposition though. We don’t have academic support.
Nuang Naung and the Trust&’s Tin Tin Aye believe that the Burmese might have been influenced by Siamese art. They point to the Burmese sackings of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1569 and 1767, when artists were most likely among the Siamese taken hostage in what is today&’s Myanmar. Ayutthaya art, they say, might well have played a part in the restoration of Sulamani Temple in the 18th Century.
Next to the “praying scene” is a sizeable portrait of the Buddha seated under the hood of the mystical serpent known as the Naga. The guide suggests that this portrait was also influenced by Siamese art.
But whether they are or not, I am fascinated by these images of such unexpected beauty. The interior face of the wall was once lined with 100 monastic cells, a feature unique among Bagan&’s ancient monasteries.
In the Western corridor we find a painting of finely decorated elephants. Then another painting, of men, their heads covered with white scarves, arms raised as if to ask for attention.
“Who are these people?” I ask, gesturing to the men.
“They’re ministers giving advice to the king in the royal court,” the guide replies.
Politicians – I should have guessed. They always demand attention.
CHECK IT OUT
Taking a cruise from Mandalay to Bagan is recommended – especially in the winter when the banks of the Ayeyarawaddy River are dramatically beautiful.