Pyu Kingdom Develops Urban Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Pyu people established the earliest known urban, advanced Iron Age civilization in Burma, profoundly influencing the first urbanized culture established by Burmese people of later ages.

Summary of Event

Archaeologists studying the prehistory of an area often focus on determining the point at which the first urban culture appeared. Many archaeologists define “civilization” in terms of characteristics that include urbanization; the changes in social, economic, and political organization that cause and accompany it; and important technological advances. In Burma (now Myanmar), archaeologists for decades focused almost exclusively on the cities of the Pagan Kingdom with their thousands of visible temples and monuments. Through the first half of the twentieth century it was generally accepted that the Pagan Kingdom, with its advanced agricultural technology, well-developed art, and prosperity, had emerged suddenly in Burma’s central plains. The two factors most often touted as catalysts for this amazing occurrence were Theravāda Buddhism and the external influence of immigrants.

However, by the mid-twentieth century, there were some in the archaeological and historical communities who questioned these interpretations. Numerous buried sites had been occupied by the predecessors of the Pagan Kingdom. The scant evidence about them indicated the presence of both an advanced economy and Buddhism long before Pagan. Furthermore, both Burmese and Chinese ancient historical chronicles described several prosperous pre-Pagan walled cities in central Burma built of glazed bricks.

Excavations beginning in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s uncovered a number of cities that were built by the Pyu, a people who called themselves the Tircul and were called by the Chinese Piao (P’iao). Their sites, which include Sri Ksetra (modern-day Hmawza), Beikthano, Hanlingyi, Binnaka, and Mongamo, are located in central Burma’s dry zone and thrived from at least the early first century c.e. until the mid-ninth century c.e. Archaeologists now believe that some date even earlier, from 200 b.c.e. The Pyu, like earlier prehistoric groups, migrated from Tibet or China, traveling down the western side of the Irrawaddy River into Burma. Chinese manuscripts from the fourth century c.e. list the Piao among the tribes that had inhabited China’s southwestern frontier and describe their political and social organization as quite complex. All of these sites were cities with thick outer walls (some rectangular, some circular), with a walled inner citadel. The entranceways curve inward, and the principal construction materials for walls and structures are the unique Pyu bricks. They are all large compared to earlier sites, ranging from 500 to 3,500 square acres (200 to 1,400 hectares).

Among the significant finds at Pyu sites are extensive assortments of iron implements, weapons, fasteners, and other construction materials. Although there is evidence of crude ironworking in earlier Stone and Bronze Age cultures in central Burma, the Pyu utilized advanced ironworking technology. In addition, these dry-zone cities, which are located near tributaries of the Irrawaddy River, had complex irrigation systems. One water-distribution system at Hanlingyi involved nearly 200 square miles (300 square kilometers) of land.

The Pyu also worked in metals other than iron, but bronze, silver, and gold were mostly used to make artistic, ritualistic, and ornamental objects and coins. These objects are described as beautiful, ornate, and expertly crafted. Archaeologists assert that Pyu silver coins of various denominations and inscribed with several motifs may be the oldest in Southeast Asia. Their use indicates a sophisticated economy requiring a diversified medium of exchange, and their presence in countries throughout the region shows extensive economic interactions.

The strong Indian and Buddhist influences on Pyu culture are found in the use of cremation urns, the presence of Buddhist temples and monasteries, and inscriptions in both Sino-Tibetan Pyu and various Indian scripts. For decades, archaeologists hypothesized that the Pyu kingdom’s impressive accomplishments were made possible because of immigrant groups who brought advanced technology, socioeconomic organization, and Buddhism. However, more recent research has generated a fairly strong consensus among scientists that, because there is no evidence of a foreign sector in Pyu cities or of Buddhism before 400 c.e., the Pyu urban culture probably developed gradually and locally. The Pyu kingdom was destroyed around 835 by invaders from Yunnan, who took thousands of prisoners back as slaves, whereupon the Burmese migrated to central Burma and established the Pagan Kingdom.

Significance

The Pyu appear to have made several significant advances relative to earlier groups in central Burma. They were the region’s the first urban civilization; they advanced Iron Age, agricultural, and architectural technology; they created a complex economic system; and they developed several art forms. These innovations were passed on to the Pagans, who perpetuated urban civilization and built thousands of temples and massive monuments. The Pyu who survived their kingdom’s downfall and remained in Burma were absorbed into Pagan culture and actively contributed to its development for hundreds of years.

The Pyu may have had more of an impact on post-Pagan cultures than on Pagan. Within their walls, Pyu cities, unlike those of Pagan, housed large, dense populations from all walks of life, not just the political and religious elite. Furthermore, Pyu citizens engaged in diverse and specialized occupations and utilized a complex monetary system. In Pagan, however, no coins were produced because the simpler economic system consisted of crops being given to the urban elite and then redistributed to the peasantry. Without a doubt, the Pyu kingdom was a major force in the progress toward the first true Burmese state.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aung-Thwin, Michael. “Burma Before Pagan: The Status of Archaeology Today.” Asian Perspectives 25, no. 2 (1982): 1-21. A detailed account of the excavations of major Pyu sites, with maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miksic, John N. “Early Burmese Urbanization: Research and Conservation.” Asian Perspectives 40, no. 1 (2002): 88-107. Focuses on the complexity of Pyu social and economic organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stargardt, Janice. The Ancient Pyu of Burma: Early Pyu Cities in a Man-Made Landscape. Cambridge, England: Institute on Southeast Asian Studies, 1990. Examines the history of the Pyu Kingdom and its origins. Includes maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wicks, Robert S. Money, Markets, and Trade in Early Southeast Asia: The Development of Indigenous Monetary Systems to a.d. 1400. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1992. Details the development of very early coinage by the Pyus and its distribution throughout Southeast Asia.

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