With the coming of the rains, the Pre-Collegiate Program made it annual pilgrimage to the ancient city of Bagan. We were not much like many of the other Myanmar people who go to visit the plain of temples. We arrived at the city with our notebooks and flashlights, textbooks and recorders, and each student set out find insights into Bagan civilization revealed in the architecture of these 11th, 12th, and 13th century monuments.
The landscape of Bagan is testimony to one of the great civilizations of the first half of this millennium. In addition to the monuments, there are stone inscriptions, Chinese court records, myths, legends, and personal artifacts which all help to trace the character of this society. And, rare to many of the ancient religious sites in the world, the temples of Bagan are still very much an active part of worship for people from Myanmar and across the globe. The students sifted through the great cacophony of imagery, colloquial wisdom, corroborated tales, and religious axioms which they ultimately used to reveal new ideas about the religion, society, and politics of what is considered by many to be the first great empire of Myanmar.
Of course, when exploring in the great open air, there were endless options for side adventures. The temples, stupas, and monasteries of Bagan stretch over 25,000 acres. In the sun and sand, the students of PCP, accompanied by several of their seniors and all of their faculty, often took the opportunity to survey the landscape from the upper terraces of the pagodas or rest from the long bike rides in the recesses of the temples along the road.
The week of study and exploration at Bagan is decidedly one of the highlights of the year, and it is a tradition which holds together all fourteen waves of the Pre-Collegiate Program. Through their research, what was once a great monolithic idea of a textbook comes to life for the students as a rich, complicated, and surprisingly elusive society which functioned in many ways like their nation today.