Bagan History


By Ma Thanegi

The first Myanmar Empire of the 11th Century based in Bagan left remnants of its glory not in forts or palaces but in the thousands of pagodas, stupas (Zedi) and temples. (Pagodas are any place of worship regardless of shape, size or design. Stupas or Zedi are pointed spires in all sizes with a gem-crusted ornate crown called umbrella at the tip. Temples are square-based halls of various levels, including those called ‘cave; temples a term given to caves on the side of hills or some buildings with very little natural light.)
According to the 1993 report by the Department of Archaeology, 2230 remain plus ordination halls and meditation centers, all living places of worship throughout the past centuries.

They marked the time that Theravada Buddhism first flourished through the support of King Anawrahta.

ruled from 1044-1077. He strengthened the borders of his kingdom against invaders from the east. He travelled all over the landmass that one day would become the Union of Myanmar, as far south as the old town of Twante across the river from Yangon, at the time only a small settlement of fishermen. In a Twante pagoda he enshrined votive tablets cast with his own hands and signed with his name.

In Bagan he built the the Shwezigon, Shwe Sandaw and Lawka Nanda Pagodas as well as the less known Myin Pya Gu enshrined with votive tablets cast by him and his heir Saw Lu, East and West Hpet Laik Pagodas with many with terracotta plaques of the Jataka Takes are also attributed to him.

His son Sawlu succeeded him, reigning from 1077 to 1084 during which he built the Pahto Thamya Temple in Bagan, the earliest temple with wall paintings. Sawlu was not popular with court or countrymen and when he was killed by a companion since childhood the court replaced him with Kyansittha, who killed the murderer of Sawlu as well as being the right hand man of Anawrahta.
Kyansittha was not of royal blood but he was a great king, ruling from 1084 to 1112. He encased the Shwezgon with only a slightly bigger pagoda in the exact shape, perhaps to combine his merit with Anawrahta who was like a father to him in spite of a brief time of discord when he was exiled. He built the Ananda and Naga Yon Temples and the Kyansittha Umin meditation cave not far from the Shwezigon with fascinating murals believed painted at a much later date.

He had three beloved queens, one being Khin Oo or a Mon princess through whom he created good relations and culture exchanges with the Mon kingdom of the south. Another was Abeyadana a princess of the Mahayana Buddhist sect who built the temple now only known by her name. It has beautiful wall paintings of Theravada, Mahayana and Hindu symbols. The thirds was Thambula a country girl he met while in brief exile and who late arrived at court with his son, Raja Kurma. By then Kyansittha had decreed a grandson as crown prince but this late-arrival prince was to leave his mark in the country’s history, for he built Myinkaba Gubyauk Gyi Temple dedicated to his father when the old king lay dying; he erected a square stone pillar with his dedication on each side with one of the four languages in use at the period: Pali, Pyu, Burmese and Mon. This was our Rossetti Stone which enabled us to decipher other Pyu writings. In addition his temple has the most beautiful and best preserved murals in Bagan. To this day he is regarded as the ideal prince and gentleman.

The next to rule was Alaung Sithu from 1112 to 1166 and it was a time of peace and prosperity. He built the majestic Thatbyinnyu Temple and the small but beautiful the Shwegu Gyi which he could look over from his palace. However at the age of 101 it was within this temple that he was suffocated by his son Narathu whose four years’ reign that ended in 1170 was marked with cruelty.

He began work on the Dhammayan Gyi Temple, demanding the finest brick work but was assassinated before it was complete. His son Minyin Naratheinkha ruled only three years as he was killed by this younger brother Narapati Sithu whose wife he stole.
Narapati Sithu ruled in peace for 37 years during which the Burmese language became more popular and refined as seen in stone inscriptions. He added upper levels to the Kyauk Gu Umin, built the Dhamma Yarzika Pagoda and the two great temples Gawtaw Palin and Sulamuni. Gawtaw Palin was left incomplete while Sulamuni Temple has wonderful murals painted In the early 18th century.

He was succeeded by his younger son Htilominlo who finished the construction of the Gawtaw Palin Temple. He was so loved by his four older brothers that none of them objected to being bypassed for the throne. He was much loved by court and commoner but he reigned only 25 years. His merit, the Htilominlo Temple is a beautiful work of architecture with wonderful masonry details. He also built Maha Bhodi Temple.
His Commander in Chief General Ananda Thura and wife built Lay Myet Hna Complex in 1223 of temples, pagodas, monasteries and a large water tank.

Htilominlo’s son Kya Swar who succeeded him for 15 years was famous for being a Buddhist scholar although he also enjoyed martial arts. He spent his days studying the texts on the banks of a beautiful lake and left the affairs of State to his son Uzana who was more interested in sports and travel. Kya Swar’s Nanda Manya Temple is decorated with beautiful paintings but his immense Pya Tha Da Temple was not finished by the time of his death as his son was not paying the laborers. However the incomplete outer walls allowed future engineers to study the double arches of brickwork used in many Bagan Temples.

Uzana who took over the Kingdom had a queen named Thambula who left a small and elegant temple now known only by her name. He had other queens as well as a country girl he met on his travels. Upon his death the son of this union, Narathiha Pati was chosen by the court to be king, instead of his arrogant older brother from a more royal bloodline. However he turned out to be even more arrogant as well as cruel.
This king Narathiha Pati who ruled from 1254 to 1287 virtually ended the Bagan Dynasty.

In 1287 he was unwisely arrogant towards Kublai Khan which led to the invasion of the Mongol armies. While some minor prices and nobles stayed to fight, Narathiha Pati fled down the Ayeyarwaddy River with his queens and became known as “The King Who led from the Chinese” as ancient historians did not consider Mongolia a different State from China. He sought sanctuary from another son who was governor of a riverside town and who forced him to eat poisoned food the same evening. Famous for his gluttony he died with a wish that in all future lives he might not have sons.
Before his escaped he built a beautiful temple which is only known by his act of cowardice.. The greatness of Bagan ended, with a weak, puppet king set on the throne by the Mongolian generals who returned home in victory.

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Ma Thanegi writes prolifically about Myanmar, especially the people who are the country’s true representatives. She lives in Yangon."


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