The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu entered the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan in the 2nd century B.C., and went on to found city states throughout the Irrawaddy valley. The Pyu were the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant. During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India. Trade with India brought Buddhism from southern India. By the 4th century, many in the Irrawaddy valley had converted to Buddhism. The Pyu calendar, based on the Buddhist calendar, later became the Burmese calendar. Latest scholarship, though yet not settled, suggests that the Pyu script, based on the Indian Brahmi script, may have been the source of the Burmese script. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Pyus established themselves in the valleys of the central Irrawaddy and Sittange Rivers. The Pyu city states were a group of city-states that existed from c. 2nd century B.C. to c. mid-11th century in present-day Upper Burma (Myanmar). The city-states were founded as part of the southward migration by the Pyu. The thousand-year period, often referred to as the Pyu millennium, linked the Bronze Age to the beginning of the classical states period when the Pagan Kingdom emerged in the late 9th century. Of the many city-states, the largest and most important was Sri Ksetra, southeast of modern Prome (Pyay). Eighth century Chinese records identify 18 Pyu states throughout the Irrawaddy valley. The civilization lasted nearly to the early 9th century until a new group of "swift horsemen" from the north, the Burmans, entered the upper Irrawaddy valley. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Pyu people settled inland along the middle reaches of the Irrawaddy River but at a distance from the river’s course. This is in sharp contrast to the later Burmese cities such as Pagan, Ava, Amarapura, and Mandalay that were situated directly on the riverbank. The Pyus developed a system of irrigation using elevated weirs as well a sophisticated system of urban planning. Due to the scarcity of written material, little is known about the Pyu peoples themselves. Although the Pyu had a written language, few examples still exist. The Pyu language and culture seems to have disappeared as they were conquered and absorbed by the Burmese. The Pyu and Burmese languages are similar, both belong to the Tibeto- Burman family of languages.[Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Most of what we do know of the Pyu is extrapolated from archeological excavations, surface finds and scant references in Chinese Dynastic Histories. Additional but very limited information is found in the few inscriptions on burial urns that typically state the names and reignal dates of early rulers and in the formulaic inscriptions on Buddhist votive tablets. None of these sources yields detailed information about the Pyu people or their culture. In fact, it wasn’t until 1911 that the Pyu language could be read. This was the result of the translation of the Myazedi Inscription, the Burmese “rosetta” stone. This quadrilingual inscription, written in the Pyu, Mon, Burmese, and Pali languages, was erected before the (Buddhist) Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi Temple at Pagan in 1113 AD. That this Pagan inscription was written in Pyu in the 12th century suggests that although Pyu culture had declined in the 9th century due to invasions from the North by the Chinese and had been subsequently absorbed by the Burmese, the Pyu had continued as an important presence for over three centuries after the Chinese invasions. However, little is heard or known of the Pyu after the 12th century. =

Origin of the Pyu

Based on limited archaeological evidence, it is inferred that the earliest cultures existed in Burma as early as 11,000 B.C., mainly in the central dry zone close to the Irrawaddy. Circa 2nd century B.C., the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu began to enter the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan via Tapain and Shweli rivers. The original home of the Pyu is reconstructed to be Kokonor Lake in present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces. The Pyu, the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant, went on to found settlements throughout the plains region centered around the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers that has been inhabited since the Paleolithic age. The Pyu realm was longer than wide, stretching from Sri Ksetra in the south to Halin in the north, Binnaka and Maingmaw to the east and probably Ayadawkye to the west. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Tang Chinese records report 18 Pyu states (nine of which were walled cities), covering 298 districts. Archaeological surveys have actually so far unearthed 12 walled cities, including five large walled cities, and several smaller non-fortified settlements, located at or near the three most important irrigated regions of precolonial Burma: the Mu valley in the north, the Kyaukse plains in center, and the Minbu region in the south and west of the former two. The city-states were contemporary to Funan (Cambodia) and (perhaps) Champa (southern Vietnam), Dvaravati (Thailand), Tambralinga and Takuapa near the Isthmus of Kra, and Sri Vijaya (southeast Sumatra). All these statelets foreshadowed the rise of the "classical kingdoms" of Southeast Asia in the second millennium A.D. +

The Pyu city-states were mainly populated by Pyu people. Extensive external trade attracted sizable communities of Indians and the Mon, especially in the south. In the north, trickles of Burmans may have entered the Pyu realm from Yunnan as early as the 7th century. The size of population of the Pyu realm was probably a few hundred thousand, given that the 17th and 18th century Burma (about the size of present-day Myanmar) only had about 2 million people.

Pyu City States

The Pyu city-states—five major walled cities and several smaller towns have been excavated—were all located in the three main irrigated regions of Upper Burma: the Mu valley, the Kyaukse plains and Minbu region, around the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. Part of an overland trade route between China and India, the Pyu realm gradually expanded south. Halin, founded in the 1st century A.D. at the northern edge of Upper Burma, was the largest and most important city until around the 7th or 8th century when it was superseded by Sri Ksetra (near modern Pyay) at the southern edge. Twice as large as Halin, Sri Ksetra was the largest and most influential Pyu center. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Pyu city plans, consisted of square/rectangles and circles, were a mix of indigenous and Indian designs. It is believed that circular patterns inside the cities were Pyu while the rectangle or square shape of the outer walls and the use of 12 gates were Indian in origin. According to Cooler, "the adoption of Indian concepts of city planning incorporated a belief in the efficacy of the world axis that connects the centermost point in a properly constructed Mandala city with the city of the Gods above (Tavatimsa heaven) in order to assure prosperity throughout the kingdom below". Pyu-era city practices were the forefathers of the latter-day Burmese city and palace designs down to the 19th century Mandalay. +

Sri Ksetra is the largest Pyu site discovered thus far. (Only Beikthano and Sri Ksetra have been extensively excavated). Other important Pyu cities as Maingmaw and Binnaka could yield more artifacts with more extensive excavations. Many Pyu settlements have been found across Upper Burma. They include Wati (an urban area west of Maingmaw), Ayadawkye Ywa in the Mu valley, west of Halin and south of a recently discovered bronze age site called Nyaunggan, and several others in Myinmu township, which controls the mouth of the Mu river. A small but politically significant Pyu site is Tagaung in northern Burma (about 200-km north of Mandalay) where Pyu artifacts including funerary urns have been excavated. The significance is due to the fact that the Burmese chronicles identify Tagaung as the home of the first Burmese kingdom. Aside from Beikthano and Sri Ksetra, most Pyu sites have not seen extensive or any excavation. +

Pyu Language, Script and Calendar

The Pyu language was a Tibeto-Burman language, related to Old Burmese. But it apparently co-existed with Sanskrit and Pali as the court language. The Chinese records state that the 35 musicians that accompanied the Pyu embassy to the Tang court in 800–802 played music and sang in the Fan (Sanskrit) language. Many of the important inscriptions were written in Sanskrit and/or Pali, alongside the Pyu script. The Pyu sites have yielded a wide variety of Indian scripts from King Ashoka's edicts written in north Indian Brahmi and Tamil Brahmi, both dated to the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., to the Gupta script and Kannada script dated to the 4th to 6th centuries A.D. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In addition to religion, the Pyu also imported science and astronomical expertise from India. The Chinese records also report that the Pyu knew how to make astronomical calculations. The Pyu calendar was based on the Buddhist calendar. There were two eras in use. The first was the Sakra Era, which was adopted in the Pyu realm in 80 A.D., just two years after the new era had come into use in India. A second calendar was adopted at Sri Ksetra in 638, superseding the Sakra Era. The calendar, the first day of which was 22 March 638, later became the Burmese calendar, and is still in use in present-day Myanmar. (The existence of two Pyu calendars has been cause for dispute among scholars trying interpret the dates on the finds.) +

Pyu Economics, Money, Agriculture and Trade

The economy of the Pyu city states was based on agriculture and trade. All important Pyu settlements were located in the three main irrigated regions of Upper Burma, centered around the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers: Halin in the Mu valley, Maingmaw and Binnaka in the Kyaukse plains, finally Beikthano and Sri Ksetra at or near the Minbu district. (The irrigation projects of the Pyu were later picked up by the Burmans. King Anawrahta of Pagan would build irrigation projects in these three regions in the 1050s to turn them into the main rice granaries of Upper Burma. They would give Upper Burma an enduring economic base from which to dominate the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery in the following centuries.) The Pyu grew rice, perhaps of the Japonica variety. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Pyu realm was an important trading center between China and India in the first millennium A.D. Two main trading routes passed through the Pyu states. As early as 128 B.C., an overland trade route between China and India existed across the northern Burma. An embassy from the Roman Empire to China passed through this route in 97 A.D. and again in 120 A.D. But the majority of the trade was conducted by sea through the southern Pyu states, which at the time were located not far from the sea as much of the Irrawaddy delta had not yet been formed, and as far south as upper Tenasserim coast towns such as Winga, Hsindat-Myindat, Sanpannagon and Mudon where Pyu artifacts have been found. (It is insufficient to conclude however that the Pyu had administrative and military control over these upper Tenasserim coastal towns.) The ports connected the overland trade route to China via present-day Yunnan. +

The trading area of the Pyu states spanned across the present-day Southeast Asia, South Asia and China. Artifacts from the 2nd century northwest India to Java and the Philippines have been found at Beikthano. Likewise, Pyu artifacts have been found along the coasts of Arakan, Lower Burma, and as far east as Óc Eo (in present-day southern Vietnam). The Pyu also conducted trade and diplomatic relations with China. In 800 and 801–802, Sri Ksetra sent a formal embassy, along with 35 musicians to the Tang court. According to the Chinese, the Pyu used gold and silver coinage. But only silver coins have survived. +

A notable feature of the Pyu states is the minting and use of silver coinage. Originated in the Pegu area, these coins date from the 5th century and were the model for most first millennium coinage in mainland Southeast Asia. The earliest type of these coins is not inscribed and depicts a conch on one side and a Srivatsa on the other. Many of the coins had a small hole along the perimeter, and may have also been used as amulets. Remarkably, after the use of coins ceased at the end of Pyu period in the late 9th century, coins did not reappear in the Burmese kingdoms until the 19th century. +

Pyu Religious Beliefs

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Pyus adopted Buddhism as it spread into Southeast Asia while continuing to practice animism, the worship of indigenous spirits. Excavations at the great Pyu capitol, Srikshetra, uncovered artifacts associated with Vishnu as well as the remains of Buddhist stupas and monasteries that clearly indicate that Hinduism as well as Buddhism were practiced there. Indeed, the name of the earliest Pyu city, Beikthano, means the “City of Vishnu”, the second of the great gods in the Hindu Triad. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

The Burmese chronicles claim that the founding kings of Tagaung were descended from no less than the Sakya clan of the Buddha himself.) By the 4th century, most of the Pyu had become predominantly Buddhist, though archaeological finds prove that their pre-Buddhist practices remained firmly entrenched in the following centuries. According to the excavated texts, as well as the Chinese records, the predominant religion of the Pyu was Theravada Buddhism. The Theravada school prevalent in the Pyu realm was probably derived from the Andhra region in southeast India, associated with the famous Theravada Buddhist scholar, Buddhagosa. It was the predominant Theravada school in Burma until late 12th century when Shin Uttarajiva led the realignment with Ceylon's Mahavihara school. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The archaeological finds also indicate a widespread presence of Tantric Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism. Avalokites'vara (Lokanatha) (called Lawkanat in Burmese; [lka? na?]), Tara, Manusi Buddhas, Vais'ravan.a, and Hayagriva, all prominent in Mahayana Buddhism, were very much part of Pyu (and later the Pagan) iconography scene. Various Hindu Brahman iconography ranging from the Hindu trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, to Garuda and Lakshmi have been found, especially in Lower Burma. Non-Theravada practices such as ceremonial cattle sacrifice and alcohol consumption were main stays of the Pyu life. Likewise, the greater prominence of nuns and female students than in the later eras may point to pre-Buddhist notions of female autonomy. In melding of their pre-Buddhist practices to Buddhist ones, they placed the remains of their cremated dead in pottery and stone urns and buried them in or near isolated stupas, a practice consistent with early Buddhist practices of interring the remains of holy personages in stupas. +

One mystery surrounding Pyu religious beliefs is that although they built hundreds of monasteries and were Buddhist attested by contemporary Chinese chronicles. there is a surprising dearth of Buddhist artifacts in all three Pyu Kingdoms. This has led to conjectures that the Pyu received their Buddhism from Andra Pradesh in Southern India. The excavations have uncovered artifacts that are related to those found in Andra Pradesh. with dates corresponding to the periods in which most of the Andra Buddhist material at Amaravati and Nagarjunakone was made (i.e. during the second to fourth centuries.) As Prof. R.L.Brown. Professor of Indian and Southeast Asian Art History at the University of California at Los Angeles succinctly puts it: “No Buddhist artefacts have been found at Beikthano. One suggestion is that this mysterious absence is due to Andran Buddhist influence predating the adoption of iconic representations of the Buddha and thus represents the aniconic period at Amaravati (before the end of the second century.) [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Pyu Life and Culture

Eighth century Tang Chinese records describe the Pyu as a humane and peaceful people to whom war was virtually unknown and who wore silk cotton instead of actually silk so that they would not have to kill silk worms. The Chinese records also report that the Pyu knew how to make astronomical calculations, and that many Pyu boys entered the monastic life at seven to the age of 20. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The culture of the Pyu city states was heavily influenced by India. Indian culture was most visible in the southern Pyu realm through which most trade with India was conducted by sea. The names of southernmost cities were in Pali or Sanskrit derived like Sri Ksetra (Thaye Khittaya) and Vishnu (Beikthano). The kings at Sri Ksetra titled themselves as Varmans and Varma. It was not just a southern phenomenon. To varying degrees, northern Pyu cities and towns also became under the sway of Indian culture.

Beikthano city and its environs reflect the culture of the Pyus. The populace cremated their dead and buried the ash in funeral urns or jars outside or even within their dwellings. They appear to have gained considerable expertise in the making of burial urns. Over 700 such urns have been uncovered together with 45 intact covers and show the influence of many decorative styles. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

They were also accomplished masons. They constructed brick walls and edifices that have lasted to the present day. The insides of some buildings have been artistically decorated with stucco figurines. lime-wash and paintings. The craft of blacksmithing seems to have been also developed as evidenced by the iron-work on the City Gates. hinges and decorative scroll work and the production of iron weapons such as swords, spear-heads, arrow-heads and bows. The Pyus also seem to have been adept at pottery making. judging from the 2060 pots and jars uncovered comprising pots for water carrying. jars for water storage. and cooking pots. ~

The gate to the city wall at dig No.8 has also revealed a twice life-sized marble figure presumed to represent a Nat (Animistic) Spirit Guardian of the City indicating that Pyus were also accomplished sculptors in marble. A small paper-thin exquisite gold cup and two similar silver cups that have been excavated bear witness that goldsmithy and silversmithy too were well developed among the Pyus. ~

Pyu Architecture, Irrigation, Administration and Planning

The Pyu-era architectural practices greatly influenced later Pagan and Burmese architecture. The techniques of building dams, canals and weirs found in pre-colonial Upper Burma trace their origins to the Pyu era and the Pagan era. (Burmans likely introduced new water management methods, especially the canal building techniques which became the prevailing method of irrigation in the Pagan era.) [Source: Wikipedia +]

From the 4th century onward, the Pyu built many Buddhist stupas and other religious buildings. The styles, ground plans, even the brick size and construction techniques of these buildings point to the Andhra region, particularly Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in present-day southeastern India. Some evidence of Ceylonese contact is seen by the presence of Anuradhapura style "moonstones" discovered at Beikthano and Halin. By perhaps the 7th century, tall cylindrical stupas such as the Bawbawgyi, Payagyi and Payama had emerged at Sri Ksetra. +

The Pyu architecture greatly influenced later Burmese Buddhist temple designs. For example, temples at Sri Ksetra such as the Bebe and Lemyethna were prototypes for the later hollow (gu) temples of Pagan. The floor plan of the 13th century Somingyi Monastery at Pagan was largely identical to that of a 4-th century monastery at Beikthano. The solid stupas of Sri Ksetra were in turn prototypes for Pagan's such as the Shwezigon, Shwehsandaw, and Mingalazedi, and ultimately, the Shwedagon in modern Yangon.

The Pyu settlements were ruled by independent chiefs. The chiefs at larger city-states later styled themselves as kings, and established courts largely modeled after the Indian (Hindu) concepts of monarchy. Not all Hindu concepts such as divine kingship were fully adopted due to the presence of Theravada Buddhism. It is not clear if a vassalage-overlord relationship existed between the larger city-states and smaller towns. The Burmese chronicles mention alliances between the states such as one between Beikthano and Sri Ksetra. By and large, each Pyu city-state appeared to have controlled just the city itself. The large size of the Pyu cities (660 to 1400 hectares) vis-a-vis Pagan (only 140 hectares) suggests that much of the population resided within the walls, as corroborated by the Chinese records.

Decline of Pyu City-States

The Pyu civilization lasted nearly a millennium until a new group of "swift horsemen" from the north, the (Mranma) (Burmans) of the Nanzhao Kingdom entered the upper Irrawaddy valley through a series of raids. In the early 9th century, the Pyu city states of Upper Burma came under constant attacks by the Nanzhao Kingdom in present-day Yunnan. In 832, the Nanzhao sacked then Halingyi, which had overtaken Prome as the chief Pyu city state. A subsequent Nanzhao invasion in 835 further devastated Pyu city states in Upper Burma. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to the Tang Dynasty chronicles, the Nanzhao began their raids of Upper Burma starting as early as 754 or 760. Nanzhao raids intensified in the 9th century, with the Nanzhao raiding in 800-802, and again in 808-809. Finally, according to the Chinese, in 832, the Nanzhao warriors overran the Pyu country, and took away 3000 Pyu prisoners from Halin. (In 835, the Chinese records say the Nanzhao also raided a state, generally identified by some but not universally accepted to be a Pyu state.) +

To be sure, the Pyu and their culture did not disappear just because 3000 of them were taken away. Evidence shows that the actual pace of Burman migration into the Pyu realm was gradual. Radiocarbon dating shows that human activity existed until c. 870 at Halin, the subject of the 832 Nanzhao raid. The Burmese chronicles claim the Burmans founded the fortified city of Pagan (Bagan) in 849 but the oldest radiocarbon dated evidence at Pagan (old walls) points to 980 A.D. while the main walls point to circa 1020 A.D., just 24 years earlier than the beginning of the reign of Anawrahta, the founder of Pagan Empire. +

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “What little is known concerning the decline of the Pyus comes only from Chinese sources which claim that invasions in the ninth century from Yunnan province in China occupied areas that had once belonged to the Pyus. One Chinese chronicle refers to the defeat of the Pyus and the capture of three thousand residents from what was probably Halin. However, there are no firm indications at Srikshetra or at any other Pyu site that suggests a violent overthrow. These incursions are thought to have weakened the Pyu State so that by the ninth century the Burmese were able to move down into what had been Pyu territory and settle in Kyaukse and the Pagan region. The Pyus left their mark on the Pagan State; in as much as the site of Srikshetra was incorporated into the state ideology. The first kings at Pagan traced their mythical genealogy back to the kings of Srikshetra, a continuity in political life that is not found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. On balance, however, a considerable gap exists between the fall of the Pyus in the ninth and the earliest datable Pagan shines to the 11th for the Pyus to have played an important part in creating the artistic and cultural life of Pagan. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

While Pyu settlements remained in Upper Burma until the advent of the Pagan Empire in mid 11th century, the Pyu gradually were absorbed into the expanding Burman kingdom of Pagan in the next four centuries. The Pyu language still existed until the late 12th century. By the 13th century, the Pyu had assumed the Burman ethnicity and disappeared into history. Nonetheless, the Pyu had left an indelible mark on Pagan whose Burman rulers would incorporate the histories and legends of the Pyu as their own. The Burman kings of Pagan claimed descent from the kings of Sri Ksetra and Tagaung as far back as 850 B.C.—a claim dismissed by most modern scholars.

Beikthano: the Earliest of Main Pyu City States

Beikthano is the oldest urban site so far discovered in Myanmar and the oldest of the three ancient centers of Pyu civilization (the other two being Srikestra and Halin). Its name means the “City of Vishnu”, the second of the great gods in the Hindu Triad. Located 12 miles west of present-day Taungdwingyi in the irrigated Minbu region, and regarded as the first capital of a culturally and perhaps politically uniform state in Myanmar, Beikthano flourished during the A.D. 1st to 5th centuries A.D. and covered an area of 3.3 square miles 450 feet above sea level. The eastern city wall was 10,000 feet in length. The northern wall was 9,000 feet. the southern wall was 8,000 feet. The presnt-day western wall has collapsed owing to soil erosion caused by the action of the Yanpè Creek. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Beikthano was a large fortified settlement, measuring approximately 300 hectares inside the rectangular (3 kilometers by 1 km) walls. The walls and fortifications along it measured six meters thick, and are radiocarbon dated to a period between 180 B.C. and 610 A.D. Like most subsequent cities, the main entrance of the walls led to the palace, which faced east. Stupas and monastic buildings have also been excavated within the city walls. [Source: Wikipedia]

Beikthano was defended by two walls: a city wall and an inner palace wall. Both of these walls were more circular (or rather rhomboid) than square in shape. Huge. specially shaped bricks had to be baked to be fitted as proper corner stones for these walls. Neither the city walls nor the palace walls were defended by moats. The majority of the Pyu citizenry lived outside the city walls or in the surrounding countryside. They were content to live in houses made of wood and bamboo but insisted on their monasteries being built of wood and brick and their city and palace also achieving corresponding grandeur. ~

Beikthano is situated near the east bank of the Irrawaddy River between Srikshetra and Pagan. Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The city plan of Beikthano resembles a bulging rhombus, each side of the city wall measuring about two miles, although little remains today due to natural decay and human depredation. Excavation revealed twelve gateways where the walls curved inward to create entrance passages, each terminating in massive gates. In each of these passages the burnt remains of a wooden gate and rusted iron sockets were found. A rectangular brick enclosure, referred to as the Palace site, lies approximately at the center of the walled city. In the center of the eastern wall of this palace enclosure there is an inner gateway that unlike the curved entrances along the city walls has a square entrance. On either side of all the excavated gates was found an indented space for guards or sentries. Near the entrance to the palace site, two huge pairs of feet carved in sandstone were found. Although the upper portions are missing, these were no doubt once massive figures of door guardians. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies]

An account of Beikthano was recorded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) by Chinese chronicle Man Shu in the chapter “The Southern Barbarians.” He wrote: “The circular wall of his (the Pyu King’s) city is built of greenish glazed titles (brick) and is 160 li. It has 12 gates and three pagodas at each four corners. . . Their house tiles are of lead and zinc. . . They have a hundred monasteries with bricks of vitreous ware. embellished with gold and silver. vermillion. gray colors and red kino.” [Taw Sein Kho (1895). The Pottery and Glasware of Burma 1894-95”.Superintendent of Govt.Printing. Rangoon.]

Beikthano was destroyed in the A.D. 4th or 5th Century. Buildings and city gates were consumed by fire. indicating that it was the result of enemy attack. After a short period as a ruined city, it was rebuilt again as a succeeding kingdom, only to be sacked again and burnt to the ground. However the Pyu people continued to occupy the surrounding countryside without having city-walls to protect them. The next Pyu kingdom was established down-river at Thayekhittara (Srikshestra), 5 miles west of Pyay that grew to prominence during the A.D. 4th and 5th centuries. ~

Artifacts and Findings from Beikthano

The structures, pottery, artifacts, and human skeletons—date from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. Cooler wrote: “Little of the ancient city exists today because its once tall brick walls were quarried to construct roads and railway tracks. Therefore, most of what is known of Beikthano is the result of archaeological excavations carried out in the twentieth century. Among the excavated structures were found the ruins of Buddhist monasteries, although no Buddhist statuary was found; two pillared halls; four stupa–like buildings; and a city wall made of fired brick enclosing an area of over 2.8 kilometers. The excavations produced artifacts that can be categorized as having essentially Pyu characteristics: silver coins bearing symbols of prosperity and good-luck, burial urns of both plain and elaborate designs, beads of clay and semi-precious stones, decorated domestic pottery, iron nails, and metal bosses. This assemblage of artifacts is shared with the later Pyu cities of Halin and Srikshetra. Through the analysis of the structures, pottery types, particular marks on potsherds, the inscriptions on a clay seal and on burial urns, the period in which Beikthano existed can be established as the 1st –5th centuries AD. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

When one of the religious edifices (Dig. No. 14) was excavated a stretched out skeleton near the south wall was uncovered. Along the north wall were lined up two piles of human bones. The outstretched skeleton remains were carefully marked. labeled and shipped to Prof. Dr. H. Zaw Htun of the Faculty of Anatomy. Institute of Medicine. Yangon for scientific examination. Dr. Zaw Htun’s findings indicated that the remains were of a healthy Mongolian male. 25 years old and 5’ 5” tall. The cause of death was due to a heavy blow delivered to the right temple. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

A total of 780 beads. comprising large numbers of earthenware beads and (29) stone beads were recovered from the excavations. At building No. (17) alone 500 beads were found and possibly indicates that the building was some sort of bead factory. Some of the stone beads were colored either red or yellow or black. The art of coloring stone beads seems to have reached an unprecedented high during the Pyu period. ~

The usual dates ascribed to the Beikthano kingdom are from the A.D. 1st century to the 5th century. Charcoal from the excavated sites have been radio carbon-dated to the 1st century C.E. Conflicting scientific evidence however emerged at the 5th Radio Dating Conference (1962) of the International Dating Conference, Cambridge University. U.K.. where the decay of Radio carbon (14) from samples from Beikthano indicate that they should be more properly dated to 1950 B.C.. i.e. to nearly 2000 years earlier than the First Century C.E. The charcoal samples for these analyses were taken from the two lowest strata of a religious edifice unearthed at site No.(9) as well as charcoal from the two bottom strata at site No.(10). ~

Pyu City State of Halin

Halin (Halingyi) is located in the Mu valley, one of the largest irrigated regions of precolonial Burma, in northern Burma, north of Mandalay about 12 miles southeast of Shwebo. The northernmost Pyu city so far discovered, the city was rectangular but with curved corners, and brick-walled. Excavated walls are approximately 3.2 kilometers long on the north-south axis and 1.6 kilometers on the east-west. At 664 hectares, the city was nearly twice the size of Beikthano. It has four main gates at the cardinal points, and a total of 12 gates, based on the zodiac. A river or canal ran through the city. Traces of a moat exist on all sides except the south, where it was probably not needed, as land was dammed there to create reservoirs. The earliest artifacts of Halin—city's wooden gates—are radiocarbon dated to 70 A.D. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: Halin “seems to have flourished from the 2nd to the 6th century AD. Preliminary excavations were carried out in 1904-5, in 1929-30 and again from 1963 to 1967. Although these excavations yielded many small finds including burial urns, beads, shards, coins, engraved gems, and metal implements as well as a few inscribed lines written in Pyu, little architectural evidence other than the bases of square or rectangular brick buildings were found. Even so, it is evident that the remains at Halin are characteristically Pyu. That is with the exception that no round stupas, large stone or metal images, nor clay votive tablets were found, such as appear in some abundance at Srikshetra. A practice prevalent at Halin that differs from Beikthano was the burial of non-cremated human remains along with the funerary urns. The attack on Halin in 832 A.D. by the Nan-chao of Yunnan, China, appears to have been a devastating blow since according to the Chinese records the entire population was carried off into slavery and after this date mention of the Pyu is very rare. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“Of rounded rectangular shape, the brick-walled and moated city is roughly two miles long and one mile wide. At present, the walls of the city have crumbed almost to ground level. Most of the structures themselves were below ground level and had to be completely uncovered through excavation. Traces of the moat are seen on all sides except the south. Three of the original twelve gateways were uncovered. The brick city walls curve inwards at the onset of each entrance gateway and thus create a protected passageway into the interior of the city. A rectangular shaped outer wall with rounded corners was also delineated that is similar to the city plan of Beikthano.

This design of Halin influenced the city planning of later Burmese cities and the Siamese city of Sukhothai. For example, the number of gates and configuration was also found in subsequent major Burmese capitals such as the 11th century Pagan and 19th century Mandalay. The city's configuration was also found at other contemporary cities such as Maingmaw and Beikthano in the Pyu realm and Danyawaddy and Wethali in Arakan as well as later cities such as Sukhothai, which emerged over a millennium later. Structural remains of temples at Halin show that the design of city's temples influenced the 11th to 13th century temples at Pagan. Excavated artifacts point to Halin's Pyu script to be the earliest writing in the Pyu realm (and in Burma). It was based on an earlier version of the Brahmi script (Mauryan and Guptan). Inscriptions at Sri Ksetra show a later version of the same script. +

Known for the production of salt, a highly prized commodity in the first millennium, Halin was superseded by Sri Ksetra as the premier Pyu city-state circa 7th century. By the Chinese accounts, Halin remained an important Pyu center until the 9th century when the Pyu realm came under repeated attacks from the Nanzhao Kingdom. The Chinese records state that the city was destroyed by the Nanzhao warriors in 832 A.D., with 3000 of its inhabitants taken away. However, radiocarbon dating reveals human activity to about 870 A.D., nearly four decades after the reported sack of the city. +

Pyu City State of Srikshetra (Thirikhittaya)

Sri Ksetra (Sriksetra or Thaye Khittaya, meaning "Field of Fortune" or "Field of Glory") was the largest and most important of all the Pyu capital cites, the last and southernmost one too. Located approximately five miles southeast of the modern city of Prome, 180 miles northwest of Rangoon, and a few miles inland from the left bank of the Irrawaddy,it was founded between the 5th and 7th centuries, and likely overtook Halin as the premier Pyu city by the 7th or 8th century, and retained that status until the arrival of the Burmans in the 9th century. The city was home to at least two dynasties, and maybe three. The first dynasty, called the Vikrama Dynasty, is believed to have launched the Pyu calendar, which later became the Burmese calendar, on 22 March 638. The second dynasty was founded by King Duttabaung on 25 March 739 (11th waxing of Tagu 101 ME).

The site of Srikshetra is known by several names: Thayekhittaya, Hmawza, and Pyi in Burmese and as Old Prome in many English publications. Thought to have reached its height from the 5th through early 9th centuries, it occupied a larger area than that of the 11th century Pagan or 19th century Mandalay. Circular in design, Sri Ksetra was more than 13 kilometers in circumference and three to four kilometers across, or about 1400 hectares of occupied area. The city's brick walls were 4.5 meters high, and had 12 gates with huge devas (deities) guarding the entrances and a pagoda at each of the four corners. It also has curving gateways, such as those found at Halin and Beikthano. In the center of the city was what most scholars think represented the rectangular palace site, 518 meters by 343 meters, symbolizing both a mandala and a zata (horoscope), like in Maingmaw. Only the southern half of the city was taken up by the palace, monasteries and houses; the entire northern half consisted of rice fields. Together with the moats and walls, this arrangement ensured that the city could withstand a long siege by enemies. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: Srikshetra’s city plan, unlike that of Beikthano and Halin, is more circular or oval in shape. The city wall of well-fired bricks is surrounded by a moat. The circumference of the wall is eight and one half miles and in many sections, where the wall remains intact, rises as high as fifteen feet. At each of the entrances or gateways into the city, the wall curves inward, as at Beikthano and Halin, to form long corridors on either side of the entrance passages. Also, the palace site is located in the center of the city enclosure, as found elsewhere; is rectangular in shape and measures 1,700 feet to 1,125 feet. The northern half of the city is a low plain dominated by rice fields but rises gradually to the south. Chinese records state that commoners lived and farmed their fields within the great expanse within the city walls. This report also states that the prosperity of the city is evidenced by more than a hundred Buddhist monasteries, decorated with gold and silver, and painted many colors that are hung with embroidered cloth. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

A 19th century Burmese Chronicle, “The Glass Palace Chronicle” was written at the order of the Burmese king and attempts to fit Srikshetra into the Hindu-Buddhist ideal of the perfect royal Capitol City. This model is based on Sudarsana, the heavenly city of Indra (shaka: Burmese) which is located on the peak of Mount Meru at the center of the universe. The palace of Indra is at the center of the city with the palaces of the lesser 32 gods arranged around it. In both Hindu and Buddhist thought, a city so arranged becomes a representation of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods (Pali:Tavatimsa). The chronicle claims that Srikshetra had all the things needed for such a city: 32 main gates and 32 small gates, moats, ditches, four-cornered towers with graduated roofs over the gates, turrets along the walls and so forth. In later Burmese capitals, the gates of the city represented, and were often named after, the chief vassals or provincial governors of the realm, with the king at the center corresponding to the celestial god Indra. The adoption of these beliefs and their use in city planning are a good example of how attractive Hindu-Buddhist concepts were at providing Southeast Asians with a respected place in the cosmos and also a place in the international Asian world. =

It is unknown precisely when and how Srikshetra, a very prosperous city, declined. It is thought that as the Pyus were gradually absorbed by the Burmans as Pagan grew in importance so that by the late 11th century Pagan had become the undisputed capitol of a unified Burma including the formerly Pyu territories.

Srikshetra Culture and Inscriptions

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: The culture of the people who once inhabited this great city can be ascertained through the study of architectural, sculptural, epigraphic, and artistic remains, which are relatively abundant when compared to other Pyu sites. Unfortunately, due to the merging of Pyu and Burmese culture, the Pyu language ceased to be used as early as the 13th century. Consequently, it has not been possible to decipher a great number of the inscriptions written in Pyu. The monuments, primarily religious, reveal a close affiliation and communication with India, but as we have seen in other Pyu sites, very few artifacts are identical copies of an Indian form or concept - slight to major changes set these artifacts apart from their Indian prototypes. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The earliest known examples of writing in Burma were found at Srikshetra and employ an alphabet that is derived from those used in South India. Two inscribed gold plates and a manuscript inscribed on twenty gold leaves were found in the Bawbawgyi stupa that have been dated to the second half of the 5th century. A stone slab bearing a Pali inscription recites in verse excerpts from Buddhist texts (the Mangala Sutta, the Ratna Sutta, and the Mora Sutta) and can be dated epigraphically to the 6th or 7th century. Numerous inscribed votive tablets of clay depicting figures of the Budddha have been uncovered. Interestingly, almost all the inscribed materials relate to Theravada Buddhism, although there are images extant from other Buddhist sects as well as other religions. =

Sri Ksetra was an important entrepôt between China and India. It was located on the Irrawaddy, not far from the sea as the Irrawaddy delta had not yet been formed. Ships from the Indian ocean could come up to Prome to trade with the Pyu realm and China. Trade with India brought deep cultural contacts. Sri Ksetra has yielded the most extensive remains of Theravada Buddhism. Religious art suggests several distinct occupations with earlier influences stemming from Southeast India and later influences from Southwest India while 9th century influences include those from the Nanzhao Kingdom. Much of the Chinese account of the Pyu states was through Sri Ksetra. Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang in 648 and Yijing in 675 mentioned Sri Ksetra in their accounts of Buddhist kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The Tang histories mention the arrival at the court of an embassy from the Pyu capital in 801. [Source: Wikipedia]

Other Pyu City States

Maingmaw (also Mong Mao) is located the Kyause region, was circular in shape, and has tentatively been dated to the first millennium B.C.. At 2.5 kilometers in diameter and 222 hectares, Maingmaw is one of the largest ancient cities on the entire Kyaukse plains. It has two inner enclosure walls, the outer of which is square while the inner one is circular. The plan of a circle within a square suggest a zodiac sign which represents a view of the heavens from the perspective of the sun, the manner in which 19th century Mandalay was also conceptualized. At almost dead center, a 19th century temple called Nandawya Paya, which was probably built upon the ruins of an ancient one. The city is bisected by a canal, thought to be contemporary to the city, though no scientific dating has confirmed it. Excavations—the first of which was carried out in 1979—have unearthed many artifacts, including jewelry, silver coins, and funerary urns. Many of the artifacts such as the coins and funerary urns are virtually identical to those found. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Binnaka too was located in the Kyaukse region, and virtually identical to its neighbor Maingmaw in numerous ways. Its brick structures shared the same floor plan as those found at Beikthano and other Pyu sites. Excavations have recovered pre-Buddhist artifacts, gold necklaces, precious stone images of elephants, turtles and lions, distinctive Pyu pottery, terracotta tablets with writing that strongly resembled the Pyu script, and various kinds of acid-etched onyx beads along with others made of amber and jade. Also excavated are distinctive silver coins identical to those found at Beikthano and Binnaka, stone molds for casting silver and gold ornamental flowers, a gold armlet in association with a silver bowl that has Pyu writing on it, and funerary urns virtually identical to those found Beikthano and Binnaka. +

Both Maingmaw and Binnaka may have been contemporary of Beikthano. The chronicles, which do not mention Beikthano at all, do mention the two, though not specifically as Pyu cities. The chronicles state that the ruler of Binnaka was responsible for the fall of Tagaung, the city identified by the chronicles as the original home of Burmese speakers. Binnaka was inhabited until about the 19th century, according to a Konbaung era palm-leaf sittan (record) discovered there. +

Aside from Sri Ksetra and Beikthano, the rest of the Pyu sites have not been extensively excavated. The care of the sites falls under the purview of the Ministry of Culture's Department of Archaeology. In November 2011, the Department reportedly was planning a museum at Sri Ksetra, and working with the UNESCO to gain recognition for Sri Ksetra, Beikthano and Halin as World Heritage sites.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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