In depth: Temple architecture in Myanmar

The Burmese landscape is scattered with dazzling pagodas, shrines and stupas – a legacy of the country’s Buddhist merit-making traditions. Read on to learn about its origins and the different architectural styles found throughout the country...
Buddhist devotees pray at the full moon festival, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Photo: Shutterstock
Buddhist devotees pray at the full moon festival, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Photo: Shutterstock

Buddhist devotees pray at the full moon festival, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Photo: Shutterstock

Myanmar possesses a singularly wide range of Buddhist architectural styles, a result of the eclectic nature of Burmese Theravada Buddhism, which incorporates elements from a range of sources. In times past the dominant Bamar people have borrowed cultural traditions and traits from other groups such as the Mon and the Rakhine. The country’s religious and cultural traditions have also been influenced by conquests abroad and in other parts of what is now Myanmar. From the conquest of the Mon Kingdom of Thaton in the 10th century, through the long occupation of Lan Na in what is now Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand (1564–1774) through to the destruction of the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, it was common practice for skilled artisans and religious scholars to be taken back to enrich and embellish the Burmese court of the time.


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Buddhist builders

The wide diversity of temple styles in Myanmar is also a consequence of the oft-repeated habit of new rulers of moving the royal court. New temples and religious edifices would then be built to compliment and serve the new palace and royal court, a process that encouraged a constant updating of religious architecture. 

The sheer number of Buddhist structures scattered throughout the country leaves a lasting impression on visitors. Many are of exquisite beauty – most famously at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Experience the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda as part of a tailor-made trip to Myanmar. Their ubiquity is a result of the seemingly endless desire of all Burmese to build temples, shrines and, above all, stupas. In spiritual terms, this has everything to do with merit-making, the possibility of an improved rebirth and compensation for transgressions committed in the present life. Raising funds to build payas (pagodas) of any sort also brings the sponsor respect and status in the current life, and leaves a fitting memorial for the family to be proud of after the builder has passed on to the next life.


Stupa styles

The most common religious structure seen throughout Myanmar is the stupa (zedi). There are numerous variations in stupa style, but the basic concept and structure remain the same.

The stupa in its present form evolved more than 2,500 years ago in India following the death of Gautama Buddha, when relics of the Enlightened One were taken by his disciples and enshrined within solid structures, usually made of brick and covered in stucco. Stupas are found everywhere in Myanmar, marking passes, raised mounds and hilltops, and sacred places of all kinds. Most commonly, they are found as the centrepiece of temples, typically set upon a raised terrace surrounded by subsidiary shrines (tazaung), with perhaps a monastery (kyaung) attached. Stupas play a big part in one of the most iconic scenes in Myanmar: the plains around Bagan are filled with stupas that pierce the dense layer of otherworldly smoke-like dust at sunset. Take a hot-air balloon ride over this incredible scene with a tailor-made trip to Myanmar.  

Generally speaking, most Burmese stupas consist of  a bell-shaped dome (anda), symbolizing an upturned monk’s alm’s bowl (thabeik), set upon a base comprising a mix of square and octagonal terraces. Above the dome, the stupa narrows to a tall spire supported by concentric rings shaped like lotus petals, rising to a so-called “banana bud”.

At the top of the spire rests the hti, or umbrella (usually gilded and bejewelled) near the top of which is attached a metal, flag-like vane. The topmost part of the hti is surmounted by an orb, symbolising enlightenment, release from the cycle of rebirth and the attainment of nirvana. 


The words of Norman Lewis

"The special sanctity of the Shwedagon arises from the fact that it is the only pagoda recognised as enshrining relics not only of Gautama, but of the three Buddhas preceding him. Those of the Master consist of eight hairs, four of them original… and four others, miraculous reproductions generated from them in the course of their journey from India. These, according to the account… flew up, when the casket… was opened, to a height of seven palm trees. They emitted rays of variegated hues, which caused the dumb to speak, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. Later, a rain of jewels fell, covering the earth to knee’s depth.” – Golden Earth (1952).


Temple and monastery buildings

Typically, a Burmese monastery forms the spiritual centre of the village or district in which it may stand. Traditionally, it functions as a place of worship for monks and lay people alike, as well as a school, social centre and even a hospital.

Temples tend to be built around stupas, but include other buildings such as a thein or consecrated assembly hall for the ordination of novices, a vihara where the faithful assemble to pray and listen to sermons, living quarters for resident and itinerant monks, a library and a bell tower or gong.

The central stupa is often surrounded by several smaller shrines which may house Buddha images, or equally may be dedicated to the local nat spirit or bo bo gyi. Sometimes there is also a zayat, a hall where lay people may rest by day or sleep overnight during pilgrimages and festivals. Visit Mahagandayon, one of Myanmar's most impressive and popular monasteries, located in Mandalay, as part of Insight Guides' Myanmar Discovery trip

The temples around Bagan. Photo: Shutterstock


Pyu

The oldest surviving remains of religious buildings in Myanmar date from the pre-Bamar Pyu Kingdoms of Beikthano, Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra) and Halin (approximately 3rd to 10th centuries). Brick-built structures at Beikthano, to the southeast of Bagan, which have been dated to between the 1st and the 5th centuries AD, are clearly based on Indian prototypes. Add a stop at Beikthano to any of Insight Guides' Myanmar trips. The Beikthano Monastery complex is said by experts to be similar to that of Nagarajunakonda in South India and is believed to date from the 2nd century. Later structures at Thayekhittaya, also known as Sri Ksetra, near Pyay, have been dated to the 5th and the 9th centuries and include three bulbous stupas evincing clear Indian influence.

Also attributed to the Pyu, stupa-like brick structures at Halin, a short distance southeast of Shwebo, are thought to date from between the 9th and 11th centuries. Skeletons excavated here are aligned to the southeast, commonly considered the direction of the locality spirit or ein-saung nat, indicating that the religious beliefs of these early Burmese were probably as much animistic as Buddhist.


Mon

Well established in and around Mon State and the Ayeyarwady Delta by the 6th to 9th centuries, the Mon were the amongst the earliest people on the east side of the Bay of Bengal to embrace Buddhism. The early Mon kingdom centred on Thaton, which according to legend was visited by Buddhist missionaries of the Indian Emperor Ashoka as early as 300 BC.

Today, little of ancient Thaton remains apart from sections of a ruined city wall. Even less remains at another former Mon capital, Bilin, just south of the famous balancing boulder of Kyaikto. Take a cruise up the Ayeyarway River and discover this lesser-visited area of Myanmar, with Insight Guides' Myanmar Highlights trip.  

Over the past millennium, the Mon have been substantially absorbed by the dominant Bamar, leaving little evidence of distinct architectural styles.It seems clear, however, that Mon traditions were not destroyed, but rather embraced with enthusiasm by Anawrahta when he conquered Thaton in 1057. The victorious Bamar monarch took back to his capital at Bagan not just the Mon king, but most of his court, including architects, painters and artisans. The style of temple which emerged at Bagan was therefore as much Mon as Bamar, and may be described as the first authentically “Burmese” tradition.


Bagan

Had Bagan been known to classical European antiquity, it would doubtless have been famous as one of the Wonders of the World. In its prime, the city would have bustled with tens of thousands of people, and the greater part of the buildings would have been made of wood and bamboo. These structures have long since disappeared, however, leaving behind the immensity of Bagan’s stone-built Buddhist architectural heritage. 

The Bagan plain is studded with a plethora of temples and stupas, constructed mainly of brick and decorated with stucco on the outside, and mural paintings within. See them for yourself with Insight Guides' Mesmerising Myanmar trip. Archaeologists often distinguish between the earlier, one-storey temples dating from the 10th to 12th centuries, which are sometimes ascribed to the Mon craftsmen of King Anawrahta. Many have Mon inscriptions, and they are distinguished by being smaller and darker than the later temples.

Another common feature of Bagan temples is the Indian-style pahto, or “hollow” temple, unlike most Burmese temples in that it substitutes a solid stupa for a cuboid pagoda with interior shrines, built over one storey or (in later examples) over two, with an Indian-style spire atop. 

Clear evidence exists that the building of temples was considered an act of merit-making during the Bagan era just as it is now, and that their construction was not limited to the great and the powerful. Bricks were donated by kilns in surrounding villages, and sometimes these were stamped with a village name. When finished, the temples were decorated on the inside with elaborate murals, generally featuring Jataka Buddha life-cycle stories.


The spell of the pagodas

The beauty of Myanmar’s pagodas casts a spell over visitors that is hard to break. Ralph Fitch, the first Englishman to visit this part of Asia (in 1586) and leave a record of his impressions, described the golden temple of Shwedagon as “the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world”. 

And Somerset Maugham on first seeing Bagan wrote: “A light rain was falling and the sky was dark with heavy clouds when I reached Bagan. In the distance I saw the pagodas for which it is renowned. They loomed, huge, remote and mysterious, out of the mist of the early morning like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream” The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930).


Rakhine

Isolated from the rest of the country by the coastal Rakhine hills, and enjoying good seaway communications with neighbouring Bengal, Rakhine – formerly known as Arakan – was an independent kingdom until its conquest by King Bodawpaya in the 18th century. Rakhine’s architecture is singularly distinct from that of the rest of Myanmar, inspired by the temples of Bengal and Bihar, across the Bay of Bengal in India, rather than by the nearby but generally inaccessible Burmese heartlands.It was in Mrauk U, the former capital of Rakhine, that this particular architectural style reached its apogee, with its uniquely fortress-like temples enclosed by massive walls, pierced by narrow corridors and passages often elaborately decorated with painted murals and carvings. Historians suggest that Mrauk U’s temples often functioned as places of safe refuge during times of war (which were frequent, in that kingdom’s turbulent history). 

Three Buddhist novices at Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Photo: Shutterstock


Amarapura and Mingun

Amarapura, the “City of Immortality”, was founded by King Bodawpaya in 1783 and remained the capital of Burma until 1857, with a hiatus between 1823 and 1841, when the city of Inwa (Ava) was briefly re-established. A visit to the Amarapura township is included in Insight Guides' Myanmar In-Depth trip.

The religious architecture of Amarapura is essentially a continuation of the Avan tradition. Marble was increasingly used in temple construction, and the period is also marked by the extravagant use of stucco in temple decoration, notably at the elaborate Nagayon shrine. Various Chinese and European architectural influences became apparent perhaps for the first time in Burmese history. Murals surviving on the walls of the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda (completed in 1847) are particularly interesting, providing the visitor with some vivid examples of mid-19th-century wooden monastic architecture.

Although never a Burmese royal capital, the city of Mingun, on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River about 11km (7 miles) upstream from Mandalay, was singled out by King Bodawpaya (1782–1819) as the site of the huge Mantara Gyi (Mingun) Pagoda. Work was started in 1816, but Bodawpaya died before the project was completed, coming to a halt when the stupa was a “mere” 50 metres (160ft) tall, one-third of the height intended. It was subsequently damaged in the earthquake of 1838.


Mandalay

The last royal capital of Burma, Mandalay was established by King Mindon in 1857. The architectural style adopted by Mindon was in direct continuation with the Ava-Amarapura tradition, but if anything it was even more elaborate than the latter. Richly ornamented in stucco and marble, temples also benefited from a wealth of elaborate and highly skilled woodcarving, much of which has survived. Explore Mandalay with Insight Guides' Myanmar Discovery trip


Refined Inwa (Ava)

Ava – officially named Inwa – functioned as the centre of the Shan Kingdom in the 14th to 16th centuries before becoming capital of Burma during the 17th and 18th centuries. As with Bagan, many religious and secular buildings were made of wood, but, unlike Bagan, in Ava a few wooden pagodas have survived, most notably the Bagaya kyaung, though in its present form this dates from the early 20th century. During its infancy, the religious architecture of Ava was distinguished by the use of stucco decoration, the refined elegance of its stupas – by now less bulbous and more tapering – as well as very elaborate pyat-that or multi-roofed pavilions.


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