Dating back to the 12th century, Dhammayangyi Temple is the largest temple in Bagan. Just mind the bats!
Dating back to the 12th century, Dhammayangyi Temple is the largest temple in Bagan. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most impressive. It was never fully finished, and it hasn’t received the same restoration attention as many of the other large temples (which might be a good thing, depending on your perspective). Its tower is partially in ruins, and what remains looks much like a pyramid.
It shares many similarities with the more famous–and much more visited–Ananda Temple. Like the Ananda Temple, the base of Dhammayan-Gyi is shaped like a giant cross, with four entrance halls, each facing a cardinal direction and each of equal size. Inside, two concentric rings run around the core, but for some reason the innermost chambers were permanently sealed up from the beginning–archeologists aren’t sure why–so you can only access some of the interior.
One of the pillars of the temple features an inscription that dates to 1165 or 1166 which records the donations a princess made on her mother’s behalf. It wasn’t some simple cash donation–it includes female singer and dancer slaves, gardens, paddy fields, and cattle. There are a few other inscriptions throughout that date to the early 13th century.
Over the subsequent centuries, some paintings were added to the walls. They’re in various states of disrepair now and aren’t as ornate as some you’ll find in other temples. But the red brick work is worth looking closely at–it’s especially good and renowned for the fine precision in how the bricks fit together without any visible mortar. The oft-repeated claim is that the masons were instructed to build it so that a pin could not pass between any two bricks. You’ll also find a reclining Buddha partially covered with tabs of gold leaf, a distinctive pair of Buddha statues, and in one corner of the compound are the ruins of a two-story monastery.
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Very few of the temples, pagodas, or stupas in the Bagan Archeological Zone have any information about them on site. And with literally thousands of sites to choose from, it's handy to go armed with information on what to see and where to start--especially for independent travelers without a guide.
If you're looking for something that goes beyond the patchy information in the standard guide books, I've found these to be good:
Approach Guides, 2017
With maps, diagrams, and pictures, it's pitched as a "travel guidebook for the ultra curious." It offers detailed profiles of 21 of the major sites. It's an especially good option if you traveling with a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone and don't want to take up any space in your luggage or deal with the extra weight of a hard copy.
Bangkok: River Books, 2013
Written by a former professor of Art History who has authored many books on Indian and Burmese art, this book offers authoritative and detailed information on not just the architecture and art of the temples of Bagan but also the history of the region. It focuses on 33 of the major sites. Its photos by Michael Freeman are a standout feature. It's only available in paperback.
Yangon: Tanintaye Sarpay, 2011
Ma Thanegi is a Burmese writer and journalist. The book doesn't offer the level of detail of the other two and is harder to find in the West, but it still offers useful summaries of a number of the major sites. It's available in paperback only (when you can find it).
Rangoon: Ministry of Union Culture, 2nd rev. ed. 1963
This is a guide compiled under the auspices of the Burmese government in the mid-1950s and early-1960s. Despite being quite outdated, it has its own value with background on a number of pagodas and temples as well as fascinating historical photos of how the monuments looked in the middle of 20th century--sometimes quite different to how they appear today after being renovated. It's long out of print and hard to find, but I've scanned it and posted it here.
Maps: When you get to Bagan, there are good local maps available for free at the hotels that show many of the major sites.