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About the Old City of Bagan Myanmar: Deities and Heavenly Kings

Old Bagan in Myanmar

The glory of Buddha

The Bagan plain on the left bank of the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar (Burma) offers a unique spectacle in the world: some 5,000 stupas, pagodas and monasteries dedicated to the glory of Buddha and produced between the mid-12th century and the end of the 13th century AD. The architect of this great urban miracle of Bagan, of this magnificent masterpiece fruit of a clever symbiosis between nature, architecture and decoration, King Anawrahta, knew how to transform a semi-desert area into one of the most important places of worship in the world. It is even said that to celebrate the constructions with dignity, the king practiced human sacrifices in order to prevent evil spirits from destroying his great work.

The Four Heavenly Kings

At first glance, the Bagan complex does not seem to be organized according to a specific arrangement. Yet it is oriented so as to place itself under the protection of the "four heavenly kings", that is to say, the gods guarding the cardinal points. The heavenly kings, or lokapala, also have the function of protecting the Buddha, and each of them is accompanied by a suite. They are shown dressed as warriors and their most arduous task is that of fighting against the demons who continually try to enter Earth.

The lokapala are frequently provided with a flamboyant halo certifying their membership as chosen ones.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra is the guardian of the east and governs the divine musicians (gandharvas), who must play high in the sky: Dhṛtarāṣṭra is represented playing a string instrument and generally accompanied by a gandharva playing the flute.

Virūḍhaka is the guardian of the south: his appearance is frightening mainly because of the little trunk that comes out of his head. He is generally depicted drawing his sword and launching himself at the enemy. He is accompanied by a kumbhanda, that is to say a demon brandishing a trident decorated with yak hairs. Indeed, Virūḍhaka also commands these dwarf demons sporting a buffalo muzzle.

Virūpākṣa is the keeper of the west; he must protect the relics of Buddha: he usually has in his right hand a small radiant stupa placed inside an almond. Vaiśravaṇa is the guardian of the north, and this privilege makes him somewhat "superior": he is indeed the only one to be worshiped outside the specific circle of cardinal points. The north (in Sanskrit bijapurana or "rich in seed") is, in fact, the symbol of the fertility and the richness of the earth. So perhaps this is why Vaiśravaṇa is considered the guardian of the great treasures, with the help of the yaksas, goblins living in the depths of the earth.

The deities against evil

According to Eastern tradition, eight "converted" deities (that is, ancient demons) fight against evil creatures. These are sort of fighters who aim to save men, defending them against the power of evil.

Yamantaka is the one who puts an end to the god of death (Yama): his buffalo muzzle is provided with the third eye, he wears a necklace of skulls and a belt of snakes, he has as a mount a bull that bends under his weight.

Devi, the only goddess among these deities, has a demonic face and rides a wild donkey. It is surrounded by a multitude of symbolic objects that make it a particularly iconically complex creature.

Sitabrahman, the least represented deity, rides a dragon and carries a sword in his right hand.

Beg-t’e is the divinity of force and his appearance recalls that of a warrior. Its representation is also from the Tibetan pre-Buddhist religious tradition.

Yama, the god of death, has the duty to judge the dead and establish for each one the type of reincarnation he has deserved. He is often depicted standing on a bull, mating with a woman.

Kubera, an evil being par excellence, like Vaiśravaṇa, is the keeper of the north and the keeper of the secrets of achieving wealth. He is generally depicted riding a lion.

Mahakala recalls the Hindu deity Shiva. He is depicted surrounded by a series of symbolic objects linked to the funeral practice: cleaver, skull cap, necklace of skulls. He is sometimes accompanied by the divine bird Garuda.

Finally Hayagriva, "he who has the horse in mind" (between his hair indeed appears a horse head). Sometimes depicted crushing men with his feet, he is also provided with traps to bind demons and more generally all enemies of the true religion.