KING ANAWRAHTA, THE MONGOL INVASION OF BURMA AND THE RISE AND FALL OF PAGAN

KING ANAWRAHTA

King Anawrahta (reigned 1044-77) was the first king of all of Myanmar. He unified the Burman people, introduced them to Theravada Buddhism and set Pagan on the road to magnificence and splendor. During his reign Anawrahta united the northern homeland of the Myanmar people with the Mon kingdoms of the south. He extended his dominion as far north as the kingdom of Nanchao. west to Arakan. south to the Gulf of Martaban (near what is now Yangon) and as far east as what is now northern Thailand. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Historically verifiable Burmese history begins with Anawrahta’s accession. In 1057 he captured the Mon city of Thaton. a center of Indian civilization. Its fall led the other Mon rulers to submit to the Burmans for the first time and this led to Burman dominance of the Irrawaddy River delta. Anawrahta was converted to Theravada Buddhism by a Mon monk. Shin Arahan. As king. Anawrahta strove to convert his people from the influence of the Ari. a Mahayana Tantric Buddhist sect that was at that time predominant in central Myanmar. Primarily through his efforts. Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion of Myanmar and the inspiration for its culture and civilization. He maintained diplomatic relations with King Vijayabahu of Ceylon. who in 1071 requested the assistance of Myanmar monks to help revive the Buddhist faith. The Ceylonese king sent Anawrahta a replica of the Buddha's tooth relic. which was placed in the Shwezigon pagoda at Pagan. ~

During his 33 year reign Anawrahta founded the Pagan Empire, unifying for the first time the regions that would later constitute the modern-day Burma. Anawrahta's successors by the late 12th century had extended their influence farther south into the upper Malay peninsula, at least to the Salween river in the east, below the current China border in the farther north, and to the west, northern Arakan and the Chin Hills. (The Burmese Chronicles claim Pagan's suzerainty over the entire Chao Phraya river valley, and the Siamese chronicles include the lower Malay peninsula down to the Straits of Malacca to Pagan's realm.) By the early 12th century, Pagan had emerged as a major power alongside the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia, recognized by the Chinese Song Dynasty, and Indian Chola dynasty. Well into the mid-13th century, most of mainland Southeast Asia was under some degree of control of either the Pagan Empire or the Khmer Empire. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Anawrahta also implemented a series of key social, religious and economic reforms that would have a lasting impact in Burmese history. His social and religious reforms later developed into the modern-day Burmese culture. The most important development was the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma. During his reign King Anawrahta was a prolific dam- and canal-builder, especially along the Zawgyi river. He viewed his hydro projects as atonement for killing his foster-brother Sokkate.

King Anawrahta and the Defeat of the Mon

In A.D. 1057 King Anawrahta defeated the Mon Kingdom to the south, creating an empire that was nearly the shape and size of present-day Myanmar as well as the Menam Valley in Thailand. Anawrahta attacked in the Mon around the same time the First Crusade was taking Jerusalem because the Mon king would not provide him with holy relics and accurate scriptures he requested in his crusade to purify Pagan's Buddhism. When Mon was defeated Anawrahta invited their king and court to his palace and treated them like royal guests. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, March 1971.]

Anawrahta established his capital in Pagan with 30 elephant loads of Mon treasures and 30,000 Mon prisoner-artisans, which included, according to one inscription, "such men as were skilled in carving, and painting; masons, moulders of plaster and flower-patterns; blacksmiths, silversmiths, braziers, founders of gongs and cymbals, filigree flower-workers; doctors and trainers of elephants and horses; makers of shields...cannon muskets, and bows, men skilled in frying, poaching, baking...hairdressers, and men cunning in perfumes, odors, flowers and the juices of flowers."

After defeating the Mon,King Anawrahta converted to Therevada Buddhism and set in motion a merit-earning temple-building campaign. He made Therevada Buddhism the official religion, driving out other Buddhist sects and suppressing and regulating animists. Contact with the Mons enriched Myanmar civilization. The Mons gave the Myanmar an artistic and literary tradition and a system of writing. The earliest extant Myanmar inscription. written in Mon characters appeared in 1058.

King Anawrahta and Theravada Buddhism

Aruguably King Anawrahta’s greatest and most lasting achievement was was the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma after Pagan's conquest of the Thaton Kingdom in 1057. Supported by royal patronage, the Buddhist school gradually spread to the village level in the next three centuries although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. [Source: Wikipedia]

A war broke out between King Anawrahta of Pagan and the Mon King Manuhar. when King Manuhar refused to hand over sacred Buddhist texts to Pagan. After the war. King Manuhar was captured and was kept under restrictions for a long time in Pagan until his death. He built Manuhar Temple while he was there.

According to baganmyanmar.com: “Anawrahta was a king of strong religious zeal as well as one of great power. His clay votive tablets, made to acquire merit, are found widely in Myanmar from Katha in the north to Twante in the south. These votive tablets usually have, on the obverse, a seated image of the Buddha in the earth-touching attitude, with two lines underneath which express the essence of the Buddhist creed: ‘The Buddha hath the causes told/ Of all things springing from causes; / And also how things cease to be, / 'Tis this the Mighty Monk proclaims.’ On the reverse would be the prayer: ‘Desiring that he may be freed from samscira the Great Prosperous King Aniruddha himself made this image of the Lord.’” [Source: baganmyanmar.com **]

“The chronicles relate that a monk from Thaton, Shin Arahan, came to Anawrahta in Bagan and preached to him the Law, on which Anawrahta was seized with an ecstasy of faith and said, "Master, we have no other refuge than thee! From this day forth, my master, we dedicate our body and our life to thee! And, master, from thee I take my doctrine!" Shin Arahan further taught Anawrahta that without the Scriptures, the Tipitaka, there could be no study, and that it was only with the Tipitaka that the Religion would last long. Anawrahta, informed that there were thirty sets of the Tipitaka at Thaton, sent an envoy with presents to its king,Manuha, and asked for the Tipitaka. Manuha refused, on which Anawrahta sent a mighty army, conquered Thaton, and brought back the thirty sets of Tipitaka on Manuha's thirty-two white elephants, as well as Manuha and his court and all manners of artisans and craftsmen. **

“The establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religion of Myanmar did not preclude the existence of other schools and beliefs. Prior to the coming of Buddhism there existed in Myanmar a folk religion which involved the worship of nats or spirits to whom offerings were made. The spirits were not only those of nature, but also of personages who had died a violent or tragic death. At Bagan the cult of the Mahagiri ("Great Mountain") rato-brother and sister who had their abode at Mount Popa, 40 miles to the southeast of Bagan-was particularly strong This folk religion persisted in a symbiotic existence with Theravada Buddhism at Bagan. But that was not all. Mahayana Buddhism, with its pantheon of Bodhisattvas who had postponed their entry into nirvana to help their fellow creatures find salvation, also continued to have a tenuous presence at Bagan, a presence which can be detected in some of the details of the monuments. There was a presence too of Hinduism, which the court drew upon for some of its rituals and ceremonies.” **

Pagan Empire Under King Anawrahta

Anawrahta proved an energetic king. His acts as king were to strengthen his kingdom's economic base. In the first decade of his reign, he invested much effort into turning the arid parched lands of central Burma into a rice granary, successfully building/enlarging weirs and canals, mainly around the Kyaukse district, east of Pagan. The newly irrigated regions attracted people, giving him with an increased manpower base. He graded every town and village according to the levy it could raise. The region, known as Ledwin (lit. "rice country"), became the granary, the economic key of the north country. History shows that one who gained control of Kyaukse became kingmaker in Upper Burma. [Source: Wikipedia +]

By the mid-1050s, Anawrahta's reforms had turned Pagan into a regional power, and he looked to expand. Over the next ten years, he founded the Pagan Empire, the Irrawaddy valley at the core, surrounded by tributary states. Anawrahta began his campaigns in the nearer Shan Hills, and extended conquests to Lower Burma down to the Tenasserim coast to Phuket and North Arakan. Estimates of the extent of his empire vary greatly. The Burmese and Siamese chronicles report an empire which covered the present-day Burma and northern Thailand. The Siamese chronicles assert that Anawrahta conquered the entire Menam valley, and received tribute from the Khmer king. One Siamese chronicle states that Anawrahta's armies invaded the Khmer kingdom and sacked the city of Angkor, and another one goes so far as to say that Anawrahta even visited Java to receive his tribute. +

Archaeological evidence however confirms only a smaller empire of the Irrawaddy valley and nearer periphery. Anawrahta's victory terracotta votive tablets emblazoned with his name in Sanskrit have been found along the Tenasserim coastline in the south, Katha in the north, Thazi in the east and Minbu in the west. In the northeast, a series of 43 forts Anawrahta established along the eastern foothills, of which 33 still exist as villages, reveal the effective extent of his authority. Moreover, most scholars attribute Pagan's control of peripheral regions (Arakan, Shan Hills) to later kings—Arakan to Alaungsithu, and cis-Salween Shan Hills to Narapatisithu. (Even those latter-day kings may not have had more than nominal control over the farther peripheral regions. For example, some scholars such as Victor Lieberman argue that Pagan did not have any "effective authority" over Arakan. +

At any rate, all scholars accept that during the 11th century, Pagan consolidated its hold of Upper Burma, and established its authority over Lower Burma. The emergence of Pagan Empire would have a lasting impact on Burmese history as well as the history of mainland Southeast Asia. The conquest of Lower Burma checked the Khmer Empire's encroachment into the Tenasserim coast, secured control of the peninsular ports, which were transit points between the Indian Ocean and China, and facilitated growing cultural exchange with the external world: Mons of Lower Burma, India and Ceylon. Equally important was Anawrahta's conversion to Theravada Buddhism from his native Ari Buddhism. The Burmese king provided the Buddhist school, which had been in retreat elsewhere in South Asia and Southeast Asia, a much needed reprieve and a safe shelter. By the 1070s, Pagan had emerged as the main Theravada stronghold. In 1071, it helped to restart the Theravada Buddhism in Ceylon whose Buddhist clergy had been wiped out by the Cholas. Another key development according to traditional scholarship was the emergence of the Burmese script, believed to have been derived from the Mon script in 1058, one year after the conquest of Thaton. However recent research, though not yet settled, suggests that the Burmese script may have been derived in the 10th century from the Pyu script instead. +

Pagan Kings After Anawrahta

Anawrahta was followed by a line of able kings who cemented Pagan's place in history. Pagan entered a gilded age that would last for the next two centuries. Aside from a few occasional rebellions, the kingdom was largely peaceful during the period.

King Anawrahta was succeeded by King Kyansittha (r. 1084–1113), a ruthless general who fell in love with Anawrahta’s wife and later took over the throne. King Alaungsithu (1113–1167) came to power in 1113. He presided over Pagan when it was a great trading empire and even captained a ship with a crew of 800 to Ceylon, which was over 1,500 miles away. Also regarded as a poet, he was smothered to death by his own son, Narathu, on a terrace of Schwegugyi Temple. By one count Alaungsithu had reached the age of 101 and his son was impatient to claim the throne.

After killing his father, King Narathu (1160-65) secured the throne by killing his uncle, his own wife and son and poisoned his older half brother who was heir to the throne and married one of his father’s mistresses. He in turn was murdered in 1170. Although there is no evidence to back up the claim, it is said he was stabbed to death by his Hindu wife because she found his toilet habits offensive. He in turn is said to have killed one of his wives by stabbing her through the heart with a sword after she complained that he never washed.

King Thisithus Dhamana reportedly drank a life-prolonging elixir made from the hearts of 6,000 humans. King Narathihapate (1256–1287) is was said never sat down to fewer than 300 curries a day. The way some Burmese bring out dish after dish for their guests from their small kitchens detached from their houses, you just might believe them.

Pagan Grows and Matures Under Kings Kyansittha and Alaungsithu

King Kyansittha (r. 1084–1113) successfully melded the diverse cultural influences introduced into Pagan by Anawrahta's conquests. He patronized Mon scholars and artisans who emerged as the intellectual elite. He appeased the Pyus by linking his genealogy to the real and mythical ancestors of Sri Ksetra, the symbol of the Pyu golden past, and by calling the kingdom Pyu, even though it had been ruled by a Burman ruling class. He supported and favored Theravada Buddhism while tolerating other religious groups. To be sure, he pursued these policies all the while maintaining the Burman military rule. By the end of his 28-year reign, Pagan had emerged a major power alongside the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia, recognized as a sovereign kingdom by the Chinese Song Dynasty, and the Indian Chola Dynasty. Several diverse elements—art, architecture, religion, language, literature, ethnic plurality—had begun to synthesize. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Pagan's rise continued under Alaungsithu (r. 1113–1167), who focused on standardizing administrative and economic systems. The king, also known as Sithu I, actively expanded frontier colonies and built new irrigation systems throughout the kingdom. He also introduced standardized weights and measures throughout the country to assist administration as well as trade. The standardization provided an impetus for the monetization of Pagan's economy, the full impact of which however would not be felt until later in the 12th century. The kingdom prospered from increased agricultural output as well as from inland and maritime trading networks. Much of the wealth was devoted to temple building. Temple building projects, which began in earnest during Kyansittha's reign, became increasingly grandiose, and began to transition into a distinctively Burman architectural style from earlier Pyu and Mon norms. By the end of Sithu I's reign, Pagan enjoyed a more synthesized culture, an efficient government and a prosperous economy. However a corresponding growth in population also put pressure on "the fixed relationship between productive land and population", forcing the later kings to expand. +

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Most of the major monuments at Pagan were built in the century following the death of King Anawrahta, particularly during the reigns of his son) King Kyanzittha (1084-1112) and King Narapatizithu (1170-1211). In fact so many temples were constructed that the 12th century is known as the Golden Age of Burmese Temple Building. The prototypic forms for both the Burmese stupa and the Burmese temple date to this time, although in later periods the stupa instead of the temple becomes the preferred building type. Also in the 12th century Pagan became an international center for Buddhist learning. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“Burma became more culturally cohesive under King Anawrahta’s second successor, King Kyanzittha, who was also an ardent Buddhist.. Kyanzittha was a builder of impressive temples such as the Nagayon, the Abeyadana, and the Ananda - one of the few temples to remain in constant use since it was created and the object of national pilgrimage. With in the brick walls of Pagan, he also built a fabulous palace that he had described in great detail in a lengthy inscription. The third great king Narapatisithu, constructed three great temples including the Dhamma-yazika stupa, one of the largest pentagonal buildings in the world. =

Pagan at Its Peak

Pagan reached the height of political and administrative development during the reigns of Narapatisithu (Sithu II; r. 1174–1211) and Htilominlo (r. 1211–1235). The kingdom's borders expanded to its greatest extent. Military organization and success reached their zenith. Monumental architecture achieved a qualitative and quantitative standard that subsequent dynasties tried to emulate but never succeeded in doing. The court finally developed a complex organization that became the model for later dynasties. the agricultural economy reached its potential in Upper Burma. The Buddhist clergy, the sangha, enjoyed one of its most wealthy periods. Civil and criminal laws were codified in the vernacular, Burmese, to become the basic jurisprudence for subsequent ages. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Sithu II formally founded the Palace Guards in 1174, the first extant record of a standing army, and pursued an expansionist policy. Over his 27-year reign, Pagan's influence reached further south into the Malay peninsula, at least to the Salween river in the east and below the current China border in the farther north. (Burmese chronicles also claim trans-Salween Shan states, including Kengtung and Chiang Mai.) Continuing his grandfather Sithu I's policies, Sithu II expanded the agricultural base of the kingdom with new manpower from the conquered areas, ensuring the needed wealth for a growing royalty and officialdom. Pagan dispatched governors to supervise more closely ports in Lower Burma and the peninsula. In the early 13th century, Pagan, alongside the Khmer Empire, was one of two main empires in mainland Southeast Asia. +

His reign also saw the rise of Burmese culture which finally emerged out of the shadows of Mon and Pyu cultures. With the Burman leadership of the kingdom now unquestioned, the term Mranma (Burmans) was openly used in Burmese language inscriptions. The Burmese script became the primary script of the kingdom, replacing Pyu and Mon scripts. His reign also saw the realignment of Burmese Buddhism with Ceylon's Mahavihara school. The Pyus receded into the background, and by the early 13th century, had largely assumed the Burman ethnicity. +

During this time the languages spoken in the Pagan kingdom were Burmese, Mon, Pyu. The main religions were Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and animism. The population in 1210 was estimated to be between 1.5 to 2 million.

Decline of Pagan

The Pagan kingdom went into decline in the mid-13th century as the continuous growth of tax-free religious wealth by the 1280s had severely affected the crown's ability to retain the loyalty of courtiers and military servicemen. This ushered in a vicious circle of internal disorders and external challenges by the Arakanese, Mons, Mongols and Shans. Repeated Mongol invasions (1277–1301) toppled the four-century-old kingdom in 1287. The collapse was followed by 250 years of political fragmentation that lasted well into the 16th century. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Sithu II's success in state building created stability and prosperity throughout the kingdom. His immediate successors Htilominlo and Kyaswa (r. 1235–1249) were able to live off the stable and bountiful conditions he passed on with little state-building on their part. Htilomino hardly did any governing. A devout Buddhist and scholar, the king gave up the command of the army, and left administration to a privy council of ministers, the forebear of the Hluttaw. But the seeds of Pagan's decline were sowed during this seemingly idyllic period. The state had stopped expanding but the practice of donating tax-free land to religion had not. The continuous growth of tax-free religious wealth greatly reduced the tax base of the kingdom. Indeed, Htilominlo was the last of the temple builders although most of his temples were in remote lands not in the Pagan region, reflecting the deteriorating state of royal treasury. +

By the mid-13th century, the problem had worsened considerably. The Upper Burma heartland over which Pagan exercised most political control had run out of easily reclaimed irrigable tracts. Yet their fervent desire to accumulate religious merit for better reincarnations made it impossible for Pagan kings to halt entirely their own or other courtiers' donations. The crown did try to reclaim some of these lands by periodically purging the clergy in the name of Buddhist purification, and seizing previously donated lands. Although some of the reclamation efforts were successful, powerful Buddhist clergy by and large successfully resisted such attempts. Ultimately, the rate of reclamation fell behind the rate at which such lands were dedicated to the sangha. (The problem was exacerbated to a smaller degree by powerful ministers, who exploited succession disputes and accumulated their own lands at the expense of the crown.) By 1280, between one and two-thirds of Upper Burma's cultivatable land had been donated to religion. Thus the throne lost resources needed to retain the loyalty of courtiers and military servicemen, inviting a vicious circle of internal disorders and external challenges by Mons, Mongols and Shans. +

Mongols in South-East Asia

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Present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, were the targets of Kublai Khan's last efforts at expanding Mongol lands southward from China. The jungle-covered, hot and humid lands of Southeast Asia were quite different from the steppes of Central Asia and stretched the Mongol armies to their limits. There were also the challenges of a sea transport and unfamiliar styles of warfare.

According to historian Stephen Turnbull: “The Mongols had fought everywhere from the steppes of Mongolia to the snowy forests of Russia, from the mountains in Korea to the deserts of Syria but it was in the jungles of south-east Asia were the Mongols were faced with conditions and factors that were the most unfamiliar to them. These factors, most notably the heat and humidity took their toll on the Mongol military. Dense jungles, tropical swamps and long rivers were not suited to Mongol styles of warfare and although the Mongol army was able to adapt they were essentially never in their element during any of their south-east Asian campaigns.” [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull; Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com *^*]

The Mongol wars in Southeast Asia marked the southern limit of the Mongol conquests. By this time the Mongol empire had split into various khanates with the most notable being the Il-khans of Persia, the Golden horde of Russia and the Jagadai khanate of central Asia. On top of this was the Yuan dynasty of China founded by Kublai Khan. A series of wars between the khanates effectively ended Mongol expansion westward whilst the campaigns against Japan and in Southeast Asia ordered under Kublai ended eastward expansion of the Yuan Mongol-Chinese Empire. These campaigns were very costly and many ended without effectively achieving their goals. The Mongol failures in Southeast Asia and Japan also marked the beginning of the end of Mongol power in China by undermining the Yuan dynasty's formidable military reputation.

Mongol Campaign in Burma

Beginning in the early 13th century, the Shans began to encircle the Pagan Empire from the north and the east. The Mongols, who had conquered Yunnan, the former homeland of the Burmans in 1253, began their invasion of Burma in 1277, and in 1287 sacked Pagan, ending the Pagan kingdom's 250-year rule of the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. Pagan's rule of central Burma came to an end ten years later in 1297 when it was toppled by Myinsaing. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The first signs of disorder appeared soon after Narathihapate's accession in 1256. The inexperienced king faced revolts in Arakanese state of Macchagiri (present-day Kyaukpyu District) in the west, and Martaban (Mottama) in the south. The Martaban rebellion was easily put down but Macchagiri required a second expedition before it too was put down. The calm did not last long. Martaban again revolted in 1281. This time, Pagan could not do anything to retake Martaban because it was facing an existential threat from the north.

The first invasion in 1277 defeated the Burmese at the battle of Ngasaunggyan, and secured their hold of Kanngai (modern-day Yingjiang, Yunnan, 112 kilometers north of Bhamo). In 1283–84, their forces moved south and occupied Bhamo. In 1287, Mongol armies invaded farther south once again. Instead of defending the country, the king fled Pagan for Lower Burma where he was assassinated by one of his sons.

Kublai Khan’s Attack on Pagan

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Mongol archer
In 1277, Kublai Khan attacked Pagan after the conquest of Yunnan, reportedly after the eccentric King Narathihapate---"the swallower of 300 dishes of curry daily"” refused to pay a tribute and murdered an envoy sent by the Great Khan. During Narathihapate'a rule Pagan's resources had been depleted by a massive temple-building campaign and other indulgences, bankrupting the kingdom and making it ripe for defeat.

There some doubts about exactly how Kublai Khan defeated the Burmese. Marco Polo reported that he defeated the Southeast Asian empire with only jugglers and clowns, while the Burmese claim the Great Khan employed six million horsemen and twenty million foot soldiers. Most historian believe the Mongol-Chinese force consisted of 12,000 horsemen and a smaller number of foot soldiers.

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: In 1271 the Yunnan government in Dali was used by Kublai to demand tribute from the king of Burma, Narathihapate. Narathihapate, who was said to have 3,000 concubines, sent back the Yunnan ambassadors empty handed. In 1273 Kublai sent more ambassadors along with a letter written by himself demanding tribute. This time however the ambassadors were killed over a dispute involving not taking off their shoes in the king's presence. The Yunnanese convinced the Khan that only war would bring the kingdom of Burma under Mongol control. [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com *^*]

Mongol Campaign in Burma

The Mongols under Kublai Khan demanded tribute, in 1271 and again in 1273. When Narathihapate refused both times, the Mongols systematically invaded the country. In 1277, Kublai Khan attacked Pagan after the conquest of Yunnan, reportedly after the eccentric King Narathihapate—"the swallower of 300 dishes of curry daily"— refused to pay a tribute and murdered an envoy sent by the Great Khan. During his rule much of the kingdom’s resources was spent on temple building and other indulgences that bankrupted Pagan and made it ripe for defeat.

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: Action was not taken until 1277 when an unwise raid by the Burmese into southern China made a response inevitable. Kublai sent Nasir al-Din, son of his trusted retainer Saiyid Ajall into Burma with the objective of taking the capital Pagan. The Mongols continued their advance until heat and exhaustion forced them to return to China. The Burmese king did not learn from his mistake and after further Burmese raids Kublai sent his grandson Temur on a second campaign against Burma to kill the "insolent king". The capital of Pagan was sacked and Narathihapate fled. Narathihapate was poisoned by his son, who later lost what was left of his kingdom to the Mongols in 1287 at the battle of Vochan.[Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com *^*]

The crucial battle took place in Vochan (Ngasaungsyan), 350 miles north of Pagan, near the Chinese border. Mongol horses initially shied away when they confronted a Burmese army consisted of 2,000 battle elephants and thousands of foot soldiers. But ultimately the Mongol-Chinese force prevailed after Kublai Khan's forces lured the Burmese army into a forest. Mounted Mongol archers outmaneuvered and "made pincushions of Pagan's vaunted war elephants” and “shattered the elephant cavalry's myth of invincibility."

Turnbull wrote: Burma presented similar challenges to Vietnam and Marco Polo's description of the battle of Ngasaungyyan actually compressed a decade of campaigning in Burma. In one of his accounts his mentions an encounter on the plain of Vochan between the Mongol cavalry and Burmese war elephants. The account described how 12,000 well equipped Mongol cavalry faced a Burmese army of 60,000 plus 2,000 elephants. The elephants were used by the Burmese differently to the Annamese and held between twelve to sixteen men upon wooden castles on their backs. The Mongol's horses could not be made to go anywhere near the elephants so the Mongol general had them tied up to trees and the Mongols fought dismounted. From cover of the trees they fired volley upon volley of arrows into the vulnerable parts of the elephants until they were driven away. Once the elephants had been driven away the Mongols mounted their horses and attacked the Burmese infantry defeating them. After the battle the Mongol commander took some elephants back to Kublai who included them in his armies.

It is not clear whether the Mongols Khan every occupied Pagan. Recent research indicates that Mongol armies may not have reached Pagan itself, and that even if they did, the damage they inflicted was probably minimal. But the damage was already done. All the vassal states of Pagan revolted right after the king's death, and went their own way. In the south, Wareru, the man who had seized the governorship of Martaban in 1281, consolidated Mon-speaking regions of Lower Burma, and declared Ramannadesa (Land of the Mon) independent on 4 April 1287. In the west too, Arakan stopped paying tribute. The chronicles report that the eastern territories including trans-Salween states of Keng Hung, Kengtung and Chiang Mai stopped paying tribute although most scholars attribute Pagan's limits to the Salween. At any rate, the 250-year-old Pagan Empire had ceased to exist.

Disintegration and Fall of Pagan

After their 1287 invasion, the Mongols moved farther south to Tagaung but refused to fill in the power vacuum they had created. Indeed, Emperor Kublai Khan never sanctioned an actual occupation of Pagan. His real aim appeared to have been "to keep the entire region of Southeast Asia broken and fragmented." At Pagan, one of Narathihapate's sons Kyawswa emerged king of Pagan in May 1289. But the new "king" controlled just a small area around the capital, and had no real army. The real power in Upper Burma now rested with three brothers, who were former Pagan commanders, of nearby Myinsaing. When the Hanthawaddy Kingdom of Lower Burma became a vassal of Sukhothai in 1294, it was the brothers, not Kyawswa, that sent a force to reclaim the former Pagan territory. Though the army was driven back, it left no doubt as to who held the real power in central Burma. In the following years, the brothers, especially the youngest Thihathu, increasingly acted like sovereigns. [Source: Wikipedia +]

To check the increasing power of the three brothers, Kyawswa submitted to the Mongols in January 1297, and was recognized by the Mongol emperor Temür Khan as viceroy of Pagan on 20 March 1297. The brothers resented the new arrangement as a Mongol vassalage as it directly reduced their power. On 17 December 1297, the three brothers overthrew Kyawswa, and founded the Myinsaing Kingdom. The Mongols did not know about the dethronement until June–July 1298. In response, the Mongols launched another invasion, reaching Myinsaing on 25 January 1301 but could not break through. The besiegers took the bribes by the three brothers, and withdrew on 6 April 1301. The Mongol government at Yunnan executed their commanders but sent no more invasions. They withdrew entirely from Upper Burma starting on 4 April 1303. +

By then, the city of Pagan, once home to 200,000 people, had been reduced to a small town, never to regain its preeminence. (It survived into the 15th century as a human settlement.) The brothers placed one of Kyawswa's sons as the governor of Pagan. Anawrahta's line continued to rule Pagan as governors under Myinsaing, Pinya and Ava kingdoms until 1369. The male side of Pagan ended there although the female side passed into Pinya and Ava royalty. But the Pagan line continued to be claimed by successive Burmese dynasties down to the last Burmese dynasty. +

Legacy of Pagan

The kingdom of Pagan, the "charter polity" of Burma, had a lasting impact on Burmese history and the history of mainland Southeast Asia. The success and longevity of Pagan's dominance over the Irrawaddy valley enabled the ascent of Burmese language and culture, and the spread of Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma and laid the foundation for their continued spread elsewhere in later centuries. The 250-year rule left a proven system of administrative and cultural norms that would be adopted and extended by successor kingdoms—not only by the Burmese-speaking Ava Kingdom but also by the Mon-speaking Hanthawaddy Kingdom and Shan-speaking Shan states. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Continued cultural integration in an otherwise politically fragmented post-Pagan Burma set the stage for a resurgence of a unified Burmese state in the 16th century. An apt comparison can be made with the Khmer Empire, the other Southeast Asian Empire that Mongol invasions toppled. Various Tai-Shan peoples, who came down with the Mongols, came to dominate the political landscapes of the two former empires. Whereas Burma would see a resurgence, the post-Mongol Khmer state was reduced to a mere shadow of her former self, never to regain her preeminence. Only in the former Khmer Empire, did the Thai/Lao ethnicity and Thai/Lao languages spread permanently at the expense of the Mon-Khmer speaking peoples, not unlike the Burman takeover of the Pyu realm four centuries earlier. In Burma, the result was the opposite: the Shan leadership, as well as lowland Shan immigrants of Myinsaing, Pinya, Sagaing and Ava Kingdoms came to adopt Burmese cultural norms, the Burmese language, and the Burman ethnicity. The convergence of cultural norms around existing Pagan-centered norms, at least in the Irrawaddy valley core, in turn facilitated the latter-day political reunification drives of Toungoo and Konbaung dynasties. +

The Pagan Empire also changed the history of mainland Southeast Asia. Geopolitically, Pagan checked the Khmer Empire's encroachment into the Tenasserim coast and upper Menam valley. Culturally, the emergence of Pagan as a Theravada stronghold in the face of an expanding Hindu Khmer Empire from the 11th to 13th centuries provided the Buddhist school, which had been in retreat elsewhere in South Asia and Southeast Asia, a much needed reprieve and a safe shelter.[105] Not only did Pagan help restart Theravada Buddhism in Ceylon but the over two centuries of patronage by a powerful empire made Theravada Buddhism's later growth in Lan Na (northern Thailand), Siam (central Thailand), Lan Xang (Laos), and Khmer Empire (Cambodia) in the 13th and 14th centuries possible.

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2015

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