The monuments seem to overwhelm the landscape. There are about 2,000 of them covering an area of 16 square miles on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady in central Myanmar. They are in different sizes and in a bewildering variety of shapes. They are also in varying stages of preservation and disrepair. Some of them throb with life, visited by devotees, a few have become little more than piles of bricks.
To find an answer to questions such as these one has to travel back in time, to a time when Bagan flourished as a royal city, the heart of a great kingdom.
Tradition has it that Bagan was founded by Thamoddarit in the early 2nd century. But perhaps it would be better to date the Bagan of the monuments from its establishment as a walled city, with twelve gates and a moat, by King Pyinbya in 849. The chronicles give a list of kings who reigned at Bagan from Thamoddarit onwards, with Pyinbya as the 34th king. But legend is inextricably mingled with history, and sometimes overshadow it, in the accounts of the kings in the chronicles, and it is only with the 42nd king in the list, Anawrahta, that Bagan emerges into the clear light of history.
The two and a half centuries from Anawahta's( 1044-1077) accession to the throne in 1044 to the flight of Narathihapate (1256-1287) from the capital in 1283 in the face of the Mongol invasion were the years of Bagan's greatness. The kingdom stretched from Bhamo in the north and far down to the south, from the Thanlwin river in the east to the Western Yoma in the west. Bagan was known as Tattadesa, the Parched Land, to the Mons, and not much rice was grown in the environs of the capital itself. But the royal city could draw upon the rich rice granaries of Kyaukse, 90 miles to the northeast, and Minbu, 70 miles to the south. The Ayeyarwady river linked it to the sea and to the commerce of the Indian Ocean. There was much intercourse with neighbouring countries. Support was given to King Vijaya Bahu I (105 9-1114) of Sri Lanka to sustain him in his struggle against the Chola of southern India to help him re-establish a purified Buddhism. Missions were sent to the northern Song capital of Kaifeng. Repairs were made to the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in northern India.
Perhaps more salient than all these indications of economic well-being and political power was the fact that Buddhism flourished exceedingly in Bagan. Tradition, basing itself upon the Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahavamsa, attributes the origins of Buddhism in Myanmar to the mission of Sona and Uttara who, in the 3rd century B.C., came to Suvannabhumi, usually identified with That on, on the Gulf of Mottama. Some modern scholars dispute this point. But even if tradition is to be ignored, there can be no denying that Buddhism was already flourishing in Myanmar in the 1st century A.D., as attested by the archaeological evidence at Peikthanomyo (Vishnu City), 90 miles southeast of Bagan. Buddhism was also an invigorating influence at Thayekhittaya, near modern Pyaymyo 160 miles south of Bagan, where a developed civilization flourished from the 5th to the 9th century.
Notwithstanding the fact that Buddhism had enjoyed a long history in Myanmar before the 11th century, the reign of Anawrahta provided a landmark in the development of Buddhism in Myanmar. Anawrahta was a king of strong religious zeal as well as one of great power. His clay votive tablets, made to acquire merit, are found widely in Myanmar from Katha in the north to Twante in the south. These votive tablets usually have, on the obverse, a seated image of the Buddha in the earth-touching attitude, with two lines underneath which express the essence of the Buddhist creed: