Last Wednesday, two major earthquakes struck Europe and Southeast Asia within nine hours of each other. As residents slept in the historic towns and villages of central Italy, a 6.2-magnitude tremor rocked the Apennines, taking the lives of at least 290 people. Amatrice, the birthplace of the famous pasta dish spaghetti all’amatriciana, was one of the worst-affected locales. Later that morning, a 6.8 temblor shook the heart of Myanmar. Footage of bricks being torn from an ancient Buddhist stupa seemed eerily familiar, and the reports I read soon confirmed my underlying fears. The quake’s epicentre was roughly 30 kilometres from Bagan, a sprawling archaeological site of 2,200 temples that Bama and I had visited just 10 months before.
One particular photo shown on news websites around the world captured the scene as the tremor hit, with clouds of dust rising from the red-brick temples, and collapsed spires that left trails of rubble as they plummeted to the ground. To our dismay, Bama and I recognised it as the same view we’d admired from the wide platform atop the temple of Pyathadar.
In all, the authorities counted nearly 200 monuments that were damaged by the shaking. 12th-century Sulamani – a masterpiece of Narapatisithu, one of Bagan’s greatest kings – was perhaps the most prominent of them all. Its imposing scale, height and gracefulness made Sulamani one of my favourites among Bagan’s major temples, and I was saddened to see the ruined state of its upper portions. Another temple that sustained significant damage was Tayok Pye, “the king who fled from the Chinese”, so named because the unpopular ruler who built it had left Bagan for fear of an imminent Mongol invasion.
Following a powerful earthquake in 1975, hasty renovation work carried out by the former military regime ensured that Bagan remained off the UNESCO World Heritage list. Further missteps were taken over the next two decades: long-time residents were forcibly evicted from the old city, where a conjectural royal palace was raised opposite the original foundations. Its soaring rooflines affected the visual integrity of the overall site, as did the construction of a tall, cylindrical viewing tower to the east. In hindsight, the repairs were clearly not made to last; much of what tumbled in Wednesday’s quake was not ancient bricks but modern materials added post-1975. Already, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has asked for a careful restoration with the guidance of UNESCO experts, a process that will likely take a number of years.
In the latter months of 2014, I had half a mind to postpone the Spice Odyssey until this summer, but Bama was adamant that we should stick to our original plans. Now, both of us feel a mixture of sadness and relief that we experienced Bagan in its full, pre-quake glory. ◊