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Myanmar Architecture

This is the excerpt from the paper prepared by Department of Architecture , Rangoon Institute of Technology in co-operation with the Department of Archaeology , The Ministry of Culture and Finance in 1989.

Historical background
The early history of Bagan is clouded in obscurity although the chronicles relate that Bagan grew out of a coming together of nineteen villages. The most outstanding figure in the history of Bagan is undoubtedly Anawrahta (1044-1077) who unified the country politically and culturally. He conquered the Mon kingdom of Thaton in the south and brought back to Bagan not only the Pali scriptures of Theravada Buddhism but also the deposed king Manuha with an entourage of architects, artists, artisans and craftsmen. With the help of a Mon monk, Shin Arahan, he converted his people to Theravada Buddhism and set about building the awe-inspiring pagodas and temples which we still see today. His successors upheld this tradition for more than 290 years, covering an area of sixteen square miles with religious structures which number 2,217 in a recent list of the Department of Archaeology.

Types of structures
The inscriptions of Bagan mention on a great variety of structures which were erected -- congregation halls, ordination halls, libraries, monasteries and others. They were generally of timber or brick, occasionally of sandstone. The timber structures have disappeared and of those which remain a few are of sandstone and the great majority of brick. There are two basic types of structures, both of which are solid, massive gravity types. The two types are the pagoda (or solid stupa) and the temple.

The pagoda type of structure is a solid brick mass, almost pyramidal in silhouette but better defined, exquisitely articulated and meaningfully detailed. Normally, it is a bell-shaped dome placed on receding terraces with a finial crowning the dome. Out- standing pagodas in Pagan are the Bupaya Pebinkyaung, Lawkananda, Shwesandaw and the Ngakywenadaung. The Shwezigon is the most venerated and the Dhammayazika the largest.

The temple type is the most dominant type of religious architecture in Pagan. It is the temple that gives one the sensation of achievement in spatial concepts depicting space without light and light within space, moving one to a deeply emotional outlook or to an ultimate imagination. The architectural components are here clearly defined and articulated The corner is defined as a corner should be defined and is architecturally and visually strengthened. The main entrance and windows of the temple clearly indicate their purpose. The entrance arch-pediment which protrudes slightly from the vestibule gives one a feeling of definite transitional space extending an invitation to the mystic world within. In such other components as the window the window frame the still etc. are properly defined and each articulated and meaningfully decorated to give one a definition of the window as a whole. In the temple type of structure, there are two sub-types, one of which has a single entrance, with a main vestibule or hall and a central sanctum for the image. The other sub-type has four entrances all of them the same although in some exceptional temples there is a main entrance usually on the eastern side, with a larger vestibule than the other three entrances. Passages or corridors run around a central core on all four sides of which are vaults for images of the Buddha.

Functions of structures
The basic functions of the structures in Pagan are simple; the pagoda is a symbol for worship while the temple is mainly for worship and meditation.

The pagoda as a symbol of worship has a simple functional space either enclosed separately or combined with a link to the main pagoda. The massiveness, the details and the colour of the pagoda appeal to the eyes, while the tinkling of the bells moved by the breeze and the chirping of the birds appeal to the ears. One's eyes are drawn to the peak of the pagoda to the hti or umbrella there, and, with the aroma of burning incense, one finds the satisfaction of worship.

It can be entirely different with the temple where the most outstanding spatial concept is the balancing of light and darkness. The environmental space of Pagan itself is enclosed by the great numbers of temples and pagodas. In every direction one turns, there is a visual screen of pagodas and temples, large and small shielding one's view and the feeling of closeness is always there. Entering the temple, the transitional space in the vestibule reduces the space and the scale; there is a change of environment, characterized by a diminution of heat and light and the intimacy of decorative elements. As one approaches the sanctum one is captivated by a feeling of awe which soon quickens into piety.

The temple with a single entrance is mainly for meditation, and the spatial concept befits that function. There are dark corridors,. perforated windows and elaborate frescos depicting the Jatakas; there is peace and quietness here. For the casual visitor walking through the corridors, there is excitement, no more. But the balancing of light and darkness has a deeper meaning for meditation. As one enters the corridors from the vestibule, one is struck by blindness and overwhelmed by the sense of being lost. Only as one settles down, slowly by slowly emerge the cloudy visibility of the definition of space, the walls, the windows, followed later by the frescos, the colours, and the meaning of all these, and one is taken into a trance of meditation.

Building materials
The materials used in the structures are mainly brick, of varying size (usually 18" x 9" x 2") and strength (compressive strength from 700 lbs./sq.in. to 3,000 lbs./sq.in.). Sandstone is used for strengthening in most of the temples and in some of the massive pagodas like the Shwezigon and Shwesandaw. Also large-sized timber (12" x 24") is used for lintels and doors. Plaster mouldings are used extensively on the exterior of structures while the interior is normally plastered for fresco work. The basic materials for plaster are sand and lime, together with other organic materials such as hide boiled down to a consistency. Metal is used, although not extensively, bronze and iron being used for hardware and for strengthening certain portions, especially the finial.

Structural framing system
The structural framing system is very simple, but nevertheless is of interest, especially in the temples.

The structural framing system in the pagodas consists of a systematically framed outer wall of brick, strengthened with sandstone at intervals, and a central hard core consolidated with brickbats and earth. Since the form is pyramidal or conical and takes up the gravity line, the structural framing system is very stable. The exterior is plastered for waterproofing and decorated with plaster mouldings.

The most interesting structural framing system is seen in the temples, which have perfect vaulting and pointed radiating arches with voussoired bricks of multiple tiers, sometimes strengthened with sandstone of brick size and topped off at the apex with a sandstone slab. The walls are usually thick, four to eight feet in depth, and the outer brick wall is systematically laid, sometimes so evenly laid that a pin could not be thrust between the layers of brick.

The most intriguing feature in the structural framing of a multi-storey temple is the staggering of vaults to achieve a reduction in weight, materials and labour. In most of the massive structures like the Thatbyinnyu, Gawdawpalin, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani and Htilominlo, there are numerous hidden vaulted corridors to reduce weight, material and labour. This feature has been confirmed by geophysical sounding at the Sulamani temple and the recently discovered hidden corridor at the topmost level of the Gawdawpalin.

In the finer constructed buildings, the arches, vaults and walls are strengthened with sandstone brick and slabs, and the core is always consolidated with brickbats, earth and organic matter. To give more stability to the structure, the vestibules act as buttresses on all four sides.

The pointed arch
The origin of the pointed radiating arch, whose use is a striking feature of Bagan architecture, has been a controversial matter. The pointed arch was not used in India and China, where civilization was more advanced than in Myanmar and where other framing systems, such as the semi-circular arch, were used. After a careful analysis of framing systems, it seems that the pointed arch was conceived independently in the lower part of Myanmar -- e.g. the Bebe and Lemyethna temples at Sriksetra -- and improved on in Bagan.

The construction technology of a semi-circular arch is much more difficult than that of a pointed arch, and the architects of Bagan, accidentally discovering that the pointed arch is much more stronger, adopted the pointed arch. This is the greatest technological achievement in Bagan architecture, although wider spans were not successful, as evident in the tightness of space in the Manuha Temple.
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