Irrawaddy Empire

Burma, 1988

[Full story also available as a PDF download]


At sunset, a reddish brown glow envelops the landscape.  The dark bricks of hundreds of temples blend with the sandy soil of the fallow fields.  The haze hanging in the air disperses a golden light, separated from the bronze waters of the river by a thin line of dull purple mountains on the horizon.  Such is the view of Pagan that early European visitors described as so fantastic and unearthly that it could pass for another planet.


A thousand years ago, Pagan was the capital of a great empire.  It lay at a bend of the Irrawaddy River in central Burma.  The river valley was a fertile region, yielding a surplus of rice.  From this, the Burmans grew wealthy.


These Burmans were a religious people.  They used their wealth to glorify Buddhism.  Over 5 centuries, they erected thousands of monuments in the plain surrounding the capital.  Some of these were simple structures, standing 20 feet tall, with a design no more complicated than a small bell-shaped pagoda resting on a square base.  Others covered vast tracts and soared over a hundred feet to the sky.  Their architecture rivaled any of the era.


In the evening light, the white-washed walls of the Ananda stand out.  This temple forms a giant cross 200 feet square.  The gabled main building is capped by successively diminishing terraces and finally crowned with an elongated dome and spire 170 feet above the ground.  Within the walls, 4 giant Buddhas guard the points of the cross.  According to legend, the Ananda was designed by a group of Rahandahs, saints second only to the Buddha himself, whom the king asked to model a temple after their Himalayan homeland.


Treasures are hidden throughout the temples scattered across the countryside.  The Burmans decorated the interiors with multicolored frescoes.  One surviving painting depicts life in Pagan when powerful monks demanded favors from all brides-to-be.  Other richly detailed panels trace the stories of the Buddha.  In one nondescript temple, a seventy foot Buddha reclines in a space so narrow that a full view is impossible.  An imprisoned king reputedly built this temple to  express his displeasure with captivity.


The Burmans built pagodas to house the most precious relics of their religion.  Unlike the temples, the pagodas have no interiors and present no idols.  They comprise a series of stone terraces, some elaborately decorated with stone demons and golden trees, supporting a stupa encrusted with gold leaf.  The stupa holds a chamber for housing relics of the Buddha.  A British captain returning from Pagan in the 1700s told of the Schwezigon Pagoda enshrining a tooth and collar bone of the Buddha.


Only in these monuments does the glory and wealth of ancient Pagan survive.  The villages subsist on a weak agriculture and cottage industry.  But the Buddhist devotion still appears.  Orange-robed monks are honored with alms as they pass on their morning rounds.  Pilgrims leave offerings at the feet of the Ananda Buddhas.  Children parade in traditional costume as a town celebrates the novices’ initiation to the monkhood.  The spiritual wealth endures.

Originally published 1996.



Springtime in Rangoon, Burma, 1988

One Day’s Adventure, Myanmar, 2002

Twilight at Ava:  A British Mission to the Burmese Court, 1855

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