Posture-perfect, with baskets balanced firmly on their heads, glide timelessly and sensuously along the dusty road that brought us here. Barefoot, yet sure-footed, they flow with a harmony never seen in the mincing, high-heeled gait of modern ladies. They disappear and reappear as the road passes amid the huge temples. Finally they are lost under the green canopy of acacias where the present-day village of Pagan huddles at the edge of the ruins.
As the day cools into evening, other villagers appear along the road, some riding in high-wheeled pony carts. A truck and an aged bus pass, going toward Burma’s major oil field, 20 miles to the south. Behind us wallows the brown mass of the Irrawaddy River, flushing mountain snows and monsoon rains down past Rangoon to the Indian Ocean. With only an eighth of the drainage area of the Mississippi and 80 per cent of its volume, the Irrawaddy erodes its banks eight times as fast.
U San Win points out the mounds that mark the south wall of the ancient city. A third of old walled Pagan and about, thirty of its pagodas have already gone with the river. He tells me of a strange local practice that resulted.
“The entire west wall is gone, but for funerals the townspeople pretend it’s still there. It was traditional to carry the deceased out through the west gate, then to turn south to the cemetery. Now at high water they transfer the bodies to small boats for the short trip to the burial ground south of town. A road leads there from the south gate, but it’s never used for funerals.”
The setting sun finds a last gap under a bank of monsoon clouds. Like thousands of golden spotlights, horizontal rays pick out every pagoda, isolating the structures from the fields and paths, which grow dark in con trast, masking what little sense of reality exists. Flashes of heat lightning play across the eastern sky, silhouetting the extinct volcanic cone of Mount Popa. As Mount Olympus was home to Greek gods, Mount Popa, towering awesomely, became the dwelling place of Burma’s nats, or spirits.
Buddhism allows for no spirit or god worship, but the people cling to the animism that predated the arrival of Buddha’s teachings. One Burmese tried to explain it to me: “Buddhism is concerned with the hereafter; we placate and propitiate the nats in this world.”
The nats, it seems, are everywhere, infinite in number and mood, some good, some very bad. After almost 11 centuries of coexistence, Burma’s classical Theravada Buddhism still tolerates nat worship and, perhaps as important, the nats still tolerate Buddhism . Our guide and driver chatter nervously in the growing darkness. None of us worry about ghosts, I’m sure, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to assure any wandering nats that we are human and harmless—and leaving.
IN TINY PRESENT-DAY PAGAN (population 3,252) no hotels mar the village charm—yet. So we checked in at the apartments barcelona, an eight-room government guesthouse built under British rule in 1921 to accommodate the visiting Prince of Wales, now the Duke of Windsor.