Burma: Pyu, Pegu and Arakan

   by Charles Kimball

While the Mons were establishing themselves in Lower (southern) Burma, the ancestors of today's Burmese settled Upper Burma (500-200 B.C.?). The Tibeto-Burmans had acquired a measure of civilization from their cousins, the Chinese, but now their independence and lifestyle was threatened by the growing Chinese state. Preferring physical hardship to bondage, they moved away; one tribe, the Tibetans, went directly west into Tibet, while the rest marched over the mountains of Yunnan and northern Burma to reach the Irrawaddy valley. From here the tribes spread out into surrounding areas, and in 167 A.D. they formed a confederation named Pyu.

The Pyus prospered from the occasional merchant who used the Irrawaddy to go between India and China. They also got along well with the Mons and with India. Chinese visitors reported that Pyu had a remarkably elegant and humane society. Fetters, chains and prisons were unknown, and the only punishment for criminals was a few strokes of the whip. The men wore gold ornaments in their hats and the women wore jewels in their hair; both sexes wore bright blue clothing. Pyus lived in wooden houses with roofing tiles of lead and tin, they used golden knives and surrounded themselves with art objects of gold, green glass, jade and crystal. Unlike the Mons, who had a king in charge of every Mon city, the Pyus governed each tribe by democratic assembly.

From the 6th century onwards the Burmese grew to become the largest of the Pyu tribes. This made little difference until 832, when Nan Zhao, the first Thai kingdom, launched a devastating raid that destroyed the Pyu capital. Leadership of the Burman peoples passed to the Burmese, but not everyone approved of the idea; even today the Burmese majority has trouble getting along with the other Tibeto-Burmans. This is especially true of the Karens, a large ethnic minority living next to the Mons in Southeast Burma; they have been implacable opponents of Burmese rule for most of the eleven centuries since the fall of Pyu. In 849 the Burmese founded their own city, named it Pagan (pronounced "Pah-gon"), and built a wall around it. At the same time the Mons built a new capital city to replace Thaton, named Pegu, on the east edge of the Irrawaddy delta.

On the coast, between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of modern Bangladesh, there was a kingdom named Arakan. Arakan is a wedge-shaped land, 350 miles long and 90 miles across at its widest point; a mountain range named the Arakan Yoma separates it from the rest of Burma, making communications difficult. The Arakanese are closely related to the Burmese--in fact they speak an archaic Burmese dialect that is no longer used by the Burmese themselves--but the barriers of nature have made them more interested in India and the sea than in their brethren across the mountains. Most of them are Buddhists, but Buddhism has never been the state religion the way it has been for the Burmese. In fact, there is a community of Bengali Moslems in Arakan today, the product of Arakan's toleration of Islam when it was an independent state seeking commerce with India.

The Arakanese chronicles claim that their kingdom was founded in 2666 B.C., and they contain lists of kings going back to that date. Inscriptions have been found that mention a very old kingdom in the area (as old as 350 A.D., anyway), but they are written in Sanskrit, suggesting that Arakan's founders were Indian, not Tibeto-Burman. The first evidence of the Arakanese themselves dates to the tenth century, so they probably originated as one of the Pyu tribes, migrating as far west as possible when Pyu was destroyed. The northern half of the country was conquered by Anawrahta, the first important Burmese king, in the mid-eleventh century, but it remained a semi-independent province, with its own hereditary monarch, until full independence was regained two and a half centuries later.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball