Bagan (pronounced bah-Gahn and also spelled Pagan) is one of the world's most awesome sights. Surpassed in Southeast Asia only by Angkor Wat, this ancient city covers an area of 30 square miles and contains by one count 3,317 temples, stupas and pagodas. The shear scale of Bagan is what makes it so impressive: religious buildings are everywhere, and there are enough of them to go around so that no matter how many people are at Bagan it never seems swamped with tourists. The Scottish anthropologist James George wrote in 1910: “Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of them can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament.”
Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Bagan, at a bend of the Irrawaddy River in the dry zone of Upper Burma, is, with its almost 3000 recorded brick monuments, the world’s largest archaeological site related to Buddhism. During its heyday, in the 11th to 13th centuries, it was a big, international metropolis and a center of political and religious life. The murals of the temples suggest that monasteries and palaces made of teak as well as more modest bamboo houses, such as those that can still be seen in remote villages, were scattered among brick-constructed religious monuments. The founders of the greatness of Bagan were Burmese who are believed to have emigrated from South China to the Irrawaddy river area at some time in the 9th and the 10th centuries. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]
Bagan and the Khmer civilization that produced Angkor Wat got their start at roughly the same time—the mid 9th century. Bagan's history has been carefully pieced together by a Burmese archeologist and monk named U Bokay, who has translated stone inscriptions, copper tablets and palm leaf manuscripts from the Mon, Pyu, Sanskrit and Pali languages into Burmese and English. Part of his job has been establishing the truth about Bagan. It was claimed, for example, that the Burmese capital had 4,486,733 pagoda and that the king destroyed 14,000 to build a defensive wall against Kublai Khan. U Bokay says at most there were 5,000 pagodas and the battle against the Mongols wasn’t even fought at Bagan.
Established on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan was a great capital and wealthy trading port while Europe was in the Dark Ages. was already a sizeable metropolis in the 9th century, when it was inhabited by Burman tribes who had migrated to the area in preceding centuries from China and Tibet. 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.
Creation of the Bagan Empire by King Anawrahta
Anawrahta arrived at Bagan with 32 white elephants, carrying 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."
Not long after defeating the Mon and unifying Burma’s ethnic groups in the 11th century, King Anawrahta converted to Therevada Buddhism and embarked on a merit-earning temple-building frenzy that was carried on by his son and their successors. Most of the temples that stand in Bagan today were built in the 12th century at a rate of one or two a month, along with libraries, monasteries and housing for pilgrims. When Burmese civilization was at its zenith the great Bagan area was home to a perhaps half million people, including pagoda slaves, who maintained the temples and their artwork.
Enriched through trade with China and India, Bagan became so wealthy the children of royalty played with gold and silver toys. The city was known as "the city four million pagodas" and described by Marco Polo as "a very great and noble city" with "the most beautiful towers in the world.” He probably didn't visit Bagan, he just relayed descriptions he had heard. Bagan reputedly once had 4,486,733 pagodas (although U Bokay says that a more likely figure is 5,000). Many were destroyed to build a defensive wall against of the horse-mounted Mongols army of Kublai Khan, which attacked in 1287 and defeated the Burmese in battle south of Bagan by outmaneuvering and "making pincushions" out of Bagan's "invincible" war elephants.
The Burmese king was forced to flee Bagan but the great city wasn't sacked, some say , because the Mongols couldn’t stand the heat and left within six months. Other says it was because Kublai Kha respected Buddhism and he ordered his troops not to destroy or loot the temples or their religious objects. This is one reason why there are so many temples in Bagan today.
Although Bagan, declined after the Mongol defeat, it continued to exist and temples and pagodas continued to be built. While large numbers of pilgrims continued to come temples were neglected and plundered by looters and treasure hunters, who broke open statues and dug under foundations in search of loot. This tradition was continued by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries with their booty being hauled off to European museums.
Bagan and the Burmans
The Burmans (Bamar) emerged from the north in the 9th century and took over territory occupied by the Pyus in the central valleys if present-day Myanmar. The Burmans expanded their territory southward and conquered the Mons at Pegu. The first great Burmese kingdom was established by King Anarrahat in 1057. With a capital in Bagan, This empire encompassed most of present-day Myanmar as well as the Menam Valley in Thailand. It lasted for two centuries until Kublai Khan invaded. Established on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan was already a sizeable metropolis in the 9th century, when it was inhabited by Burman tribes who had migrated to the area in preceding centuries from China and Tibet.
The Kingdom of Bagan was the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern-day Burma (Myanmar). Bagan's 250-year rule over the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery laid the foundation for the ascent of Burmese language and culture, the spread of Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma, and the growth of Theravada Buddhism in Burma and in mainland Southeast Asia. The kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at Bagan (Bagan) by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the Kingdom of Nanzhao. Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to absorb its surrounding regions until the 1050s and 1060s when King Anawrahta founded the Bagan Empire, for the first time unifying under one polity the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. By the late 12th century Anawrahta's successors had extended their influence farther to the south into the upper Malay peninsula, to the east at least to the Salween river, in the farther north to below the current China border, and to the west, in northern Arakan and the Chin Hills. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Bagan, alongside the Khmer Empire, was one of two main empires in mainland Southeast Asia. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “ Bagan, the most important historical site in Burma, lies within a major bend of the Irrawaddy River where its east-west course turns and flows south. This capitol city, constructed entirely on the left bank of the river, is in the most arid part of the dry zone of Central Burma. Founded at sometime before the 9th century AD, Bagan was the capitol of the first Burmese kingdom from the 11th-14th centuries after its first great ruler, King Anawrahta, politically consolidated all of central Burma by conquering both the Pyu and the Mon peoples. Art and Architecture flourished during the Bagan Period and classic models were established that were copied by later kingdoms. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Today, the archaeological site consists of 2,230 buildings and mounds scattered over approximately twenty-five square miles of the Bagan plain. A general pattern in the displacement of these structures is that the earlier buildings were built nearer the riverbank while later buildings are found at a distance. Among these structures are 911 temples, of which 347 have conserved to some extent their mural paintings; 524 stupas; 415 monasteries; 31 other structures including image houses, libraries and ordination halls; and numerous unexcavated mounds produced by collapsed structures. All were constructed for religious purposes except for the “city” wall. This wall was probably built to protect one of the original cites at this site. However, by the Bagan Period, this small-enclosed area had become a royal enclave with most of the city’s structures and inhabitants situated outside the wall.” =
Early Burmans and Ancient People of Myanmar
The ethnic Burmans—the people who ruled Bagan and dominate Myanmar today— didn't arrive until A.D. 9th century. Over a period of few centuries, they emigrated south from Tibet, passed through what is now the Yunnan Province of China and established settlements along the Irrawaddy River.
The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese and Cambodians originated from southern China. The Burmans appear to have migrated south from Tibet to Yunnan in China, along with several other linguistic and cultural groups, more than 3,000 years ago. They, the Tai and the Mons have similar physical characteristics have been described by some anthropologist as southern Mongoloids.
Trickles of Burman migrations may have begun as early as the 7th century. According to the Myanmar government : By “A.D. 800 Bamar and its racial groups came into Myanmar along the Thanlwin river via the Nat Htate Valley in the south-east of Kyauk-se Township. At that time Thet and Kadu were living in the northern part of Myanmar at Tagaung, which was in the east of Irrawaddy river. Ancient Rakhine were living at Vesali . Mon were residing at Thaton which was situated near the sea and Pyu were staying at Sri Kshetra which was near Hmaw Zar village near the town of Pyi. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
The Burmans came down in significant numbers with the early 9th Nanzhao raids of the Pyu states and remained in Upper Burma. Like that of the Pyu, the original home of Burmans prior to Yunnan is believed to be present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces. After the Nanzhao attacks had greatly weakened the Pyu city-states, large numbers of Burman warriors and their families entered the Pyu realm in the 830s and 840s and settled at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, perhaps to help Nanzhao pacify the surrounding countryside. Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to include its immediate surrounding areas— to about 200 miles north to south and 80 miles from east to west by Anawrahta's accession in 1044. Historically verifiable Burmese history begins with Anawrahta's accession. [Source: Wikipedia]
Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism were introduced into southeast Asia around the time of Christ, when Thailand and southern Burma were inhabited by people known as Mons. The Mons adopted Therevada which had been introduced by way of Eastern India. Northern Burma, which had stronger historical links with India, was dominated by Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India.
Origins of Bagan
Tradition has it that Bagan was founded by Thamoddarit in the early 2nd century with King Pyinbya being the first one to reign over a walled city, with twelve gates, in 849. The Burmese chronicles give a list of kings who reigned at Bagan from Thamoddarit onwards, with Pyinbya as the 34th king. But legend is inextricably mingled with history, and sometimes overshadow it, in the accounts of the kings in the chronicles. [Source: baganmyanmar.com ]
Various Burmese chronicles do not agree on the date of foundation of Bagan. One of the earliest chronicles, Yazawin Kyaw compiled in 1520, states that the kingdom of Bagan was founded in 156 A.D. by King Pyusawhti. The 18th century chronicle Maha Yazawin links the Bagan monarchs to the Sri Ksetra Kingdom, stating that Bagan was founded in 107 A.D. by King Thamudarit, a scion of Sri Ksetra Kingdom. The Buddha visited the future site of Bagan during his lifetime and predicted that a great city would arise at the very site 651 years after his death (A.D. 107). The 19th century chronicle Hmannan Yazawin went further, asserting that the founders of the Bagan dynasty ultimate trace their origins back to the clan of the Buddha. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Still according to the standard chronicles, Thamudarit fixed the capital at Arimaddana-pura ("the City that Tramples on Enemies"), near present-day Nyaung U, and named his kingdom Pugarama. His "kingdom" included 19 villages in the region. The 19 villages were: (1) Nyaung U, (2) Naga Soe, (3) Naga Kyit, (4) Magyi Kyi, (5) Htude, (6) Kyauk Zaga, (7) Ohte Thein, (8) Nyaungwun, (9) Anuradha, (10) Dazaungkun, (11) Ywa Mohn, (12) Kyinlo, (13) Kokko, (14) Taungpa, (15) Myegedwin, (16) Thayet Ya, (17) Singu, (18) Yonlut, and (19) Ywa Zaik. +
The origins of the Bagan kingdom have been reconstructed using archaeological evidence as well as the Burmese chronicle tradition. Considerable differences exist between the views of modern scholarship and various chronicle narratives. Burmese chronicles do not agree on the origins of the Bagan kingdom. Chronicles down to the 18th century trace its origins to 167 A.D., when Pyusawhti, a descendant of a solar spirit and a dragon princess, founded the dynasty at Bagan. But the 19th-century Glass Palace Chronicle (Hmannan Yazawin) connects the dynasty's origins to the clan of the Buddha and the first Buddhist king Maha Sammata. +
Modern scholarship holds that the Bagan dynasty was founded by the Mranma (Burmans) of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the A.D. mid-to-late 9th century; that the earlier parts of the chronicle are the histories and legends of the Pyu people, the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant; and that Bagan kings had adopted the Pyu histories and legends as their own. Indeed, European scholars of the British colonial period were even more sceptical, dismissing outright the chronicle tradition of early Burmese history as "copies of Indian legends taken from Sanskrit or Pali originals" , and the Abhiraja story as a vain attempt by Burmese chroniclers to link their kings to the Buddha. They doubted the antiquity of the chronicle tradition, and dismissed the possibility that any sort of civilization in Burma could be much older than 500 A.D. +
The Abhiraja myth notwithstanding, more recent research does indicate that many of the places mentioned in the royal records have indeed been inhabited continuously for at least 3500 years. The earliest evidence of civilization thus far dates to 11,000 B.C.. Archaeological evidence shows that as early as the 2nd century B.C. the Pyu had built water-management systems along secondary streams in central and northern parts of the Irrawaddy basin and had founded one of Southeast Asia's earliest urban centers. By the early centuries A.D., several walled cities and towns, including Tagaung, the birthplace of the first Burman kingdom according to the chronicles, had emerged. The architectural and artistic evidence indicates the Pyu realm's contact with Indian culture by the 4th century A.D. The city-states boasted kings and palaces, moats and massive wooden gates, and always 12 gates for each of the signs of the zodiac, one of the many enduring patterns that would continue until the British occupation. Sri Ksetra emerged as the premier Pyu city-state in the 7th century A.D. Although the size of the city-states and the scale of political organization grew during the 7th to early 9th centuries, no sizeable kingdom had yet emerged by the 9th century. +
The earliest human settlement at Bagan is radiocarbon dated to c. 650 A.D. But evidence is inconclusive to prove that it was specifically a Burman settlement, not just another Pyu settlement. The 7th century settlement was part of the Pyu realm, which by then had been in existence in the Irrawaddy valley since the 2nd century B.C.. (Archaeological evidence shows that as early as the 2nd century B.C., the Pyu had built water-management systems along secondary streams in central and northern parts of the Irrawaddy basin and had founded one of Southeast Asia's earliest urban centers. By the early centuries A.D., several walled cities and towns had emerged. The architectural and artistic evidence indicates the Pyu realm's contact with Indian culture by the 4th century A.D. The city-states boasted kings and palaces, moats and massive wooden gates, and always 12 gates for each of the signs of the zodiac, one of the many enduring patterns that would continue until the British occupation. Sri Ksetra emerged as the premier Pyu city-state in the 7th century A.D. Although the size of the city-states and the scale of political organization grew during the 7th to early 9th centuries, no sizable kingdom had yet emerged by the 9th century. +
Ancient Buddhist Kings and the Origins of Bagan
According to Burmese Buddhist tradition, Bagan was known by different classical names even in the ages of previous Buddhas (i.e. before the present era of Gautama Buddha). The Glass Palace Chronicle traces the origins of the Bagan kingdom to 9th-century India, more than three centuries before the Buddha was born. Prince Abhiraja of Kosala of the Sakya clan — the clan of the Buddha — left his homeland with followers in 850 B.C. after military defeat by the neighbouring kingdom of Panchala . They settled at Tagaung in present-day northern Burma and founded a kingdom. The Chronicle does not claim that he had arrived in an empty land, only that he was the first king. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Abhiraja had two sons. The elder son Kanyaza Gyi ventured south, and founded his own kingdom at Arakan in 825 B.C.. The younger son Kanyaza Nge succeeded his father, and was followed by a dynasty of 31 kings, and then another dynasty of 17 kings. Some three and a half centuries later, in 483 B.C., scions of Tagaung founded yet another kingdom much farther down the Irrawaddy at Sri Ksetra, near modern Pyay (Prome). Sri Ksetra lasted nearly six centuries, and was succeeded in turn by the kingdom of Bagan. The Glass Palace Chronicle goes on to relate that around 107 A.D., Thamudarit, nephew of the last king of Sri Ksetra, founded the city of Bagan (formally, Arimaddana-pura, lit. "the City that Tramples on Enemies"). The site reportedly was visited by the Buddha himself during his lifetime, and it was where he allegedly pronounced that a great kingdom would arise at this very location 651 years after his death. Thamudarit was followed by a caretaker, and then Pyusawhti in 167 A.D. +
Thamudarit then appointed Pyusawhti, the founder of Bagan according to Yazawin Kyaw, as heir apparent for the commoner's bravery in defeating enemies of the state. Pyusawhti came to power in 167 A.D. He ruled for 45 years, implementing foundation institutions of the state, including its first law treatise (dhammathat). The chronicles continue that King Thili Kyaung I (r. 344–387) moved the palace to Thiri Pyissaya, not far from the Pugama site. In 439, King Thihtan died without leaving an heir, and the throne was contested among three senior ministers at the court. The victor of the power struggle, the minister Thuye ruled until his death in 494. The Pyusawhti line was restored when King Tharamon Phya, a grandson of Thihtan, was put in power by the court. Tharamon Phya's successor Thaik Taing (r. 516–523) moved the palace to Tampawaddy, near Thiri Pyissaya. The chronicle narratives then merge, and agree that a dynasty of kings followed Pyusawhti. King Pyinbya fortified the city in 849 A.D. +
The next important king was Popa Sawrahan (r. 613–640). The former monk seized the throne after King Htun Chit died in 613 A.D. He launched the Burmese calendar on 21 March 640 A.D., with the starting date of 22 March 638. (According to scholarship, the Burmese calendar was actually launched at Sri Ksetra (Pyay/Prome) by the Pyu.) Popa Sawrahan made peace with the royal line by giving his daughter to Shwe Ohnthi, son of Htun Chit and rightful heir, and making his son-in-law the heir apparent. Popa Sawrahan died in 640 soon after his new calendar was launched, and Shwe Ohnthi succeeded, restoring the Pyusawhti line. Shwe Ohnthi was followed by another a dozen kings to year 846 A.D. In 846 A.D., King Pyinbya (r. 846–886) came to power. Three years into his reign, on 23 December 849, he moved the capital to the present-day site of Bagan. All four main chronicles are in agreement with the regnal dates in this period. +
After Pyinbya's successor and son Tannet died in 904 A.D., the throne passed on to a series of usurpers for nearly a century to 1001 A.D. Nyaung-u Sawrahan (r. 956–1001), the earliest inscriptionally verified king, ruled for 45 years. A descendant of Pyusawhti, Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu restored the old royal line in 1001 but 20 years later, he was pushed out by the sons of Nyaung-u Sawrahan. In 1044, Anawrahta, son of Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu, defeated Sokkate, son of Nyaung-u Sawrahan, in single combat and seized the throne. The chronicles again do not agree with the dates for this period. +
Arrival of the Burmans at Bagan
According to a reconstruction by G.H. Luce, the millennium-old Pyu realm came crashing down under repeated attacks by the Nanzhao Kingdom of Yunnan between the 750s and 830s A.D. Like that of the Pyu, the original home of Burmans prior to Yunnan is believed to be present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces. After the Nanzhao attacks had greatly weakened the Pyu city-states, large numbers of Burman warriors and their families first entered the Pyu realm in the 830s and 840s, and settled at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, perhaps to help the Nanzhao pacify the surrounding countryside. Indeed, the naming system of the early Bagan kings—Pyusawhti and his descendants for six generations—was identical to that of the Nanzhao kings where the last name of the father became the first name of the son. The chronicles date these early kings to between the 2nd and 5th centuries A.D., scholars to between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Thant Myint-U summarizes that "the Nanzhao Empire had washed up on the banks of the Irrawaddy, and would find a new life, fused with an existing and ancient culture, to produce one of the most impressive little kingdoms of the medieval world. From this fusion would result the Burmese people, and the foundations of modern Burmese culture." +
Despite the legendary nature of both pre-Buddhist and Hmannan's Buddhist-inspired stories, a historical Pyusawhti likely existed. Historians conjecture that the historical Pyusawhti was likely a minor chief of the Nanzhao Kingdom, who was in the vanguard of the Nanzhao invasions of the upper Irrawaddy valley that began in 754 (and lasted until the 830s). Pyusawhti's victory over the Chinese likely refers to the Nanzhao victory over the Chinese in the same era, in which Pyusawhti and his contingents may have participated. +
The Bagan "kingdom" Pyusawhti led was likely a small settlement among many other small settlements in the area. (The chronicles count 19 settlements.) In the 8th century, Bagan was not yet a city or even a city-state, let alone a "kingdom". The city was merely one of several competing city-states until the 10th century. Furthermore, the 38 kings of Bagan Dynasty—from Pyusawhti to Sokkate, prior to the historically verified king Anawrahta—were probably contemporary chiefs of the Bagan area's settlements. According to the British colonial era historian GE Harvey, the Burmese chroniclers likely arranged the lists of rulers of early Burmese polities consecutively, "wishing to portray a continuous lineage stretching back to divine antiquity." +
However, some scholars believe that Burmans had arrived in Myanmar much earlier than the mainstream opinion holds. Htin Aung contends that the arrival of Burmans may have been a few centuries earlier, perhaps the early 7th century. Historians Michael Aung-Thwin and Matrii Aung-Thwin write that the 19 villages that first formed the city of Bagan according to the chronicles are "probably" "legendary" but "the origins of the Burmese speakers in Myanmar may well be earlier than, and had nothing to do with, the Nanzhao raid of A.D. 832". +
The Early Bagan Kingdom) was a city-state that existed in the first millennium A.D. before the emergence of Bagan Empire in the mid 11th century. The Burmese chronicles state that the "kingdom" was founded in the second century A.D. The seat of power of the small kingdom was first located at Arimaddana, Thiri Pyissaya, and Tampawaddy until 849 A.D. when it was moved to Bagan (Bagan). [Source: Wikipedia +]
Radiocarbon dating shows the earliest human settlement in the Bagan region dates only from the mid-7th century A.D. It existed alongside Pyu city-states that dominated Upper Burma. The city-state of Bagan, according to mainstream scholarship, was founded in the mid 9th century by the Mranma of Nanzhao Kingdom. Burmans at Bagan expanded irrigation-based cultivation while borrowing extensively from the Pyus' predominantly Buddhist culture. It was one of many competing city-states in the Pyu realm until the late 10th century when the principality began absorbing its surrounding states. The expansion accelerated in the 1050s and 1060s when King Anawrahta founded the Bagan Empire, the first ever unification of the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. +
Evidence shows that the pace of Burman migration into the Pyu realm was gradual. Indeed, no firm indications have been found at Sri Ksetra or at any other Pyu site to suggest a violent overthrow. Radiocarbon dating shows that human activity existed until c. 870 at Halin, the Pyu city reportedly destroyed by an 832 Nanzhao raid. The region of Bagan received waves of Burman settlements in the mid-to-late 9th century, and perhaps well into the 10th century. Though Hmannan states that Bagan was fortified in 849 CE—or more accurately, 876 A.D. after the Hmannan dates are adjusted to King Anawrahta's inscriptionally verified accession date of 1044 CE—the chronicle reported date is likely the date of foundation, not fortification. Radiocarbon dating of Bagan's walls points to c. 980 A.D. at the earliest. (If an earlier fortification did exist, it must have been constructed using less durable materials such as mud.) Likewise, inscriptional evidence of the earliest Bagan kings points to 956 A.D. The earliest mention of Bagan in external sources occurs in Song Chinese records, which report that envoys from Bagan visited the Song capital Bianjing in 1004. Cham and Mon inscriptions first mentioned Bagan in 1050 and 1093, respectively. [Source: Wikipedia +]
By the mid-10th century, Burmans at Bagan had expanded irrigation-based cultivation while borrowing extensively from the Pyus' predominantly Buddhist culture. Bagan's early iconography, architecture and scripts suggest little difference between early Burman and Pyu cultural forms. Moreover, no sharp ethnic distinction between Burmans and linguistically linked Pyus seems to have existed. +
The city was one of several competing city-states until the late 10th century when it grew in authority and grandeur. Starting in the late 10th century, the principality grew in authority and grandeur. The city by now was fortified. Radiocarbon dating of Bagan's walls show that Bagan was fortified most probably c. 1020 A.D. The Burmese script was already in use by 1035, and perhaps as early as 984 A.D. By Anawrahta's accession in 1044, Bagan had grown into a small principality—about 320 kilometers (200 miles) north to south and about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from east to west, comprising roughly the present districts of Mandalay, Meiktila, Myingyan, Kyaukse, Yamethin, Magwe, Sagaing, and the riverine portions of Minbu and Pakkoku. To the north lay the Nanzhao Kingdom, and to the east still largely uninhibited Shan Hills, to the south and the west Pyus, and farther south still, Mons. The size of the principality is about 6 percent of that of modern Burma/Myanmar. +
In 1044, a Bagan prince named Anawrahta came to power. Over the next three decades, he would turn this small principality into the First Burmese Empire—the "charter polity" that formed the basis of modern-day Burma/Myanmar. +
Bagan and King Anawrahta
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Although the origins of Bagan go back to before the 9th century, King Anawrahta (1044-1077 AD) was its first historical ruler. He was the first to conquer the entire dry zone in the middle of the country and he was the first to establish a single center from which to administer the kingdom. It is important that he and subsequent Kings continued to develop and expand outlying irrigation systems because rice became not only a staple in the Burmese diet but also the currency of the realm in which taxes were often paid. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Theravada Buddhism became the state religion of Bagan as a consequence of King Anawrahta’s successful conquest to obtain Buddhist texts from the Mon state of Thaton. However, there is evidence that other types of Buddhism as well as Hinduism and Animism were practiced at Bagan. =
During his reign the arts and especially architecture began to flourish. His greatest accomplishments in architecture were the five stupas he built to delimit the area of the capital city. These were arranged to approximate the shape of a square mandala. Four stupas were built at its four corners, including to the north, the most famous stupa at Bagan, the Shwezigon. A fifth, the Shwesandaw, was built at the city’s symbolic center. No temples can definitely be traced to his patronage. =
See Separate Article on King Anawrahta
King Anawrahta and His Successors
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Most of the major monuments at Bagan 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 Bagan 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 Bagan, 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.
During the thirteenth century enormous sums continued to be spent on religious foundations and their upkeep, although the structures themselves were often more modest in scale. This practice undermined the economy and weakened the power of the monarchy since all lands and wealth given to the clergy was beyond the taxation and control of the King. In 1274, King Narapatisithu constructed the last great building at Bagan, the enormous and beautifully proportioned Mingalazedi Stupa.
In 1287,when the Mongols appeared on the Northern horizon and threatened to invade Bagan, King Narathihapati fled the capital and the kingdom fragmented. The political unity of Burma was thus destroyed and was not regained until the 17th century, although Bagan continued its role as an important religious center even when later capitals were located elsewhere. See Separate Article on King Anawrahta
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