One side of the Ananda’s central structure measures 175 feet/53 metres. The roof above the central structure comprises five in circumference successively diminishing terraces, each one building up on the previous larger one. Out of the innermost, smallest and highest terrace rises the ‘Sikhara’. This is a 25 layer beehive-like superstructure topped by the golden stupa, which in turn is capped by a ‘Hti taw’ as the upper umbrella of a temple or pagoda is called in Burmese.
The temple’s Sikhara has five in vertical sequence arranged windows and reaches a total height of 168 feet/51 metres above ground. The four smaller structures rising from and above the four corners are small pagodas and down-scaled copies of the main sikhara. The overall design serves the purpose of creating the ragged shape of the Himalayans.
Caused by the heavy earthquake in 1975 the graceful temple sustained severe damage. However, it was relatively quick repaired and the Ananda is still Bagan’s most beautiful and best preserved temple.
The Ananda was built by king Kyanzittha, who is also known as Thiluin Man or ‘Soldier Lord’. He ruled the kingdom of Pagan for 28 years from 1084 A.D. to1112/13 A.D. and lead the capital Pagan into what has become known as the ‘Era Of Temple Builder’. Since he was a deeply religious man he carried the building of religious monuments to a whole new level what developed Pagan into what was called the ‘City of Four Million Pagodas’. But this is not all; under Kyanzittha’s rule Pagan also prospered greatly in economic and cultural terms. This he achieved thanks to the highly skilled Mon people brought to Pagan by his father king Anawrahta after the victory over the Mon at Thaton.
According to legend king Kyanzittha developed the idea to build this temple inspired by the stories of eight Indian monks who told him that they had lived in the ‘Nanda Mula Cave Temple’, a legendary temple in the equally legendary Shandamadana mountain what is actually the Nanda Devi mountain in the western Himalayas (Sanskrit for ‘abode of snow’).
The construction of the Ananda Temple was completed in 1091 A.D. This set at the same time an end to the life of its very able architect who was executed by king Kyanzittha himself in order to avoid the temple’s duplication.
Entering the Ananda’s main structure through its western entrance there are two footprints of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. They are mounted on pedestals and each of them is as prescribed in the old scriptures divided in 108 parts. In the sanctum behind them are two images depicting king Kyanzittha and his ‘Ga nar par mouk kha’ (primate/arch bishop) Shin Arahan, the Mon pongyi who converted King Anawrahta to Theravada Buddhism.
Shin Arahan died in 1115 A.D. at the age of 81 after having served four kings, namely Anawrahta (who ruled from 1044 to 1077), Sawlu (who ruled from 1077 to 1084), Kyanzittha (who ruled from 1084 to 1112/13) and Alaungsithu (who ruled from 1112/13 to 1167). Behind the two statues is the huge statue of Gautama Buddha who, indirectly though, might be connected to the temple’s name.
The inner passageways are lined from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with rows of niches containing seated and standing Buddha images. The Buddha statues in the lower niches are protected from being damaged or stolen by metal grids.
Outside on ground level at the temple’s corners are ‘Chinthes’ and ‘Manokthihas’ (mythical creatures half-lion half-man that are like nats symbolic of guardians. Their heads and torsos are human and their hindquarters are that of a lion.) Up at the corners of the main sikhara and terraces are statues of nats. Wherever one goes in Burma it does not take long and one sees them; they are important guardians and therefore worshipped by everyone and omnipresent; at home on alters, in nat houses on balconies, in gardens, in trees, in temples and pagodas.
The Ananda Temple is a corridor temple. Its proportions are of exceptional harmony built on the architectural concept of a so-called ‘Greek cross’ of which all four arms are of equal length with a centre dome.
The lower floor of the temple is a chessboard patterned maze of passageways that divides the ground floor into 84 fields that are symmetrically arranged around the centre. The antechamber/vestibule of the western main entrance is one end of the two axes that constitute the centre cross with each of its ends pointing at one of the four cardinal points. The antechamber or porch has on the left and right side an entrance. If one draws a line connecting the two entrances the line divides the vestibule in two equal halves.
The next passageway is the outer corridor that is running parallel to the four sides of the inner structure, thereby forming a square as does the next corridor that forms the inner square of the two.
The inner passageway is running along the four sides of the centre cube with its four niches pointing in direction of the four cardinal points. Each of these niches is housing a huge teak Buddha statue. Entering the Ananda from west and looking straight down the corridor into the temple’s inner part one sees the lower part of a pair of legs and feet. That are the legs and feet of the statue of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (c 563 to c 483 BC), which is facing west. Gautama Buddha is the 28th Buddha in a long line that is shrouded in the mist of myth and legend beginning with Tanhankara the 1st Buddha.
In the niche to the east is a statue of Konagamana, the 26th Buddha, in the one to the north Kakusanda, the 25th Buddha and the one to the south Kassapa, the 27th Buddha. The present statues are all made of wood. There are people who say that Kassapa (south) is made of bronze. This is not true because only the original was. This copy here is carved out of teak. The statues of Kakusanda and Kassapa are said to be the original statues whereas those of Gautama and Konagamana are later copies. The originals were destroyed; Kassapa most likely by alchemists. As for Konagamana some say by a fire ignited by a careless worshipper’s candle or oil lamp others say by temple robbers. The fact remains that new statues had to be made.
The statue of Gautama Buddha has a height of 28.5 feet/9.5 metres. All of the four Buddha statues are of almost the same height and depict the respective Buddha in a standing posture but with two different cape styles as well as different arm positions and hand gestures. These different symbolic postures/gestures and ways of positioning legs, feet, arms, hands and fingers are called ‘mudras’ what is Sanskrit and means ‘sign’ or ‘token’.
To protect the Ananda the architect put according to king Kyanzittha’s instructions, outside the temple eight nat images and a total of one hundred forty eight crested chinthes’. These statues are guarding the entrances, the corners of the base and terraces/roofs as well as the sikhara of this temple.
The corridor walls and the upper terraces are lined with one thousand four hundred fifty tiles. At the base are about four hundred of them. They are depicting scenes from the ‘Jatakas’. The name Jataka has its roots in the Sanskrit word for ‘birth’ or ‘born under’. They include all of the stories of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s different existences before he became ‘Buddha’, the ‘Enlightened one’. The early canon of Buddhism, the ‘Tipitaka’ (Pali for ‘Three Baskets’), comprises a total of five hundred forty seven such stories. These Jatakas that also contain references to the earlier Buddhas and Gautama Buddha’s teachings on mental discipline and morality are used to instruct about moral virtues and the law of ‘Karma’ (Sanskrit for ‘action’). Karma is ‘ones actions and their effect on this and/or future lives’. The story is depicted here at the Ananda Temple very detailed in a series of 80 most skilfully carved tiles. It takes real masters to create something as beautiful as this. These ones are not as usual Terracotta tiles but carved from volcanic stones from Mt. Popa. They are arranged in two tiers and can be seen on the lower part of the outer passageway of the Ananda Temple.
Apart from the fact that the Ananda temple is one of Burma’s main Buddhist pilgrimage sites that is throughout the year of considerable importance to Buddhists (as well as foreign visitors) the certainly most important time is the Burmese month of Pyatho (December/January) when the Ananda Temple Festival takes place. Other pagodas and temples too have festivals and most of them are celebrated during the dry season but the biggest of all is the Ananda festival. This year (2015) the festival is celebrated from the 4th of January to the 19th of January and the festival’s high-time is on the day before the full moon day, at the full moon day and the day after the full moon. Its zenith is an impressive morning procession in the temple’s courtyard on the full-moon day of Patho. This annually held festival is a particularly large, colourful, entertaining and joyous affair and an event not to be missed when being in Bagan.
The main reasons for the festival are to worship Gautama Buddha, celebrate the founding of the Ananda Temple, commemorate important events in its history such as its consecration and collect donations for the funding of repair and maintenance of the temple buildings.
One of the interesting aspects of this festival are perhaps the caravans of bullock-carts with people that come from all over the country to sell their products, celebrate here and make donations; the former being most probably more important to them. The travelling shop owners and their families live here in encampments as long as the festival lasts. Afterwards they move on to the next pagoda festival or return home.