Historical Kings of Burma
The historical kings of Burma were diverse and dynamic rulers who shaped the destiny of their country they left behind a rich legacy of culture, religion, and architecture that can still be seen today. They also faced many challenges and conflicts that tested their resilience and adaptability. They are an important part of the Burmese identity and history.
According to the royal chronicles, the first king of Burma was Abhiyaza, an exiled Indian prince of the ancient kingdom of Kosala (India) who founded the kingdom at Tagaung in 850 BCE, four centuries before the time of the Buddha Gautama. However, this legend is not supported by historical evidence, and some scholars doubt its authenticity.
The chronicles related to the historical kings of Burma are to a large extent inconsistent, contradictory and incomplete. During the Pagan Kingdom, the Zatadawbon Yazawin (Chronicle of Royal Horoscopes) is considered the most accurate chronicle for the Pagan period which lists seventeen kings before Anawrahta starting from Pyinbya who is said to have fortified Pagan in 846CE. As for the other kingdoms, there isn’t an exact number as there were different dynasties and periods of fragmentation and unification with scant historical written evidence.
Other chronicles which are historical narratives written by Buddhist monks are not always reliable as they contain many legends, myths and exaggerations, they also differ in their dates and names of the kings.
THE PYU KINGS OF BURMA
The Pyu city-states were a group of city-states that flourished in central and northern Burma from the 2nd century BCE to the 9th century CE. They were influenced by Indian culture and Buddhism and had trade relations with China and India. The Pyu city-states were conquered by the Nanzhao Kingdom of Yunnan in the 9th century.
They were among the earliest civilizations in Southeast Asia and left behind a rich legacy of art, architecture and culture. The Pyu people were Tibeto-Burman speakers who migrated southward from the Himalayan region and settled in the fertile plains along the Irrawaddy River. They established several walled cities, such as Beikthano, Maingmaw, Binnaka, Halin and Sri Ksetra, which served as their political and religious centres. The Pyu cities were connected by trade routes with India, China and other regions, and adopted Buddhism as their main religion.
The Pyu chronicles, which are written in Pali and Pyu languages, provide some information about the historical kings of Burma who ruled over these city-states. However, these chronicles are also not very reliable, as they contain many legends and inconsistencies. Moreover, they do not cover all the Pyu cities, and some of them have been lost or damaged. Therefore, historians have to rely on other sources, such as inscriptions, archaeological evidence, excavated coins and foreign accounts, to reconstruct the history of the Pyu kings.
One of the earliest Pyu kings that we know of is Duttabaung (or Dattabaung), who is mentioned in a Sanskrit inscription found at Sri Ksetra. He is said to have ruled in the 2nd or 3rd century CE and to have built a stupa called Dattagiri (or Dattarajagiri), which is identified with the Bawbawgyi Pagoda. He is also credited with introducing irrigation systems and promoting agriculture in his kingdom.
Another early Pyu king is Thirimaikuti (or Thirimayutti), who is mentioned in a Chinese account by Faxian, a Buddhist monk who visited India and Sri Lanka in the early 5th century CE. Faxian describes Thirimaikuti as a devout Buddhist who sent an embassy to India to request a copy of the Vinaya Pitaka, a collection of monastic rules. He also says that Thirimaikuti built a monastery for 1000 monks near his capital, which is probably Sri Ksetra.
A more famous Pyu king is Vikrama (or Vikramaditya), who is mentioned in several inscriptions and on coins found at Sri Ksetra. He is said to have ruled in the late 6th or early 7th century CE and to have expanded his kingdom to include Lower Burma and parts of Thailand. He is also known for his patronage of Buddhism and art, and for his diplomatic relations with China and India. He sent an embassy to China in 608 CE and received an Indian monk named Sona Thera, who brought him a tooth relic of the Buddha.
One of the last Pyu kings that we know of is Htuntaik (or Htuntai), who is mentioned in a Mon inscription found at Thaton. He is said to have ruled in the late 8th or early 9th century CE and to have been a descendant of Vikrama. He is also known for his alliance with King Devapala of the Pala Empire in India, who helped him defeat an invasion by Nanzhao, a powerful kingdom in Yunnan. He also sent an embassy to China in 801 CE and received a Chinese monk named I-ching, who stayed at Sri Ksetra for two years.
There are many gaps and uncertainties in the chronology and genealogy related to the Pyu rulers. Moreover, there were probably other Pyu kings who ruled over other cities or regions that have no historical records or little is known about them. Therefore, the history of the Pyu kings remains a fascinating but challenging topic for historians.
THE MON KINGS OF BURMA
The Mon Kingdoms were a group of kingdoms that dominated southern and southeastern Burma from the 6th to the 11th centuries CE. They were also influenced by Indian culture and Buddhism and had trade relations with Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The Mon kingdoms were conquered by Anawrahta in the 11th century.
The founder of Hanthawaddy was Wareru, a former governor of Martaban who rebelled against the Pagan Empire and established his own dynasty in 1287. He is considered a national hero by the Mon people.
The most famous Mon king was Razadarit, who reigned from 1384 to 1421. He unified the three Mon-speaking regions of Lower Burma and successfully defended his kingdom against the attacks of the Burmese-speaking Kingdom of Ava in the Forty Years’ War (1385–1424). He is regarded as one of the greatest kings in Burmese history.
The last independent Mon king was Binnya Dala, who ascended the throne in 1747. He faced the invasion of the Burmese Konbaung dynasty led by Alaungpaya, who captured Pegu, the capital of Hanthawaddy, in 1757. Binnya Dala was taken prisoner and executed in 1774. His death marked the end of the Mon kingdom and the beginning of Burmese domination over Lower Burma.
THE KINGS OF PAGAN (849-1297)
The only kings before Anawrahta that have some inscriptional evidence are Nyaung-u Sawrahan (956–1001 CE) and Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu (1001–1021 CE). Nyaung-u Sawrahan is credited with expanding Pagan territory and building temples. Kunhsaw Kyaunghpyu is known for being captured by Nanzhao forces and later released. He was also Anawrahta’s father, but none of them achieved what Anawrahta did by unifying Burma under one empire and establishing a lasting legacy.
The Pagan period is considered the golden age of Burmese history, as it saw the emergence of the first unified Burmese kingdom and the spread of Theravada Buddhism throughout the region. The founder of the Pagan dynasty was Pyinbya, who fortified the city of Pagan (Bagan) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in 849 CE. He was followed by a succession of kings who expanded and consolidated the kingdom through conquests and alliances.
The first historically verified king of Burma was Anawrahta, who reigned from 1044 to 1077 CE. He is considered the founder of the Pagan Empire the most influential king of this period, which unified the northern homeland of the Burmese people with the Mon kingdoms of the south. He was also instrumental in introducing Theravada Buddhism to his subjects and played a key role in the planning and building of many pagodas and temples in Pagan (Bagan).
King Anawrahta is credited with introducing Theravada Buddhism to Burma by bringing back sacred texts and relics from Thaton, a Mon kingdom in southern Burma that he conquered in 1057 CE. He also built thousands of pagodas and temples in Pagan, many of which still stand today as a testament to his religious zeal and architectural vision.
He conquered the Mon City of Thaton in 1057, which gave him access to a large collection of Buddhist scriptures, relics, and art. He also established diplomatic relations with King Vijayabahu of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), who sent him a replica of the Buddha’s tooth relic, which he enshrined in the Shwezigon Pagoda at Pagan.
Anawrahta extended his military campaigns and dominion as far north as the kingdom of Nanchao, in present-day China, west to Arakan (Rakhine), south to the Gulf of Martaban, west of Yangon, with northern Thailand to the east. He built a network of roads, canals, and irrigation systems to facilitate trade and agriculture. He also reformed the administration, law, and taxation of his empire.
Anawrahta is widely regarded as the father of the Burmese nation, and one of its greatest rulers. His legacy can still be seen in the thousands of monuments that dot the landscape of Pagan and in the enduring influence of Theravada Buddhism on Burmese culture and civilization.
Anawrahta’s successors continued his legacy of building and patronizing Buddhist institutions, as well as promoting literature, art, and law. Some notable kings of this period include Kyansittha (1084-1112 CE), who was known for his tolerance and diplomacy; Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), who was a prolific builder and traveller; and Narathihapate (1254-1287 CE), who was the last sovereign king of Pagan before the Mongol invasions.
AVA AND PEGU KINGDOMS (1297-1555)
After the fall of Pagan to the Mongols in 1287 CE, Burma entered a period of political fragmentation and turmoil. Several small kingdoms emerged, competing for power and resources. The main contenders were:
- The Kingdom of Ava was founded by Thadominbya in 1364 CE as a successor state to Pagan. It was based in Upper Burma and tried to restore the glory of the old empire. It faced constant challenges from rival states, such as the Shan States, the Kingdom of Mrauk U, and the Kingdom of Pegu.
- The Kingdom of Pegu was founded by Wareru in 1287 CE as a breakaway state from Thaton. It was based in Lower Burma and was dominated by the Mon people. It reached its peak under King Razadarit (1384-1422 CE), who successfully defended his kingdom against Ava and expanded his territory along the coast.
- The Kingdom of Mrauk U was founded by Min Saw Mon in 1430 CE as a vassal state of Ava. It was based in Arakan, a coastal region in western Burma. It became independent under King Narameikhla (1434-1464 CE), who established a close relationship with Bengal and adopted Islam as his personal faith. He also built a powerful navy that controlled the Bay of Bengal.
The Toungoo Dynasty (1510-1752)
The Toungoo dynasty was founded by Mingyi Nyo in 1510 CE as a minor state in central Burma. It rose to prominence under his son Tabinshwehti (1531-1550 CE), who unified most of Burma under his rule by defeating Ava, Pegu, and Shan States. He also attempted to conquer Siam (Thailand) but failed. He was succeeded by his brother-in-law Bayinnaung (1551-1581 CE), who is regarded as the greatest king of Burma. He expanded his empire to include Siam, Lan Na (northern Thailand), Lan Xang (Laos), Manipur (India), and parts of China. He also promoted Buddhism and culture throughout his realm.
The Toungoo dynasty declined after Bayinnaung’s death, as his successors faced rebellions and invasions from their vassals and neighbours. The dynasty split into two branches: the First Toungoo Empire (1510-1599 CE), which was based in Upper Burma and ruled by Bayinnaung’s descendants; and the Nyaungyan Restoration (1599-1752 CE), which was based in Lower Burma and ruled by Bayinnaung’s nephew Nyaungyan Min. The latter branch restored stability and prosperity to Burma, but could not regain its former glory.
The Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885)
The Konbaung dynasty was founded by King Alaungpaya in 1752 CE as a rebel state against the Toungoo dynasty. He quickly reunified Burma and conquered Manipur, Assam, and Arakan. He also fought against the Siamese and the Chinese. He was followed by his sons Naungdawgyi (1760-1763 CE) and Hsinbyushin (1763-1776 CE), who continued his expansionist policies. The latter defeated the Chinese in four wars and invaded Siam twice.
The Konbaung dynasty reached its zenith under King Bodawpaya (1782-1819 CE), who annexed Manipur, Assam, and Arakan to his empire. He also built the Mingun Pagoda, the largest pile of bricks in the world. He also tried to invade Siam but was repelled by King Rama I. His successors faced increasing challenges from internal rebellions, external invasions, and colonial pressures. The dynasty was finally ended by the British, who annexed Burma in three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-1826, 1852-1853, and 1885). The last king of Burma was Thibaw Min (1878-1885 CE), who was exiled to India.