While legend tells us that Buddhism first came to Burma from northern India, and the Tantric element in the religion of Pagan before King Anawrahta’s reforms implies an overland link with Nepal and Tibet, there is much epigraphic and archaeological evidence to show that the sea traffic between Lower Burma and South India and Ceylon was responsible for a great share of the cultural importation. Thus while the excavated sculpture of the Pyus, a people who held sway around Prome in the seventh century, resembles that of the Gupta school of North India, Pyu inscriptions are like a Telugu-Kanarese script of South India.
And the Mon (or Talaing) people, who flourished south of the Pyus, with their capital at Thaton, near modern Moulmein, who had strong ties with the Khmer empire of Cambodia, built temples very like the typical Singhalese stupa and obtained a text of the Tripitaka, the orthodox scripture of Theravada Buddhism, written in Pali, from Ceylon.
Neither the Pyus nor the Mons were fated to become the unifiers of Burma—this destiny was reserved for the Burmans, who had migrated down from Tibet and China to the central plains around the Irrawaddy River near modern Mandalay—but, as it was with Greece and Rome, much of the culture of the conquered peoples was taken over and developed by the conquerors. And this explains the Indian and Singhalese architectural styles of the great temples of Pagan, capital of the proud and powerful Burmese civilization of the medieval period.
Time and neglect have dealt cruelly with Pagan over the centuries. The monsoon rains, treasure seekers, and foreign vandals posing as archaeologists have defaced frescoes and pilfered sculpture. But fortunately the Burma Archaeological Department is now protecting and restoring the finest monuments. No visitor to Burma should fail to make time for the five-day excursion by plane and river steamer to Pagan. At a deep bend of the Irrawaddy River, its five thousand surviving temples (Plate 7) spread over an area of sixteen square miles, a challenge to the imagination which rivals the lost glories of Luxor, Persepolis, or Angkor.
What driving energy could have produced this vast, richly adorned city? And why did the ancient kings build pagodas and monasteries rather than stone palaces? As Professor Kyaw Thet suggests, the economic basis of this high civilization was an extensive irrigation system. But its deeper stimulus, as we learn from the temple inscriptions, was the Buddhist faith. Not content with worldly success and victories in battle, each of the kings tried to outdo his forebears in raising shrines which would glorify the Lord Buddha and in so doing insure his own spiritual progress in later rebirths. Thus, in an inscription in the Shwegu Temple, we find this beautiful prayer, written in Pali verse, by King Alaungsithu (1112-1167):
By this my gift, whatever boon I seek,
It is the best of boons to profit all;
By this abundant merit I desire
Here or hereafter no angelic pomp
Of Brahmas, Suras, Maras; nor the state
And splendors of a monarch; nay, not even
To be the pupil of a conqueror.
But I would build a causeway sheer athwart
The river of Samsara, and all folk
Would speed across thereby until they reach
The Blessed City. I myself would cross,
And drag the drowning over. Aye, myself
Tamed, I would tame the willful; comforted,
Comfort the timid; wakened, wake the asleep;
Cool, cool the burning; freed, set free the bound.
And Alaungsithu’s predecessor, the conqueror and builder Kyanzittha (1084-1112), inscribed his edicts on massive pillars in this vein:
O King of Devas, hear thou! . . . The sage Bisnu shall become the king Kyanzittha, and he shall uphold the religion of the Lord Buddha . . . . All vice, which is as a stench, shall the king utterly blot out with true morality, which is as a perfume. . . . The tears of those who have lost their friends shall the king wipe away with the hand of loving-kindness. . . With his right hand shall the king give boiled rice and bread to all the people, and with his left hand ornaments and wearing apparel to all men. . . .He shall soften the hearts of those who intend evil, and exhort those who speak evil to speak good. . . .
The spirit, of these utterances is all the more remarkable when we consider that only a hundred years before the religion of Pagan had been in the hands of the debased Ari priests who had corrupted the Buddhism brought from Tibet with magical tricks, snake worship, and lewd Tantric rites. Two men accomplished this striking reformation: Kyamizittha’s father, Anawrahta, and the evangelical monk Shin Arahan, who attracted the king by his holiness and became his chief adviser.