THE PAGAN KINGDOM
The Pagan Kingdom or Pagan Dynasty (849 – 1287) was the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute the modern-day Burma (Myanmar). Pagan’s 250-year rule over the Irrawaddy river basin and its periphery laid the foundation for the ascent of Burmese language and culture, the spread of Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma, and the growth of Theravada Buddhism in Burma and in mainland Southeast Asia. The kingdom fell in 1287 due to Mongol invasions. The collapse was followed by another 250 years of political fragmentation that lasted into the mid-16th century.
The kingdom grew out of a small fortified settlement of Pagan founded in 849 by the Burmans, who had recently entered the central plains of the Irrawaddy from Nanzhao Kingdom of the present-day Yunnan. Over the next two hundred years, the Pagan Kingdom gradually grew to include its immediate surrounding areas. In 1057, King Anawrahta conquered the Thaton Kingdom in Lower Burma. Anawrahta’s successors by the late 12th century had extended their influence farther south into the upper Malay peninsula, at least to the Salween river in the east, below the current China border in the farther north, and to the west, northern Arakan and the Chin Hills.(The Burmese Chronicles also claimed Pagan’s suzerainty over the entire Chao Phraya river valley and the lower Malay peninsula down to the Straits of Malacca.) In the mid-12th century, most of mainland Southeast Asia was under some degree of control of either the Pagan Kingdom or the Khmer Empire.
The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. Theravada Buddhism began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. Pagan’s rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital zone between 11th and 13th centuries (of which 3000 remain to the present day). The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities.
The kingdom went into decline in the 13th century as the continuous growth of tax-free religious wealth—by the 1280s, two-thirds of Upper Burma’s cultivable land had been alienated to the religion—affected the crown’s ability to retain the loyalty of courtiers and military servicemen. This ushered in a vicious circle of internal disorders and external challenges by Mons, Mongols and Shans.
Beginning in the early 13th century, the Shans began to encircle the Pagan Empire from the north and the east. The Mongols, who had conquered Yunnan, the former homeland of the Burmans in 1253, began their invasion of Burma in 1277, and in 1287 sacked Pagan, ending the Pagan kingdom’s 250-year rule of the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. The kingdom was broken up into many regions, with each claiming a king. It would take another 250 years until Burma was unified again.