The Buddhist Kingdoms of Myanmar (Old Burma) WEA Sydney

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This is a series of six lectures, covering two thousand years of Myanmar archaeology, history, art and religion. It looks at the development of huge walled cities that traded as far across as Rome in the early First Millennium, at the kingdom of Bagan which united all of what is now Myanmar, and at Mrauk-U, “the Venice of the East”, that engaged with Dutch and Portuguese traders and was a major force for several centuries on the Bay of Bengal. Burma is called the Golden Land: they sure did have lots of gold.


  • Hybrid (F2F & Online simultaneously)


  • The Pyu cities: Early in the First Millennium, several huge cities surrounded by brick walls were built across old Burma. They traded with India and received jewellery and coins as far away as Rome, built Buddhist (and Hindu) shrines, worked in gold and semi-precious stones, and used an exotic coinage stamped with symbols of gods and kingdoms. We examine the origins, functioning and fate of these cities, named for the “Pyu” script used in their inscriptions.
  • Bagan: Around the 11th century, a centralised kingdom, Bagan, began to build thousands of Buddhist monuments, decorating them in a style originating from India. Did these people invade Burma, or were they locals taking over and expanding their influence? We examine the competing theories, and try to separate folklore than fact. And we discover through the architecture and art that this was a wealthy land. In 1988, during one of Burma’s many periods of political turmoil, residents of Bagan made a good living mining gold in the ancient city: gold not natural to the soil, but washed there from the tops of gilded buildings by centuries of rain.
  • Buddha’s lives as shown in the artworks of Bagan: Buddhism promises a better future life to someone who is good in their present life: and as a corollary, you are rich or royal in your present life because you earned it in a past life. We look at how reincarnation worked as a social control in old Bagan. The importance of this belief in reincarnation is shown in the sculptures and paintings of Bagan, which deal with some often rollicking folk tales of Buddha’s previous lives. Then we follow the stories of Buddha’s “final” life as a prince in India, which are as much a part of Burmese Buddhist culture as stories of Jesus are in western Christian culture.
  • Mrauk-U - the “Venice of the East”: After Bagan faded away in the late 13th century (we won’t spoil the surprise by telling you why) a new Buddhist kingdom grew on the west coast. Known as Arakan, its capital was Mrauk-U. Hundreds of Buddhist monuments were built, mainly of stone. Traders, mercenaries and missionaries from Europe were astonished by the golden and bejewelled “idols”, and the general prosperity of the kingdom. Your lecturer’s most recent research program was to help put together a proposal for World Heritage inscription of this jungle-clad city.
  • The Irrawaddy Valley kingdoms after Bagan: Between the 14th and late 18th centuries, various power groups left their mark on the art, architecture and political processes of the fertile Irrawaddy Valley, the heartland of old Burma. Wars were fought with varying degrees of success against Mrauk-U to the west and Siam to the east. The popular Burmese name for Thailand is “Ayu”, referring to the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which was defeated by a Burmese king … and the Burmese are still rubbing it in after several centuries.
  • The Konbaung Dynasty: Burma’s last kings, and the coming of the British: Your lecturer spent some time in Shwebo Jail, in the city that was the original home of the first king of the 18th century Konbaung dynasty (OK, the old jail is now a historic site, and Bob stayed in the former warden’s house which belongs to the Department of Archaeology). We follow the descendants of that first King, Alaungpaya, through several capitals to Mandalay, and to the exile of Thibaw, the last king, in India. We discover that Queen Supalayat was very unfairly accused of murdering dozens of her relatives- apparently it was just the one or two. And we will see- in pictures, anyway- some of the royal jewellery that the palace staff “saved” as the last king was marched through Mandalay into exile.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand the broad sweep of Myanmar’s history over the past 20 centuries
  2. Appreciate why Buddhism remains such a force in old Burma today
  3. Identify broad architectural periods in Myanmar, from Pyu to modern.
  4. Gain an idea of what must happen to an archaeological site for it to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.