The Pyu nation

Pyu sites

The Pyu nation: introduction

Much has been written about the Pyu but there are not much Pyu writings apart from the few religious writings and the funeral urn inscriptions that has been excavated at various Pyu sites. It is only from our chronicles and archeological findings that the Pyu history is based on. Traditionally, the Pyu walled cities of Tagaung, Beiktahno and Sriksetra and elsewhere were considered to be city states that flourished in different eras and Bagan has been considered as the first Myanmar empire. But according to contemporary Chinese sources, and the recent archeological findings including that of Pyu settlements in lower Myanmar including those near Dawei, the Pyu nation covered the current Myanmar territory and it is the Pyu that established the first Myanmar empire.

The ‘Pyu’ in Chinese records

The Pyu are referred to as the ‘P’iao’ in Chinese texts dated from the 3-9C AD, although they are thought to have called themselves ‘Tircul’. Tircul is used, for example, in the 1102 AD palace inscription of Kyanzittha, where Tircul, Bamar and Mon dancing is described (Blagden and Duroiselle 1921). Variants of Tircul are also mentioned by Perso-Arab authors of the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Bordering Nan-chao, these ‘ kingdoms are at war with China, but the Chinese come out stronger.’ (Luce 1985:46)

Early accounts

A long established trade route between China and India passed through what is now Upper Myanmar. The Han dynasty establishment of a prefecture at Yung-ch’ang in Yunnan in 69AD prompted increased mention of these areas although reference to kingdoms precedes mention of the P’iao. The earliest note is in the work of two envoys, K’ang T’ai and Chu Ying, sent to the court of Funan in southern Cambodia, possibly around 240AD. There they met an emissary from India who gave them information about a number of kingdoms to the west.

Upon their return home, K’ang T’ai in particular included these stories in his report (Briggs 1951:21). One passage mentions <span>a kingdom known as Chin-lin located on a large bay over 2000 li west of Funan. Another 2000 li west was the kingdom of Lin-yang, accessible only overland, not by water. The people of this kingdom were said to be Buddhist. Linking the areas named in the Chinese records with names of archaeological sites continues to pose a challenge to academics.

Chen Yi-Sein, formerly Reader in Chinese at Yangon University, has identified Lin-yang with Beikthano, relying on various linguistic conclusions, some elaborated, about a range of dates and associated placenames. Htin Aung identifies Lin-yang with Halin and Chin-lin with Thaton (1967:7,9). Luce also suggested Thaton as Lin-yang and the presence of Lopburi Khmer from central Thailand, although in other articles adopted a more conservative conclusion that Chin-lin may have been on the Gulf of Martaban or the Gulf of Siam, which would place Lin-yang in either Myanmar or Thailand (Luce 1965:10, Wheatley 1983: 167). Even if this early Chinese text is identified with Beikthano, Taw Sein Ko refers to two ancient capitals by this name, one in Magwe, and the other in the Upper Chindwin (Aung Thaw 1968:5).

Other Chinese texts of about the 4th century AD describe troublesome groups living southwest of Yung-ch’ang. These peoples grew millet, hill-paddy, cotton trees and cinnamon, and produced saltwells, gold, silver, jade, amber, cowrie and tortoise shell. There were rhinoceros and elephant, and monkey hide was used to make armour. The peoples were alleged to be cannibals, who tattooed themselves and used bows and arrows. Further to the southwest, some 3000 li, were “a civilised people, the P’iao, where ‘prince and minister, father and son, elder and younger, have each their order of precedence” (Luce 1960:309). They made their knives and halberds from gold, and produced perfumes, cloves, cowries and a white cloth from the cotton-tree.

The Pyu nation: Sriksetra according to Chinese chronicles

The mention of the Pyu in Chinese sources is seen in the following:

  • chronicles of the monks Hsüan Tsang and I Ching who visited India in the 7th century
  • Old Tang History (Chiu-t’ang-shu)
  • New Tang History (Hsin-t’ang-shu) Shinn-T’ang-Shu and the
  • Man Shu, compiled by Fan Ch’o

I do not have any complete translations of them, even with regard to the Pyu, but only articles quoting them. Here is from what Moore wrote:

For full, see Royal chronologies and finger-marked bricks by Elizabeth Moore

Later accounts

Over the three hundred years following the 4th century AD, there was little mention of the P’iao.

However, in the 7th century, two monks, Hsüan Tsang and I Ching, travelled to India and in both records Sriksetra is mentioned. Neither monk visited the city, and although the P’iao are not specifically cited, they do refer to a capital called Sriksetra, or ‘field of glorylocated in a country that to the south, “borders on the sea” (Luce 1985: 48).

The later Chinese sources are linked to the fortunes of the kingdom of Nan-chao. As a result of an alliance forged with Tibet in 755AD to defeat the Chinese, the Nan-chao king Ko-lofeng initiated communications with the Pyu. By the end of the century, however, the Tibetan link was broken as Ko-lo-feng’s grandson strengthened ties to the Chinese court. An embassy from Nan-chao to the Chinese court was sent in 800, 802 and 807AD.

Due to these shifting alliances, information about the Pyu capital was included in records of the time such as the Old Tang History (Chiu-t’ang-shu) and the New Tang History (Hsint’ang-shu). Another document of this period is the Man Shu, compiled by Fan Ch’o after gathering information from Pyu soldiers during the 862AD siege of Hanoi (Luce 1960:318, 1985:77). All the sources contain details about the Pyu capital.

The king’s name is Maharaja မဟာရာဇာ. His chief minister is Mahasena မဟာေသန. [Actually they are not names but designations of the king and chief of staff in ?Sanskrit / Burmese, but Pyu, not Burmese is official language at the time]When he goes on a short journey, the king is borne in a litter of golden cord; when he journeys far, he rides an elephant. His wives and concubines are very numerous; the constant number is a hundred persons. The compass of the city-wall is faced with glazed bricks; it is 160 li in circumference.” (Luce 1960:318)

An account of Beikthano [Tharekhittra, not Beikthano] was recorded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese chronicle Man Shu in the chapter ôThe Southern Barbarians as follows:

ôThe circular wall of his (the Pyu King╝s) city is built of greenish glazed titles (brick) and is 160 li. It has 12 gates and three pagodas at each four corners. . . Their house tiles are of lead and zinc. . . They have a hundred monasteries with bricks of vitreous ware, embellished with gold and silver, vermillion, gray colours and red kino.╜ [Taw Sein Kho (1895), The Pottery and Glasware of Burma 1894-95╜,Superintendent of Govt.Printing, Rangoon.]

The li varied at different periods, and during T’ang is thought to have been about 360 metres.

The Man Shu, however, remarks that the time to march around the city was a day, generally taken to be about 50 li (Wheatley 1983: 193). The tiered form of the pyatthat appears to have been used to mark the four corners of the city gates. Inside the walls were more than a hundred Buddhist assembly halls (‘wats’), whose form was similar to the palace of the king.

Pagodas were roofed with tiles of lead and tin and furnished within with embroidered rugs, gold and silver and cinnabar and gum-lac (Wheatley 1983: 177). The population used a silver coinage, and all lived within the city walls. One source noted that there were several tens of thousands of families, a calculation implying up to a 100,000 people. Also recorded in the Man Shu is the respect paid to a white image over 100 feet high:

In front of the gate of the palace where the king of (this) kingdom dwells, there is a great image seated in the open air, over a hundred feet high, and white as snow. It is their wont to esteem honesty and decency. The people’s nature is friendly and good. They are men of few words. They reverence the Law of the Buddha. Within the city there is absolutely no taking of life. Also there are many astrologers who tell fortunes by the stars.

If two persons go to law with each other, the king at once orders them to burn incense in front of the great image and ponder on their faults: whereupon each of them withdraw. If a disaster should occur, or pestilence, or war, or disturbance, the king also burns incense facing the great image, repents of his transgressions, and takes the blame on himself.

The men mostly wear white tieh. The women on top of their heads make a high coiffure, adorned with gold, silver and real pearls. They wear for show blue skirts of p’o-lo (silk cotton) and throw about them pieces of gauze-silk. When walking, they always hold fans.

Women of noble family will have three persons, of five persons at their side, all holding fans.

When there are persons sent to take letters to the Ho-t’an of the Man borders, they take ‘river-pigs,’ white tieh, and glazed jars for barter or trade.” (Luce 1961:90-1)

The ‘river pigs’ were probably river porpoises, and the tieh a silkcotton cloth.

The New Tang History also mentions the image:

They wear gold-flowered hats and caps of kingfisher feathers strung with various jewels. The king’s palace has two bells, one of silver and one of gold; when enemies are at hand they burn incense and strike these bells, thus obtaining omens concerning their fate in the coming battle.

There is a great white image, 100 feet high. Those who are engaged in a lawsuit kneel in front of it, think for themselves whether they are right or wrong, and go away…”

The New Tang History and the Man Shu make it clear that Nan-chao held the upper hand in these relations with the ‘P’iao’. For example, Pyus were conscripted to fight with the Nanchao army in the capture of Hanoi in 863 AD.

Fan Ch’o did not visit the Pyu cities but had been sent on a mission to Yunnan the previous year, and later wrote of Pyu exiled to this area:

“In [AD 832] Man [sc.Nan-chao] rebels looted and plundered P’iao kingdom [sc. Halin]. They took prisoner over three thousand of their people. They banished them into servitude at Chê-tung [approx. Yünnan Fu], and told them to fend for themselves. At present their children and grandchildren are still there, subsisting on fish, insects, etc. Such is the end of their people” (Luce 1985:66).

Luce goes on to note reference by the Chinese to the P’iao as “one of the tribes of the ‘Gold Teeth Comfortership’ (1985:66). The ‘Gold Teeth’ tribes perhaps find authentication in the 1999 finding at Shwegugyi Zeidi south of Halin, of an upper jawbone with eight teeth drilled with a pattern of 102 tiny holes filled with gold foil. The jawbone was from a skeleton found under a large stone slab and an associated pillar about 1.5m long, with gold and silver rings, pottery and iron tools (Hudson 2003:10, Win Maung (Tampawaddy) 1999). As this reference indicates, research on the Pyu bringing together Chinese references, chronicles and artefacts is now ongoing, particularly at Halin, but the identification of the Pyu ‘capital’ among the ‘tribes’ at this time is uncertain. Chinese reference to “hills of sand and a desert tractsuggest Halin rather than Sriksetra (Luce 1960: 317).

Halin is cited also in connection with various references to the exact number of gates at Pyu sites. Chronicles record that the number of gates was thirty-two, “a canonically sanctioned multiple of four” (Wheatley 1983: 194). Descriptions of twelve city gates in Chinese texts are taken to imply a rectangular city wall with regular numbers on each face. However, the number of gates at Halin has not been fully explored, and Beikthano so far appears to have four gates on the north face and two on the east and south sides. In addition, there is no reason that a circular wall such as that of Sriksetra cannot have twelve gates, with nine gates there commonly referred to by name, twelve notes on maps today, and twenty-four named by Taw Sein Ko in his early map of the site (1914a:113). The various accounts are worth noting as the same gate configuration would link what are quite different wall and gate forms at the main Pyu enclosed sites.

The figure of thirty-two is also used in the New T’ang History, which lists thirty-two important settlements or tribes subject to the Pyu, eighteen dependencies, and eight or nine garrison towns. None of these have been definitively identified, although one such stockade may have been located near Myingan, near the Chindwin-Ayeyarwaddy confluence.

Nonetheless, the name of the capital is not given, only the notation that in Pyu tradition it was the city of the Buddha’s disciple Sariputra, who came from Rajagaha in Magadha. Elsewhere, however, this has been identified as Yazagyo in the Chindwin valley (Wheatley 1983:194).


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