(06/06/26) Article - Myths and Facts About the Fall of Pagan:

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by L.S. The Great Marduk.

An Examination of Events Leading to Its Decline

The kingdom of Pagan, which was established between the mid 9th-10th century, saw a rapid decline towards the end of the 13th century. With such a grand kingdom, it is difficult to imagine how it could have come to an end, even with the pressure of the invading Mongols. As many scholars have done, it is easy to attribute the fall of Pagan to the arrival of the Mongols because of their superior military power. However, numerous other factors were already in the mix by the time the Mongols arrived. Thus, one has to wonder how much of a factor the Mongols were in the fall of Pagan.
Traditionally, scholars such as G.E. Harvey attributed the rapid decline of Pagan to the invading Mongols from the North. In his classic book Outline of Burmese History, he stated that “Thus perished Pagan amid the blood and flame of Tartar Terror (55).” While his description of the Mongols as the “Tartar Terror” may have been excessive, his reasoning for it was supported by many scholars of his time. What classical Burmese historians agreed upon was that Narathihapate, king of Pagan during the 13th century, ushered in the collapse. He was described as a “typical eastern despot of fiction, without any of the redeeming features of his predecessors. He showed no zeal for religion, and his arbitrary and brutal behaviour caused his vassals to revolt (Hall, 24).” Eventually, his ineptitude caused him to come into conflict with the Mongols and they eventually sacked the city in 1287, from which Pagan never recovered.
The problem with that view was that it was quite narrow. D.G.E. Hall, the British historian who made the previous statement about King Narathihapate, grew up during the height of the British colonial empire. To describe the King as a despot and a complete inept helped justified the British’s colonial conquest as freeing the Burmese people from these type of dictators. It is worth noting that the views of Hall and his successors were most likely biased. After all, even if Narathihapate was an arrogant king like many scholars believed, he still ruled for 33 years (1254-87). With the quick turnover rates of Burmese kings, this relatively long reign surely signified that he was at least capable of holding on to power.
Nevertheless, it was still believed that Narathihapate was unpopular with the general public. The original heir to the throne was Thingathu, the crowned prince and son of Uzanza, the previous king. However, the chief minister at the time, Yazathinkyan, maneuvered Narathihapate to the throne instead. He had hoped that Narathihapate, a son of Uzanza and a lesser wife, would be easily controlled and he would still run the kingdom from in the shadows. Narathihapate though, proved to be quite willful and when he became king, exiled Yazathinkyan. Thus, “the fact that he was merely a turner’s grandson, with no real right to the throne, was remembered and the people gave him the nickname ‘King Dog’s Dung’ (Htin Aung, 66).” As a result, it was believed that the people hated him and that he exhausted the kingdom’s resources building pagodas and monuments. It was even believed that the people whispered, “When the pagoda is finished, the king will die (Htin Aung, 66).” This led to the “exhaustion theory” that partially attributed the collapse of Pagan to the depletion of state resources and the revolt of the laborers.
Examining other sources though, we see that this view is not entirely accurate. The “whispering” of the people was actually just a prophetic rumour that stated, “When the pagoda is finished, the kingdom of Pagan will be shattered into dust (Harvey 50).” In fact, the king actually abandoned the work and had it not been for his advisors telling him that “this life is transitory, nor could the kingdom abide forever even if the pagoda were not built (Harvey 50),” he probably would not even finish the pagoda. So the view that Narathihapate was a maniacal king who exhausted the kingdom’s resources building temples and monuments is actually in doubt. The laborers were not forced against their will to build these monuments. They believed that they could attain merit through building these pagodas so it seems unlikely that they would rebel against building more religious monuments.
Although unlikely that the laborers rebelled due to building too many religious monuments, it is true though that Pagan was lacking state resources. Usually a king donates land to the building of temples in order to attain merit. This practice was generally popular with the people and each king usually does it during his reign. The problem though was that as subsequent royal generations gave away land, they lose out on the wealth that could be collected had they use the land for other purposes such as farming. This issue was usually ignored as long as maritime trade provided resources for the state. However, around this time, trade with neighboring giants India and China slowed down because China came into conflict with the Mongols and India had to deal with the Islamic invaders from the west. The national treasury was thus depleted. This does not mean that the kingdom was starving though. The national government was lacking resources, but the temples were still able to provide for the people. So while the state was approaching bankruptcy, the kingdom was still doing well economically.
As a result of all the above factors, Pagan was considered prime for destruction by the Mongols according to classical historians. King Narathihapate was inept and the national treasury was depleted, which meant fewer resources for military funding. This lead to a weakening of the solar polities, which caused the Mon to rebelled in lower Burma. The Shans were also providing pressure in the northeast and the new enigmatic Tais loomed over the horizon. With all of these factors, classical historians believed that the final contribution to the fall of Pagan occurred when King Narathihapate refused to pay homage to Kublai Khan. In his defense, it is understandable that he should reassert his authority by not bowing down to the Mongols. After all, the surrounding people already saw him as weak. If he had given in to the Mongols, all the ethnic groups under his rule probably would have caused trouble.
In 1283, a large army sent by Kublai Khan advanced towards Pagan and the surrounding cities fell one by one. King Narathihapate, seeing the approaching Mongols, quickly fled down the Irrawaddy to the south, “for which cowardly act he came to be known in the chronicles as ‘Tayokpyaymin,’ ‘the king who ran away from the Chinese (Htin Aung, 70).” The Mongols though, never made it to Pagan because of the unbearable heat. King Narathihapate then sent an ambassador to Kublai Khan to give in to the Mongols. When he returned to Pagan, he was murdered by his son since he was then considered not fit to rule and the Mongols quickly overran Pagan thereafter. Classical historians thus interpreted that the fall of Pagan came about because of the Mongols.
New findings in recent years have questioned the interpretations of the classical historians. Michael Aung-Thwin, in his book Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma, wrote “There is no explicit evidence, certainly no conclusive evidence, that the kingdom of Pagan was, as noted scholar of old Burma G.H. Luce has written, ‘captured’ and ‘ruined’; or, as equally eminent scholars D.G.E. Hall and Than Thun concluded, that the capital city was ‘occupied’ (65).” Aung-Thwin goes on to explain that the original interpretation of the destruction of Pagan rest on the translation of the word “chih”, which Luce translated as “invaded as far as.” Thus, “on this single word rests the entire historiography of the fall of the city of Pagan and its capture, plunder, occupation, and ruin (Aung-Thwin, 66).” The meaning of “chih” did not necessarily suggest destruction, conquest, or occupation. Moreover, “had the Mongols taken the capital of what was, at the time, one of the premier kingdoms in Southeast Asia, any victory, surely, would have been mentioned along with the price paid by Pagan’s defenders since the Mongols themselves lost 7,000 men in the attack (Aung-Thwin, 66).”
So did the city of Pagan truly fall to the invading Mongols? Paul J. Bennett, in his essays “Conference Under the Tamarind Tree: Three Essays in Burmese History” provided evidence that Pagan thrived well into the 14th century. This indicated that Pagan did not fall swiftly and that its decline came about in a more gradual way, probably as a result of the weakening of its influence as the capital city. It makes sense to believe that had the Mongols sacked Pagan, there would be more sources indicating this victorious moment for the Mongols in Southeast Asia.
The new findings provided evidence showing that Pagan did not fall swiftly due to war. A more likely interpretation was that the draining of the national treasury caused the military to become weaker. This lead to a loss of control of the surrounding ethnic groups and they probably broke away one by one. True, the Mongols probably contributed to Pagan’s decline, but it was not the biggest reason for its loss of influence. Pagan lost its importance as the strong military center but due to its cultural importance (temples, pagodas, etc) it continued to thrive, though not even close to the same level as its high point in history. Like many great kingdoms, Pagan had to eventually succumb to the passing of time, not the swift victory of the Mongols.

Works Cited

Harvey, G.E. Outline of Burmese History. India: Bhupal C. Dutt, 1947.

Hall, D.G.E. Burma. Britain: The Anchor Press, 1950.

Aung, Maung Htin. A History of Burma. United States: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Aung-Thwin, Michael. Myths and History in the Historiography of Early Burma. United States: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998.

Bennett, Paul J. Conference Under the Tamarind Tree: Three Essays In Burmese History. United States: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1971.

I've decided to protect this page since it is a personal essay and should not be edited for corrections. --Darvil 23:19, 27 June 2006 (CDT)

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