As observed time and time again, there are certain patterns in dynamics of societies throughout history which repeat themselves, transplanted in all different societies and systems. One such pattern we can observe is how out of the struggle of various smaller states large hegemonies emerge – empires, so to speak – only to be dismantled in a couple centuries. This pattern has been cyclical in some regions, most notably the serial dynasties in Egypt and China, where periods of prosperity exchanged with periods of turmoil, but a feeling of continuity and divinely mandated right to rule was preserved from one cycle to another; but in other places, empires once dismantled became merely a note in history.
One such empire, in a region generally out of the spotlight, was the Bagan Empire, at its peak exerting control over roughly the borders of modern-day Myanmar. It was during this period that Mranma culture became the dominant in the region, thus laying the foundations of the modern nation (though, peripheral regions still belong to distinct ethnic groups).
The city of Bagan was first established as a fortified city by Pyinbya in 849. While traditional chronology holds that Pyinbya comes from a long lineage of local kings, it is more likely that the chronicles were a fabrication to establish legitimacy of the empire, as the city belongs to Mranma ethnicity, and not the Pyu of other city-states in the region. It is thus more likely that Bagan was established as a colony of Nanzhao to the northeast in modern-day Yunnan, who briefly vassalised the Pyu city-states during 9th century. It was from this fusion of Yi culture of Nanzhao (the language related to Burmese) with local Pyu traditions that Mranma culture emerged.
Bagan gradually grew in prominence for the following two centuries, but not yet displaying true expansive ambition. But this changed with Anawrahta (r. 1044-1077) seizing the throne from his adoptive brother (his father, Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu, on taking the throne, married the previous king's wives, two of which were pregnant) by taking advantage of a rebellion and using it to challenge him to personal combat. He ambitiously started organising the territory over which Bagan exerted influence into a centralised state: he constructed weirs and canals to form backbone of an irrigation system, established new villages and organised his army. This is the Age of Pioneers of Bagan Empire.
The Age of Conquests followed shortly thereafter, starting during the 1050s. He started by expanding into Shan hills to the northeast, establishing forts in the region and demanding local chiefs to pay tribute. This was followed by a southern expedition, seeking to vassalise the Mon states in Lower Burma. In 1057, Anawrahta's army seized the city of Thaton, then a major city-state. By demanding tribute from Mon states further to the east, he came in conflict with then well established regional power, Khmer Empire, and successfully defended against a punitive expedition. He also ventured west into Rakhine, raiding its capital Pyinsa, and a northern expedition in 1060s into Dali (successor state of Nanzhao), to secure the border. After his death in 1077 the conquests came to a stop; his successors Saw Lu (quickly deposed) and Kyansittha (r. 1084–1112) had to deal with Mon uprisings but didn't proceed with conquests.
The religious foundations of Bagan Empire were also laid down by Anawrahta, when he converted to Theravada Buddhism. That way, he took direct control over clergy, taking away power from Ari Buddhist monks, as well as being able to invite scholars from conquered Mon states, and also Ceylon and mainland India overseas (where Buddhism was at the time losing prominence). He has begun construction of the famous Bagan Pagodas, in a display of wealth, power, as well as Buddhist relics plundered from Mon and Rakhine. Kyansittha and his successor Sithu I (r. 1112–1167) continued with economic development of the realm, building colonies and forts to further the influence, expanding irrigation systems to increase land productivity, and supporting religion by constructing further pagodas. Sithu I also took on many travels, visiting Malaya, Bengal and Dali. This was the Bagan Empire's Age of Commerce.
After brief period of rule by Narathu (who murdered his father and elder brother to claim the throne) and his son Naratheinkha, came the reigh of Sithu II (r. 1174–1211), also son of Narathu (Naratheinkha being murdered by a general in his service). If during previouos periods Pyu and Mon were still prominent cultures, Mranma language and script completely took over during his reign. Pouring immense wealth into the clergy and constructing more and more pagodas, his reign is generally regarded as the zenith of Bagan Empire's prosperity. If not during Sithu I's reign, Sithu II's reign can generally be regarded as the Age of Affluence.
Sithu II's successor, Htilominlo (r. 1211–1235) was a scholar and a devout Buddhist. His reign definitely marks the Age of Intellect, started during Sithu II's reign. Apart from construction of further pagodas, he barely did any day-to-day governing, leaving those duties to the Hluttaw, a council of senior officials. The expansive efforts of colonisation and irrigation stalled during his rule, but the grants to the clergy didn't. More so, the grants to the clergy started by Anawrahta, were tax-free, so the income to royal treasury started declining. This came to spell an economic disaster. His successor Kyaswa (r. 1235–1251), a scholar as well could not even afford continuing construction of pagodas. He attempted to save the situation by seizing some lands from monasteries not belonging to the officially sanctioned Theravada sect; but he faced serious backlash against such action and was forced to rescind it.
As always, with economic situation of an empire worsening, the disillusionment grows and thus starts the Age of Decadence. Uzana (r. 1251-1256) was already the regent for a part of his father's reign, but he didn't care much about the day-to-day problems of governing a falling empire either. He reportedly spent more time hunting elephants (ultimately the cause of his death) and drinking. His son, Narathihapate (r. 1256-1287), was not much different, remembered for being arrogant and wrathful, as well as incapable of solving his empire's economic situation. in order to construct a pagoda to mark his rule, he even resorted to forced labour.
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