Bagan stands out for not only the sheer number of religious edifices of Myanmar but also the magnificent architecture of the buildings, and their contribution to Burmese temple design. The artistry of the architecture of pagodas in Bagan proves the achievement of Myanmar craftsmen in handicrafts. The Bagan temple falls into one of two broad categories: the stupa-style solid temple and the gu-style (ဂူ) hollow temple
A stupa, also called a pagoda or chedi, is a massive structure, typically with a relic chamber inside. The Bagan stupas or pagodas evolved from earlier Pyu designs, which in turn were based on the stupa designs of the Andhra region, particularly Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in present-day south-eastern India, and to a smaller extent to Ceylon. The Bagan-era stupas in turn were the prototypes for later Burmese stupas in terms of symbolism, form and design, building techniques and even materials.
Originally, a Ceylonese stupa had a hemispheric body (Pali: anda “the egg”), on which a rectangular box surrounded by a stone balustrade (harmika) was set. Extending up from the top of the stupa was a shaft supporting several ceremonial umbrellas. The stupa is a representation of the Buddhist cosmos: its shape symbolizes Mount Meru while the umbrella mounted on the brickwork represents the world’s axis. The brickwork pediment was often covered in stucco and decorated in relief. Pairs or series of ogres as guardian figures (‘bilu’) were a favourite theme in the Bagan period.
The original Indic design was gradually modified first by the Pyu, and then by Burmans at Bagan where the stupa gradually developed a longer, cylindrical form. The earliest Bagan stupas such as the Bupaya (c. 9th century) were the direct descendants of the Pyu style at Sri Ksetra. By the 11th century, the stupa had developed into a more bell-shaped form in which the parasols morphed into a series of increasingly smaller rings placed on one top of the other, rising to a point. On top the rings, the new design replaced the harmika with a lotus bud. The lotus bud design then evolved into the “banana bud”, which forms the extended apex of most Burmese pagodas. Three or four rectangular terraces served as the base for a pagoda, often with a gallery of terra-cotta tiles depicting Buddhist jataka stories. The Shwezigon Pagoda and the Shwesandaw Pagoda are the earliest examples of this type. Examples of the trend toward a more bell-shaped design gradually gained primacy as seen in the Dhammayazika Pagoda (late 12th century) and the Mingalazedi Pagoda (late 13th century).