By Regina Sharpe
It’s the beginning of January and I’ve just disembarked from a bus to Bagan – a journey that took roughly 9 hours from Yangon. This is the land of pagodas, with their number reaching the upper ends of 2,200, and I’m about to visit one of the most renowned pagodas in town for a festival. At an average of 26 degrees Celsius, the weather is at the coolest point of the year, perfect for long days of exploration in the sun without the hindrance of a hot afternoon.I’m here to witness the Ananda Pagoda Festival, a month-long celebration held in tandem with the full moon day of Pyatho, the tenth month in the Myanmar calendar. The festivities run specifically from the 8th waxing day to the 8th waning day of the month.
Building up to the festival, vendors set up shop at the pagoda about a month in advance, selling everything from trinkets to food. It’s such a big festival that there’s a saying about it that goes: “I don’t fear death as much as I fear missing the pagoda festival in Bagan.”
One of the first things you’d notice are the bullock carts trodding through the beaten paths to make camp beside the temple. This was how neighbouring villagers used to make their way to the festival, and centuries later, the tradition is still alive today. Still, the luxury of modernity has somewhat shaped this landscape, with trucks and tractors filled with goods and people also streaming in to commemorate this important occasion.
Bustling Events Within
Besides the religious activities taking place, locals can be seen ticking off their shopping lists for the year, with lots of haggling taking place under the makeshift roofs of woven leaves and cloths, the owners singing praises for their wares. It seems like a meeting point of sorts, with goods all over Myanmar converging in one area for the convenience of the attendees to get things they wouldn’t find back home.
Besides the lively market, there are music performances and even movie theatres set up to add to the conviviality of it all. Many events carry the word ‘festival’ in their names, but the Ananda Pagoda Festival is one to truly live up to its name.
Thousands of monks can be seen walking through pathways flanked by devotees, each offering alms to the monks as they pass. Attendees also carry their offerings into the temple, setting them down and praying at the respective altars.
It really is a festival unlike any other, and it’s held on such a massive scale that I wonder just how do they keep things running as smoothly as they do here. Everybody seems to have a purpose, and there’s very little conflict of any sort despite the huge number of people in attendance.
Wonders of All Kinds
The Ananda Pagoda itself is a marvel, especially seeing how it was built in the late 11th century. It almost looks brand new despite its age, and it even survived an earthquake in 1975, albeit with much restoration needed to bring it back to its former glory.
Perhaps the most memorable feature of this temple is the 9-metre tall Kassapa Buddha statue in the south, which dates back to the 12th century. Upon entering the walkway, you’ll be greeted by a solemn face, but as you walk nearer, the frown seems to turn into a smile – a result of the light’s reflection off the gilded carving. It’s a surreal experience, and does instil a sense of awe, especially when you keep in mind how our ancestors from the 12th century were already producing architecture of this magnitude.
As one of the biggest celebrations in Myanmar, the Ananda Pagoda Festival is one event you’ll definitely want to witness at least once in a lifetime. It’s the best time to learn about the country’s culture as well as its way of life, and when you attend an event of this scale in such a majestic structure, you’ll leave with nothing short of a sense of wonder.