5 Minutes To Read

Bagan And The World – Early Myanmar and Its Global Connections edited by Goh Geok Yian, John N. Miksic and Michael Aung-Thwin, ISEAS, Singapore, 2018, 230 Pages.

5 Minutes To Read

Reshmi Banerjee explores the trans-border relevance of the archaeological site of Bagan.

Image courtesy of ISEAS

Today, the temples of Bagan are associated with architectural excellence and awe-struck crowds of tourists. The impressive archaeological site evokes in everyone a kind of curiosity and admiration for ancient times and cultures. The kingdom which flourished between the 11th and the 14th centuries enjoyed critical connections with the world because of its geographically strategic location; an area where South Asia, China and Southeast Asia met and interacted. This edited book with its collection of chapters tries to unravel the role of Bagan and the power that it wielded historically in the development of economy, religion, art and technology in this region. The book comes at a useful juncture as it highlights the connectivity and influence that the country exerted through-out history. Myanmar’s forced ‘isolation’ under the aggressive military regime and its political turmoil often makes us forget the country’s bygone era and its glorious heritage, a past which served as a useful bridge between diverse knowledge grids and complex terrains. The book thus tries to break the long-lasting illusion of the country’s solitary existence by replacing it with a ‘narrative of networks’ which it built in the olden days; consciously cultivated to not only firmly integrate with the outside world, but to also use the linkages to strengthen its internal space. Bagan was thus not just a religious site, but also an important socio-economic center with its commercial prowess and social standing being equally significant.

The edited book with multiple different contributions begins with Michael Aung-Thwin delving into various phases of Bagan’s history – from prehistory to early modern times— to reveal that Myanmar polities did have inter-relations with centers outside it. He observes that the chroniclers of the pre-colonial era like Thilawuntha, U Kala and Twinthin were aware of the countries enveloping their own. China, Siam, Sri Lanka, India/Buddhist South Asia finds mention by scholars (domestic and foreign) working on various issues like the River Valley Civilization, art historiography, vaulting techniques, symbolic dimensions of the stupa –temples as well as ancient cities. Michael Aung-Thwin interestingly points out that the idea of isolation was then perhaps, an interpretation by external forces with words like parochialism, inward looking being used to describe the country, both history and politics playing their part in deepening the myth of isolation with the Burmese people seen as passive and not active agents of change.

Kyaw Lat examines the construction techniques used in Pyu sites such as Sriksetra and Bagan, and compares it with other historical sites in Southeast Asia. Use of bricks (used in Halin, Beikthano) were commonly found not only in Rakhine brick structures of the early period, but also seen in India (bricks and stones were used in temples and monasteries), and Indonesia (Borobudur built of natural stone in the 9th century). Dome-shaped stupas with structures circumscribed by rectangular or circular walls seen in Beikthano are quite similar to structures found in India (Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda built in the 2nd century B.C).

Mya Oo makes us aware of the need to undertake more research on the libraries of the Mrauk–U period in order to understand Myanmar’s global connections between the 15th and 17th centuries CE, with structures reflecting the styles of both East and West. Mrauk-U gained prominence and visibility through its relations with Bengal (Indian titles were taken by descendants of King Min Saw Mon) and its active trade with merchants from Africa, Persia, Maldives and India – the Portuguese being perhaps the first Europeans to begin trade with Rakhine. Pyiet Phyo Kyaw discusses the decorations (religious symbols) on the Sikhara in the late Bagan period that reflects the Indian influence on Bagan motifs. For example, the Sikhara form originating from North India or the Indo-Aryan style, use of female deities (symbolizing fertility and wisdom) to adorn the upper portions of religious buildings, head of an ogre (the demon of time in Indian mythology with kirttimukha, the head of glory seen carved on Indian temples). Olga Deshpande and Pamela Gutman analyzes the Visnu on Garuda from the Nat Hlaung Kyaung Temple in Bagan, the only remaining Brahmanic shrine. The resemblance with Kymer, Chola and Pala art forms along with the syncretism displayed only reiterates the long history of inter-regional connections.

Bob Hudson informs us of the relevance of radiocarbon dating in providing a chronological foundation for archaeological analysis. This in turn, has led to the revelation that walled cities simultaneously developed with their characteristic corridor gates – as seen in the earlier cities of Beikthano, Halin and Sriksetra. Elizabeth Howard Moore and Win Maung (Tampawaddy) guide us through the location, form and iconography of the Ta Mok Shwe-Gu Gyi temple complex. The chapter allows us to not only immerse ourselves in the history of the Kyaukse temple, but also the ordination hall/Thein, stucco preservation, and the comparative discourse of Kyaukse and Bagan’s temple complexes helps us to perceive better the economic cum cultural milieu of the area. Moreover, Kyaukse’s primary identity was local although its development was influenced by its relations with Bagan. The chapter makes us ponder over the complex center-periphery norms even while we celebrate the shared inter-relationships between the two vibrant landscapes.

The last three chapters of the book take the trans-polity discourse even further, beginning with Rila Mukherjee studying the metal corridors between Bagan and Bengal (9th to 13th centuries). Rila Mukherjee states that North East India provided two entry points: one through Kamarupa (current day Assam) through which silver flowed from places like Tibet and China and the other was Tripura/Srihatta, which one could enter from Bagan through Manipur (in current day North East India). The other route was a maritime one in the southeast through Chattagrama/Arakan. Bengal and Assam were relevant for Bagan as the former two areas provided the much needed labour for the latter with southeastern parts of the Bengal delta being raided (inscriptions mention Indians residing in Bagan). The chapter takes us through an absorbing journey of the rise of economic exchanges (causes and impact), including the working of a fluid kauri (cowrie shells circulated as money) zone between the two regions. Goh Geok Yian positions Bagan in the Buddhist Ecumene (a network of centers with a common religion of Buddhism) which not only witnessed exchanges of relics and texts, but also goods like ceramics – with the eastern part of old Bagan boasting of sites like Otein Taung (Potters’ Mound). John N. Miksic takes this forward in his chapter on settlement patterns and earthenware pottery distribution in Bagan.

The book is culturally rich with the use of images serving as a useful tool to acquaint the readers with the nuances of architectural, artistic and aesthetic parallels between societies in this region. It also informs one of the functional fluidity prevalent across frontiers, which in present times, seems to be overshadowed by nation-states’ varying degrees of political rigidity, economic competition and social disharmony. Myanmar’s early past, as this book demonstrates, was efficiently well connected with the rest of the world. Myanmar needs to rediscover its early roots without the trappings of exclusionary politics, ethnocentrism and narrow mindsets. Learning across cultures and territories by embracing the good practices of the ‘other’, an attitude reflected strongly at times in its cultural history needs to be revisited.

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).