Bagan's government can be generally described by the mandala system in which the sovereign exercised direct political authority in the core region (pyi, lit. "country"), and administered farther surrounding regions as tributary vassal states (naingngans, lit. "conquered lands"). In general, the crown's authority diffused away with the increasing distance from the capital. Each state was administered at three general levels: taing (province), myo , town), and ywa , village), with the high king's court at the center. The kingdom consisted of at least 14 taings. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The core region was the present-day dry zone of Upper Burma, measuring approximately 150 kilometers to 250 kilometers in radius from the capital. The region consisted of the capital and the key irrigated hubs (khayaings, , [k^(h)?jài?]) of Kyaukse and Minbu. Because of the irrigated hubs, the region supported the largest population in the kingdom, which translated into the largest concentration of royal servicemen who could be called into military service. The king directly ruled the capital and its immediate environs while he appointed most trusted members of the royal family to rule Kyaukse and Minbu. Newly settled dry zone taik , [tai?]) areas on the west bank of the Irrawaddy were entrusted to the men of lesser rank, as well as those from powerful local families known as taik leaders (taik-thugyis). The governors and taik-leaders lived off apanage grants and local taxes. But unlike their frontier counterparts, the core zone governors did not have much autonomy because of the close proximity to the capital. +

Surrounding the core region were the naingngans or tributary states, governed by local hereditary rulers as well as Bagan appointed governors, drawn from princely or ministerial families. Because of their farther distances from the capital, the regions' rulers/governors had greater autonomy. They were required to send tributes to the crown but they generally had a freehand in the rest of the administration. They were chief justices, commanders-in-chief, and tax collectors. They made local officer appointments. In fact, no evidence of royal censuses or direct contact between the Bagan court and headmen beneath the governors has been found. +

Over the course of 250 years, the throne slowly tried to integrate the most strategically and economically important regions—i.e. Lower Burma, Tenasserim, northernmost Irrawaddy valley—into the core by appointing its governors in place of hereditary rulers. In the 12th and 13th centuries, for example, Bagan made a point of appointing its governors in the Tenasserim coast to closely supervise the ports and revenues. By the second half of the 13th century, several key ports in Lower Burma (Prome, Bassein, Dala) were all ruled by senior princes of the royal family. However, the escape of Lower Burma from Upper Burma's orbit in the late 13th century proves that the region was far from fully integrated. History shows that the region would not be fully integrated into the core until the late 18th century. +

The royal authority attenuated further in farther naingngans: Arakan, Chin Hills, Kachin Hills, and Shan Hills. These were tributary lands over which the crown only had a "largely ritual" or nominal sovereignty. In general, the king of Bagan received a periodic nominal tribute but had "no substantive authority", for example, on such matters as the selection of deputies, successors, or levels of taxation. Bagan largely stayed out of the affairs of these outlying states, only interfering when there were outright revolts, such as Arakan and Martaban in the late 1250s or northern Kachin Hills in 1277. +

Bagan Court

The court was the center of administration, representing at once executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the government. The members of the court can be divided into three general categories: royalty, ministers, and subordinate officials. At the top were the high king, princes, princesses, queens and concubines. The ministers were usually drawn from more distant branches of the royal family. Their subordinates were not royal but usually hailed from top official families. Titles, ranks, insignia, fiefs and other such rewards helped maintain the loyalty-patronage structure of the court. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The king as the absolute monarch was the chief executive, legislator and justice of the land. However, as the kingdom grew, the king gradually handed over the responsibilities over to the court, which became more extensive and complex, adding more administrative layers and officials. In the early 13th century, circa 1211, part of the court evolved into the king's privy council or Hluttaw. The role and power of the Hluttaw grew greatly in the following decades. It came to manage not only day-to-day affairs but also military affairs of the kingdom. (No Bagan king after Sithu II ever took command of the army again.) The powerful ministers also became kingmakers. Their support was an important factor in the accession of the last kings of Bagan from Htilominlo (r. 1211–1235) to Kyawswa (r. 1289–1297). +

The court was also the chief justice of the land. Sithu I (r. 1113–1167) was the first Bagan king to issue an official collection of judgments, later known as the Alaungsithu hpyat-hton, to be followed as precedents by all courts of justice. A follow-up collection of judgments was compiled during the reign of Sithu II (r. 1174–1211) by a Mon monk named Dhammavilasa. As another sign of delegation of power, Sithu II also appointed a chief justice and a chief minister. +

Bagan Military and Violence

"The violence that launched Bagan's classic period," wrote W.E. Garret in National Geographic, "spiced with intrigue, fratricide, patricide, and plain homicide, accompanied almost every change in throne—if we can believe the genealogy." One king was killed after a dispute over the price of war elephants. Another died when his elephant fell on him...In 1290 a Shan worshipping and raiding party from what is now Thailand paid their respects to the pagodas—then took away 500 families of artisans much as Anawrahta had done to Thaton 233 years earlier." [Source:W.E. Garret, National Geographic, March 1971]

Bagan's military was the origin of the Royal Burmese Army. The army was organized into a small standing army of a few thousand, which defended the capital and the palace, and a much larger conscript-based wartime army. Conscription was based on the kyundaw system (called the ahmudan system by later dynasties), which required local chiefs to supply their predetermined quota of men from their jurisdiction on the basis of population in times of war. This basic system of military organization was largely unchanged down to the precolonial period although later dynasties, especially the Toungoo Dynasty, did introduce standardization and other modifications. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The early Bagan army consisted mainly of conscripts raised just prior to or during the times of war. Although historians believe that earlier kings like Anawrahta must have had permanent troops on duty in the palace, the first specific mention of a standing military structure in the rmese chronicles is 1174 when Sithu II founded the Palace Guards—"two companies inner and outer, and they kept watch in ranks one behind the other". The Palace Guards became the nucleus round which the mass levy assembled in war time. Most of the field levy served in the infantry but the men for the elephantry, cavalry, and naval corps were drawn from specific hereditary villages that specialized in respective military skills.[65][66] In an era of limited military specialization, when the number of conscripted cultivators offered the best single indication of military success, Upper Burma with a greater population was the natural center of political gravity. +

Various sources and estimates put Bagan's military strength anywhere between 30,000 to 60,000 men. One inscription by Sithu II, who expanded the empire to its greatest extent, describes him as the lord of 17,645 soldiers while another notes 30,000 soldiers and cavalry under his command. A Chinese account mentions a Burmese army of 40,000 to 60,000 (including 800 elephants and 10,000 horses) at the battle of Ngasaunggyan in 1277. However, some argue that the Chinese figures, which came from eye estimates of a single battle, are greatly exaggerated. As Harvey puts it: the Mongols "erred on the side of generosity as they did not wish to diminish the glory in defeating superior numbers". But assuming that the precolonial population of Burma was relatively constant, the estimates of 40,000 to 60,000 of the entire military are not improbable, and are in line with figures given for the Burmese military between the 16th and 19th centuries in a variety of sources. +

Battle Elephants

According to journalist Douglas Chadwick Thailand and Burma "not only fought epic battles with elephants, the prototype of tanks, it was once fought because of them. When word reached a Burmese king that seven white elephants had been found and sent to the Thai monarch, he was overcome with jealousy and mounted an invasion."

Elephants served as armor in ancient battles in Asia. To the sound of drums, warrior with spears advanced on the backs of the elephants while soldiers with swords guarded the animals legs. War elephants sometimes wore heavy armor. They could be force in fighting and take out large numbers of enemy troops by simply crushing them under their feet but they also could become unmanageable if wounded.

There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own. Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy materiel and provided a useful means of transport. [Source: Wikipedia]

An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line setting spears. Such a charge was based on pure force: elephants crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, elephants could inspire terror in an enemy unused to fighting them - even the very disciplined Romans - and could cause the enemy to break and flee. Horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants also panicked easily. The elephants' thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass offered considerable protection for their riders. Many generals preferred to base themselves atop elephants so as to get a better view of the battlefield. [Ibid]

In addition to charging, the elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to fire arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to fire long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 16th century AD also saw the use of culverin and jingals on elephants, an adaptation to the gunpowder age that ultimately drove elephants from the battlefield. [Ibid]

In Asia large numbers of men were carried, with the senior commander either utilising the howdah or leading from his seat on the elephant's neck. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal. In many armies, the mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk.

Elephants were further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour. In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill. Numerous cultures designed elephant Armour, aiming to protect the body and legs of the animal while leaving his trunk free to attack the enemy. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah. [Ibid]

War elephants had tactical weaknesses, however, that enemy forces often learnt to exploit. Elephants had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining painful wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. One famous historical method for disrupting elephant units was the war pig. Ancient writers believed that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig", and the vulnerability was exploited. At the Megara siege during the Diadochi wars, for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs. [Ibid] Economics, Money and Trade of Bagan

The economy of Bagan was based primarily on agriculture, and to a much smaller degree, on trade. The growth of the Bagan Empire and subsequent development of irrigated lands in new lands sustained a growth in the number of population centers and a growing prosperous economy. The economy also benefited from the general absence of warfare that would stunt the economies of later dynasties. The wealth of the kingdom was devoted to building over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Bagan capital zone between 11th and 13th centuries (of which 3000 remain to the present day). The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities. According to Victor Lieberman, the prosperous economy supported "a rich Buddhist civilization whose most spectacular feature was a dense forest of pagodas, monasteries, and temples.”

Because of its location, with trade routes between China and India passing straight through the country, Burma was kept wealthy through constant trade, although self-sufficient agriculture was still the basis of the economy. With the Indian merchants travelling along the coasts and along rivers (especially the Irawaddy River) through the country, where the majority of Burmese lived, Indian cultural influences filtered into the country and still exist there today.

Internal and external trade played an important but minor role in Bagan's economy. Trade was not the main engine of economic growth for much of the Bagan period although its share of the economy probably increased in the 13th century when the agricultural sector stopped growing. That is not to say that Bagan did not have any interest in trade. On the contrary, Bagan closely administered its peninsular ports, which were transit points between the Indian Ocean and China. Maritime trade provided the court with revenues and prestige goods (coral, pearls, textiles). Evidence shows that Bagan imported silver from Yunnan, and that traded upland forest products, gems and perhaps metals with the coast. Still, no archaeological, textual or inscriptional evidence to indicate that such exports supported large numbers of producers or middlemen in Upper Burma itself, or that trade constituted a large part of the economy. [Source: Wikipedia +]

For all the innovations that Bagan Dynasty introduced, one area that it regressed was the use of coinage. The Pyu practice of issuing gold and silver coinage was not retained. The common medium of exchange was lump silver "coinage", followed by gold and copper lump coinage. Silver came from domestic mines as well as Yunnan. The base unit of currency of the silver kyat, which was not a unit of value but rather a unit of weight at approximately 16.3293 grams. Other weight-based units in relation to the kyat were also in use (1 mat = 0.25 kyats, 11 bo = 5 kyats and 1 viss = 100 kyats). A kyat, unless specified, always meant a silver kyat. Other metals were also in use (1 kyat of gold =10 silver kyats, 1 kyat of copper = 2 silver kyats, 1 kyat of mercury = 1.50 silver kyats). The lack of standardized coinage certainly complicated commerce. For instance, many types of silver kyats with varying degrees of purity were in use. Records show that people also used a system of barter to conduct commerce. +

Surviving records provide a glimpse of the kingdom's economic life. A pe , 0.71 hectare) of fertile land near Bagan cost 20 silver kyats but only 1 to 10 kyats away from the capital. Construction of a large temple in the reign of Sithu II cost 44,027 kyats while a large "Indian style" monastery cost 30,600 kyats. Manuscripts were rare and extremely costly. In 1273, a complete set of the Tripit.aka cost 3000 kyats. Goods in silver kyats A) 1 basket of paddy = 0.5 kyats; B) 1 viss of cow's milk = 0.1 kyats; C) 1 viss of honey = 1.25 kyats; D) 1000 betal nuts = 0.75 kyats. +

Agriculture in Bagan

Bagan's economy was primarily based on the Kyaukse agricultural basin northeast of the capital, and Minbu district south of Bagan where the Burmans had built a large number of new weirs and diversionary canals. It also benefited from external trade through its coastal ports. Bagan was known as Tattadesa, the Parched Land, to the Mons, and not much rice was grown in the environs of the capital itself. But the royal city could draw upon the rich rice granaries of Kyaukse, 90 miles to the northeast, and Minbu, 70 miles to the south.

Agriculture was the primary engine of the kingdom from its beginnings in the 9th century. Burman immigrants are believed to have either introduced new water management techniques or greatly enhanced existing Pyu system of weirs, dams, sluices, and diversionary barricades. At any rate, the Kyaukse agricultural basin's development in the 10th and 11th centuries enabled the kingdom of Bagan to expand beyond the dry zone of Upper Burma, and to dominate its periphery, including the maritime Lower Burma. [Source: Wikipedia +]

As reconstructed by Michael Aung-Thwin, G.H. Luce and Than Tun, the main driver for this agriculture-based economic expansion was the practice of donating tax-free lands to the Buddhist clergy. For some two hundred years between 1050 and 1250, wealthy and powerful segments of the Bagan society—members of the royalty, senior court officials, and wealthy laymen—donated to the clergy enormous acreages of agricultural land, along with hereditary tied cultivators in order to attain religious merit. (Both religious lands and cultivators were permanently tax exempt.) Although it ultimately became a major burden on the economy, the practice initially helped expand the economy for some two centuries. First, the monastery-temple complexes, typically located some distances away from the capital, helped anchor new population centers for the throne. Such institutions in turn stimulated associated artisan, commercial, and agricultural activities critical to the general economy. +

Secondly, the need to accumulate land for endowments, as well as for awards for soldiers and servicemen, drove the active development of new lands. The earliest irrigation projects focused on Kyaukse where Burmans built a large number of new weirs and diversionary canals, and Minbu a similarly well-watered district south of Bagan. After these hubs had been developed, in the mid-to-late 12th century, Bagan moved into as yet undeveloped frontier areas west of the Irrawaddy and south of Minbu. These new lands included both irrigable wet-rice areas and non-irrigable areas suitable for rain-fed rice, pulses, sesame, and millet. Agricultural expansion and temple construction in turn sustained a market in land and certain types of labor and materials. Land reclamation, religious donations, and building projects expanded slowly before 1050, increased to 1100, accelerated sharply with the opening of new lands between c. 1140 and c. 1210 and continued at a lower level from 1220 to 1300. +

By the second half the 13th century, Bagan had developed an enormous amount of cultivated lands. Estimates based on surviving inscriptions alone range from 200,000 to 250,000 hectares. (In comparison, Bagan's contemporary Angkor relied on its main rice basin of over 13,000 hectares.) But donations to the sangha over the 250 years of the empire accumulated to over 150,000 hectares (over 60 percent) of the total cultivated land. Ultimately, the practice proved unsustainable when the empire had stopped growing physically, and a major factor in the empire's downfall. +

Bagan as a Great City

King Anawrahta’s 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.” Marco Polo described Burma and Southeast Asia as a place with "vast jungles teeming with elephants, unicorns and other wild beasts." He probably didn't visit Bagan, he just relayed descriptions he had heard. The extent of his Southeast Asian travels was a few stop so Southeast Asian ports and perhaps a trip to nearby Yunnan, China.

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 key to Bagan's rise wrote Russell Ciochon of Archeology magazine was agricultural success. "To maintain a complex society with craft specialization and a large population of slaves in a semi-desert region, he wrote, a constant supply of water was necessary. The Irrawaddy River supplied the farms along its banks, but the water for those farther east was supplied by a huge reservoir along the western flank of the Tuyan Taung mountain range." The outlines of the reservoir and some of the irrigation canals that ran from it are still visible today."

In “Bagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma” , historian Paul Strachen wrote that in the 12th century the temples at Bagan were "cluttered with regal objects and requisites, a clamor of activity as food offerings were shuttled from the kitchens down passageways crowded with chanting devotees, brightly colored wall paintings, gilded furnishings and flapping banners and hangings...the usual plain, seated Buddha image, found in the deserted temples of Bagan today, would have been bathed, perfumed and dresses with the finest and most costly garments."

Image Sources:

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

Last updated August 2020

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