IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Theme Burmese Heritage


Historical Geography of Burma:

Creation of enduring patterns in the Pyu period

Pyu civilization flourished during most of the first millennium AD at an urban and complex level, and three patterns established by the Pyu were to leave major imprints on the historical geography of Burma that endured until the late nineteenth century, when the colonial conquest transformed the country demographically and economically. Firstly, the Pyu preferred settlement in the Dry Zone, particularly in the valleys of the tributaries of Burma's greatest rivers; secondly, there was development of a repertoire of Pyu irrigation works operating on a variety of scales and firmly imbedded in social structures as well as in these particular environments and economies; and thirdly, at a time of dominance of Mahayana sects in Indian Buddhism, the Pyus adopted Theravada Buddhism, thereby striking a note that has reverberated in Burma ever since.


Pyu settlement in Burma undoubtedly goes back to late prehistory, to the centuries from c. 400 ­ 100 BC1. Throughout c. 1,400 years, the Pyu demonstrated a consistent preference for a particular environmental niche in Burma: the perennial, but highly seasonal tributary streams of Burma's Dry Zone, which flow into its great rivers, the Irrawaddy, the Sittang, the Chindwin, and the Mu. In research published in 19902, I first delineated this preference on the basis of my knowledge of site distribution along the side valleys of the Irrawaddy from Pagan southwards to Prome and eastwards into the Kyaukse area, and along parts of the Chindwin, the Mu, and Samon Rivers, and predicted that many more Pyu sites would be discovered in such niches. Further research on the Pyu in the 1990s by Professor Than Tun, U Win Maung, U Nyunt Han, U Sein Maung Oo, and other Burmese scholars has revealed Pyu sites in the tributary valleys of the central Irrawaddy in the heartland of traditional Burmese settlement from Pagan to Ava and Mandalay, including the Sagaing District, and also in the tributary valleys of the northern parts of the Sittang River. This means that when, in the last centuries of the first millenium AD, the Burmese settled in these valleys, they were inheriting and perpetuating a pattern already established by the Pyus. These areas together formed the Mranma [mod. pronunciation Myanmar] of the Pagan inscriptions. They remained the core territory of the Burmese kingdoms and of Burmese history until the terrible conquest of Upper Burma in the third Anglo-Burmese war of the 1880s.

Pyu settlements in the Dry Zone, where rainfed crops fail today every two years out of three, would have remained small and poor had they not developed highly effective irrigation systems based on the smaller tributary streams already mentioned, which have only recently been recognized and mapped 3. Their techniques depended on the construction of low weirs just below natural bends in the streambed, which directed part of the waterflow straight ahead into diversionary canals. These then wound about, accurately following the contours of the landscape and deliver water into smaller distributary canals and eventually into the fields. The same techniques were, and still are, employed on a variety of scales, from small works irrigating only 500 hectares to immense systems irrigating c. 3000 hectares. In the large-scale works, storage tanks were constructed to hold buffer stocks of water provided by the diversionary canals and to control releases into the distributary canals. Three large Pyu cities developed out of clusters of late prehistoric irrigated villages in the Dry Zone. In approximate chronological order of origin, they were Beikthano first century BC (9 km2 land area within the walls) and Halingyi first to second century AD (5 km2), both in the heart of the Dry Zone, and Sri Ksetra third to fourth century AD (18 km2) on its southern fringe. Each of these cities in its final form devoted between 50 per cent and 75 per cent of the land within its outer walls to irrigated rice fields and gardens. A striking example is Sri Ksetra, shown here in fig.1, which contained a particularly dense network of irrigation canals and tanks that, in addition to their immense practical value, were the signposts to the symbolic spaces of the royal city as microcosm4. There were many smaller Pyu sites as well, Allakapa, Beinnaka, Wadi I and II, Hmaingmaw, Pyaubwe among others - all in similar environmental niches.

(Fig.1) Archaeological map of Sri Ksetra, based on aerial and surface surveys

The Pyu irrigation works in the Yin River Valley around Beikthano, the Nawin River Valley around Sri Ksetra, the Mu River Valley around Halin, along the Samon River, and in the Kyaukse District were repeatedly restored (and no doubt modified) by the kings of Pagan, Ava, and Mandalay for over a thousand years after the last recorded destruction of a Pyu kingdom in AD 832 by the Nanzhao. The following field observations of 1998 provide typical glimpses of the longevity and excellent environmental and social integration of these works: large parts of the Beikthano irrigation works still function around Taungdwingyi on the upper levels of the ancient system, which is badly sedimented in parts, but fragments still operate effectively as small-scale village systems including some within the downstream Beikthano site itself.

Beikthano evolved to an urban level of socio-economic complexity during the first century BC.5 At that time, the Pyus and other peoples of Central Burma already had technical contacts with parts of Eastern India, which took place without the adoption of Indian cultural or religious traditions. Thus, the Pyu evidence shows that concepts of Indianization as a process of 'cultural colonization' need modifying to account for the significant levels of civilization attained in Southeast Asia before aspects of Indian culture were selectively adopted and adapted6. The Pyus probably began to convert to Buddhism between the second to third century AD, and by the fourth century, at the latest, a major monastic building in fired brick was constructed at Beikthano. By the fifth century AD, Sri Ksetra was the centre of a rich society whose influence was spreading to other parts of Burma and where Buddhism flourished under royal patronage.


(Fig.2) The Great Silver Reliquary from Sri Ksetra, fifth ­ sixth century AD.


The oldest surviving Buddhist texts (Theravada/Hinayana) in the Pali language come from the relic chamber of a Buddhist stupa at Sri Ksetra. They consist of a twenty-leaf manuscript of solid gold and a large gilded reliquary of silver (Fig. 2). A new and exhaustive palaeographic study of these inscriptions shows that they date from the mid-fifth to mid-sixth century AD7. Unlike all the other early Buddhist societies of Southeast Asia, evidence of Mahayanist contacts in Pyu sites is scant. It is clear that the Pyu kingdoms were in contact with several Indian kingdoms in the south east as well as in North India, but stood in a tutelary relationship to none. From the earliest evidence, Pyu Buddhist writing, art, and architecture show processes of adaptation at work that laid the foundations for distinctively Burmese traditions of Buddhism within the greater Buddhist eucumene. *


1. Stargardt, J., The Ancient Pyu of Burma, Vol. I, Early Pyu Cities in a Man-Made Landscape, Cambridge & Singapore: PACSEA & ISEAS (1990; repr. 1991), pp. 52, 145-90, 297-310, 344.

2. Ibid., p 45.

3. Ibid., pp 45-142 (but see Professor Daw Thin Kyi's hypotheses in 'The Geographical Setting of Sriksetra, Visnu City [Beikthano] and Halingyi,' The Guardian [Rangoon], XII, 10 (1950), pp 50-2.

4. Stargardt, J. 'Le cosmos, les ancêtres et le riz: l'eau dans l'espace urbain des pyus en birmanie,' in Condominas, G et al. (eds.), Disciplines croisées, hommages a Bernard-Philippe Groslier, Paris: E.H.E.S.S. (1992)

5. The Ancient Pyu, op. cit., pp 145-52.

6. Ibid., pp 155-90.

7. cf. Falk, H. 'Die Goldblätter aus Sri Ksetra,' Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens, XLI, (1997), pp 53-92; and Stargardt, J.'The Oldest Known Pali Texts, 5th-6th century; results of the Cambridge Symposium on the Pyu Golden Pali Text from Sri Ksetra, 18-19 April 1995,' Jnl. Pali Text Soc. XXI, 199-213; Stargardt, J. Tracing, Thought through Things: The oldest Pali texts and the early Buddhist archaeology of India and Burma, 7th Gonda Lecture ­ Amsterdam: The Royal Netherlands Academy (2000), pp 20-9.


Professor Janice Stargardt is attached to the Cambridge Project on Ancient Civilization in South East Asia, at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

E-mail: js119@cam.ac.uk

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Theme Burmese Heritage