Monday, March 18, 2013

History Mystery: The Pagan City Of Temples! part-1

On the plain in the central Myanmar (Burma), Stone shrines mark the site of Pagan. They are dedicated to Buddhism- a creed that abhors violence. Many were built by slaves on the orders of a king who condoned the sacrificial murder of his own wife. Early one morning in the year 1044 AD, villagers and courtiersgather in front of a wooden palace in Myinkaba, northern Myanmar. Their ruler, Sokka-te, still new to the throne has been challenged to a duel by his half brother Anawrahata. Sokka-te, confident of victory, accepts the challenge. Of the younger Anawrahata he says scornfully; ‘his mother’s milk is yet wet upon his lips.’ Each of the brothers, armed with a lance, mounts a horse. They charge, thrusting and stabbing. Sokka-te shrieks and falls, transfixed by his brother’s lance. Anawrahata is carried in triumph to the palace of his father.

So, according to a Burmese chronicle, began the reign of one of history’s most unusual converts to Buddhism: a ferocious warlord who enslaved a nearby civilization in order to build a city that was devoted to Buddha, the prophet of gentleness. When Anawrahta came to the throne he believed, like his people, in spirits; entities know as Nats who determined human destiny by controlling the land and the forces of nature. Burmese chronicles record that a Nat appeared to Anawrahta in a dream and commanded him to build monasteries and shrines, to dig wells and ponds, and to construct an irrigation system and grow rice for his people, all in penance for the death of his brother.

In obedience to the spirit’s orders, Anawrahata chose a plain bordered by two rivers, at Kyaukse, about 30 Km south of the present day city of Mandalay, and set to work. He collected forced labour from the nearby villages and hired irrigation experts from the Shan hill tribes of eastern Burma. For three years, tens of thousands of peasants toiled unceasingly in the steam bath heat of the plain. They built dams, dug canals, and changed the course of the rivers as Anawrahta ruthlessly pursued his vision. In the course of the projects, thousands died of tropical fevers and exhaustion.

Finally, the mammoth undertaking was ready. As decreed by his people’s grisly custom, Anawrahta would mark the occasion by offering human sacrifices, one for each dam. The victims, it was believed, would then become nats, the guardian spirits. Chronicle record that a wife of Anawrahta, sister of a Shan chief, offered herself as a single substitute sacrifice for all the dams. Her offer was accepted. She was ritually killed- possibly by having her throat cut and her body was burnt on a huge pyre.

The flooded paddy fields at Kyaukse became the economic powerhouse of Anawrahta’s realm, producing food for the people and a torrent of wealth to swell the royal coffers. Gradually more neighboring chieftains came under Anawrahta’s sway, and his territory spread north towards what are now the Indian and Chinese borders, east in to Thailand, and west to the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, he expanded the town he had chosen as his capital: Pagan, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The town needed work to turn it into a city. The native Burmese were poor architects and worse artists, but to the south lay a civilization, the Mons, living in a patch work of city states that had been a centre of culture for more than 1000 years. From this centre, in 1056 AD, came a remarkable refugee: a Buddhist mon called Shin Arahan. Shin Arahan was a mon who believed fervently in the traditional creed of his people: an ascetic variety of Buddhism called Theravada. His faith, however, had come under pressure in his homeland, both from other Buddhist sects and from the Hindu influence of India. The final insult came when the Monk leaders agreed to a number of compromises with Hindu Beliefs. Shin Arahan, outraged by the changes, deserted his home and began his journey to Pagan.

Anawrahta was impressed by the power and passion of the monk. Within a year, the king was publicly converted to Buddhism, and ad agreed to invade the Mon territories to help to re establish the supremacy of Theravada Buddhism. With Shin Arahan at his side, the king marched south on one of the most important Mon cities- Thaton, on the coast of the Gulf of Martaban, east of Myanmar’s present day capital, Rangoon. When Thaton fell in 1057 after a three month siege, the other Mon city states submitted without a flight.


  1. Amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. wow, this is a lovely post! the first time i saw something on Burma..
    Btw, I loved the pics.


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