Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shifting Royal Capitals of Pre-Colonial Burma

                                                          by Jim Goodman

       Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, lies virtually in the center of the country on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River.  It was the last capital of independent Burma before the British conquest in 1885 and the removal of the capital to Yangon in the south.   The city had served as the administrative seat of Burma’s final kings only since 1860, three years after it was built.  The location was not very far from previous royal capitals, all of which lay within the heartland and principal power centers of the Burmese nationality throughout Myanmar’s history.  The Shan dominated the areas to the north and the Mon, until the mid-18th century, had their own states in the south. 
       Bagan, capital of the first Burmese Empire, lies downriver to the southwest.  From the 10th to the 14th centuries it held direct control over most of the Irrawaddy Valley and exercised its authority as far east as the edge of the Khmer Empire in present-day Thailand.  When it collapsed after the Mongol invasion it broke up into smaller rival states that fought each other, as well as Shan and Mon rivals, disappearing and re-appearing, expanding and contracting, over the next several centuries.
       Sagaing, on the west bank of the Irrawaddy 20 km downriver from Mandalay, took an early turn as capital in 1315.  Today the site is a temple and stupa-studded group of low hills, with a small administrative and commercial center along the shore.  With over 500 monasteries and more than 6000 resident monks and nuns, the town today is primarily a Buddhist retreat and meditation center.  Connected by bridge to the other bank, Sagaing is popular as a quiet day-trip for Mandalay residents seeking respite from the congestion of the big city.
Burmese warrior, Bagaya Kyaung
       If tranquility, supplemented by good scenery, is the goal of the day’s excursion, it doesn’t take long to achieve that in Sagaing.  The hills are still heavily wooded, dappled with white or gold stupas popping up above the tree lines, each summit crowned with a temple compound.   Paths lead from the shoreline up to each of these, passing through the quiet forest, with views at the top of the river and bridge, distant Mandalay, the plains to the west and the stupas and monasteries on Sagaing’s other hills.
       Whatever palace or fortifications Sagaing might have had in the past have disappeared.  Its run as a royal city lasted just under fifty years.  Its own king moved the capital across the river to Inwa.  This was an altogether more defensible location, for a canal connected a tributary with a bend in the Irrawaddy, making the new capital’s site an island.  Even today the only way to access Inwa is by a small ferry. 
the walls of Ava
      The new state saw itself as Bagan’s successor and tried to re-establish the former empire.  After some initial success Inwa, or Ava as it was later known as to the West, got bogged down in a debilitating 40-years war with the Mon in the south towards the end of the 14th century.  The following century components of the state broke away and in 1527 the Confederation of Shan States captured Ava and made it their own capital.  Just 18 years later, however, the Burman state of Toungoo, further south, which had seceded in 1510, captured Ava and annexed its territory.
       Under Bayinnaung the kingdom expanded to include most of contemporary Myanmar, as well as northern Thailand.  But after his death in 1581 the kingdom soon lost all its possessions, only to revive under one of his sons and re-establish itself in 1599, this time putting its capital in Ava.  The Toungoo Dynasty lasted until 1752, when Mon forces captured Ava.  A few years later Alaungpaya, a Burmese lord from Shwebo, 115 km northwest of Sagaing, rallied Burmese and Shan and launched a campaign against the Mon.
Inwa village girls
       After five years Alaungpaya captured the Mon stronghold at Bago (formerly known as Pegu) and established the Konbaung Dynasty on a firm footing.  His capital originally was his hometown Shwebo.  A moat and some of the city walls still remain there.  But after his death in 1760 his son transferred the capital to Sagaing for a while and then to Ava again in 1765.  Upon his death the next monarch King Bodawpaya shifted it to Amarapura in 1783, eight kilometers northeast.  His successor Bagyidaw returned to Ava in 1821, then went back to Amarapura in 1837 after an earthquake leveled most of Ava.   
       Altogether Ava served as a royal capital of one state or another longer than any other city since Bagan.  Today, though, little remains to suggest its former glory.  Parts of the city walls still stand, as well as one of its 19th century towers, two outstanding temples and several stupas.  Part of this is due to the fact that Ava was never a very big metropolis to begin with, certainly not on the scale of its nearest rivals in Angkor or Ayutthaya.  Its kings lavished money on palaces and stupas, but until its last turn as a capital, not on temples.  Also, except for its walls, the buildings were mainly built of wood and what survived the earthquake was mostly dismantled and removed to furnish the buildings in Amarapura.
Bagaya Kyaung
       Not everything was removed, though, nor did it become a completely abandoned place.  Villages of stilted houses made from wood and split bamboo, with thatched roofs, exist today in parts of the island.  Whether their ancestors stayed behind after the Court and government left permanently for Amarapura or were outsiders who moved into the deserted area afterwards, today they work farms on land where palaces once stood, catch fish in the river and canal, revere and maintain existing old stupas and send their children to school at Bagaya Kyaung Monastery, one of the premier attractions of a tour around the site of the ancient city.
       Boats drop visitors off at a dock near the northern gate.  Here the pony-carts wait to take them around, the usual way to explore the sights.  The leisurely ride takes two to three hours, depending on how long you stop to examine details.  It begins with the biggest remaining section of the brick walls that once surrounded the royal city.  Some of the foundations and an old brick stupa lie in the vicinity, flanked by rice fields.  The pony-cart ambles along a dirt road past more fields, occasional small stupas, ponds and groves and soon arrives at Bagaya Kyaung.
manuscript case inside Bagaya Kyaung
       Constructed in 1834 of strong teakwood, utilizing 267 posts as support, with sloping red roofs and a slim, five-tiered central steeple, the building was sturdy enough to withstand the earthquake a few years later.  Many of the pillars and sections of the wooden railing around the base of the main temple feature outstanding carvings of birds, elephants, lions, warriors, kinnarees (half-bird, half-woman), Buddhas and other imagery and embellishments from the Buddhist tradition.
       Within the temple a seated Buddha image rests on a large, ornate, gilded chair.  Elegant, carved and lacquered manuscript cases, one atop a low table, one mounted on wheels, stand near the altar.  In the mornings village boys attend school in one of the side rooms.
Maha Aungwe Bazan monastery, Ava
       Ava’s other extant temple, the Maha Aungwe Bazan monastery, went up in 1821, at the start of King Bagyidaw’s reign, when he shifted the royal residence back to Ava from Amarapura.  His chief queen, Meh Nu, sponsored its construction as a residence for the royal abbot.  Unlike most structures at that time, rather than wood the compound was built with brick and stucco.  The overall pale, dull yellow color is in contrast to the dark brown and bright red that characterizes Bagaya Kyaung.  It suffered some damage during the earthquake, but did not collapse and in 1872 the Court in Mandalay ordered its renovation.
Nyanmin watchtower, Ava
       The earthquake affected the old royal palace more and today only the two-story Nyanmin watchtower remains.  Standing 27 meters high, of the same pale yellow brick and stucco as Maha Aungwe Bazan, it tilts slightly and from its upper level one has a view across the island and as far as Sagaing.  Parts of the city wall foundations, the remnants of a fort on the southern side and several old and new stupas complete the list of Ava’s historical vestiges.  The rest of the island is a picture of typical rural life, of self-sufficient farmers growing their food, making buildings of local materials and weaving their own cloth, much as they did when Ava was a Kingdom.
       Amarapura’s second turn as royal capital proved to be shorter than its first.  Following the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, in which the British seized the rest of Lower Burma, augmenting the acquisition of Arakan and Tenasserim it had won after the first war three decades earlier, the Court deposed the ruling monarch and appointed King Mindon to rule.  In 1857 he inaugurated the building of yet another capital, this time at Mandalay and in 1860 transferred the administration to the new site. As with Ava after its post-earthquake evacuation, timber from the royal palace in Amarapura was used to construct the new one in Mandalay. 
temple in Amarapura
       Today Amarapura is practically a southern suburb of sprawling Mandalay, but a quiet and attractive suburb nonetheless.  Weaving goes beyond household requirements here and Amarapura is a major supplier of hand-woven textiles to the Mandalay markets.  Villages on its perimeter specialize in Buddha images and temple furnishings like stupa crowns.  A couple of dilapidated buildings remain around the former palace area, but most of the remains of the old city are stupas and monasteries, none very ancient and most relatively new,
      No two stupa shapes are alike, though, and besides the customary white or gold color, Amarapura stupas can be, wholly or partly, red, yellow, 
painted stupe in Amarapura
blue-green and light green.   The temples tend to have wide fronts and a proliferation of statues, most of them lying on the north and east sides of Taungthaman Lake.  This picturesque body of water is adjacent to the old city site and in the dry season is often active with boats and fishermen on the water and farmers working on the shore.
       Spanning the southern portion of the lake is Amarapura’s most famous relic—U Bein Bridge.  Using 1060 wooden posts taken from the demolished royal palace in Ava, it starts from the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery, the residence of a few thousand monks on the west bank, and runs 1.2 kilometers to the other side, terminating a short walk from one of the area’s finest temples—Kyauktawgyi Paya.  It is the longest teak footbridge in the world and still in regular use, with five covered rest houses at regular intervals.  Monks from the temples at either end cross the bridge in the morning with their begging bowls, fishermen cast lines from it and villagers carry goods or push their bicycles across it all day, but especially in the late afternoon.
U Bein Bridge, Amarapura
       How much more active it might have been when Amarapura was still the capital is a matter of speculation.  It’s nice to imagine royal processions marching across the bridge on state holidays or perhaps military units dashing over it en route to a battle site, but there are no eyewitness accounts from the past to verify such a vision.  But in1860 the bulk of the city’s population had relocated to Mandalay, leaving only the people of Taungthaman village and the monks with any need for it.  Though heavy monsoon rains could fill the otherwise shallow lake to a level as high as the bridge, its solid initial construction has assured its durability from the beginning.
Kyauktawgyi Paya
villager on the U Bein Bridge
       Mandalay’s layout and architecture followed the forms established by previous capitals.  Its royal palace was modeled on the ones at Ava and Amarapura.  A moat surrounded its rectangular compound, as at Shwebo and Ava.   Its temples and towers featured the slim, multi-tiered steeple like that used at Ava’s Bagaya Kyaung.  Stupa shapes copied those erected in prior centuries.  And the temples and stupas scattered across heavily forested Mandalay Hill resembled one of the similarly speckled hills of Sagaing. 
       Mandalay, of course, unlike its predecessors, continued to grow long after its termination as a royal capital.  It may be too congested now for some to enjoy its attractions undisturbed.  If so, or if you are curious to see the original models for these sights, three former royal cities, quiet, interesting and atmospheric, lie just a short distance downriver.
Thaungtaman Lake beside Amarapura

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