In common with its neighbors, the roots of Myanmar’s contemporary culture – and of its ongoing ethnic strife – can be traced back many centuries. Forming a crossroads between India, China, and Thailand, the region attracted invaders who followed, and subsequently settled in, the great river valleys stretching across the country to the sea. The result is a complex cultural checker board whose fault lines continue to generate friction, despite the over arching presence of Buddhism. The religion first traveled here from India along ancient trade routes over two millennia ago to become the region’s unifying faith, and continues to define the character of both Myanmar’s people and its government.
The earliest traces of Homo sapiens in the territory now known as Myanmar/Burma span a period from 11,000 to 5,000 BC – the Anyathian Era – when the first roughly polished stone tools were produced along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River and the western edge of the Shan Plateau. Artifacts and paintings found in the remote Padah- Lin Caves, discovered in the 1930s in the hills north of Pindaya near Inle Lake , include red-ocher images of human hands and hunting scenes.
Knowledge of smelting and copper casting appears to have spread around the region from 1500–1000 BC, along with rice cultivation, which fueled rapid growth in population. By 200 BC, however, the Pyu, Tibeto-Burman-speaking invaders from China’s Yunnan region, had begun to move into the area, establishing settlements along the Ayeyarwady Valley. Over time, these coalesced into well-planned city- states governed from walled capitals dotted on the dry plains flanking the rivers of Upper Burma, where large-scale irrigation networks were established to fuel intensive agriculture. The first and largest of these urban centers was Hanlin, near Shwebo on the Ayeyarwady’s west bank, whose economy was dominated by salt production and control of commerce along the river, by now a thriving trade artery connecting China with the Bay of Bengal. At some point in the 7th century AD, however, Sri Ksetra super- seded Hanlin as the region’s principal hub.
Heavily influenced through contact with India’s Andhra kingdom, the Pyus’ religious beliefs, architecture, and art reveal a unique blend of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantricism, Hinduism, and local animist nat worship, although by the 5th century BC, Theravada Buddhism had gained domi nance. In many respects, Pyu culture provided the blueprint for the Bagan Empire that would supersede it. Some Pyu hallmarks, such as the Burmese script, astrological calendar, and pagoda design, have survived into the present era.
The Rakhine and Mon
Two other groups colonized different parts of the country at around the same time as the Pyu. In the northwest, the Rakhine people lived in similar city-states, with an economy based on rice farming and trade with India. At Wethali and Dhanyawadi, near the medieval city of Mrauk U remnants of their ancient walled towns attest to an Indian- influenced Buddhist tradition dating as far back as the 4th century AD. In the south west, the Mons, originally from western China, are thought to have colonized the flat coastal land around the Gulf of Mottama (Martaban) in the 9th century, founding a capital at Thaton, the largest regional port of its day. Although they were later defeated by the Bamars and absorbed into the Bagan Empire, the Mons developed a highly sophisti cated culture that would greatly influence that of their subsequent overlords.
The Bagan Dynasty
By the early 9th century, a new force from the northeast was beginning to make itself felt all along the Ayeyarwady Valley. An off- shoot of the Nanzhao kingdom of Yunnan, the Mranma people, or Myamars, launched repeated raids on Pyu cities using hordes of mounted archers, eventually destroying Hanlin in 832 and carrying off 3,000 of its inhabitants into slavery. Sri Ksetra was attacked soon after.
Having subjugated the Pyus, the Mran- mas, henceforth known in the Burmese Chronicles as Bamars or Burmans, built a fortified settlement – Bagan – on a bend in the Ayeyarwady River, close to its con- fluence with its main tributary, the Chin- dwin. From here, the dynasty carved out a domain extending 200 miles (322 km) from north to south and 80 miles (129 km) across. Gradually, over the next 200 years, the Burmese language became the lingua franca and the separate city-states of the region evolved into a centralized kingdom.
The First Burmese Empire
The Bagan Dynasty’s golden age dawned in 1044 with the accession to the throne of a fiercely ambitious, energetic teenager who seized the crown after defeating his cousin in single combat. Anawrahta “The Ungovernable” (1015–78) imme diately embarked on a series of military campaigns that would, in less than two decades, unify the four main king doms of medieval Burma. The high point was the conquest, in 1057, of the Mon capital, Thaton, from which Anawrahta returned with 30,000 prisoners, among them the Mon royal family and legions of skilled builders and architects. The talents of these enslaved artisans were put to use during the two remaining decades of Anawrahta’s reign, and that of his son and successor Kyanzittha (1030–1112), during which a huge number of monasteries, stupas, temples, and other monuments were erected in the capital, Bagan.
Fueled by wealth from trade and military conquests, the construction boom was coupled with a program of economic, social, and religious reform that would leave an enduring legacy, not least the adoption of Theravada Buddhism by the kingdom. The man credited with originally converting Anawrahta to this relatively austere form of the faith was a monk named Shin Arahan (1034–1115). He had fled his Mon home- land when it was threat- ened with invasion by the Hindu Khmers from the east, and served as the chief spiritual advisor to four successive Bagan monarchs. During his lifetime, Theravada became the predominant tradition, over- layering the more arcane practices of Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and the animist worship of nats, or nature spirits.
By the 13th century, however, the Bagan Empire had gone into sharp decline. Laws exempting land grants and other donations to Buddhist monasteries from tax caused the royal coffers to empty. Without enough funds to maintain a large army, rebellion stirred in the kingdom. Then, in 1277 and 1283, during the reign of Kublai Khan (1215–94), Mongol forces invaded northern Myanmar. In 1287 the Mongols advanced to Bagan, with the resulting instability leading to the ruin of the city and its rulers.
The Post-Bagan Era
The decades following the break up of the Bagan Empire were ones of upheaval and strife as the region’s powers struggled for overall supremacy. Eventually four main kingdoms emerged from the melee. In the east, a constella tion of petty Shan chiefs, who had come to the region with the Mongols, ruled the hill tracts. In the northwest, the kingdom of Arakan, founded in 1430, became in time one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia, with a writ extending from the mouth of the Ganges to the Ayeyarwady. In Upper Burma, Inwa (Ava) saw itself as the true successor to the BurmeseBagan Dynasty, but exhausted its reserves trying to reform the empire. Most formidable among its adversaries was the Mon king- dom of PeguHanthawaddy to the south- east, which emerged victorious from the Forty Years’ War against Inwa to prosper on trade. The monuments that survive in modern Bago from the kingdom’s hey day between the 1420s and 1530s attest to the town’s former splendor and its importance as a great center of Theravada Buddhism.
The Taungoo Dynasty (Second Burmese Empire)
Pegu’s prosperity was being watched covetously by a power emerging to the north, in the landlocked Sittaung Valley. Following the conquest of Inwa (Ava) by a confederacy of Shan states in 1527, many Bamars had fled Upper Burma and settled in this new dynasty’s capital, Taungoo, bolstering the power of its redoubtable king, Tabinshweti (1516–50).
Tabinshweti wanted Taungoo to become the hub of an empire, and to further this aim, he captured the Mon port of Pegu (Bago) in 1539, using its wealth to fund further conquests. By 1545 he controlled all of Upper and Lower Burma, except Arakan. Toward the end of his rule, how- ever, the king succumbed to alco holism, and by the time of his death (by assassi- nation, on his 34th birthday), most of his territorial gains had been lost.
The job of restoring them fell to his brotherinlaw and successor, Bayinnaung (1516–81), regarded as the greatest of all Burma’s kings for his audacity, ambition, and military prowess. Over the following three decades, he recaptured all of the lost lands and amassed the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia, encompassing Upper and Lower Burma, Laos, southern Yunnan, Siam, and Manipur. His most lasting legacy, however, was the pacification of the Shan hill states by means of a tributary system which endured until the British annexation of Burma in 1885, and which made certain that successive capitals around Mandalay remained free from attack from the east.
European Merchants and Mercenaries
The reign of the last powerful Taungoo king, Anaukpetlun (1578–1628), coincided with the arrival on Burmese shores of a new potential threat. European merchants with powerful backers had been making inroads along the coastline of Southeast Asia since the creation of a Portuguese colony in Goa in 1510. Iberian slave traders and renegades had also become a fixture at local royal courts. Impressed by their weapons and modern military tactics, rulers of all the region’s major kingdoms had employed European mercenaries to help fight their wars, and in many cases lived to regret the fact. A case in point was the king of Arakan, who, in the early 17th century, recruited the Portuguese adven turer Filipe de Brito e Nicote. Having been given the governor- ship of Thanlyin, de Brito soon began to use the port as a base from which to plun der the interior, until he was killed by King Anaukpetlun in 1613 .
Rise of the Konbaungs and the Third Burmese Empire
Toward the end of Anaukpetlun’s reign, rebellions throughout the country gravely weakened Taungoo/Burman rule and in 1740, the capital had to be moved from Pegu to the less vulnerable Inwa. Shortly after, however, the Mons
mounted a successful revolt and sailed up the Ayeyarwady to take the capital in 1752. Watching the Mon advance through his homeland was a young village chief named Aung Zeya who, after a series of daring raids on Mon positions, managed to gather around him a small but highly motivated army. In 1752, at the very moment Pegu’s forces were about to breach the defenses of Inwa, Aung Zeya declared himself the new Burman king, taking the honorific title Alaungpaya, the “Embryo Buddha.”
It is a name that still stirs great pride among the Burmese, for King Alaungpaya (1714–60) not only managed to expel the Pegu troops left behind to govern his king- dom, but also fended off the inevitable backlash two years later when an army was sent north to retake Inwa. This was followed in 1757 by a counterattack on Pegu itself, at the end of which Alaungpaya slaughtered the city’s entire population.
In his short but seminal eightyear reign, Alaungpaya reconquered all of Burma and subdued Manipur and northern Thailand, setting the scene for the third and final Burmese Empire, ruled by the dynasty he founded, the Konbaungs .
The first major threat to Konbaung rule came in 1767–70, when the Qing Dynasty from Manchuria mounted a series of invasions. Their armies got to within three days’ march of Inwa, causing panic in the capital, but were eventually halted by a combination of disease, inclement weather, and dogged resistance from the Burmese themselves. Achieved against all odds, the Konbaung victory conferred a sense of invincibility on the Burmese kings, who thereafter retreated to the cosseted luxury of their palaces on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, and left their generals to do the fighting. The image of a Konbaung ruler as a sybaritic megalomaniac, a commonplace in the colonial era, first gained currency during the reign of Bodawpaya (1745– 1819), Alaungpaya’s fourth son, who grabbed the throne after murdering dozens of kinsmen and other potential challengers. Although famous for having 207 queens and concubines and fathering 120 children, Bodawpaya is perhaps best remembered for attempting to construct the world’s largest brick stupa at Mingun, and for ordering the audacious attack on Arakan that resulted in the destruction of its cap- ital, Mrauk U. The Burman army returned home from the campaign in triumph, bearing the most sacred of all Arakanese Buddhas, Mahamuni, which was carried over the RakhineYoma Hills to Mandalay city, where it still rests.