Chapter 1, Part 16
Almost two centuries of endless temple construction which began during the reign of Anawrahta, the founder of the kingdom of Bagan, resulted in nearly two-thirds of arable land in the kingdom reserved for religious purposes. The construction of colossal temples and the increasing influence of the kingdom, as well as the need to secure its borders, required a huge sum of money. But as the amount of cultivable area shrunk, so did the source of income Bagan needed to retain its generous spending.
Htilominlo, the successor of Narapatisithu who ruled Bagan largely in peace for almost four decades, overlooked the imminent financial difficulties his kingdom was facing. Construction spree was still taking place with the completion of Gawdawpalin, an enormous temple started by Narapatisithu and completed by Htilominlo, and an even bigger temple which would be named after the new king himself.
After ruling Bagan for more than twenty years, Htilominlo was succeeded by his son, Kyaswa, under whose rule Bagan witnessed its economy declining even further. Unlike the kings before him, Kyaswa resorted to building smaller, unimposing temples. Pyathadar (Pyathatgyi) was built during his reign and it is obvious that the king abandoned the appetite for gargantuan monuments his predecessors were known to have a penchant for. Upon his death in the mid-13th century, Kyaswa inherited his son, Uzana, an ailing kingdom with faltering economy which would never see better days until its demise.
Uzana ruled only for five years, however during his brief reign, and despite the continued depletion of the royal treasury, several temples were built. One of the most notable among them is Thambulla, named after the queen consort of Uzana, located at Minnanthu in the outskirts of the center of Bagan – a trend started since the economic decline where rulers built temples further away from the inner part of the capital. Officially closed to visitors, James and I were lucky to be around the temple at the same time with a German couple who came with a local man, none other than the caretaker of the temple itself.
He let us roam freely inside the temple, while occasionally explaining about its history. Adorned with fading frescoes, the vaulted inner sanctum of Thambulla was like pages of a story book glued to the walls with statues of the four Buddhas looking out towards the cardinal directions. Thambulla’s modest size compared to the temples built by the previous kings of Bagan was compensated by its exceptionally intricate interior.
20 minutes later we walked out of the temple, and as we were about to tip the caretaker for allowing us to go inside, he politely refused, and said that he only wanted to help us. Such a kind-hearted, sincere gesture in an increasingly commercial Bagan where aggressive postcard vendors were far too common at the most popular sites.
Upon Uzana’s death, the kingdom faced a power struggle long absent from Bagan’s political landscape with the chief minister opposing Uzana’s oldest son who claimed the throne. The influential minister had him arrested and appointed Uzana’s other son from a less important concubine as the new king. Narathihapate, as the new king was called, soon became an unpopular ruler for his lack of empathy towards his people’s suffering.
As if bad luck refused to forsake Bagan, a powerful empire from the far north was drawing closer to the kingdom’s periphery, the same empire that conquered eastern Europe and ransacked Baghdad, thousands of kilometers away from its center of power in the vast steppes of the Far East. The Mongol Empire is in fact the largest political entity the world has ever seen – at its height it controlled a much larger area than the Soviet Union, the largest country in the modern world.
The imminent threat from the powerful and hostile invading nomads, exacerbated by Narathihapate’s incompetence in governing Bagan, led to the conquests of the northern regions of the kingdom. The Mongols fell short of entering the capital of Bagan, but the king decided to flee his palace altogether and headed south.
The already abhorred king was further alienated not only by his people but also his sons. His death in the late 13th century marked the end of Bagan dynasty’s rule over much of Lower and Upper Burma for nearly 250 years. For his ignominious action the king is now remembered as Tayok Pye, ‘the king who fled from the Mongol invasion’, a moniker also attributed to a temple Narathihapate built.
The last rays of the sun shone over the temples at Minnanthu, turning them into glowing monuments from the past. A solemn reminder of a once great and powerful kingdom whose marks still inspire people in the 21st century.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.