Although there are a few exceptions such as ordination halls, most of the structures in Bagan are either stupas (paya) or temples (pahto). The former are usually placed over relics or important Buddha images, and are solid spires or cylinders with pointed or domed tops. The latter, on the other hand, are square or rectangular structures that can be entered.

The exterior walls of both are often decorated with stucco; one popular image is the bălù pàn-zwèh, the face of an ogre holding garlands of flowers in its mouth. The earliest buildings bear evidence of being designed by Mon architects, brought back by Anawrahta after he conquered Thaton.

The interior walls of many temples bear murals based on the Jataka, stories of the 550 previous reincarnations of Prince Siddhartha and of his life before he gained enlightenment as the Buddha. Other murals depict mythical creatures such as the kein-năra bird-man, a symbol of fidelity. The earliest paintings reflect Indian artistic styles, as many artists were Brahmin. Writing on the walls ranges from records of donations to curses on anyone desecrating the temples. In the earliest temples these are in Mon or Pali, while Bamar was used later.

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