This is one of my favourite pictures. I took it in mid-afternoon during the monsoon, which gives it that very interesting quality of light. There was an extraordinary feeling of timelessness about the place.
It was my first visit to Myanmar, in 1994. The country was under a dictatorship and much of life centred around Buddhism. Temples were vibrant places. This one, the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, was started in 1790. Even in a country filled with pagodas, it is a dramatic edifice. It looks from this picture as if it was carved out of a cliff, but it’s actually built from thousands of tiny bricks, and stands by itself in the middle of a great plain.
The king wanted it to be the biggest pagoda in the world. The story goes that, after huge numbers of the construction workers died, the king's advisers concocted a prophecy saying that he would perish when the pagoda was completed. Being a superstitious type, when it was 50 metres tall, just a third of its intended height, he ordered that building work should stop. Some years later it was damaged by an earthquake; those are the fissures you can see in the façade. They make it visually very striking. There is a shrine inside the pagoda, and the flash of colour in the monks’ habits is integral to the picture: the monks give it scale, and the life, balance and rhythm that I always try to achieve.
I’ve been back to Myanmar many times and I still love it. More people visit the Mingun these days – the view from the top, over the Irawaddy, is stupendous. It’s an extraordinary place, a relic of the ambition and grandeur of a lost age.
Steve McCurry’s latest exhibition is at La Bourse de Bruxelles (March 4th-June 25th). His new book is “Steve McCurry: On Reading”.
Visiting Mingun: Arakantravel.com organises trips to Myanmar. Nearby hotels: Ayarwaddy River View Hotel or Ma Ma Guest House