Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest of Bagan's temples and occupies a prominent place near Old Bagan and the famous Ananda Temple.
Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest of the pagodas in Bagan, rising up the equivalent of about 21 stories. And being close to both Ananda Temple and Old Bagan, it’s one of the easiest to visit.
Despite its prominence on the skyline and close proximity to the famous Ananda Temple and Old Bagan, there’s much about Thatbyinnyu Temple that remains a mystery. It’s believed to have been built during the 12th century, but there aren’t the tell-tale inscriptions of the type at many other pagodas that would confirm it. And much of the interior has been whitewashed, covering over most of the original paintings and frescoes.
From a distance, Thatbyinnyu Temple looks quite different to most of the other pagodas in Bagan. It’s taller, for one, but it’s also boxy. That boxiness isn’t just a result of aesthetic choices of its builders. A distinctive feature of Thatbyinnyu Temple is that it’s main Buddha isn’t facing the main entrance hall on the ground hall, as it is with the other major temples in Bagan. Instead, it’s up a flight of stairs in an upper story shrine. But if you were hoping to see it, you’re out of luck–access to the upper level has been closed for some time.1
The name, sometimes written as That Byin Nyu, is derived from Sabannu, or the “the Omniscient One,” referring to the Buddha.
The upper level is closed, so you can’t see the main shrine. And you can’t climb the outside to take advantage of the views from the extra height.
As with many Burmese names, it has been transliterated multiple ways. You’ll also see it written as That Byin Nyu
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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.