PYU PEOPLE AND CIVILIZATION

PYU

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.

Importance and Advances of the Pyu Ancient Cities

According to UNESCO: Due to interaction between indigenous Pyu societies with Indic cultures from the 2nd century BCE, Buddhism achieved its first permanent foothold in Southeast Asia among the Pyu cities, where it was embraced by all classes of society from the ruling elite to agrarian labourers. Marked by imposing memorial stupas and other sophisticated forms of brick ritual structures, the Pyu Ancient Cities provide the earliest evidence of the emergence of these innovative architectural forms in the region, some of which have no known prototypes. The development of Pyu Buddhist urban culture had widespread and enduring impact throughout Southeast Asia, providing stimulus for later state formation after the 5th century CE following the onward transmission of Buddhist teaching and monastic practice into other parts of mainland Southeast Asia. [Source: UNESCO]

: The Pyu Ancient Cities marked the emergence of the first historically-documented Buddhist urban civilization in Southeast Asia. The establishment of literate Buddhist monastic communities arose in tandem with the re-organization of agricultural production, based on expert management of seasonally-scarce water resources and the specialized production of manufactured goods in terracotta, iron, gold, silver and semi-precious stones both for veneration and for trade. Buddhism underpinned the construction of religious monuments in brick through royal and common public patronage, marked by the shift to permanent materials from earlier timber building techniques. The Pyu developed unique mortuary practices using burial urns to store cremated remains in communal funerary structures. Trading networks linked the Pyu ancient cities with commercial centres in Southeast Asia, China and India. Through this network Buddhist missionaries carried their Pali-based teaching into other areas of mainland Southeast Asia.

Technological innovations in resource management, agriculture and manufacturing of brick and iron at the Pyu Ancient Cities created the preconditions leading to significant advances in urban planning and building construction. These innovations resulted in the rise of the three earliest, largest, and most long-lived Buddhist urban settlements in all of Southeast Asia. The Pyu cities’ urban morphology set a new template of extended urban format characterized by massive gated walls surrounded by moats; a network of roads and canals linking urban space within the walls with extensive areas of extramural development, containing civic amenities, monumental religious structures defined by towering stupas and sacred water bodies. At or near the centre of each ancient city was an administrative compound containing the palace marking the cosmic hub of the Pyu political and social universe.

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.

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, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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