Chapter 1, Part 13
At the turn of the second millennium, Hinduism became the dominant power in Southeast Asia where powerful Hindu kingdoms controlled vast swathes of land between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. Following the return of Shaivism into the royal court of Medang in Java, gradually the religion eclipsed the influence of Buddhism in the region and remained the prominent belief of the Javanese even long after the fall of Medang in the 11th century. Meanwhile the once powerful Sumatra-based Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya was attacked by the Hindu Cholas from southern India in 1025 and never regained its past glory. Elsewhere in this part of Asia, from Champa in modern-day Vietnam to the mighty Khmer Empire (a predominantly Hindu kingdom despite having a Mahayana Buddhist king) in modern-day Cambodia, Hinduism seemed to be an unstoppable force ready to conquer even more lands.
In the valley of Ayeyarwady (Irrawady) river in the land where two Buddhist monks, Sona and Uttara, spread the teachings of the Buddha following the Third Buddhist Council more than one thousand years earlier, a prince named Min Saw was born. His father was the king of a small kingdom whose ancestors arrived from southern China, settled in the valley, and assimilated their culture with the indigenous Pyu people’s.
At the age of 30, the prince challenged his father’s usurper and successfully returned the throne of the kingdom to his father. But the old king refused, paving the way for his son to ascend the throne. The new, young king then took the title Anawrahta, and soon he would consolidate his power, unite his kingdom, and incorporate lands beyond its core realm under the banner of a powerful Buddhist empire: Bagan (Pagan) Empire.
Once an Ari Buddhist (closely related to Tantric Buddhism), Anawrahta embraced the more conservative Theravada Buddhism and became a patron of the Buddhist school which at the time was in constant decline elsewhere for people preferred Tantric and Mahayana schools. Along with the reorganization of the state religion, Anawrahta incorporated Lower Burma into his empire and conquered lands as far as the long coast of Tenasserim on the Kra Isthmus (the narrow strip of land that forms the modern-day border of Thailand and Myanmar in the south), establishing his kingdom as a formidable Buddhist force amid the growing influence of Hinduism to the west, south and east.
As was the fashion for kings all over the world in cementing their authority and showcasing their achievement, Anawrahta commissioned the construction of several large Buddhist temples and pagodas during his reign. The stepped pyramid of Shwesandaw was a revolutionary structure in ancient Bagan as it was the first pagoda to feature multi-level terraces and stairways raising from the ground straight to the base of the pagoda.
More than two decades after the completion of Shwenandaw, Anawrahta built another pagoda at the northern edge of his capital where a replica of a tooth of the Buddha would later be enshrined. The king, however, would never see the completion of Shwezigon, the new pagoda. It was during the reign of Kyansittha, one of Anawrahta’s sons, that the pagoda was finally completed. Not only was Shwezigon one of the most important pagodas in the empire, it was also the site where the worship of nats (spirits, relics from Burmese animist belief) was endorsed by past monarch, a syncretism which makes Burmese Theravada Buddhism truly unique.
Upon Anwrahta’s death, Sawlu ascended the throne of Bagan even though Kyansittha, his half-brother from a less important queen was more popular among the people. During the reign of the new king, the unified kingdom of Bagan saw a rebellion from the Mon people in Pegu (modern-day Bago). Kyansittha, exiled twice during Sawlu’s reign, was summoned to help the king in his campaign against the rebels. Kyansittha successfully quelled the revolt, but he was unable to save the life of his incompetent half-brother for he was tragically killed by his childhood friend who led the rebellion.
Kyansittha, backed by popular support, claimed the throne and led his kingdom into a period of relative peace marked by cultural reforms and reconciliation with the Mon people. During his reign, not only did he complete Shwezigon, but he also reintroduced gu architectural style, notable for its hollow, cave-like structure adorned with murals and statues of the Buddha.
A legend says that during Sawlu’s reign, Kyansittha once slept on a plot of land with a snake in vicinity quietly watching him. After becoming king of Bagan, Kyansittha instructed a temple to be built at the exact site where a serpent watched him sleeping a few years earlier. Nagayon, as the temple was called, was built in an entirely different style from Shwesandaw and Shwezigon. However Kyansittha’s most notable architectural achievement would take form a few decades after the completion of Nagayon.
Traditionally the local people refer to three temples of Bagan as the most notable sites in the plain: “Massiveness that is Dhammayangyi, loftiness that is Thatbyinnyu, and grace that is Ananda.” The latter was in fact Kyansittha’s jewel which survived eons after the fall of his kingdom. Ironically Bagan has yet to make it to UNESCO World Heritage Sites list due to botched restoration works carried out by the military junta back in the 1990s when Myanmar was still isolated from the rest of the world.
Not only busy with temple construction, Kyansittha also actively promoted a synthesis of culture to accommodate the aspirations of different peoples within his kingdom, as well as to prevent any dissatisfaction that could lead to a rebellion from his subjects. His reign also marked the increasing importance of Burmese among existing languages, chiefly Mon and Pyu.
After the death of Kyansittha, his grandson ascended the throne and commenced a period of wealth in Bagan. Known for his extensive travels to the far-flung regions within his realm, Alaungsithu is remembered as the king who introduced standardized weights and measures for trade and administration in his kingdom, built reservoirs and dams to help farmers, strengthened forts and outposts, and constructed pagodas to support Theravada Buddhism.
The masterpiece of his reign took shape as the tallest structure in the entire valley: Loftiness that is Thatbyinnyu. Soaring amid verdant fields, Thatbyinnyu is visible from all directions, an important landmark as well as a manifestation of Alaungsithu’s power and ambition.
Contrary to his smooth ascension, one of Alaungsithu’s sons, Narathu, would claim the throne in a more sinister way. After ruling his kingdom for more than seven decades, one day Alaungsithu fell violently ill and became unconscious. The prince, without the king’s consent, ordered the king to be moved to Shwegugyi, one of more than 2,000 temples still standing in Bagan today. After gaining consciousness, Alaungsithu was infuriated by his son’s decision, but before long Narathu choked his own father to death. In the wake of the tragic event, Narathu’s older brother, Min Shin Saw, ascended the throne. But the dissatisfied and blindly ambitious younger prince planned yet another malicious act to claim the throne: poisoning his brother to death.
Narathu did ascend the throne following the two assassinations, and the kingdom continued its growth into an influential power in the region. But along with increasing wealth and prosperity, as well as political killings, came turbulent time to Bagan.
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