2015
06.29

LIQUOR

 

Final day in Bagan.  Some reflections about the overall impressions of the archaeological zone.  And about liquor and sweets made from palm trees.

Sitting at one of the temples in Bagan overlooking a site where up to the far horizon you can see nothing but fields dotted with an endless array of temples will likely rank among the most lasting impressions I will take home from Myanmar.  It is simply awesome.  The few times I had, early in the morning or late at night or a few minutes here and there, when the sun shone over these red brick structures I just wanted to freeze the moment and forever remember the glow of these colors and the serenity of this landscape.  There is no site in the world quite like this.

The architectural importance of these temples is widely recognized.  The sculptural program overall is limited and the interior statues often have been replaced.  Quite interesting are geometric motifs and gnome-like faces that line the terraces of the temples,  But I was very impressed with some of the interior fresco paintings, which came as a surprise to me.

In the west we have churches like Giotto’s Arena Chapel or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel from the Renaissance period or the breathtaking Baroque ceilings by Pozzo, just for starters.  In India I have seen amazing monastic cave sites like Ajanta from the 5th Century and from Ancient Rome, and there is of course, Pompeii.  Each of these sites is famous the world over for interior fresco decorations going back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Why is it that Myanmar’s frescoes do not have the same status in world recognition?

Is it that we do not have masters such as Giotto or Michelangelo associated with them?  In fact, many of the frescoes I saw seem to have been made by local artisans rather than world-class masters. I would perhaps even classify some of these paintings as folk art.  But some of them are magnificent!

Or is it the fact that Myanmar and in particular Bagan is an earthquake zone?  The earthquake history of the region, ongoing into very recent times, is frightening.  Many ancient temples have been destroyed, much of the stucco work and the paintings have been irreparably lost.

Is it because many of these paintings exist and have existed literally in the dark rather than in the limelight?   This art was never there to impress anyone.  In many cases, the frescoes are hidden in dark aisles and on high ceilings, sparsely illuminated by small perforated brick windows. The purpose of these images was to gain merit for the patron, not to display artistic prowess or pride.

Or could it be due to the fact that overall the frescoes are derivative?  So many times I would think of Indian paintings, the famous flanking Bodhisattvas in one of the Ajanta caves in particular.  Clearly, there was an Indian influence.  In Bagan, the master artists from elsewhere were copied.  You can not find immediately apparent artistic inventions in Bagan other than the love for never-ending multiplications.  Other times, the art seemed an offshoot imported from Thailand, even Cambodia and China.

Or is it finally, that we evaluate this art by a western measuring stick?  Under such scrutiny it falls short in various aspects.  In its own right however, it has and must have had a huge impact.  Both the maker of the art and the patron must have been convinced of gaining substantial amounts of karma by executing the art and observers must have felt the spiritual power behind it. Perhaps in turn, they were encouraged to express their own spirituality in similar ways?  Perhaps, these paintings were just educational tools and enlightened the observers visually.

In many of the most beautiful caves photography is forbidden.  The images are kept completely in the dark, which renders most attempts of photography useless anyhow.  If you don’t bring your own flashlight, you will hardly see anything.  Strong artificial light would be necessary to fully display their splendor.  That is not happening.   But let’s not forget that this darkness is their original state!  How did the people back then appreciate this art?  Did anyone ever come to just look?  Did they come with torches?  I can only imagine what the flicker of torches would have done to some of the giant Buddhas, dragons, elephants, horses, angels, demons, thousands of small and large votive and guardian figures or the multiple registers of stories displaying the life of the Buddha past and present.  There are more questions than answers, as always.

Even after three days, I saw fewer than 20 temples.  I could have stopped at a lot more, but then this visit easily could have turned into a race, and that did not feel right.  I can understand the people who come back to Bagan again and again.  I can’t imagine I would ever tire of this site.

 

If I would casually ask what grows on palm trees, the answer would likely be coconuts.  For me, it took a trip to Egypt  to realize that dates also grow on palm trees.  And I had no idea until now that a lot more can grow on a variety of palm trees.  The Bagan area is known for a type that grows coconut-like round objects with a large pit on the male tree and tamarind-like long seed capsules on the female  tree.  A couple of days ago I made a stop at a roadside stall where both alcohol and candy were produced from those male and female palm trees, respectively.

The charming young man who explained the process spoke such a mumbled English — many Burmese have the habit of swallowing half the sounds of an English word leaving more than half of what they are saying to guesswork —  that I am not sure I could follow the details of the process.  I certainly did not catch the name of the tree.  But from what I observed, I gathered that the juice of the fruit is distilled in a long and painfully slow process — at one station large woks were hooked up to a pipe that produced the alcohol drop by drop.  The original juice is sweet and pleasant tasting.  The finished product…  Well, let’s say that I am not in a hurry to give up a good beer or red wine at any time soon.  It did not taste good, but it was powerful.  40 percent, the man claimed.

The sweets on the other hand, are extracted from the female plant by pounding its fruit and then cooking the mass into a sweet sap.  That in turn, after lots of stirring and heating, eventually crystallizes.  You then can mix it with coconut shards, tamarind, ginger or anything you want to experiment with, or just roll it into plain balls by themselves.  These little candies are delicious!   If they had not sold them in way too large packages, I would have brought home a sampling.

No day goes by where I don’t learn a little tidbit of something.  And every day with just one new thought, idea, or insight is a very good day.

This was another good day but now it is time to say good night.