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

Part 3

3. Temples

a. Temples Types According to Floor Plan

Pagan temples may be divided into two basic types according to floor plan: one type has an open central sanctuary and the other has a solid core  that is ringed by a corridor. The two types, however, were at times combined in a single structure in which the solid core was hollowed out to create a sanctuary that was then encircled by a corridor.

An example of the first type, the most rudimentary temple, of which there are several hundred at Pagan, consists of a one storey square shrine that is typically entered from the east by a door which opens into a small vestibule area located directly in front of the primary cult image that sits against the west wall. The interior may be illuminated by light from the door or by windows in the north and south walls.  

Larger temples having a sanctuary were often built on a cruciform plan where the central shrine can be entered from all four sides. At times these temples have four Buddha images seated back to back at the center or a screen wall is erected inside against which the major cult image is placed.  Often, one of the four entrances is developed into a hall that may then open directly into the sanctuary.  

The second main type of temple has a solid core that is ringed by a fairly broad circumambulatory corridor that then serves as a continuous sanctuary.  These temples are most often square having a door in each wall with the major images placed in a niche facing each entrance.  These four images may represent by their differing iconography  the Four Great Events in the Buddha’s life – Birth, Enlightenment, First Sermon, Death – or four identical Buddhas may represent the four previous Buddhas of our era.  When a fifth Buddha, the future Buddha, Maitreya, is included, a pentagonal plan was devised by adding a fifth side with requisite door, image and niche while using the same structural devices as found in a quadrilateral temple.

There are some temples that combine both principal types and hence are almost always among the larger temples at Pagan.  These temples usually have a square central sanctuary lit by light shafts in the ceiling that is surrounded by a circumambulatory corridor with an entrance hall and porch on one side. Windows in the three outer walls illuminate the inner corridor.  The primary Buddha image in the central shrine faces the entrance, and numerous smaller images fill niches throughout the temple whether they are located in the shrine, in the corridor wall, or in the entrance hall.  Such is the floor plan of Nagayon Temple.

b. Materials and Techniques

Temple roofs were made of bricks that were laid in a slightly curved profile during the 11th and early 12th centuries but were flat thereafter. A stair-step pyramid of terraces, usually three, sits atop the roof and forms the base for the massive tower.  These towers were usually shaped like a circular stupa or were square with a curvilinear profile, a form referred to as a shikhara. These shikhara towers were also frequently crowned with a small stupa.  

The exterior decoration of almost all temples of Pagan consists of stucco applied to the brick surfaces and then sculpted. Any opening in a temple was bordered by elaborate stucco decorations that are most ornate around the main temple door. In temple interiors, particularly after the first quarter of the12th century, the stucco moldings are replaced by trompe l’oeil wall paintings. The base of the temple as well as the roof terraces in larger temples may be enhanced with glazed ceramic or stone Jataka plaques or other ornaments such as glazed tiles in the shape of lotus petals or leaves. 

c. The Evolution of the Pagan Temple

The precise evolution of Pagan architecture is difficult to establish.  Only a few buildings have retained their dedicatory inscriptions, so the founding date for the majority of buildings is unknown. 

Inscription stones from Pagan temples removed to protected location 

 A general dating, however, can be attempted by comparing the architectural details of the few dated structures with those of unknown date but this process is confounded because some features continued throughout the Pagan Period without change and other features that did change were later revived as a deliberate archaism. Also, the buildings did not develop from simplest to most complex because many of the early building were royal donations and as such were particularly elaborate and sophisticated. Small, simple temples were built throughout the entire period, but particularly during the thirteenth century.

A general evolution in three stages for the Pagan temple has been established, however, and involves a change from the early Mon style through a transitional stage to the fully developed Burmese style. 

The earliest temples at Pagan belong to the Mon phase of development and have the following features: a one storey structure with a dimly lit interior resulting from of the relatively small doorways, and windows that are screened with a stone or brick lattice. 

Nagayon Temple: Window with stone lattice

 Primary icons are lit by rays of light that are admitted from shafts cut through to the terraced roofs. Roofs slope downward rather than being flat as in the later temples. This temple type takes its name from the Mon language captions that identify the subjects of wall paintings that decorate the inner walls, not from their having been donated or built by members of the Mon ethnic group.

The Pagan temple changed with the slow evolution of upper floors. The Ananda Temple is transitional to the new type because even though it is structurally a single storey temple its external fenestration of two separate rows of windows located above one the other creates the appearance of two floors. Importantly, these windows do not employ the lattice-like screens of the earlier Mon temples. It is unknown what language was used to identify these wall paintings because they have been completely covered with white wash and only slight traces remain indicating their existence.

During the twelfth century, the Burmese type fully appears with the development of a true second floor.  Positioning a small shrine on the roof of the entrance hall was the first step in this development. This small shrine was situated in front of the main tower and above the central shrine.  As additional buildings were constructed, the small shrine was progressively enlarged and moved back under the tower to create a large, centered, second storey room capped by the main tower of the temple. This transformation was structurally possible because the first floor sanctuary was replaced with a solid core of masonry while retaining the first floor circumambulatory corridor.  The solid core on the first floor then served to support the second floor sanctuary including its considerable tower. Thus, a complete second storey developed that for structural reasons was always smaller than the ground floor.  Brick staircases were built into the thickness of the outer walls to allow access to the roof of the entrance hall and hence to the main sanctuary and the entire upper story.

Myinkaba Kubyaukgyi, Elevation drawing showing small shrine on roof 

Myinkaba Kubyaukgyi, Cross section showing small shrine on roof

Htilominlo Temple, Staircase built in thickness of outer brick wall 

Most of the large, two storey temples follow this plan with a solid core and a circumambulatory corridor on each floor.  Only a very few temples were built with three or four floors and, curiously, always appear to have only two floors when viewed from the exterior.

3. The Temple – Specific Examples

a. The Mon TempleType - The Nagayon temple - c.1090 AD

The Nagayon temple, built by King Kyanzittha about 1090 AD, is a good example of the Mon temple type.

Cross section of Nagayon Temple

Nagayon Temple, floor plan

Nagayon Temple, side view

Nagayon Temple, Entrance on North facade

Nagayon Temple,  South facade 

Nagayon Temple, central shrine with three Buddha images

Nagayon Temple, detail of central image –  Naga hood painted above with wooden naga heads

Nagayon Temple, detail of feet of central image – with Naga’s tail on wall   

Nagayon Temple, Standing image in dharmachakra mudra at right side of triad in main sanctuary    

It is a single storey structure consisting of an entrance hall and a square, central shrine that are connected by a circumambulatory corridor which passes in front of and completely surrounds the inner shrine.  The roof slopes upwards to three broad terraces that are surmounted by a convex shikhara tower, crowned by a stupa. Smaller shikharas and stupas stand on the terrace corners.  

The Nagayon, like other early temples at Pagan, has narrow window openings filled with a dense brick lattice that allows very little light to enter.  The temple or gu was dimly lit because it was meant to resemble a mountain cave where the religious might worship and meditate – a concept also found in India.  The central shrine contains a most unusual arrangement of three colossal images of the standing Buddha that are made not of sandstone but of brick and stucco; they are dramatically lit by a shafts of light entering through ducts in the roof terraces.  The use of Mon language, and not Burmese, for the captions below the wall paintings found in these early temples led G.H. Luce and other scholars to refer to this early temple type as “Mon” as distinct from the later “Burmese” type. 

The Nagayon is a testament to King Kyanzittha's love of glazed surfaces and sandstone.  The exterior sandstone garth as well as the floors of the interior have glazed stone paving while glazed decorative tiles outline each of the roof terraces. 

Nagayon Temple, Corridor with sandstone images lit with candles

Nagayon Temple, Sandstone images in corridor niche 

Also, there are 70 large sandstone images located in niches in the entrance hall and along both sides of the ambulatory corridor.  Below the exterior entablature is a Kirttimukha frieze of grotesque heads made of finely carved stucco.  A massive brick wall with impressive gatehouses that retain their original wooden beams encloses the whole temple compound. 

b. The Transitional Temple Type - The Ananda Temple - c. 1105 AD 

The Ananda, one of the largest and most imposing of the early Pagan temples is transitional between the Mon and the Burmese type. Built about 11l2 AD, it is the masterwork of King Kyanzittha. 

Though the Ananda is a single storey building, the external fenestration produces an illusion that there were two storeys because the inner corridor is so tall as to accommodate two windows one above the other.   Importantly, the two levels of superimposed windows in the exterior walls lack the lattice filling of earlier temples and thus more light is allowed into the interior. Window-like cross passages that cut through the interior walls between the corridors align with the windows in the exterior wall to provide well-modulated interior light into the innermost corridor. These cross passages also provide unexpected internal views through the temple. This feature marks the Ananda as transitional to the slightly later, well-lit Burmese temple type.  

Ananda Temple, Elevation of Facade

Ananda Temple, Cross section and floor plan  

Ananda Temple, Cross section with standing images and light shafts   

Ananda Temple, Cross section through first corridor 

Ananda Temple, Cross section through second corridor

Ananda Temple, General View 

Ananda Temple, View of entry hall, main building and tower with hti 

Ananda Temple, Central block, double windows with tower and hti

Ananda Temple, Shikhara Tower with stupa finial and hti

Ananda Temple, Recently gilded tower, stupa finial and hti

The cross-shaped plan centers on four shrines set back-to-back around a solid core.  Instead of the single inner sanctum of his earlier Nagayon temple, four tall niches have been cut into the central core. Each niche is occupied by a colossal wooden image of a Standing Buddha that measures over thirty feet in height. Two to the four images are original and are iconographically unique in world of Theravada Buddhist imagery.  These two images stand with their hands in the gesture of Turning the wheel of the Law or dharmachakra mudra.  Other than during the reign of King Kyansittha, this gesture is used to indicate the preaching of the first sermon for either Gautama Buddha or Maitreya Buddha but only while they are seated.

Ananda Temple, Outer Door Guardians with “trees  of life”

Ananda Temple, Outer Door Guardians, detail

Ananda Temple, Inner Door Guardian, general view 

Ananda Temple, Inner Door Guardian, detail 

 Each of the four colossal Buddhas face one of the four pillared entrance halls that form the arms of the Greek Cross plan.  The head of each standing Buddha is beautifully illuminated by a ray of light that shines down through a shaft from a small false shrine located above each entrance hall. At the feet of the Standing Buddha in the western alcove are life-size statues popularly believed to portray the temple’s founder, King Kyanzittha, and the Buddhist Primate of Pagan, Shin Arahan.   

Ananda Temple, Composite photo of the four colossal standing Buddhas – only the two in dharmachakra mudra are original images

Ananda Temple, Standing Buddha in North Shrine

Ananda Temple, Image of King Kyanzittha, West Shrine

Ananda Temple, Image of King Kyanzittha, detail

Ananda Temple, Image of Shin Arahan, West Shrine

Ananda Temple, Image of Shin Arahan, detail  

Two footprints of the Buddha (Buddhapada) carved into the top of a stone pedestal are located in the western entrance hall. Each footprint bears the traditional 108 auspicious marks as enumerated in the Pali commentaries, although they have become very faint today from being touched. 

The Ananda is the most all-encompassing storehouse of sacred images at Pagan.  There are approximately 1,500 images on the exterior of the temple and another 1,500 on the interior. The two circumambulatory corridors provide niches for well over 1,000 images on as many as seven levels above the floor.  Its treasures include: the four tallest standing Buddha images in Burma; on the exterior plinth, 554 green glazed terracotta plaques depicting the defeated army of the tempter Mara together with the victorious devas; lining the roof terraces are 912 glazed green terra-cotta Jataka plaques recounting, in a complex but precise, chronological arrangement, scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha; and, in the interior halls and corridors, there are niches for 1535 large sandstone images carved in high relief that illustrate events from the historical Buddha's life.  

Ananda Temple, Outer corridor

Ananda Temple, Niches with images in wall of outer corridor

Ananda Temple, Drawing of niches in corridor

Ananda Temple, The Great Tonsure, image in outer corridor

Ananda Temple, Traces of wall paintings under white wash


One set of 80 carvings located in the exterior wall of the outer corridor is the most extensive visual account in sculpture to be found anywhere in the Buddhist world of the events in Gautama Buddha’s life from conception through enlightenment.  This comprehensive visual account is based on a Pali text, the Nidanakatha narrative, and illustrates a number of events that are rarely depicted in Burma or elsewhere. Fortunately, these sculptures are among the finest found at Pagan and are among the best preserved.  Since the complete series is rarely illustrated and today the images have been crudely repaired, painted garish colors, are covered with dust, and can be seen only through a protective wire screen, a complete set of beautiful photographs from Duroiselle's 1913 survey is included here (see Bibliography at end of Part 4). These photographs were taken when the images were cleaned, unpainted and open for unobstructed view. 

A special set of these photographs is available by clicking here.  You will see an array of 80 thumbnail images, each with links to a medium-sized version (good for screen display) and a high-resolution version (good for printing at a size of 8" x 10"

The temple measures 160 meters in width and 172 feet in height. On the roof of the 33 feet tall main building, with its two sloping roofs, three terraces rise to a tall, square shikhara surmounted by a stupa capped by a hti.  Small stupas or diminutive replicas of the shikhara are placed at the corners of each of the roofs.  Double bodied lions, Manukthiha, guard each corner of the base and also appear at the corners of the roof terraces. Glazed ceramic plaques that depict all 550 Jatakas are inset in the roof terraces  

Ananda Temple, Roof terraces inset with Jataka plaques and guarded by nat figures and double-bodied lions 

Ananda Temple, Roof terraces with Jataka plaques

Ananda Temple, Glazed Jataka plaque with Mon writing

Ananda Temple, Guardian nat on roof terrace

Unfortunately, the plastered walls are today whitewashed both outside and in, thus completely covering the original wall paintings.  The enclosing compound wall with four massive gatehouses continues the symmetrical plan of the temple and is the only compound wall at Pagan with extensive decoration on its outer surface, in this case, 1,000 stupas in high relief.  

Ananda Temple, Compound wall with 1,000 stupas

Several buildings are located within the walled compound of the Ananda including a reconstructed temple interior that houses one of the finest crowned Buddha images from the Pagan Period. 

Wooden building with reconstructed shrine inside

Ananda Temple: Crowned Buddha image in reconstructed outer shrine

Crowned Buddha image in reconstructed shrine, detail


c. The Burmese Temple Type

i. The Thatbyinnu Temple 1150 - 1160 AD ?

Built late in the reign of King Alaungsithu, the Thatbyinnyu, is the most elaborate temple of the transitional period.  This enormous construction, the tallest at Pagan, soars to 201 feet in height and its square plan enclosing four floors is the most complex among the 3,320 structures at Pagan. 

General View of Thatbyinnu temple 

Cross section showing 4 floors, main sanctuary on second floor

Floor plans for four floors, Thatbyinnu Temple

In plan, two of the four floors are contained within each of two cubic masses; the smaller cube is set atop the larger..  Between the two cubic forms are three terraces. Each storey contains one or more square circumambulatory corridors forming a circuit within the building: the first, third, and fourth storeys have a single corridor, while the second storey has two concentric corridors.  On the third story is the main sanctuary, encircled by a single corridor.  The most important innovation at Thatbyinnyu was to place the principal image in this elevated sanctuary, rather than on the ground floor, as in all earlier temples at Pagan.  An entrance hall is located at ground level along with a corridor that leads to porches on the three other sides and is lit by windows extending to the ground. A grand, central staircase connecting the first two storeys is aligned with the building’s main axis and not located in the exterior walls as in earlier temples. The corridors on the second and fourth storeys are bare and whitewashed (although with faint traces of wall paintings) and have no pedestals or niches for images - a marked contrast to the nearby, but slightly earlier, Ananda temple.  It is likely that these two novel storeys are the result of an attempt to save building materials rather than to create additional space for any ritual or sacerdotal necessity.  In later buildings, such as the Htilominlo, the two extra storeys are enclosed and sealed within the structure.  The structure on the third storey is entered by a major, bridge-like staircase, which rises from the flat roof of the main entrance hall.  In the main sanctuary on this floor, the principal image seated in this wide central chamber is bathed in natural light, the tall windows extending to the floor are completely open. The brick or stone lattices have completely disappeared. Sets of stairs within the walls of the sanctuary lead to the fourth storey and then to the tiered roof.  Small bell shaped stupas on cube-shaped bases occupy the corners of the many receding roof terraces.  The temple is crowned by a relatively small, square shikhara terminating in a bell-shaped stupa, an arrangement that creates an explosive visual tension with the burgeoning cubic masses below. 

The limited use of plaster ornament on the exterior as well as the empty niches provided for Jataka plaques may indicate that the temple was never fully completed.  A rare feature located just southeast of the temple entrance is a pair of finely carved stone pillars once used to support a huge bell. 

 Slide: Thatbyinnu Temple, Stone Bell Pillars - to be added Spring 2003

ii. The Htilominlo Temple c. 1211 AD 

The Htilominlo is an excellent example of one of several late Pagan temple types.  It was built about 1211 by King Nantaungmya, known popularly as Htilominlo ('as the umbrella willed, so the king, he became'). The Htilominlo is a larger version of the Sulamani Temple built by his father, Narapatisithu, who reigned 1173-1210 AD.  Its outward appearance is similar to that of the Thatbyinnyu: two cubic masonry masses, one set atop the other, with an entrance hall projecting slightly towards the east. However, the temple differs in several significant ways.  Only the first and third storeys were designed to be accessible to the public: the second and fourth storeys were sealed within the mass of the temple.  Although completely empty today, the sealed corridors were originally filled with images and votive plaques, enabling the donors to make merit and simultaneously to increase the sanctity of the temple.  The main staircase does not follow a medial path as in the Thatbyinnu because this would have necessitated entering the closed second floor. Instead, the stairs to the upper floor are located within the width of the external walls as in earlier temples. 

Htilominlo Temple, distant view

Htilominlo Temple, Plan of 1st floor 

Htilominlo Temple,  Front or East facade

Htilominlo Temple, Exterior plasterwork

Htilominlo Temple, Glazed stone plaques inserted into stucco on outer wall   

Htilominlo Temple, Glazed plaque clearly showing stone plaque

A staircase with elaborate entryway connects the roof terraces below the shikhara tower  


A large image of the Buddha is situated on the ground floor, set against the central block at the back of a small shrine.  This image, although recently painted and restored, is one of the few extant and intact 12th-14th century images that is made of brick and stucco rather than sandstone and, even in its 'restored' state, conveys some of the grandeur of images made by this technique. 


Htilominlo Temple, Reconstructed brick and stucco image in major shrine on ground floor

Almost every brick-and-stucco image at Pagan has been destroyed by vandals in their attempts to obtain the contents of the small deposit boxes located in the throne, and behind the neck and navel. Much of this vandalism was carried out in ancient times when the Pagan area was a scene of military conflict and individuals were in search of relics to insert in new images and foundations..

Example of a vandalized image

The entrance hall of the main sanctuary on the upper ('third’) storey is reached by a bridge-like exterior stairway that reaches from the flat roof of the entrance hall to the second floor sanctuary and in form is similar to that used at the Thatbyinnyu.  The upper terraces slope more steeply, and the shikhara - albeit restored - is proportionately taller than in the Thatbyinnyu.  The stucco decoration on the exterior is among the most finely executed at Pagan and is highlighted with small green and yellow glazed ceramic plaques. 

d. The Hindu Temple Type

The Nathlaungkyaung is the only Hindu temple at Pagan and except for the exterior terrace (Mandapa dance platform?) that extends across the front of the temple and the Hindu images within, it is in plan, structure, and material identical to the early Mon temple type. Although the temple was dedicated to Vishnu and there are separate niches for each of his 10 avatars within, a large image of Shiva was found in the temple when it was cleared of debris.  The outer wall of this temple has completely collapsed so that today the inner wall of the circumambulatory corridor is exposed and appears as if it were the original exterior wall.  

Natlaungkyaung Temple with terrace in foreground

Natlaungkyaung Temple

Natlaungkyaung Temple, floorplan 



The monasteries at Pagan can be categorized into two major types: the most common type consists of a single, enclosed, two-storey brick building with a timber pavilion for preaching and assembly attached to one exterior wall; the second type is also made of brick and consists of many small, single-cell rooms that surround and open into a rectangular courtyard. Entry is through a hall at one end that is directly opposite the main shrine at the other.

The first type is usually found within the compounds of major temples or stupas. Interestingly, the main shrine is located outside in the center of the main façade of the building under the timber pavilion.  A central block containing a library - sacristry occupied the center of the first floor around which there was a circumambulatory corridor with doors opening to the timber pavilion and to the outside. The second floor was reached by stairs built into the thickness of a sidewall and usually consisted of a central room ringed by a hallway. A second staircase led to the flat terraced roof. 

The external pavilion, usually located on the east side of the building, was constructed of wood, and consequently, none have survived till today. These pavilions are clearly evidenced, hhowever, by their stone foundations and by the imprint their triple roofs left in the plaster facade of the brick monastery building.

Two storey brick Monastery with imprint of pavilion roof on facade and niche at ground level for major image

The second type of multi-cell monastery is quite similar to earlier monasteries built in India at Nalanda, Ratnagiri, and Mainamati and are referred to in Burma as kala kyaung or Indian monasteries. This monastery type often had two-storeys and the main shrine may be enhanced with a circumambulatory corridor.

Somingyi Monastery, View of shrine at end of rectangular courtyard

Or, the central courtyard was roofed over allowing access to the multiple cells through the corridor.

Slide: Monastery with open courtyard   UX 96

The extremely dry conditions at Pagan allowed for the “Indian” type of monastery to be dug out underground. A rectangular courtyard was cut directly into the soil and provided with a staircase connecting ground level and the bottom of the courtyard. Monk’s cells with connecting tunnels were then cut into the vertical walls of the open courtyard. At times a well was dug in the courtyard.

Slide:  Subterranean Monastery, Kyansittha Umin II - to be added Spring 2003

Large monastic complexes began to appear at Pagan after the 13th century that consisted of many separate buildings usually located within two concentric compound walls.  Within such a double enclosure may be a  temple, a stupa, a multiple-cell monastery building, an Indian brick monastery with timber "teaching" pavilion, a school, an ordination hall, hostels for students, a residence for a head monk, and an inscription shed.

Lemyethna Monastery, stones to hold posts of ordination hall on platform in foreground, temple in background 

Local children in remains of 11th century hostel

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