Myanmar History - Introduction

The country comprised within the limits of the Province of British Burma includes the once independent kingdoms of Arakau and Pegu, the petty principalities of Tavoy and Tenasserim, sometimes subject to Burma, sometimes to Siam and sometimes, for brief periods, independent of either, and on the north, in the valley of the Irrawaddy, a portion of the kingdom of Burma. Each of the three great kingdoms has a history of its own; each grew out of the aggregation of petty states and each, eventually, coming in contact with the others was deluged with blood in the attempts of the rulers to extend their dominions.

The petty kingdoms of Arakan, Pegu, and Tavoy arose along the coastline, Prome and Toungoo in Central Burma, and Burma proper in the upper portion of the Irrawaddy valley. Internecine warfare was habitual among these various petty kingdoms, though Arakan and Tavoy, thanks to their geographical position, suffered much less on this account than the central principalities occupying different portions of the Irrawaddy valley.

Burmans have never lost a certain sense of having a special culture in which they take much pride. Historically, the kings of Burma really did believe they were the world emperors, and even the glorious future king was expected to create his paradise first on Burmese soil. Burmans are never tired of recalling their ancient history, particularly to illustrate how vast their conquests were and how far back their Buddhism can be traced historically and archaeologically. Buttressed by their thousand-year history, the Burmans are not all that impressed with western nations so recently arrived on the scene.

When Burmans talk about history, they are neither very realistic nor rationally critical. Their history is filled with legends and often meaningless lists of data that pass as scholarship. Historical analysis or historiography is very rare; therefore Burmans use history to express national pride and their special sense of destiny. The past is remembered in terms of archetypes that carry the culture. Conceptions of history shaped in the tradition of Herodotus, Thucydides, von Ranke and company do not fully or automatically apply to the study of Burmese history.

The early history of Burma is wrapped in the mists of traditional legends, which afterwards became crystallised in the Yazawin or Royal Chronicles. In course of time various independent kingdoms sprang up, so that when the truly historical epoch was reached separate nations, with dynasties of their own, held sway in different parts of the country. The Burmese and Arakanese historians, in their anxiety to attribute a miraculous origin to the founders of the reigning families and to connect Gaudama personally with their country, have embellished their accounts not only with the most incredible myths and fictions but, in the case of those of Arakan especially, with statements which their own religious books contradict.

Burmese history, as recorded by indigenous chroniclers, goes back to an exceedingly remote period, and its earlier chapters deal with events that are for the most part obviously legendary, but of interest in so far as they afford a clue to the distribution over the country of the various peoples that claim Burma as their home. It is impossible to place a finger on the precise point at which fact begins to emerge from fable.

There exist a number of local chronicles of the petty dynasties which have at various times established themselves in different parts of the country. Thus there is a Thatone history, a Martaban history, a Prome history, a Pagan history, and several others. Since the emergence of modern historiography of Burma (Myanmar), Burmese yazawin, or chronicles of kings, have been key scholarly sources. The most well-known of these chronicles are considered reliable after circa 1500 and provide a timeline of events for almost all research on precolonial Myanmar history.

The commencement of all these is generally a mixture of fable and fact, not always easy to separate, tending to glorify the founder of the city or dynasty, but each helps to confirm or check the others in points where they mutually converge. With regard to the wonderful fables with which the earlier parts of these records are filled, should any deem on their account the whole narrative untrustworthy, the same grounds should also blot out several pages of early English history, the authorities for which are the equally fable-mongering "early chronicles."

The countries which by Europeans are often confused and comprehended under the general name of "Burma" consist of the three great divisions of Arakan, Pegu, and Burma, which formerly constituted three distinct empires, even when at times sub-divided into several petty States. Myanmar has a long and complex history. Many people have lived in the region.

It appears that central Burma was first inhabited some 400,000 years ago, which was given the name the Anyathian culture (from anyatha, Upper Burmaman). Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures flourished in many parts of Myanmar from about 20,000 years ago leaving behind much material evidence as well as the wall painting of Padalin Cave in the Shan foothills near Myittha. A bronze culture later developed, well represented by the Nyaunggan archeological site near Monywa.

Because of the lack of reliable records, practically nothing is known of Burma's early history. Legends tell that a king of the Mons, a people who had apparently migrated into Lower Burma from the southeast, built the Shwedagon Pagoda on the site of modern Rangoon during the lifetime of the Buddha (ca. sixth century BC). Another legend - that the third century BC Indian emperor Ashoka, a devout Buddhist, sent monks to Thaton, a Mon settlement in Lower Burma on the gulf of Martaban -- suggests that they had early contacts with the Indian subcontinent by sea. Indian ships docked at Thaton, Pegu, and other Lower Burma ports, and the region became an outpost of Indian civilization. India's most important contribution to Burmese culture was Buddhism, as the legends suggest. Over the centuries it was the axis around which Burmese life and national identity evolved. The loose network of Mon states in Lower Burma served as a bridge over which the Buddhist faith reached the Upper Burma heartland.

It was one of the traditional beliefs that there were one hundred and one ethnic groups living all over the world and each group would have a king of its own, and when the Burmese King could subdue the other one hundred kings, he would become the Universal Monarch. The ancient, unperfected stratagem of royalty was to create a kingdom from the inside out, that is, to radiate as much power as possible from the center of the realm, attempting to control as many people as feasible. In this system, control at the center was absolute and impressive, but in the hinterlands the king was more a symbol than a reality. The king claimed to rule the entire world and was so treated, but a few hundred miles away another monarch might be successfully persuading his subjects to believe that he was the world emperor. Villagers tried vainly to stay out of the way of both sublime beings. Although such royal states usually collapsed owing to palace violence and warfare, a few managed to expand enough to include most of modern-day Burma, creating the cultural template for the modern notion of unity.

It may at once be admitted that there are numerous events recorded in the histories of the countries that once formed the Burmese empire which no doubt are historically true, but which in the several chronicles have been hopelessly deranged in time. The early history of Burma is made up largely of legendary matter, and concerns itself with the petty kingdoms of Arakan, Pegu, and Tavoy, of Prome and Taungoo, besides that of Burma proper in the north. These histories may be disregarded. That of Arakan never concerned the national history. Tavoy was soon absorbed in Pegu, and so was Thaton. Prome merged in Pagan, which came to mean Upper Burma; and Taungoo never was of importance, except as the temporary receiver of Peguan strength. There is no real Burman history till the time of Anawrat'a, who succeeded to the "throne of Pagan in 1010 AD, and became the first Burmese national hero. There had been fighting between the Burmese and the Mon before this, but from now on began the struggle between Burma proper and Yamannya, the coast-wise country between the Sittang and the Salwin Rivers, the home of the Mon. This struggle was not finally ended till the capture of Dagon and the founding of Rangoon in 1755.

There have been five different Eras [kawza] adopted over the course of Burmese history.

  1. The original era is supposed to have begun at midnight on Sunday, the full moon of Tabaung, about 9340 BC. Tbe Kaw-za era; after lasting for 8,650 years, was abolished by the grandfather of Gaudama, Bhodaw Een-tsa-na, in BC 691.
  2. Bhodaw Een-tsa-na's era; which lasted till Gaudama's death, in BC 543, or 148 years only.
  3. The religious era began in 543 BC, the stated year of the demise of the Buddha. The religious was current until AD 82.
  4. King Tha-moon-da-rit's era; established in AD 82 by Tha-moon-da-rit of Prome, which lasted for 562 years, until AD 639.
  5. The Burma Era [BE] commenced in the year 639 AD, so that the year 1373 BE corresponds with the year 2011 AD. This era was established in AD 639 by King Poppasaw Yahan [Poop pa-tsaw Rahan] who usurped the throne of Pagan. Thenga Raja had been a monk, but "became a man " - as the Burmese phrase is - married the queen of his predecessor, introduced many improvements in the administration, and arranged for the reformation of the calendar. The common era which he established commenced in AD 639, on the day when the sun enters Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac, about the month of March. This era is now observed in Burma.
The reformation of the calendar was probably brought about by the assistance of Indian astronomers. The Burmese system of astronomy and method of computing time are essentially those of the Hindus.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:40 ZULU