by Charles Kimball

For 200 years the Burmese and Mon kingdoms co-existed peacefully. Then a powerful Burmese king named Anawrahta (1044-1077) came to the throne. He conquered Pegu in 1057 and brought back to Pagan Buddhist scriptures, holy relics, and every manner of artisan to decorate his capital. This had a curious result; for more than a century, the conquerors became the conquered. The Mon language became the main language of the Burmese court when Mon administrators were brought in to make the government more efficient. Mon monks came to teach Theravada Buddhism to the mostly animist Burmese, converting the whole country within a generation; they also encouraged good relations with the sect's homeland, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka responded by giving Anawrahta a replica of their most prized possession, the "Tooth of the Buddha."

Anawrahta never became a Buddhist himself, but he honored the "tooth" by building a pagoda to house it in. The second king after him, Kyanzittha (1084-1112), was a Buddhist convert, and he built a much grander pagoda that copied the Mon style: a tall thin structure with much decoration on the outside and a simple cavelike interior. But full integration of the Burmese and Mon peoples never came; the Burmese and Mon royal families intermarried, but most Burmese looked down on the people of the south and would not admit them into their society. By the late 12th century the Mon influence had disappeared. In place of the Mon style a new form of architecture developed, one which made the inside of pagodas as ornate as the outside.

Kyanzittha and his successors built more than 2,000 temples and thousands of lesser shrines in a 25 square mile area around Pagan. Today most of these temples still exist, just a few miles upstream from Mandalay. Some have crumbled due to time and earthquakes, others are maintained by today's faithful. Together these buildings are an architectural masterpiece; the Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, built at the same time, is the only Southeast Asian monument that is more impressive.

The pagodas were important because every king was expected to be an extravagant patron of religion, to show his concern for the spiritual welfare of his people. In fact, a king who did not build new temples risked being viewed as unfit for office, inviting a palace coup. And a lot of kings came to untimely ends. One king was killed after a dispute over the price of war elephants. Another died when his elephant fell on him. Alaungsithu (1112-1167) was smothered at the age of 101 by a son impatient for the throne. Despite these intrigues, the country as a whole remained peaceful.

The martial spirit that drove Anawrahta to conquer most of the lands that make up present-day Burma was not practiced by his successors. The reason is unclear, but probably connected with Buddhism. The growth in the number of monks, the allocation of resources for their support, and the construction of pagodas may have taken away enough revenue to weaken the government. On the other hand, Buddhism's emphasis on brotherly compassion and cooperation may have made the economy efficient enough to pay its way, and its teachings on peace may have been what actually stopped the conquests. Whatever the reason, the country prospered until an abominable king sat on the throne. His name was Narathihapate (1254-87), and his pagoda, which took six years to build, was so expensive that it inspired a Burmese proverb: "The pagoda is finished and the great country ruined." In inscriptions on the pagoda he bragged about having 3,000 concubines, 36 million soldiers, and that he ate 300 dishes of curry daily. He killed the ambassadors of Kublai Khan when they came demanding tribute for the Mongol Empire. The result was quite predictable--an enormous Mongol army came and ravaged the country, though Pagan itself was spared by the Buddhist Kublai. The king fled and was poisoned by one of his sons. Since that time the Burmese have called him Tarokpyemin, "the king who fled from the Chinese."

With Narathihapate's death the kingdom disintegrated. An extremely long-lived Arakanese king, Min Hti (1279-1374?), declared independence. The Mons reestablished their old kingdom in the south, and Pagan's mercenaries, a Thai tribe called the Shans, set up three city-states in the east. The Mongols tried to incorporate what was left of Burma into their empire as two provinces, but in 1299 the Shans burned Pagan and killed the last member of the Burmese royal family. That brought about a final Mongol invasion, which ended when the Mongol commander accepted a heavy bribe from the Shans to turn around and go home. The excuse that he gave for calling off the campaign was not accepted by his superiors back in China, and he and his staff were executed. After that the Mongols lost interest in Burma, and never came back again. It was the end of Burma's golden age, but the culture established at Pagan lasted with few changes until the twentieth century.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball