Fifty figurines of the Buddha, five feet tall and remarkably lifelike, flank one side of the vaulted chamber, eyes cast downward in contemplation, each painted face subtly individuatedbroad or slender noses, smiles or frowns, chins pointed or rounded. A shaft of natural light at the far end of the passage softly illuminates their serene expressions, broad chests and graceful hands. Across the corridor sit hundreds of Buddha miniatures, each sheathed in gilt, resting on black obsidian bases that teeter on two tiers of sandstone. I turn a corner and enter a second gallery; it’s decorated with bas-reliefs of water buffaloes, elephants, horses, jackals and peacocks. A giant sculpted serpent eternally slithers along the base of the wall.


I’m deep inside a magnificent Buddhist temple in the ruined city of Mrauk U in western Myanmar (formerly Burma), in embattled Rakhine State. Beginning around 1535, a thousand workers labored for a year to construct the thick, nearly windowless walls, cutting massive sandstone blocks and fitting them together so skillfully without mortar that they still hold together.