Ruins in Ancient City of Ava (Innwa)

Inwa: Magnificent Ancient Capital of Burmese Kings Left to Crumble

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One of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar is the capital of the Imperial Burmese.  In a 3-mile (5km) circuit, usually traveled by horse cart, bicycle, or motorbike, visitors can see the Maha Aungmye Bonzan temple, the “leaning tower” Nanmyint, the collection of stupas known as Yedanasini Paya, and finally the monastery Bagaya Kyaung. Any tour guide will be sure to mention the numerous destructions and reconstructions that have occurred in Inwa over the centuries. Yet what is not readily apparent to sightseers is the conscious decision to let the buildings crumble. Like all things, the remains of the once mighty Burmese Empire will return to the earth.

Stupa ruins

Stupa ruins ( CC BY 2.0 )

Between the 14th and 19th centuries, Inwa was the on-again-off-again capital of the Burmese elite. Located near the city of Mandalay, Inwa was constructed in the 1300s on an artificially made island. Situated between the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers, the ruler at the time, King Thado Minbya, ordered two canals to be built to connect the rivers and swamplands surrounding the area to be filled in, thus making his citadel an island unto itself. The Burmese word Inwa means “mouth of the Lake” and is believed to have derived from the word Innawa, which means “nine lakes”. 

Map of the Irrawaddy River, which drains parts of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and India into the Andaman Sea

Map of the Irrawaddy River, which drains parts of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and India into the Andaman Sea ( Public Domain )

A century earlier, the powerful Shan dynasty had fallen to invading Mongols hoards led by Kublai Khan. In the power vacuum that followed, a number of lesser principalities sprang up. King Thado Minbya is best known for uniting the Sagaing and Pinya kingdoms into the mighty Kingdom of Ava, of which Inwa was its capital. For nearly 200 years, the Ava Kingdom ruled the Upper Burma and initiated a period of flourishing Burmese literature, written in the vernacular rather than the difficult Pali. “The literati of the Inwa Period included laymen and clergymen from various classes including royalty, nobility, aristocracy, higher clergy, and commoner” (Pike, 2016). During this period, the golden palace was commissioned in 1511 by King Shwenankyawshin.

Illustration of Shwenankyawshin.

Illustration of Shwenankyawshin. ( Public Domain )

The times were not peaceful, however. Inwa was constantly under threat from rival kingdoms and beginning in 1527 was repeatedly attacked until it was finally captured in 1555 by King Bayinnaung of the Shan. Yet the beautiful architecture and noble reputation of the city continued to appeal to princes and kings. Inwa served “as the capital of all of Burma from 1599 to 1613, then again from 1635 to 1752, then again from 1765 to 1783. Then again from 1821 to 1842” (Leiris, 2016). In that time, the capital changed hands numerous times and was routinely destroyed and rebuilt. On March 22, 1839, a devastating earthquake struck Southeast Asia, hitting Burma particularly hard. Inwa was badly damaged.

The royal court of the Burmese Empire moved temporarily to Monchobo while Inwa was being rebuilt yet again. Then, in 1841, another huge earthquake struck and caused even more damage. In 1842, the capital was officially moved to Amarapura and reconstruction efforts were abandoned. Most of the old palaces and temples were destroyed in the earthquakes; in subsequent decades, they were further degraded by the elements.

Remains of the outer walls

Remains of the outer walls ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It may come as a shock to Westerners so accustomed to ceaseless efforts to save and preserve fragments of history. Important landmarks are cordoned off and great pains are made to ensure that for the rest of time nothing will ever fade or change. It comes as a surprise then that Myanmar would allow its great palaces and monasteries – its capital city for 500 years! – to fall into disrepair. However, the decision is not merely neglect or incompetence, rather it is a conscience choice. The Burmese Empires (the Ava, the Shan, etc.) followed the Brahman religion but many people in the region, both then and now, followed the teachings of the Buddha. A fundamental tenant of both of these religions is the cyclical nature of the universe. For Hindus, it is believed that the Lord Shiva creates the world every time he opens his eyes and destroys it when he closes them. Buddhists have a similar cosmology with their wheel of Samsara. The circle of life applies to all things, not just humans. Attempts to preserve the past may seem noble but they are an impossible struggle to stop the hands of time. It is better to let the ancient kingdoms fall into noble decay. Visitors are more than welcome to come see the ruins and witness the ultimate victory of nature over the feats of man.

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