Culture: History

It is thought that the land of Myanmar has been inhabited for over 2,500 years. The original inhabitants being of Proto Malay stock, represented today only by the Salon ‘Sea Gypsies’ of a few islands in the Andaman Sea and remote parts of the Thai Malay Peninsular.

There followed successive waves of immigration. First came the Mon from the east in about 200BC, and settled the fertile lowlands stretching from the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, across Thailand and as far as western Cambodia. The Mon soon established themselves as the most cultured people in Southeast Asia as their art and architecture clearly show. The Mon brought both Buddhism and writing to Myanmar, and traded with India as early as the start of the Christian era. The earliest Mon writings date from the fifth century, and they are thought to have founded Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, originally a Mon settlement. For a thousand years, until the fall of Bago in 1757, the Mon ruled much of lower Myanmar from their great cities at Thaton, Martaban, and Bago. Many Mon believe that the whole of Southeast Asia could have come under their control had their forefathers been a race of warriors, rather than artists and poets. Next to arrive were the first wave of Tibeto – Burman’s, the Pyu who settled in central Myanmar with capitals at Beikthano and Srikshetra. They practiced Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism mixed with Hinduism, and had their own alphabet.

In about the 8th century the Burmans (also of Tibeto Burman stock) wrested control of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, and established a succession of kingdoms that straddled the trade routes to India and China. Finally settling on a capital on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy at Bagan under their most influential leader, King Anawrahta in 1044. Anawrahta is credited with the defeat of the Mon and the fall of Thahton, and of returning in triumph to Bagan with the cream of Thahton’s architects, and a large number of monks bearing Theravada Buddhist scriptures in Pali. He declared Theravada Buddhism the national religion, and – with the help of Thaton’s architects and craftmen – started a golden age of architecture that was to last 200 years. Most of Bagan’s construction happened during this period. Finally coming to an abrupt end with the abandonment of the city in the face Kublai Khan Mongol hordes in 1287. Shan tribes from the east seized the opportunity to secure a great swath of land stretching from the Ayeyarwaddy westwards to the Shan Plateau, and in the south the Mon re-established their former kingdom. The Burmans retained control of only the city state of Taungoo about midway between the sprawling Mon and Shan Kingdoms.

It was at about this time that the famous Venetian explorer Nicolo Di Conti entered the Mon Kingdom of Hanthawady. He traveled along the coast in 1435 on board a Chinese junk and left accounts of Tanintharyi and the Arakan (Rakhine). By 1519 the Portuguese had established trading posts on the coast - a century later the British, French and Dutch all had trading interests in Myanmar ports. In 1886 Britain took full colonial possession, eventually separating Myanmar from India, from which it had been governed as a province. Myanmar was granted independence in 1948 after the occupying Japanese was driven out.


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