Chapter III The Pagan Period: Burma's Classic Age - 11th To 14th Centuries

Part 2

C.  Architecture    

1. General Characteristics 

a. Major types of Buildings

The remains of a variety of building types are found at Pagan including stupas, temples, monasteries, ordination halls and libraries. 

Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship.  Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas such as the Myazedei that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines. 

Floor plan of Myazedei

Exterior View of Myazedei from South

Corridor within Myazedei

Also, there are temples that enshrine a small stupa instead of an image of the Buddha while numerous temples have a diminutive stupa atop their tower (shikhara) or towers.

Temple with stupa inside, general view  

Temple with stupa inside, detail

A third building type of which there are abundant examples is the monastery that can be either a one-room building or a vast complex of buildings.  Libraries and ordination halls appear to have been infrequently built but are also found among the structures at Pagan.

Domestic architecture, including the royal palace, was constructed of wood and consequently, has completely vanished. The only trace of these wooden buildings is the pattern of the post-holes that were dug to contain the supporting timbers.

The structures at Pagan vary greatly in scale from very small one-room structures to enormous temples with multiple floors and shrines that soar to 200 feet.  The eleven largest buildings at Pagan are all royal foundations that were built before 1300. Each contains within its mass more than fifty times as much material as the average temple or stupa. Therefore, the volume of these eleven buildings is equivalent to one quarter of the building activity during the Pagan Period.

b. Organization

Temples and stupas, even though adjacent to one another, were generally designed to stand alone as single buildings without planned relationships between one another. A boundary wall, thought be a protection against fire, surrounded the largest and most important buildings. 

These enclosing walls were usually square with an entrance in the middle of each side. The main buildings, at times raised on a platform, were located in the center of this large enclosure with smaller structures placed around them.

View of gatehouse and boundary wall, Htilominlo Temple

Massive boundary wall surrounding Htilominlo Temple 

c. Materials and Techniques

All Pagan structures were made of brick plastered with stucco except for three buildings that were made of stone or were faced with stone.

Nanpaya Temple, brick faced with stone

Nanpaya Temple, Cross section 

Nanpaya Temple, Elevation, side view

The bricks were kiln fired, regularly shaped and thinner but much larger that the standard western brickThe average brick measured 36 x 18 x 6 centimeters. It is known that many bricks were brought to Pagan by boat because the village of their origin is stamped on the brick and some  locations are known today. Many other bricks were produced at Pagan as indicated by large depressions along the banks of the Irrawaddy where clay was gathered for brick making. This craft is still practiced at Pagan at present.

Bricks were laid with great care, especially the outer bricks that were visible. The only mortar used was clay, at times with a considerable admixture of sand. 

Some of the best brickwork at Pagan occurs in the Dhammayangyi temple

 If more complex organic binders were used, as mentioned in inscriptions, they have now disappeared and do not appear in chemical analyses of mortar samples.  Interestingly, the high-quality mortar used as plaster on the exterior of the buildings was never employed as a binding agent for the masonry itself, even though this would have created a more lasting and stronger bond.

A remarkable technique used at Pagan for the construction of vaults and arches was the pointed arch created with voussoirs.

Pointed arch vault used for circumambulatory corridor

The extended use of this technique is only found in Pagan Period buildings (and some later Burmese copies) and sets the architecture of Pagan apart from contemporary monuments elsewhere in Southeast Asia as well as in India. Although probably originating in India, the technique was never widely used there and was never employed in  complex ways to span broad spaces as is found at Pagan.

The architects in Pagan used the vaulting technique quite differently than their counterparts in Europe.  Bricks used to create arches and vaults were specially shaped into a trapezium with its two longer sides splayed radially so that these bricks resembled a slice of pie with the tip cut off.  To form an arch, bricks were arranged vertically with the broadest, flat side towards the viewer – unlike the western technique where the thin edge of the brick is turned outward. The bricks would then be fitted tightly together to form a pointed arch and then mortared in place. Mortaring successive layers of brick voussoirs in front of one another created a pointed vault that could be put in place with few supports or scaffolding.

A pointed arch using voussoirs  

The Pagan architects were sophisticated in their use of this technology and systematically employed relieving arches. These were multiple, free standing arches that were set above one another in a wall to assure that the wall would hold, even if one of the arches failed.  Difficult features such as sloping vaults over staircases or voussoired flat arches were also successfully used.  In addition, the corbelled vault or arch was also appropriately used to span narrow openings as is seen in many monastery buildings. 

2. Stupas       

A.     a. Stupas - General Characteristics    

The typical form of the Pagan stupa was clearly derived from earlier examples found in India and Sri Lanka. Major differences between the earlier stupa prototypes and the later Pagan structures can be seen in their larger proportions as well as in the more pyramidal shape of the terraced base.  The dome remained the major architectural element in the Burmese stupa and was made more bell-like, developing a shoulder and a slight concavity at the base of the bell.

Modern copy of a wall painting of a Pagan Stupa

These changes constitute what became the classical model for the Burmese stupa that has a square base of several recessed terraces provided with a stairway on each side that leads up to one or two octagonal terraces upon which sits a circular bell-shaped dome that extends upward into a conical, ringed spire.  Although this model is thought to be typical for most Pagan Period stupas, it appears in only a few monuments of great size, such as the Shwezigon Stupa or the Mingalazedi. However, this is the stupa type that is most often copied during later periods, for example the Kuthawdaw Stupa built in Mandalay in 1857.

Kuthawdaw Stupa, Mandalay

Another stupa type rarely found at Pagan has a bulbous profile and dome that the Burmese see as gourd-like and is considered to be Pyu in origin.  The riverine Buhpaya or “Gourd Stupa” and the Ngakywenadaung are among the few extant examples.

Elevation Drawings of Four Pagan  Stupas:
b. Buhpaya 
c. Shwezigon
d. Mingalazedei

Buhpaya Stupa, general view from river bank

Buhpaya Stupa, pre 1975 view

A “bu” or gourd grown in Pagan   

The Ngakywenadaung  Stupa 


Exact copies of the cylindrical or columnar type of Pyu stupa as seen at Srikshetra are not readily found at Pagan. An exception, however, might be King Anawratha’s Lokanada Stupa that marks the southern extent of the ancient city. Unfortunately, it has been extensively repaired and reshaped(?) with the passage of time.  

Lokanada Stupa 

The crowning finial placed on all stupas, today, as well as during the Pagan period, is the metal hti (umbrella) or tiered sunshade that closely resembles the Burmese royal crown.

Metal hti atop Shwedagon Stupa, Rangoon

When stupas fell into disrepair, they are often encased by a later generation of devotees with a new, thick covering of brick and stucco.  The ruined remains of many stupas at Pagan reveal their earlier encasements that in form, size and detailing are often markedly different from the visible exterior. Therefore, the outer, visible surface of the stupa is not a reliable indication of the shape or decoration of the original  stupa.

Deposit boxes encased in Stupa

Detail of Deposit boxes encased in Stupa

The exteriors of both temples and stupas were embellished with similarly patterned carved and molded stucco decorations. Often a frieze consisting of demon masks (kirtthimukhas) disgorging strings of pearls and foliage was attached to the top of a temple wall and around the middle of the stupa bell. Plaster ornaments were also used to cover pilasters and to create the prominent moldings that appear around any opening on the outside or inside of a building.

Kirtthimukha frieze on exterior wall of Htilominlo Temple

Elaborate stucco above main entry to temple  


b. Stupas - Specific Examples

i. The Lokanada Stupa

The Lokananda Stupa is believed to have been built in 1059 by King Anawratha. It is located on a promontory above a small bay in the east bank of the Irrawaddy that probably served as a port for Pagan and marked the southern  extent of the city.  Today, the structure displays a columnar bell with vertical sides resting upon three octagonal terraces, two of which are connected by a short staircase. The exterior decoration or this stupa has been repeatedly refurbished and changed over time and has recently been encased in gilded metal plaques..

Lokananda Stupa, distant view 

ii. The Shwesandaw Stupa

The Shwesandaw stupa is popularly believed to have been built by King Anawratha at the symbolic center of his square Mandala plan for Pagan. It was built to enshrine the sacred hair relic (= Shwesandaw) that he had taken from the Bawbawgyi stupa in Srikshetra. This is the first stupa in Burma to have a pyramidal base of tall, steep terraces connected on each side by a medial stairway. Also, it is the first instance in Burmese history of a bell-shaped dome that has a concave profile instead of the convex or vertical profiles of the Pyu types. This bell-shaped dome with a flared base became an important part of the prototypic stupa that was replicated in Burma for the following nine hundred years. Important by its absence from this Burmese prototype is the cubical harmica box situated between the dome and the finial cone that is found elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Although the harmica is retained especially in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and is occasionally found at Pagan (e.g., the Sapada and the Pebingyaung stupas), it is not retained in the typical Burmese stupa.

The unusually steep elevation of the lower terraces, allows the visitor to view from the base of the dome the four stupas that mark the boundaries of Pagan. (The Lokananda Stupa is now obscured by vegetation.)

The outer face of the terraces were inset with glazed ceramic plaques that each in a single depiction represent one of the many past lives of Gautama Buddha, The Jataka Tales. The use of such plaques continued an Indian tradition and they decorate many later Burmese monuments of great size and importance.  

Distant View of Shwesandaw

View of Shwesandaw with gandhakuti shrine in foreground

Interestingly, the Shwesandaw is also known as the Mahapeinne, or Ganesha Stupa. So named for the Hindu God, Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva who as a protector - doorman removes obstacles from the path of those who wish to legitimately enter. It is probable that stone images of Ganesha originally guarded the stupa because broken images of Hindu Gods have been found scattered about its base. The four corners of the base were guarded by the earliest examples of manoukthiha, images of double-bodied lions made of brick and plaster, that continue in use till today to protect the foundations of Burmese stupas.

Remains of brick and plaster Manoukthiha located at corners of base

iii. The Shwezigon Stupa

The Shwezigon, a massive stupa built during the 11th century, has aptly been called the most 'national' of all Burma's pagodas.  It became the prototype for the form and decoration of subsequent Burmese stupas, has received constant devotional and financial support for a thousand years, and is a principal destination for pilgrims to Pagan.

Plan of the Shwezigon Compound 

Drawn elevation of Shwezigon Stupa

Aerial Plan of Shwezigon Stupa

General view of the stupa 

This solid stupa, which is 102 feet tall, was built to enshrine several sacred relics of the Buddha, including his collarbone, frontlet bone and a duplicate tooth relic brought from the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka.  Sandstone was used to construct, most, if not all, of this frequently repaired structure. King Anawrahta is credited with constructing the lower three terraces that comprise the square pyramidal base.  A staircase connects these terraces halfway along each side, and there are small stupas at the terrace corners.  The massive bell-shaped middle part of the stupa, completed by King Kyanzittha shortly after 1086, rises from an octagonal band above the three terraces.  The ringed cone as well as the lotus-bud finial surmounting the bell has frequently had to be replaced owing to earthquakes (e.g., after the earthquake of 1975) and general deterioration.  Inset in the lower brick terraces are over 500 stone or terracotta, green glazed plaques that illustrate in simple terms events from the previous lives of the Buddha (=Jataka stories).  This use of Jataka plaques as architectural ornament first occurred on stupas constructed by King Anawratha then continued throughout the Pagan and later periods. At the Southeast corner of the stupa is found an imposing double-bodied lion, the only remaining stone manoukthiha at Pagan. It is one of four that originally held guard at the four corners of the stupa’s base. A cult has recently developed around this image where devotees can be senn making offerings of flowers and food.

General view of Manoukthiha

Detail view of Manoukthiha

The stupa stands at center of a very large walled compound in which there are a wide variety of structures including several Nat shrines, rest houses and small temples.  

Buddha’s Footprints carved in stone in small shrine at foot of Stupa

Pagan Period temple within compound with unusual tower

View of small shrine (in background) for Father – Son Nats located at base of Shwezigon Stupa 

Father – Son nats inside shrine

Shrine of Broker Nat located behind Father-son nat shrine.

Shrine of Broker Nat located behind Father-son nat shrine.

Broker Nat (while shrine was under reconstruction) 


The Stupa could be approached from the Irrawaddy by the north gate. The primary east gate as well as the south gate have long covered walkways, regularly filled with vendors..

Eastern approach with covered walkway to right, main stupa in background and small inscription shed in foreground

Covered walkway, eastern approach 

The beginning of the infrequently used west gate is guarded at a distance by two stone lions, the oldest at Pagan and in fact, in Burma. This is the continuation of an Indian tradition of placing guardian lions, known in Burmese as chinthes, at the entrances to stupas - a tradition that continues until today.

Pagan Period Stone Lions at beginning of western approach

Pagan Period Stone Lion at beginning of western approach

In post Pagan Periods, gigantic guardian lions were erected in brick and stucco on either side of the entrances on the East, South and West sides of the compound.  On the north side, the chinthes appear along the stairway that leads up from the river landing, not adjacent to the entrance..

Gigantic post-Pagan Chinthes at West entrance

Gigantic Chinthe on right side of South entrance

Gigantic Chinthe on north side that marks the landing on the river  

At each of the four cardinal points round the base of the stupa, opposite the staircases, is a freestanding secondary shrine referred to as a “perfumed chamber” (gandhakuti) due to the aromatic incense offered there. In each of these shrines stands one of the four largest bronze Buddha images in Pagan, each towers nine feet above the kneeling devotee. These images are of interest, also, because they were created by hammering a thin sheet of bronze to form only the front half the image, although the visual effect is that they were cast-in-the-round.

Plan showing elevation of main stupa and one of four Gandhakuti shrines

Plan showing spatial relationship of main stupa and four Gandhakuti shrines

Main stupa and Gandhakuti shrine

Main stupa and profile view of east Gandhakuti shrine

Standing image seen through doorway to east Gandhakuti Shrine

Standing bronze image in Gandhakuti shrine

It was here at the Shwezigon, according the Glass Palace Chronicle compiled in 1829, that the Pagan kings placed images of the indigenous Nats so that those who came to pay their respects to the Nats would learn of Buddhism. As part of this arrangement a Buddhist deity known by several names,  Indra – Sakka –Thagyamin, was appointed as head of a new Pantheon of Thirty Seven selected Nats.  Today, images of the entire Nat Pantheon are housed in a Nat shrine located in the Southeast corner of the compound.  Only three of these wooden images are ancient: a Pagan Period image measuring 8 feet 8 inches has its own chamber in the east end of the shrine and is the earliest known image of Indra - Sakka - ThagyaMin. 

Image of Thagyamin, Shwezigon Stupa

Detail of Thagyamin image, Shwezigon Stupa  

Archaic images of the Animist brother- sister leaders of the Nats, Min Mahagiri and Shwemyethna, have also been placed within the shrine and consist of faces painted on gilded wooden planks. 

Click here to view the pictures of the brother-sister nats in the previous section. 
Click here to view the gilded wooden planks. 
Use your browser's Back button to return here.   

Most of the carved and molded stucco decoration on the Shweizigon, which became typical of Pagan stupas, has been replaced or restored.   

iv. The Mingalazedi Stupa

The last major edifice to be erected at Pagan , the Mingalazedi, is also perhaps the most visually satisfying in terms of pleasing proportions and fine details, such as the glazed Jataka plaques that ring its four lower terraces. King Narathihapati constructed it in 1284, a few years before the Mongol incursions that lead to the decline of Pagan.  Small stupas that appear at the corners of the stepped terraces have the form of the kalasa Pot and are covered with white glazed tiles decorated with a molded kirtthimukha frieze.  Atop the third terrace, there are four larger, conical stupas that together with the subsidiary corner stupas and the medial stairways enhance the majestic effect of the edifice that culminates in a tapering finial above the bell.

Elevation of Mingalazedi Stupa 

Eastern staircase, Mingalazedi Supa

White glazed ceramic plaques on secondary stupika, Mingalazedi Stupa

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