Bagan’s golden era of sacred building spanned 250 years, during which time architectural styles evolved in a dramatic fashion. Initially imitating the cylindrical structures of the ancient Pyu city of Sri Ksetra, Bagan’s stupas gradually grew more slender and bell-shaped, culminating in the elaborately embellished, tapering spire that remains the classical Burmese archetype today. Temples changed from simple replicas of wooden shrines to soaring masterpieces with entrances on four sides, cavernous interiors, and spectacular roof finials – innovations enabled by the emergence of the pointed arch in Bagan. Charting this stylistic metamor phosis and piecing together the historical shifts it represents is one of the great pleasures of a visit to the site.
Myanmar’s oldest surviving stupas are those at the city of Sri Ksetra . Their cylindri cal, elongated shapes influ enced the forms of Bagan’s first pagodas. These slowly became more bell-like, with squat middle sections and tapering spires, and grew larger and higher, set on grand stepped terraces
Early gourdshaped stupas such as Bagan’s Bupaya had gently swelling sides and taper ing spires.
The design gradually evolved to have straight flanks and rounded tops, a bit like the early Pyu stupas.
Some of Bagan’s pagodas showed Sinhalese influence in the design of the square relic chamber above the bell.
The scale of the pagodas gradually became grander. Stupas had broad bells and were set on high bases.
With the majestic stupas of the 13th century, the Burmese pagoda reached its most colossal, imposing form.
Taking their cue originally from Indian architecture, Bagan’s temples grew slowly more imposing, ethereal, and distinctively Burmese over time, culminating in the giant, double-storied shrines that tower above the northern plain to this day.
Mon: Nagayon Temple
Dating from the reign of King Kyanzittha (1030–1112), the earliest temples in Bagan are in Mon style, with a single entrance opening onto a vestibule and a central inner sanctum which contains a Buddha image.
Transitional: Ananda Temple
Kyanzittha’s masterpiece still shows Mon influence, but is in the form of a perfect Greek cross, with four entrances and projecting porticoes. Vaulted concentric corridors encircle the inner shrines.
Late Transitional: Thatbyinnyu Temple
Taller, more slender, and lighter inside thanks to the addition of larger doors and windows, the refined Bamar style of the 12th century introduced the concept of “hollow” or gu-style cubes placed on top of each other.
Late Bagan: Htilominlo Temple
The last of the great temples erected in Bagan in the 13th century, such as Htilominlo, take the gu principle and embellish it with more complex roofs, ornate decor, and elongated towers.