Brief History of Myanmar

World / Asia


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This is an abridged version of Myanmar History. Much of what we know of Myanmar's written history comes from The Glass Palace Chronicle. This is the work of a group of scholars who were appointed by the Burmese King Bagyidaw in 1829. These group, consisting of monks, brahmans and ministers, were assigned to compile a record documenting the history of the country, from the early Burmese kingdoms, to the fall of Bagan. The resulting chronicle got its name from Bagyidaw's Palace of Glass where the compilation work was carried out.

In the history of Myanmar, we see not one, but several different kingdoms flourishing at different periods of its long history. Where the different kingdoms overlap, clashes may occur, resulting in one overcoming the other. A total of 16 kingdoms or dynasties appeared in Myanmar history, and are listed as follows:

Bagan, earliest Burmese capital
Bagan, earliest Burmese capital (25 November 2003)
© Timothy Tye using this photo

  1. Beikthano Pyu City State: Located in middle part of Myanmar at the north of Kookogwa Village, 11 miles north of Taung Dwingyee.
  2. Thuwunna Bonmi (Ramanya) City State (AD 100): Located in southern Myanmar near Beelin, at the foot of Mount Kaylartha.
  3. Tharay Kittarar Pyu City State (AD 400-1000): Located in lower Myanmar, 5 miles southeast of Pyay.
  4. Hanlin Pyu City State (AD?-832): Located in upper Myanmar in Shwebo District, Wetlet Township.
  5. Waytharlee Kingdom (BC 500-?): Located in western Myanmar about 6 miles north of Myauk Oo.
  6. Bagan (Pagan) Dynasty (AD 107-1287): Located in upper Myanmar.
  7. Pinya Dynasty (1309-1360): Located in central Myanmar.
  8. Sagaing Dynasty (1315-1364): Located in upper Myanmar in Sagaing.
  9. TaungNgoo Dynasty (1486-?): Located in central Myanmar.
  10. Innwa Dynasty (1364-1555): Located in central Myanmar.
  11. Bago/Hantharwaddy Dynasty: Located in lower Myanmar in Bago.
  12. Kone Baung Dynasty (1752-1885): Shwaybo Palace: built by King Ahlaung Pharar
  13. Kone Baung Dynasty, Ava Palace: built by King ???
  14. Kone Baung Dynasty, Amarapura Palace: built by King Bodaw Pharar
  15. Kone Baung Dynasty, Mandalay Palace: built by King Mindon
  16. The present capital city: Yangon (Rangoon)

The earliest people to inhabit the land of Myanmar are the Mons. Archaeologists believe the Mons originated from Central Asia. They speak a language that belongs to the Mon-Khmer family. They migrated to Myanmar and settled on the estuaries of the Thanlwin (Salween) and Sittoung (Sittang). According to legend, it was the Mons who laid the foundation for the Shwedagon 2500 years ago.

Then, 2000 years ago, another group of people, the Pyu, settled in Upper Burma. Their first capital was Sri Ksetra, near present-day Pyay (Prome). Unlike the Mons, their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family. Around the 8th century, the Pyu moved their capital to Halin, in Shwebo, 100 km north of Mandalay.

Another group of people, the Tai, started moving southwards from their ancestral home in Yunnan, also around the 8th century. They established the Nan Chao Kingdom in the 9th century, capturing Halin, and assimilating the population.

At around the same time, the Bamar people made their first appearance. They originated in the area around the Chinese-Tibet border. Moving south along the Ayeyarwady, they established themselves in the rice-cultivating region of Upper Burma. There, they founded the city of Bagan (Pagan), from where they controlled the trade passing through the Ayeyarwady and Sittoung rivers.

The main ethnic groups who featured prominently in Myanmar history are the Bamar people (also called the Burmans), the Mon people, and the Shan people. The Burmans are by far the largest ethnic group, and the one that contributed most significantly to Myanmar history, culture and politics.

First Burmese Empire
There is some dispute as to the exact date of the First Burmese Empire. Some sources place the date as 1057, when King Anawrahta conquered the Mon Kingdom at Thaton. Other sources place it earlier, at 849, and regard Anawrahta not as the first king of the Burmese Empire, but one who seized the throne in 1044. And then, there are those who trace it back all the way to the first king of Bagan, which is King Thamu Darit, in 107AD. AsiaExplorers will simply lay the information down as it is.

The first Burmese empire was established by King Anawrahta in Bagan in 1057. At that time, Theravada Buddhism has not yet reached Upper Burma. Then one day, Shin Arahan, a young monk from Thaton, capital of the Mon Kingdom in Lower Burma, arrived in Bagan.

Shin Arahan was so successful in converted King Anawrahta to Theravada Buddhism that the king became consumed to spread the doctrine. So he sent a messenger to King Manuha of Thaton, requesting several sets of the Buddhist scriptures, the Tipitaka. When Manuha turned down his request, Anawrahta sent his troops to invade Lower Burma. They ransacked Thaton, and brought back everything his men and elephants could carry, including 30 (some say 32 ... does it matter?) sets of the Tipitaka carried by white elephants, and almost everybody in Thaton, the craftsmen, artisans, architects, Buddhist monks, and even the royal family including King Manuha himself.

All together 30,000 Thaton people were marched off to Bagan. This resulted in a transplant of Mon culture into Upper Burma, for instead of the Mons adopting the culture of Bagan, Bagan adopted Mon culture. The Mon language even replaced Pali and Sanskrit in royal inscriptions.

Upon his return to Bagan, King Anawrahta began a monumental construction project to embellish his country with Buddhist monuments. The first one to be built was the Shwesandaw Pagoda, completed in 1057. Its name means Pagoda of the Golden Holy Hair, for it enshrines some hair relics of the Buddha given to Anawrahta by the King of Bago.

The last king of Bagan, Narathihapate, ruled over a weakened nation and his lavish spending bankrupted the country. Mingalazedi was the last Bagan pagoda to be built, in 1274, and after that, no more major project was built. In 1287, the Mongol invasion by Kublai Khan put an abrupt end to the First Burmese Empire. Although Narathihapate did put up a fight, dismantling 6,000 temples for use to fortify the walls of Bagan, when Bagan fell to the Mongols, he fled to Pathein (Bassein), causing his people to call him Tarok-pyemin, which means, "the king who ran away from the Chinese". He died soon after, poisoned by his own son. His son then battled his two brothers for the throne. He succeeded, but was still disposed in 1298, marking the end of the First Burmese Empire.

With the fall of Bagan, the Mons - who were brought there by Anawrahta over two hundred years ago, returned to Lower Burma, and founded a new kingdom, with its capital in Bago (Pegu). Meanwhile in Upper Burma, the Shan people filled the power vacuum by establishing a new kingdom in Inwa (Ava).

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