Buddha Sasana in Pre-Bagan city kingdoms

This lecture was written by Sayagyi Dr Khin Maung Nyunt for Diploma Class.
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Buddhist Culture & History

Archaeological evidences such as religious and secular monuments and excavated artifacts prove many city kingdoms had existed long before Bagan in lower Myanmar, western coastal region and central Myanmar. From 1st century to 9th century AD, there were Pyu city kingdoms;

  1. Beikthano(Vishnu) in Taungdwingyi central Myanmar
  2. Hanlin near Shwebo in upper Myanmar
  3. Srekestra near Pyay in central Myanmar and
  4. Tagaung to the north of Bagan, in Mandalay Division.

Like ancient city states of Greece such as Athens, Sparta, Delphi, Corinth, these Pyu city kingdoms were separate self contained domains but they were much larger. They were walled and well fortified. Both ruling classes and people lived within the defended kingdoms. Palace great houses, public dwellings, field, water sources, religious centers, everything within the fortified walled kingdom. Ancient stupas, monuments and findings of excavated sites within and outside the walls are tangible evidences of the Buddha Sasana that had existed.

Beikthano was the earliest of them, Vishnu or Beikthano was not the name of Hindu God Maha Deva Vishnu. It was the name of the Pyu queen Vishnu who founded that city kingdom. Ruined brick and stone buildings above ground and unearthed artifacts prove that Buddhism of Mahayana type and Hindu Brahmanism coexisted here status, images and associated find are Hindu deities.

Though ruined structure indicate the existence and flourish of Buddhism, the total absence of Buddha statue or image make scholars suggest that Buddha Sasana of Beikthano belonged to pre-icon period. A few years ago a bronze Buddha statue in the posture of sitting on a chair was discovered by chance in the debris of a fallen stupa. It could have been a votive object enshrined in that stupa at a much later date. It was not excavated from the depth of them earth of Beikthano’s time.

Next in seniority of age is Hanlin near Shwebo. Here we find inscriptions on funerary urns, clay, seals and stone slabs bearing Buddha images in relief. Ruined stupas ground plans of monasteries and some coins assure us that Buddhism of Hanlin belongs to later period.

Srikestra near Pyay about 160miles to the north of  Yangon was the third Pyu city kingdom. It was a well developed Pyu city kingdom. Religious monuments, city walls with gates, palace site, burial ground, irrigation works were excavated. Buddhism of both Mahayana and Theravada type flourished here and Hindu Brahmanism strongly persisted.

Chinese records of old Tang and new Tang dynasties give a vivid account of Pyu, their culture and civilization. From these records we learn the following;

In 802 AD, diplomatic mission led by Pyu crown prince Sunanda was sent to Chinese emperor of Tang dynasty at the capital Chang-an. Chinese chroniclers fully recorded this event in the court annals. We can glean the Buddha Sasana in Pyu city kingdoms from these records. During their pilgrimage to Buddhagaya and other sacred places in India made transits in Pyu city kingdoms. They recorded in writing what they eye-witnessed as follows. That Pyu were staunch Buddhist. They wore only cotton; they did not wear silk because silk wear involved killing silk worms. That there were over 100 large teak monasteries teaching Buddhism at the capital, that every boy at the age of 7years had his head shaved and entered the holy order as novice to learn reading. Writing and Buddhism, on reaching 20years in age, males were ordained as monks.

That Pyu king and his court propitiated the white marble image of elephant (ganesha?), in times of calamities natural disasters or war. The records of Pyu diplomatic mission in 802 AD, in the annals of old and new Tang dynasties reflected the influence of Buddhism on Pyu culture. A cultural troupe of Pyu performing artists accompanied the mission and staged performances at the imperials court. Pyu songs and dances described and depicted Buddha’s life stories and reflected his teaching (Dhamma). Pyu performing artists paid homage and respect in Buddhist style. Their musical instruments represented Hindu and Buddhist designs and symbols conch shell, lotus flower, hamsa bird, swastika, etc. Ancient monuments at Srikestra, such as Baw Baw Gyi, Phaya mar, Phaya Gyi, have the earliest Buddhist stupa design cylinder shape without decorative motifs, ornaments and hti (umbrella). Temples such as Lay Myet Hna and Gu Phaya are one story with a stupa on the roof. They suggest design of early Buddhist structure in south India.

Funerary urns made of clay or stone with epitaphs in Pyu letters and some skeletons found at the burial grounds tell us that both bringing and burying of dead were practiced by Pyu. Letters on Stone urns with bone ashes given dynastic name of Vikarama Sanscrit of Pali sounding name. Big status of sand stone representing Maha Deva Vishnu and his consort Pavati holding lotus blooms and Bodhisattha with a Buddha figure in his crown are discovered proving that Brahmanism and Buddhism co-existed in Pyu city kingdoms. Stone slabs set up at city gates with inscriptions of extracts from Paritta Sutta toward off all kinds of enemies natural and supernatural indicate the flourish of Theravada Buddhism and existence of Pariyatti monastic schools in Srikestra. Status and figures of Mahayana Buddhism e.g. Lokanatha-deva, Avalokestra, Meteya, Vishnu, Brahma, Sakka deva, Naga, Garuda, Rakha etc. dug up at the sites show us that pre-Buddhist religious still persisted. Pyu coins mostly of silver bear both Hindu and Buddhist motifs and symbols, rising sun, stars, ocean, lotus bloom, swastika and other auspicious designs.

Tagaung is another pre-Bagan city kingdom which is located to the north of Bagan, in the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwaddy River. It is now a big village growing into a modern town. Tagaung legend claims that it was contemporary of Buddha. Myanmar old saying မြန်မာအစ၊ တကောင်းက (Myanmar’s origin is Tagaung). A branch of Gotama Buddha’s clan Sakya (Thet Kya) lost the battle with their rivals in north India (Nepal), king of the defeated clan Abhiraja with his people to where Tagaung now is. He founded a city kingdom and set up his dynasty. Tagaung is geographically and strategically, situated on both banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. Mountain and hill ranges covered with forest, fertile land with water resources was suitable for human habitation.

Excavations of archaeological sites in Tagaung reveal artifacts dating both pre and contemporary Bagan. Ruined monuments mostly Buddhist city walls and gates prove that Tagaung was another Pyu city kingdom. Though archaeological evidence show that Tagaung city kingdom was Buddhist, there are tangible proofs to confirm that animism especially Naga worship was also prevalent. There is a statue of Naga Nat (serpent god) in a big shrine at the entrance of Tagaung proving that local people still believe in animism. There are iron ores and remains of iron extracting and smelting and black are workshops. The legend of mighty black smith Maung Tin De his sister Shwe Myet Hnar and his serpent wife Shwe Nabei and their association with Bagan and Mt. Popa are evidence of spirit worship.


  1. H.Luce, Ancient Pyu
  2. Tan Yee Sein, Pyu mission to Tang china in 802 AD.
  3. Khin Maung Nyunt (Dr.) Pyu mucicians and dancers.
  4. U Aung Thaw, Historical sites of Burma
  5. Artifacts on display at National Museum, Yangon,  Archaeological Site Museums at Beikthano, Halin and Srekestra.
  6. Luce and Pe Maung Tin, Glass Palace Chronicle.
  7. U Aung Thaw, Historical sites of
  8. Khin Maung Nyuny(Dr.), Hagiography of Maha thera Shin Arahan.

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