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The Pyama stupa, which may date to the Pyu period.

Over a Millennium of Influence: The Pyu Civilization and Ancient City-States


The Pyu civilization, known also as the Pyu city-states, is an ancient entity located in present day Myanmar (also known as Burma). One reason this civilization/group of city states is important is due to its links with Buddhism. Today, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the Southeast Asian region. Historically speaking, Buddhism was practiced in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The spread of Buddhism into this region, however, began with Myanmar/Burma, which shares a border with India, the birthplace of Buddhism. It was with Pyu civilization that Buddhism gained its first foothold in the region of Southeast Asia.

Introduction to the Pyu City-States

The Pyu civilization existed for over a millennium, from around the 3nd century BC until the 10th century AD. The city-states of the Pyu civilization are located in the middle reaches (or dry zone) of the Irrawaddy River, an important river that flows from the north to the south of Myanmar/Burma. It is believed that these city-states were founded by Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu people as they migrated southwards into the Irrawaddy Valley from what is today the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Pyu city-states circa 8th century AD.

Pyu city-states circa 8th century AD. (CC BY SA 3.0) Pagan shown for comparison, it was not contemporary to the Pyu cities.

According to records from the Chinese Tang Dynasty (7th – 10th centuries AD), there were 18 Pyu states, nine of which were walled cities. Archaeological surveys, however, have so far unearthed 12 walled cities, including five large ones and several smaller non-fortified settlements. Of these cities, the three that are relatively more well-known are Halin (Hanlin), Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra. One reason for their fame is the fact that these cities were inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2014, and are the first sites in Myanmar/Burma to be inscribed on that list.

Beikthano and Halin

Although the three Pyu cities on the World Heritage List are only partially excavated, they have provided much information about the Pyu civilization. The oldest of the three cities is Beikthano (the Burmese word for the Hindu god Vishnu), and is one of the two Pyu cities (the other being Sri Ksetra) that has been more extensively excavated. Evidence suggests that this city was inhabited from around the 1st until the 5th centuries AD.

The Beikthano archaeological site.

The Beikthano archaeological site. (Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library)

Nevertheless, the largest and most important city during this period was Halin. Halin’s importance would later be superseded by Sri Ksetra around the 7th or 8th century AD.

During the 9th century AD, Pyu territory was raided by invaders from southern China. Some have suggested that these raids brought about the collapse of the Pyu, though others have speculated that the Pyu states continued to exist, and were gradually absorbed by the Kingdom of Pagan.

Section of the Halin archaeological site.

Section of the Halin archaeological site. (Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library)

Buddhism in Pyu

As the first foothold of Buddhism in the Southeast Asian region, the influence of this religion can clearly be seen in the ancient cities of the Pyu. The most obvious sign of this Buddhist influence can be seen in the religious monuments, such as brick stupas, that were built in the Pyu cities - these structures are still venerated even today by Buddhist pilgrims from all over the region.

he Bawbawgyi stupa, Sri Ksetra, Myanmar/Burma.

The Bawbawgyi stupa, Sri Ksetra, Myanmar/Burma. (Northern Illinois University) Buddhist manuscripts found within the stupa (which is hollow up to two-thirds of its height) are dated to the Pyu period.

Additionally, literate Buddhist communities were established in the Pyu civilization. This may have contributed to the reorganization of agricultural practices, the industrialization of manufactured goods, the development of unique mortuary practices, and the establishment of an efficient water management system. Manmade structures such as canals and water tanks are still used today for agricultural purposes. Most importantly, perhaps, is the spread of Buddhism from the Pyu city-states to the rest of mainland Southeast Asia.

Materials excavated from a Pyu cemetery at Halin.

Materials excavated from a Pyu cemetery at Halin. (CC BY SA 4.0) Burial goods of jewelry, pottery, bronze rattles, Neolithic polished stone tools and stone beads were found along with the human remains.

Pyu Influence or Dominance?

It may be expected that the Pyu civilization, in particular the cities of Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra, would be a source of pride for the people of Myanmar/Burma. Nevertheless, in a country where numerous ethnic groups co-exist, this can become a prickly issue. Whilst archaeological evidence has shown that the influence of the Pyu had spread to other parts of the country, such as the Chin State and the Tanintharyi Region, some have raised the concern that influence and dominance should not be mixed up.

For example, at a Pyu seminar in 2012, a Mon presenter expressed his fear that government officials and historians would decide that the ancient Mon State was a subordinate of the Pyu. This, he stated, would mean that there would be “no unique Mon civilization, culture and custom.”

With the scarcity of archaeological evidence at present, this is a persisting issue that may perhaps be solved with more research into the relationship between the Pyu civilization and its neighbors.

Featured image: The Pyama stupa, which may date to the Pyu period. Source: Northern Illinois University

By: Ḏḥwty


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Thein, C., 2012. Pyu seminar restarts Mon debate. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2015. Pyu Ancient Cities. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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