A brief history of the Pagan Kingdom, a Theravada Buddhist empire that united ancient Myanmar and became a regional power from 1044-1297 CE.
The iconic photos of a dusty sunrise over hundreds of ruined temples have become the most recognizable image of Myanmar. This dry plain is covered with 1000-year-old Buddhist monasteries that were built by the first true Burmese kingdom at Bagan
The Pagan Kingdom was the first kingdom to bring together the regions that would make up modern-day Myanmar (Burma). As the kingdom grew in influence, it built hundreds of monumental temples, conquered neighboring kingdoms, and laid the foundations of modern Myanmar culture and language.
There is some understandable confusion in the labels of “Pagan” and “Bagan”, particularly with the prevalence of “Bagan” in tourist literature. For this article, the common spelling of Bagan will be used for the capital city, while the Pagan Kingdom will be used for the culture/political entity.
Who Are the People of the Pagan Kingdom?
The Pagan Kingdom was established by the Bamar people (commonly known as Burmese), an ethnic group related to the Tibeto-Burman language family that originated in the Eastern Himalayas. They migrated into the Irrawaddy River Valley in central Burma (Myanmar) which is in Southeast Asia.
Other Tibeto-Burman groups, Pyu and Rakhine, had migrated into the region centuries earlier, however, the Rakhine were cut off by mountain ranges lining the west of Myanmar.
The Pagan Kingdom was the first empire to bring together the regions that make up modern-day Burma. It was also the birthplace of the Burmese language, and one of the first regions in Southeast Asia to practice Theravāda Buddhism, which is still practiced by the Burmese today.
The culture, language, and religion of the Pagan Kingdom would set the stage for contemporary Burmese practices.
Origins of the Pagan Kingdom
Prior to Bagan, the northern regions of central Myanmar were dominated by the Pyu culture, a collection of Buddhist city-states who began adopting Indianized culture in the 1st Century BCE. The Pyu Kingdoms were subject to raids from groups in southwestern China, which eventually weakened them, particularly with the destruction of the northern Pyu city of Halin. This made way for the Bamar people to supplant the Pyu as the region’s dominant power.
The Bamar (Burmese) began occupying the Irrawaddy River Valley following these raids as early as the 7th Century CE, however, they only began establishing their fledgling state in the 700s CE. Scholars believe they emigrated to Pagan from the Nanzhao Kingdom, which was in the southern part of China, somewhere between the 9th and 10th Centuries.
During their early years, there was little difference in culture, language, or writing between the remnant Pyu and the new Bamar rulers. The Bamar absorbed much of Pyu Buddhism, architecture, and agricultural practices in constructing their first cities in the Irrawaddy Valley, including their capital at Bagan.
Pagan (Bagan) Name Origins
The name of Bagan or Pagan is the modern pronunciation of the Old Burmese word “pukam” (ပုကမ်). I haven’t been able to find a direct translation of this word, but it seems to mean “Pyu village”.
However, its classical name during the height of the Pagan Kingdom was Arimaddana Pura (အရိမဒ္ဒနာပူရ | “the city that crushes its enemies”).
Culture and Beliefs of the Pagan Kingdom
The Pagan Kingdom set the stage for contemporary Burmese language and culture. Under King Anawrahta, Pagan became the first kingdom to unite the regions that constitute Burma today. Religion was a very important part of Pagan culture. It would ultimately contribute to the kingdom’s downfall since the rulers gave a majority of their fertile land to religious authorities, tax-free—this caused strife within the kingdom, which allowed the Mongols to take over in 1287.
Religion in the Pagan Kingdom
In the Pagan Kingdom, several religions were practiced, including several forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and native tribal belief such as animism.
Theravada Buddhism was considered to be the kingdom’s primary religion. However, it was heavily syncretic, meaning it accepted and inherited ideology from other religions.
The Theravada Buddhists in Pagan focused on something called merit-making. Merit-making meant focusing on doing good deeds and using resources for charitable purposes instead of for personal wants. Because of this, the citizens of Pagan quickly constructed many temples. This was deemed an appropriate way to use wealth for the good of all.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the rulers of Pagan ordered over 10,000 Buddhist temples to be built. Approximately 3000 of these still remain today!
Since religion and merit-making were such an important part of Pagan culture, the wealthy individuals in Pagan donated tax-free land to religious authorities. While this practice did not harm Pagan at first, it would eventually contribute to the empire’s demise during the 13th century.
Architecture in the Pagan Kingdom
The city of Bagan is famous for its iconic brick temples that litter the surrounding plains. These monumental stupas, known locally as paya, were inherited from the Pyu culture. The Pyu were the first in Myanmar to build vault temples, with a hollow interior. However, the builder at Bagan expanded on this technique, creating the landscape of monumental pyramidal stupas that can be seen today.
This construction became possible with the conquest of Thaton and the mass importation of Mon artisans and their techniques.
Class Division in the Pagan Kingdom
Social rank played an important role in Pagan society. An individual’s position in society was determined by how close they were politically, economically, and genealogically to the throne. It was also determined by how close they were to Buddhahood (AKA spiritual enlightenment).
The lowest social group in Pagan was the commoners. They had no link to royalty, meaning they had little to no political or economic power. They typically worked in agriculture.
However, some high-end commoners did exist. This group consisted of artisans and crown service troops and headsmen, who were elders in charge of the villages. These groups were considered to be of a higher social rank than other commoners.
The step above commoner was the lower officialdom. This included leaders of the towns, districts, and provinces within Pagan.
The upper officialdom consisted of extended members of the royal family and the royal court. These were the highest officials in the kingdom except for royalty. Royalty, the highest social rank, consisted of solely the royal family.
History of the Pagan Kingdom
Bagan’s Legendary History
The earliest contradicting accounts of Bagan say that the city was established in either 107 CE or 156 CE, the first attributed to a descendant from the Pyu city of Sri Ksetra and the latter by Pyusawhti, a semi-mythical figure who historians still attribute the city’s founding to.
Additionally, some accounts tell that the Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha once visited the land and prophesized that a great city would arise there. This is a common legend all over Southeast Asia, also found in many local Thai legends. However, there is no evidence (literary or archaeological) that the Gautama Buddha ever visited Southeast Asia.
In fact, there was no permanent human habitation in the area of Bagan during the early centuries. Archaeological excavations have found the earliest evidence of human activity dating from the 600s CE, although there is no definitive evidence if this is Pyu, Bamar, or another ethnic group such as the Mon.
The Early Pagan Period
The legend of Pyusawhti tells that the mythical ruler was the offspring of a solar spirit and a dragon princess. However, most scholars agree that he was more likely a real historical figure who migrated to the area during the raids on the Pyu from the Nanzhao Kingdom.
Pyusawhti’s name and the names of his descendants further prove that he emigrated from the Nanzhao Kingdom. He and the six recorded generations that followed him adhered to the Nanzhao naming system in which the father’s last name was used as the first or middle name of his sons.
However, not everyone agrees that Pyusawhti was the founder of Pagan. From 1829-1832 AD, the Royal Historical Commission of Burma compiled the Hmannan Yazawin, a collection of historical works about Burmese rulers.
After compiling the works, the commission believed that the actual founder of Pagan was Thamudarit and that Pyusawhti was his descendant.
The actual founder of Pagan’s earliest settlement remains unclear.
The Emergence of the Pagan Empire
The Pagan Empire was founded in 1057 AD by King Anawrahta. He is famous for his grand arrival to Pagan, during which he brought 32 white elephants, plenty of treasure, and 30,000 Mons slaves.
According to a Pagan inscription, the Mons slaves Anawrahta conquered were skilled artisans who were proficient in a variety of trades, including masons, scholars, blacksmiths, cooks, hairdressers, and more! This helped with the success of the Kingdom since the Pagan Empire now had a large workforce of capable individuals to help them build the city and develop a refined culture.
Anawrahta was able to unify various groups around the Irrawaddy valley. He created an alliance between the regions that now constitute modern-day Burma. Under his leadership, the once simplistic Burmese society was elevated culturally and socially, making Pagan the center of political and religious life within Southeast Asia.
After Anawrahta’s reign ended during the 12th century, his successors were able to continue expanding Pagan power. Their influence spread to the Malay Peninsula, east to the Salween river, north to the China border, and west towards Arakan and the Chin Hills.
For many years the Burmese rulers of Pagan worked to get rid of competing languages and fought against common enemies, making their alliances with surrounding regions even stronger.
Bagan’s Golden Age
For over 200 years, the kings of Bagan ruled over the entirety of the Myanmar heartland. Their conquest of Thaton had given them access to the maritime trade routes that made neighboring kingdoms including Dvaravati, Srivijaya, and Rakhine so prosperous.
During this time, the king and priests at Bagan established closer ties with Rakhine to the west and were held off by the Khmer Empire to their east. Meanwhile to their north, the Nanzhao Kingdom continued as a strong center, proving an additional layer of protection between the Pagan Empire and China.
During these centuries, Bagan became a flourishing center of Theravada Buddhism. At the same time, Theravada Buddhism was in decline in India, being replaced with Mahayana Buddhism and a resurgence of Hinduism, which strengthened Bagan’s position even more. It received pilgrims from neighboring states, built magnificent temples, and contributed to the overall Buddhist canon.
Geography of Pagan Kingdom
The Pagan Kingdom first established itself in the northern dry region of the Irrawaddy River Valley. This valley was protected by mountain ranges to the east and west and thick jungles in the Himalayan foothills in the north.
These natural barriers allowed the early Pyu and Mon peoples who had established their own kingdoms prior to the arrival of the Bamar people. Meanwhile, the coastal regions allowed the Mon Kingdoms in the south to gain an influx of Indian culture as the traders made their way through the sea routes to China.
As the Pagan Kingdom expanded, it came to meet these boundaries on all sides.
The Pagan Kingdom in Thaton (Southern Myanmar)
For many centuries, the Mon people had established themselves along the southern coastal regions of modern-day Myanmar and expanded their influence into Thailand to establish the separate Dvaravati culture. In building their culture, they had adopted a strong identity based in Theravada Buddhism, which had become entrenched in these Mon Kingdoms 1000 years.
In 1044, when King Anawrahta took the throne in Bagan, he aimed to unite the entire region under the banner of Theravada Buddhism. Acting as a conquered the Thaton Kingdom, located in Lower Burma, in 1057. This was the capital of the Mon’s people.
After King Anawrahta took over Thaton, he took the Mon’s people as slaves. These were the artisans that Anawrahta brought back with him to help build Pagan into an empire. The literary and religious practices from Thaton would help shape Pagan into the center of power in Southeast Asia.
The Pagan Kingdom in Rakhine
During the early years of the First Millenium CE, the Rakhine Kingdom established itself in the narrow river valleys along the Bay of Bengal. This Kaladan-Lemro River Valley is isolated from the rest of Myanmar by the Arakan Yoma mountain range. For nearly 1000 years, Rakhine flourished as an independent kingdom through the valley throughout their Dhanyawadi and Vesali period, with high influence from the Pyu Kingdoms and India.
As Vesali’s influence in Rakhine waned, Rakhine set up a series of short-lived capitals farther upstream on the Lemro River, near a mountain pass leading to Bagan. There is a notable change in the cultural influence on Rakhine during this time, as they move away from Indian toward the Bagan style.
Although there is a popular perception that Rakhine became a vassal state of some sort to Bagan, there is no written or archaeological evidence supporting this. The more likely conclusion is that the two Theravada Buddhist established closer ties as Bagan rose in influence as a religious pilgrimage center.
However, as Bagan’s influence declined, Rakhine reemerged as an independent power with its new capital at Mrauk U in the 14th Century.
The Pagan Kingdom in Thailand
Just as Rakhine is separated by a mountain range on Myanmar’s west, the Thongchai range has historically acted as the natural border between kingdoms of Thailand and Myanmar.
During the height of the Pagan Kingdom, the early Thai states had not yet begun to form. The country was instead under the control of the Mon Dvaravati Kingdoms based in Nakhon Pathom, Lopburi (Lavo), and Lamphun (Hariphunchai).
However, while their Mon cousins in Myanmar were being conquered and annexed by the rapidly growing Pagan Empire, the same was happening to the Dvaravati cities by the Khmer Empire, which had been expanding westward from Cambodia. By the end of the First Millennium CE, Angkor controlled all of the Mon Dvaravati territories in Thailand, with the exception of the Hariphunchai Kingdom in the north.
This effectively divided mainland Southeast Asia between the Khmer and Pagan Empires and prevented the Burmese of Bagan from establishing any political foothold in Thailand.
Many Burmese and Bagan-inspired temples can be found in Thailand today. However, these come from later periods, when the Thai kingdoms of Lanna and Ayutthaya warred with subsequent Burmese kingdoms who had adopted Bagan architecture.
Pagan in Maw Shan State
Around 1058, The Pagan king Anawrahta led an expedition to the Nanzhao Kingdom.
On his way back from Nanzhao he was approached by the chief of Maw Shan State, which lies between Nanzhao and Pagan.
The chief of Maw Shan swore allegiance to Anawranhta and the two created an alliance. Anawrahta married the daughter of the chief who was named Saw Mon Hla. He brought her back to Pagan with him.
In the Burmese chronicles, Saw Mon Hla was said to be very beautiful. King Anawrahta’s other queens were jealous of her and claimed that she was a witch, which eventually led her to be exiled from Pagan. Today, Saw Mon Hla is still a popular figure who is often portrayed in
What Happened to the Pagan Kingdom?
The kingdom started to go downhill in the 13th Century. As was mentioned before, Pagan had a custom in which the wealthy would donate land tax-free to religious authorities.
This practice had grown unsustainable by the 1280s, when two-thirds of the fertile land had come under religious control. This weakened the both the economy and power of the king, who was no longer able to tax the land. This led to turmoil within the kingdom.
Additionally, China’s new Yuan Dyansty, led by the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, had conquered Nanzhao and sent emissaries to Bagan demanding tribute from the Kingdom. The king at the time, Narathihapati, refused these envoys, turning away the first and killing the second.
In 1287, the Mongols responded by launching an attack on Pagan from it northern borders. King Narathihapati march to meet Kublai Khan’s forces, be was swiftly and decisively defeated.
There is no evidence that the Yuan Dynasty forces continued on to Bagan after this defeat. However, this final defeat of the royalty compounded the domestic problems in the capital were the final years of the Pagan Kingdom, and the city of Bagan was no longer wielding political influence by 1300 CE.
This destroyed the alliance between all of the lands King Anawrahta and his successors had unified. This would lead to several centuries of temporary Burmese capital establishing themselves, but the regions would not come together again until the 17th century under the Toungoo dynasty.
Cities of the Pagan Kingdom
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.17194, 94.85847
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.6099, 96.13385
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 23.49189, 96.01
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.85655, 95.98192
Mon State, Myanmar
GPS: 16.92526, 97.36298
Monuments of the Pagan Kingdom
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.16206, 94.87312
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.17122, 94.86776
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.16491, 94.88141
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.17215, 94.86451
Tamote Shinpin Shwegugyi Temple
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.64241, 96.05473
Mahar Shwe Thein Daw Pagoda
Mandalay Region, Myanmar
GPS: 21.64491, 96.13082
Name: Pagan Kingdom
Origin: Established by Bamar people who migrated from Southwest China into Myanmar after the destruction of the Pyu Kingdoms.
Language: Old Burmese
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Period: 1044 – 1297 CE
Location: Central Myanmar
Capital: Old Bagan, Myanmar
Decline: Decline in royal power led to conquest by China’s Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty.
The belief that all living and nonliving things have a spirit
Burmese city and capital city of the Pagan Kingdom from 1044-1297 CE
Ethnic group that makes up the majority of Myanmar’s population. Commonly known as Burmese.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
A sect of Buddhism focused on the reverence of bodhisattvas.
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to at Dvaravati.
Fourth and final capital of the independent Rakhine kingdom from 1430-1785 CE.
Burmese empire that controlled Myanmar from 1044-1297 CE
Early collection of Buddhist city-states in central Myanmar during the First Millenium CE.
Independent kingdom located in the Kaladin-Lemro River Valleys of Western Myanmar.
A legendary prince born in Lumphini, Nepal who would go on to found Buddhism. Known generally as the “Buddha”.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
“The “Doctrine of the Elders” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
The ruling dynasty of Myanmar from 1510–1752. It waged wars with and conquered several surrounding kingdoms, including Siam, Lanna, and Lan Xang.
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