The history of what is now Myanmar has been made by a succession of peoples who migrated down along the Irrawaddy River from Tibet and China, and who were influenced by social and political institutions that had been carried across the sea from India. First came the Mon, perhaps as early as 3000 BC. They established centers of settlement in central Myanmar, in the Irrawaddy delta, and farther down the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. They constructed irrigation systems and developed commercial and cultural contacts with India, while maintaining loose ties with other Mon civilizations in the Chao Phraya Valley of Siam (now Thailand). The Pyu followed much later, moving down the western side of the Irrawaddy and founding a capital near present-day Prome in AD 628. The Burmans entered the Irrawaddy River valley in the mid-9th century, absorbing the nearby Pyu and Mon communities. Later waves brought in the Shan and Kachin, who, along with the native Karen, have all played a part in the country's development.

The first unified Myanmar state was founded by King Anawrahta (reigned 1044-1077) at Pagan in Upper Myanmar and was brought to its height by his son, Kyanzittha (reigned 1084-1112). Their domain advanced from the dry zone to incorporate the delta Mon centers at Pegu and Thaton; they extended political and religious ties overseas to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and fought off a Chinese invasion from the north. The internal structure of the state was similar to that of a Hindu kingdom, with a court at the capital supported by direct household taxes or service obligations drawn from villages, which were under the guidance of hereditary myothugis (township headmen). In time an increasing proportion of the land was donated to Buddhist monasteries in the form of slave villages for the maintenance of the sangha (monkhood). Kingship was legitimated by both Hindu ideology and the king's role as defender of the Buddhist faith. During 250 years of relative peace, the devout rulers built the many pagodas for which Pagan is known today.

In 1287 Pagan was conquered by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. This was the beginning of a turbulent period during which Upper Myanmar led an uncertain existence between Shan domination and tributary relations with China, while Lower Myanmar reverted to Mon rule based at Pegu.

In the second quarter of the 16th century, a new Burmese dynasty emerged from the sleepy principality of Toungoo in central Myanmar. With the aid of Portuguese adventurers, the Toungoo dynasty established what became under its third king, Bayinnaung (reigned 1551-1581), a reunified and precariously prosperous state. After his death, succession squabbles and encroachment by the Portuguese along the coast, by the Thais on the east, and by Manipuri horsemen from the west brought on the decline of the dynasty, although the system itself endured until the mid-18th century. Its survival was made possible by a stable administrative and legal system at the central and local levels. The dynasty was finally toppled by a Mon rebellion in 1752.


The Wintermeier Collection (©2005-2018)