Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The poetry of Bayinnaung's court rituals

(Photo: Bayinnaung's Kanbawzathadi Palace built in 1556 as reconstructed in 1992 in Pegu/Bago, Source: Wikipedia)


Bayinnaung Kyawhtin Nawrahta (1516-1581) is known as the greatest king of Burma (or Myanmar) because he far outdid any other king in terms of extent of territorial conquest.

Waves of far-flung military campaigns during his reign assembled together a kingdom that included much of Yunnan China, modern-day Thailand, Laos and Manipur as well as the territory of modern-day Burma.


The history of pre-modern Burma (or Myanmar) given by historical chronicles is for the most part military history.

This is a little strange because western historians have basically used the Burma's chronicles for writing every kind of history imaginable except military history.

There are no historians hanging out their shingles and identifying themselves as "military historians of Burma," for instance.

Military campaigns are the main focus of U Kala's first large-scale Burmese historical chronicle the Mahayazawindawgyi that all others, such as the Hmannan or Glass Palace Chronicle are based on, so pre-modern Burmese history is largely military history with a focus on describing the details of campaigns such as the composition and strength of military units, the routes taken by different units, battle casualties, as well as military decision-making and strategy (see Fernquest, The Pali imaginaire of pre-modern Burmese warfare and history (c. 1383-1425)  here).

In contrast, a little known or studied Mon chronicle features much more poetic descriptions than U Kala.


The Mon chronicle known as the "Nidana Arambhakatha" supplements U Kala with detailed sumptious descriptions of court ritual (as well as siege warfare, used by historian Victor Lieberman in Burmese Administrative cycles).

This Mon chronicle has a much more literary character to it than U Kala's chronicle which is rather more devoted to record-keeping.

The Mon chronicle is usually referred to as "Nidana Ramadipati Katha" or "Nidana Arambhakatha" meaning "preface to the legend" (or just "Nidana" for short), but the exact name of the text given varies (see here , here & McCormick, 2011). Another more generic name  "Rajavamsa Katha" has been used for it that denotes its role as a "chronicle of the royal lineage" and is also the name on the binding of the original Pak Lat chronicle published in 1911-1912.

The chronicle will apparently be available in a scholarly annotated translation soon (Shorto & Bauer, forthcoming), but is now used in an old worn unpublished manuscript distributed informally by the Mon scholar Shorto.

The Rajadhirat chronicle is the more commonly known Mon chronicle of the most famous Mon king for whom it is named, with versions existing in both the Thai and Burmese languages (for more info read Fernquest, 2006 here).


A cycle of warfare and court ritual is the overall narrative pattern of both U Kala and the Nidana.

The palace-building and coronation (raja-bhisheka) rituals early in Bayinnaung's reign are described here.

There are also many temple and pagoda building rituals, Buddhist relic enshrinement rituals, such as the Buddha tooth relic from Sri Lanka as well as the rather unique rituals of enshrining the broken tusk of Uposata, the royal elephant that Bayinnaung rode in his conquest of the royal capital Pegu that preceded the palace-building and coronation rituals below.

(Plan of the city of Pegu/Bago, 1568 (in Burmese), Yazawin Thit Chronicle (first published in 1798) by Twinthin Taikwun Maha Sithu, Source: Wikipedia)


After the retaking of the royal capital of Pegu after the death of his brother King Tabinshweihti, finding an auspicious location for the new citadel and palace was the first order of business:

"He was well-qualified to be a king. reflecting that both those ancient kings who established their citadel at Sneh Lasuin and built the Shwemawdaw [pagoda or jedi] to secure the principle of succession, and those after them who moved the citadel to Kla' Ma Akwat, had failed to preserve that principle (the site had turned out an unlucky one for them), he determined for the sake of his people's happiness to build a new citadel and thereby create auspicious conditions which would ensure their welfare."

He enlisted the help of three senior abbots well-versed in the scriptures to help him find a auspicious site for the new palace. They decided that locating the new citadel south of the Shwemawdaw pagoda would "secure the continuance of the principle of succession."

Pegu itself was auspicious because it was said to be the place where the legendary Brahminy duck (Hamsa), from which Pegu received its name Hamsavati, descended and laid an egg and "marvellous celestial food" appeared at the wish of this duck a good omen that portended that: 

"all the kings of Jampudipa will be infallibly obliged to send gifts excelling in the five kinds of sensual appeal and the nine modes of rarity: delightful forms, dulcet sounds, precious scents, exquisite flavours, tactile pleasures; and all manner of ornate objects, wondrous elephants, marvellous riding horses." (74-75)

Bayinnaung then made preparations to build the citadel and palace:

"...he had a great pavilion erected with four smaller ones round it, and these being adorned with floral tracery and set with horns filled with incense, flowers and every kind of scent, he bid the clergy come and recite strings of prayers in them; also by spells binding friendly gods to guard them and turning heretical gods away. Another great pavillion was put up with an awning over it and decoration of floral tracery, with scented joss sticks burning in it, and surrounded by a lattice decorated with sugarcane plantains. This pavillion was hung with strings of sgoh and gana leaves, mangoes and bana fruit. In it Brahmins learned in the three Vedas and four Vedangas offered sacrifices to Brahma." (75)

At the exact astrologically correct day at twelve midnight, attended by learned men, carpenters and bricklayers, the king "founded the new citadel while drums and gongs sounded and the assembly raised a shout fit to dry up earth and sky." (76)

The workers dug a trench around the enclosure of an old citadel at the site, "lest the existence of the old enclosure imperil the new and filled it up with five kinds of earth, "earth from anthills, sand, clay, fresh alluvium, and earth from paddy fields" and then "harrowed by a team of oxen free from blemish and yoked with a yoke of gold."

An exact precision in the acts of building the important structure can be seen: "the digging of the holes was finished at the moment when the rising sun first showed on Friday, the 5th waning, and the posts were raised as the whole disc of the sun became visible." (76)

The astrological signs of workers digging holes was also deemed to be of importance: "on Friday, the 3rd waxing of Mrgasirsa, 915, Sagitarrius being in the ascendant, men subject to the Sun and Jupiter, having first bathed, dug the holes for the middle posts, using digging sticks of gold and silver. Those for the western posts were dug in a similar manner by men subject to Mercury and the Moon, the holes immediately west of them, by men subject to Jupiter and the Sun." (76-77)

An underlying unity in the diverse acts of construction was stressed: "to the sound of drums, gong, chimes, trumpets straight and curved, conches and reedhorns from the east the pillars stood upright in a twinkling, all parts of the undertaking being accomplished together as if the hand of a god were at work" (77).

As the palace building ceremonies came to an end, the palace was given the name Kambojasati, and "monks pronounced blessings throughout the citadel and recited the paritta [to protect the palace] all round it, first sitting and then in procession" (77).


The procession to fetch the coronation water is described in great detail:

"[the King]... led out his procession with his elephants, horses and troops. Behind him came Indian drums and trumpets both curved and straight variously resounding. Next the Mahabhudans displayed all manner of sports, led by Tamil drums and Vaisyas dancing to the pattram. Next were bulls without blemish, fully caparisoned, shaded by fretted canopies, and Brahmins in gowns of white with sacred threads of gold over their shoulders, under white umbrellas, with at their head seven fair virgins adorned in jewels and each carrying a kalasa pot of gold on their hips. After them came the queens, Shan, Mon and Burman, some in red cloth and some in white, and then the ministers and captains and the rest of the nobles and chiefs. When they reached the tank they first made offerings of many kinds, and then the seven virgins went down and filled their pots. The procession then returned in the order in which it came" (78).

The palace was bathed "with jars of water in which rice had been placed and over which mantras had been recited," and the king then went with his retinue to worship at the Shwemawdaw pagoda (77-78).

The next day according the old customs the coronation took place:

"The eight brahmins, holding right-voluted conch shells in the spired pavilion where the bathing was to take place, made ready the elephants, horses, goats, and buffaloes and the male and female slaves. After offering twenty new mats and the same number of new jars full of water and platters of food, with tall candles and ornamental flowers the height of a man, they made ready the sun- and the moon- discs, the perforated plated of gold and silver, the ten finger-rings and the rings for offering at the head-washing ceremony, and filled the golden kalasa pots with scented water from Mo Dala Sen tank. They then recited the supreme mantra, the Varasuddha, and at the moment then the whole disc of the sun showed above the horizon Smin Dhaw Jnok [Bayinnaung] and the Chief Queen bathed in the mingled waters of the five streams brought from Pancaluin island" (79).

As the King, holding a golden fly-whisk, and the Queen, holding a golden lotus, made their way to the pavilion where they would receive the consecrated insignia of royalty, the noise of massed instruments and the shout raised by the troops as they bathed was like the roar of the breakers driven by the monsoon wind" (79).

The ceremony continues in the same vein. This is just a sample.


Here is a reading of the Nidana made from Shorto's manuscript for my personal use (so please excuse low quality, with fan at home instead of aircon). It is included here to demonstrate the poetic nature of this Mon chronicle:

Download from here.

As should always be stressed, Wikipedia should be updated with details from the chronicle, as I try to do.

Although Wikipedia may be looked down upon by academics it is increasingly provides raw materials for research around the world, such as this study comparing levels of warfare around the world featured on the BBC today (see "The map trying to record every battle ever fought, BBC News Magazine here).


Candakanta, Nai (1911-12) Rajavamsa Katha [History of the royal lineage]. 2 vols. Pak Lat: Bha Krun Cin.

Fernquest, Jon (2005) "Rajadhirat’s Mask of Command: Military Leadership in Burma (c. 1348-1421)," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Volume 4, Issue 1 Spring 2006, ISSN 1479-8484 (read here).

Jon Fernquest (2015), The Pali imaginaire of pre-modern Burmese warfare and history (c. 1383-1425) (read here)

McCormick, Patrick (2011) "The Mon Rajavamsa Katha: Tellings of a Southeast Asian History" in McCormick, Jenny, and Baker, eds.  The Mon Over Two Millennia: Monuments, Manuscripts, Movements_. Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2011, pp. 123-147 (read here).

McCormick, Patrick (2014) "Writing a Singular Past: Mon History and 'Modern' Historiography in Burma," SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 300-331 (read here).

Shorto, H. L. (1961) “A Mon Genealogy of Kings: Observations on the Nidana Arambhakatha,” In In D. G. E. Hall (ed.). Historians of South-East Asia, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 62-72.

Shorto, H. L. No Date. Nidana Ramadhipati-katha. Unpublished typescript translation of pp. 34-44, 61-264 of Phra Candakanto (editor). On binding Rajawamsa Dhammaceti Mahapitakadhara. Pak Lat, Siam (1912).

Shorto, H. L. and Christian Bauer, ed. (forthcoming) Uppana Suddhamavati, Rajavamsa Katha, a History of the Origin of Thaton, First Part (Wiesbaden: Harrosowitz Verlag) [scholarly edited translation of (Shorto, N.D) from (McCormick, 2011)]

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Succession crises of late Toungoo Burma (1648-1752)

One hears much of elite politics in the present-day politics of Burma and Thailand.

Future royal succession is a major factor influencing contemporary politics in Thailand. 

However, elite politics has played a major role in the history of both countries for hundreds of years and there are strong overtones of the past in present-day events, so it perhaps behooves the student of contemporary events to look back at past events.    

Elite politics at the Burmese court played a central role in the decline and ultimate collapse of the Toungoo dynasty (1485-1752)

This decline happened over an almost 100 year period from 1648 to 1752 (from the reign of the Burmese king Pindale to the final Toungoo kings Taninganway and Mahadhammaraza Dipadi) (see here). 

Victor Lieberman's magisterial "Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580–1760" based on his PhD dissertation at the SOAS, analyses the history of this decline and the role of elite politics in great depth, perhaps deeper than any other work on Burmese history (see organization of the book here).


Burmese society of the Toungoo period was one gigantic patron client network or hierarchy. 

Everyone was basically in service to someone else.

The most fundamental distinction was between royal servicemen (ahmu-dan) serving the king directly (ahmu-dan), and free servicemen (athi) whose service and taxation burdens were much less burdensome, 

Royal servicemen formed the core of the Burmese armed forces and also constituted an important tax base for the central royal government. 

Because of the greater burdens many royal servicemen attempted to exit their legal status by whatever means possible entering into the service of princes or other elite.

Becoming a slave when debts accumulated to the point of insolvency was also a means of escaping from royal service. 

The flow of manpower from royal service reached almost epidemic proportions during the 100 year period mentioned above (1648-1752) and in the end was a major factor in the collapse of the Toungoo dynasty.  


Victor Lieberman's masterwork, unfortunately, is rather difficult to find in Burma, so I provide here a recording of a key section that I recorded for my personal study (see zip file of mp3 files here).

Hopefully, Wikipedia will be updated one day soon to incorporate his wonderful research work. I personally hope to build a model of elite role in the politics of the pre-modern Burmese state using agent-based modeling and analytical sociology and the models of Peter Turchin based on the so-called Secular cycles (see here & here). Such models could facilitate comparison across time periods within Burmese history and across polities or proto-states in Southeast Asian history.  


Lieberman, Victor B. (1984) Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580–1760, Princeton University Press.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Rajadhirat, a classic Mon epic

This is a translation of chapters from the Mon-Burmese epic Razadarit Ayeidawpon. Both the Burmese and an English translation are given.

The epic tale of Rajadhirat records the history of a long war between Mon Lower Burma and Burman Upper Burma (c. 1383-1425). The epic survives to this day in a collection of manuscripts written in three different languages: Mon, Burmese, and Thai:

- Introduction
- Rajadhirat epic translation.
- Condensed version of epic in academic paper.
- Interesting sentences and vocabulary list.

Monday, January 14, 2008

1. The overconfidence of Prince Minyekyawsa

2. King Mingaung admonishes his son

3. The Lord of Salin warns Prince Minyekyawswa

4. An auspicious day is chosen for battle with Minyekyawswa

5. Emuntaya’s deception to lure Minyekyawswa into battle

"Rajadhirat then wondered how Minyekyawswa might be advised that he would be in Dala. Emuntaya volunteered to have this accomplished by going over to Minyekyawswa as if he had defected from his side. Asked to furnish further details, he said he would say that he was disenchanted with his monarch for failing to pursue a more aggressive policy and for not taking action to dislodge the besiegers of Dala and with Deinmaniyut for not acting like a general as he was supposed to be; that for speaking out his mind he was threatened with the death penalty and to have his whole family clapped in irons by Deinmaniyut; that the king backed Deinmaniyut so that he had decided to defect and serve under Minyekyaswa; that he would then participate with the prince’s nobles in one or two actions to further gain Minyekyaswa's confidence after which he would return to Dala. The king agreed with this plan and gave him five viss (18 pounds / 8 kg) of gold to be distributed among nobles and citizens of Dala." (edited version of San Lwin's English translation, 141; Binnyadala in Burmese, 315, Note: San Lwin's translation seems to paraphrase and condense a lot here)

6. Emuntaya deserts from the Mon to the Burmese

Dala was heavily surrounded by Myanma troops on both the river side and the land side. When Emuntaya arrived, at Dala's port Chinthe (lion) they were stopped by the garrison commander of the Panpe garrison (htaung-hmu) and the lord of Myo-taung who were blocking the route through at this point.

When the lord of Myo-taung saw them, he asked them who they were. "I am Emuntaya, and after suffering disappointment at the hands of my lord, I request to be received by the lord of the Golden Palace as a servant," he asked the lord of Myo-taung. Emuntaya spoke in the manner that he had proposed to the king. When they heard this, they gave him find Basoes, fine shirts, wrapped up in a bundle and brought Emuntaya from Myo-taung and presented him to Minyekyawswa. Minyekyawswa questioned him. Emuntaya responded in the same way as he had answered the lord of Myo-taung. After that, when Yazathinkyan had listened to him, he addressed the king.

"Such is the lord Minyekyawswa's great royal glory and power (hpon-daw-gyi) that the royal uncle's minister, the noble (thu-yei-kaung) Emuntaya, has arrived here to be received as a royal servant. If what Emuntaya says is true, when the royal desire for Pegu has been fulfilled (i.e. Pegu has been conquered) he should be given any domain to rule over than he desires (myo-sa)." And when Yazathinkyan had spoken, Emuntaya in turn spoke, "This servant has suffered disappointment at the hands of his lord, and have arrived at the royal feet of the son of the lord of the golden palace. Henceforth, I will bear the burden or royal affairs (enter royal service), and from the time I cut down my own people, the Mons, you will place your royal trust in me," Emuntaya spoke thus. Emuntaya was presented with gifts. ." (edited version of San Lwin’s English translation, 141; Binnyadala in Burmese, 315-316)

7. Emuntaya deserts from the Burmese back to the Mon

At dawn, some Mons were seen outside the city gate near the palisade erected to prevent elephants from rushing the gate.

Emuntaya accompanied a party of Burmese troops who attacked them with swords, killed a couple of Mons from Dala himself and dragged their bodies back into the stockade. When the Myanma troops saw this they reported it to Minyekyawswa. Minyekyawswa awarded Emuntaya.

On another day Emuntaya was ordered to ride in the front of an elephant, while the lord of Salin rode in the middle. As they rode out of the stockade and drew near to the moat, a contingent of Mons emerged from the town and attacked them. The Myanmar troops accompanying them fled.

Grasping his sword, Emuntaya told the lord of Salin that he was going to attack and, climbing down from the elephant, made as if he was going to attack the Mons and followed in pursuit. He didn't attack them and instead threw away his sword, running into the town to take cover.

When the lord of Salin reported this to Minyekyawswa, he clapped his hands in anger and shouted out across the moat to Banya Dala, son of the Mon king Rajadhirat:

"Emuntaya has tricked us and told us lies. When Emuntaya leaves the city and returns to his king I will see that he is rewarded for this.”

Banya Dala passed the message on to Emuntaya, whose reply in turn was shouted back across the moat to the son of the mighty and powerful king, Minyekyawswa, that tomorrow Emuntaya would, in fact, return to Pegu.

To this the Myanma side shouted back once again a reply, "Emuntaya, do you have wings? Can you fly? Will you dig a tunnel under the earth? You were only able to return because you played a trick on us."

"I will leave the town. Just wait," Emuntaya replied.

The Myanma forces waited for him surrounding the town many levels deep on both the land and water approaches to the town. Minyekyawswa shouted out to his officers to keep guard, "Tommorrow, Emuntaya will try to leave the town. We will wait for him and catch him."

(edited version of San Lwin’s English translation, 141; Binnyadala in Burmese, 316)

8. Emuntaya escapes from Dala

Meanwhile Emuntaya handed over the gold that he had been entrusted with to Binnya Dala as instructed by the king.

He had a raft constructed of banana stems and hid his sword in one of these. He lay stretched out like a corpse smearing his face with turmeric. Then he was rolled up in a tattered reed mat. Four women with hair unraveled beat their breasts with their fists and cried out in lament:

"Others have their husbands to comfort them in these difficult times but you choose to leave us at a time when the visitation of war brings famine upon us."

This little scene was played out near the Lion Gate where it could be seen by the Burmese on the other side.

He was then placed on the banana stem raft with an earthen plate of rice and a whole chicken near his head lit by a glowing torch. The raft was cast of and the women gave a fearful whoop of lamentation and a final burst of breast beating.

As the raft drifted close to one of the Burmese pickets keeping watch in boats, the small raft was pushed away into the current and carried steadily upstream by the tide. By the time that the village of Tapauk Tanaut was reached the picket boats had been left far behind so that Emuntaya climbed ashore after taking out the hidden sword and proceeded to Pegu.

Around midday back in Dala the Burmese troops called out for Emuntaya to come out if he was to come out at all. From the town came the reply that he had already left at dawn. The Burmese troops that had been waiting for him since dawn let out a string of abuses (laughed derisively).

(edited version of San Lwin’s translation, 142)

Version in Harvey’s History of Burma (1925), taken from the Hmannan Yazawin:

"Then prince Minrekyawswa shouted out to prince Binnyadala "Emuntaya spake untruth and hath done me disrespect. By guile hath he entered the town. But if he can come out and return to his king, I will give him great gifts." When Prince Binnyadala told these words to Emuntaya, he said, "Son of my glorious master, tell them that Emuntaya will go up to Pegu tomorrow." And the Burmese shouted, "Hath Emuntaya wings to fly above? Or is he a snake that can creep beneath? He entered the town by guile only." And Emuntaya answered them, "I shall win forth, keep what guard you please." And prince Minyekyawswa charged his captains saying, "Tommorrow Emuntaya will come forth, saith he. Keep ye watch to take him." And they kept double watch by land and water. But Emuntaya gave unto the king's son Binnyadala the five viss of gold that the king had entrusted unto him, and then he made the counselors and captains go far away, and before dawn he caused men to make a raft of plantain trees, and he thrust his sword in one of the trees. And he made himself appear like a corpse, smearing his cheeks and ears with turmeric, and wrapping his body around with old matting. And four or five women let down their hair and beat their breasts and wept as they wailed "Other husbands cleave to wife and child through good and ill, and forsake them not in war or famine. But thou has forsaken us and gone away. What shall we do, thy wife and orphans in this cruel war, this cruel famine?" Thus wailing they lifted up the corpse, while the Burmese soldiers who were near the Shan-Death gate of the town looked on. Gently the women laid the body on the plantain raft, with an earthen dish and a cup of rice and a chicken; and they lit oil lights and placed them at the head, and pushed forth the raft into the middle of the stream. And the women followed it beating their breasts and weeping and crying aloud Shall thou forsake us tus?" But the raft floated along and came near a Burmese boat, and the Burmese said "See! It is a corpse." and they pushed it away with a bamboo. And the raft was carried up stream by a strong flood tide, and when it had come to Ta-paw-ta-ngauk [in Pegu district near Kyaut-tan] because it was now far from the Burmese boats, Emuntaya took his sword out from the plantain log and went up to Pegu...and Prince Minyekyawswa sent a messenger to Pegu...and the Messenger asked King Razadarit saying "My master asks if it be true that Emuntaya hath returned to thee, as men say." And king Razadarit called Emuntaya and he came before the messenger. And when the messenger saw him, he gave him a horse with golden trappings and a velvet robe from prince Minyekyawswa." (Hmannan II.44, quoted in Harvey, 1925, 84-85)

9. Minyekyawswa sends an envoy to Rajadhirat with gifts

A fairly literal translation to English:
In the evening Minyekyawswa sent his men to Prince Banya Dala and Awa-na-naing to speak with them.

"We have waited til dusk for Emuntaya to travel up river for Pegu. Why hasn't he left yet?," they asked.

"Doesn't younger brother Minyekyawswa know? Emuntaya left for Pegu at dawn," Prince Banya Dala replied.

When Minyekyawswa's men came back, they related what had happened. When Minyekyawswa had listened to their story, he was quite surprised and because he didn't believe what they had said, he sent a courier with a letter to Pegu. The courier's official position was that of "let-ya thaut-hmu" [leader of the left wing thwei-thauk]. The letter read as follows:
Exceedingly dear and venerable elder uncle, to whom Minyekyawswa addresses this letter, I had heard that you fled to Martaban (Mottama). Since elder uncle has now returned from Martaban to Pegu, my desire to fight elephant to elephant with you (duel) will soon be realized. It is because elder uncle ran away that I have been staying in Dala. Older uncle has chosen neither to come after me from upriver, nor to come after me from downriver.

"Being from a sovereign line of kings, when you see war you feel disheartened? One who acts like older uncle cannot be considered a sovereign king. If elder uncle requests that I travel upriver to Pegu, I will. If elder uncle wants to travel downriver I will likewise welcome him."
Minyekyawswa sent this letter together with one fine horse equipped with gold reins and one set of red ruby bracelets to King Rajadhirat. To the courier Let-ya Thaut-hmu, he gave the order: "If you meet Emuntaya, award him with this fine horse equipped with golden reins and also with this velvet robe."

The courier set off to Pegu and when he arrived there, the lord Rajadhirat was residing at Thebyuchaung. Rajadhirat ordered that the courier be welcomed and when the courier arrived in the presence of Rajadhirat , the courier presented the letter and gifts that had been given to him to present. When Rajadhirat had listened to the letter, he ordered the courier to send the following message in return: "Tell my nephew (Minyekyawswa) not to come up to Pegu, I will come instead to Dala.

Then the courier inquired as to whether Emuntaya had already arrived back at the royal feet or not, whether this was true or not true, the royal nephew (Minyekyawswa) wished to know. The courier addressed the king that he was to inform the royal nephew as to whether he had seen Emuntaya or not.

Emuntaya was called and when he arrived in front of the courier, the courier bestowed upon him the many gifts (su) that Minyekyawswa wished to award him with, including the horse, the golden reins, and the velvet robe. In return the lord Minyekyawswa was given as gifts one green velvet robe and sixteen rolls of cloth for basoes (sarongs).

The courier was rewarded for his efforts and given as gifts a fine basoe and a golden bowl (shwei-hpala). The courier returned to Dala and reported all that had transpired to Minyekyawswa especially the return of Emuntaya" (Banya Dala, Razadarit Ayeidawpon in Burmese, 318).
[Note: There are obviously a lot of issues to be worked out in translating this old text. There is often a tradeoff between literally and rendering exactly what the Burmese text is saying and the way it is saying it and other factors such as readability of the translation and having it make sense to modern-day non-Burmese readers without a lot of cumbersome accompanying footnotes.

In my translation I tried to be more literal but also tried to avoid English idioms which sometimes seem misplaced when translating an ancient text. Sometimes providing the exact Burmese word used can shed light on exactly what was said to those familiar with the Burmese language. For example, "award" as the translation of the Burmese word "su" (award) is often used when the word "gift" perhaps would be more appropriate, since it really seems to be an extension of the practice of gift exchange found in many cultures. In the text above, it does not seem to be correct usage to describe valuable objects given to an enemy king as "awards." "Gifts" seems more appropriate. The use of the word "present" instead of "gift" as seen in some translations also perhaps seems too quaint according to modern usage of the two words.

The theme of rewarding warriors who excel in battle whether they are working for or against you, perhaps with an aim to getting them to desert to your side, is an oft repeated theme in Rajadhirat]

Here is the venerable senior scholar U San Lwin's translation that I used as a guide:
"At dusk Minyekyawswa sent his men to call on prince Binnya Dala and Smin Awananaing to inquire into this matter and they were told by Binnya Dala that did not Minyekyawswa know that he had left at dawn. Accordingly, a courier was sent to Pegu with this letter, "Dear Elder Uncle to Minyekyawswa informs that, I had heard that you ran away to Martaban but now that you are back in Pegu my hopes of jousting with you on elephant will be realised soon. I was in Dala all the time but you chose not to come at me either from upstream or downstream but instead ran away. There is no monarch like you who is so battle-shy. If you would like me to come to Pegu I will gladly do so or should you come down for me I will welcome you." This was carried by the commander of the left wing of blood brothers, together with a steed caparisoned in gold and a pair of ruby bracelets to be presented to Razadarit. He was also given a fine horse caparisoned in gold and a velvet robe with instructions that they were to be awarded to Emuntaya if he happened to meet him at the court of Pegu.

Razadarit was staying at Thebyuchaung when Minyekyawswa's courier arrived and after the message had been conveyed Razadarit told the courier "Tell my nephew that he need not come up to Pegu but that I will be coming down to Dala. Then the courier submitted to the king that he had also been given the task of looking up Emuntaya. Emuntaya was summoned and and Minyekyawswa's presents were duly given to him. King Razadarit then gave a green velvet robe and sixteen bolts of material each enough for a suit as presents for Minyekyawswa and a bowl made of gold and a length of quality cloth for the courier. All these were duly reported on the courier's return" (San Lwin, 142-143).

10. King Mingaung of Ava marches south on Salat

When king Mingaung heard that King Rajadharit had returned to Pegu, he set off for Salat in the south with prince Minyethihathu and Thado each commanding a column (tat). Thado was accompanied by his deputy (sit-ke) Tu-yin-kyaw. The two columns together consisted of 50 war elephants, 500 horse, and 10,000 troops. At that time Salat was held by Rajadhirat's minister Byat Za with 7,000 men, 5 war elephants, and 30 horse.

At this time King Razadarit was residing in Kyat Zana where he built a pavilion with tiered roofs and held a hair washing ceremony. The ceremony was held on the 5th day of the waxing moon in the month of Tabaung.

The march to Dala began. Razadarit's main force had Deinmaniyut as commander, Re Kaman deputy commander, a column commanded by Prince Dhamma Yaza had Baik-ka-myin as deputy.

Prince Banya Payan on a war elephant that was in musth and harnessed in a red howdah, red saddle flaps, red pennants flying on the howdah and ornamented with red on its forehead and with the elephantry guards holding red lances formed the van together with ten elephants and a unit of 5,000 troops.

The column under Binnya Yaza had thirty elephants and 11,000 troops. The prince was mounted on an elephant in a golden howdah surmounted by a white umbrella with gold howdah flaps, gold ornamenting its forehead and elephantry guards holding gold lances.

Razadarit's force consisted of 30 elephants and 10,000 men with the king shaded by a white umbrella riding the war elephant named Hsin Ye with a black howdah, black howdah flaps, and elephantry bearing black lances.

When Minyekyawswa received reports that Rajadhirat was marching against him, he called a conference. Yaza-thin-gyan spoke up:

"Razadarit is a very brave warrior and will rarely withdraw from an engagement. If he is in command, should we continue to lay siege, we will be attacked from the front and rear. To prevent such a predicament we should lift the siege and combine our land and river commands to establish a strongpoint. At this strongpoint we can go on the defensive if he chooses to attack or mount an offensive if he does not move against us."

Minyekyawswa agreed with Yazathingyan's estimation of the situation and his strategy of lifting the siege and establishing a strongpoint at Thakan, thereby concentrating both land and river forces at this one point.

(edited version of San Lwin's translation, 143-144)

11. A young warrior fails to carry out orders and is punished

King Rajadhirat erected a stockade at Kyat Le near Dala. From there he mounted the elephant sired by Hsin Ye and escorted by 1,000 troops entered Dala where he was jubilantly received by Prince Binnya Dala, Smim Awananaing and the citizenry of Dala. Rajadhirat showered gifts on them.

Rajadhirat asked Smim Awananaing whether the Burmese prince was given to charging out from his stockaded camp. Awananaing assured the king that Minyekyawswa was like a fighting cock ever eager to launch itself against any rooster it happened to see.

"Then we are certain of getting the Burmese prince," said Rajadhirat.

Turning to Thwe Lagunsan, his personal attendant and bearer of his betel box and water goblet, he issued orders:

"Your elephant is nimble and quick. Go with an escort of 300 warriors to Minyekyawswa's camp and try and draw him out. If he pursues you don't turn and fight but come back with all speed. "

Thwe Lagunsan made the gesture of obeisance and departed on his mission. When they were detected, Minyekyawswa sent the Governor of Kale with 1,000 horsemen after him.

Thwe Lagunsan turned back on seeing the cavalry emerge. The Burmese horsemen pressed on with vigour and started to catch up to them. At this point, Thwe Lagunsan turned and fought back.

Feinting, the elephant turned left and right during the skirmish and suffered around one hundred spear wounds.

When Rajadhirat heard of this, he clapped his hands and slapped his thighs in anger. When Thwe Lagunsan arrived he handed him over to Emuntaya with the orders:

"He has violated my orders. Cut off his arms and legs and throw him away."

Awa-nan-naing protested, "Thwe Lagunsan erred because he is young and not very clever. As a Buddha would, please spare his life." Acceding to this request, Thwe Lagunsan was put in irons instead.

(edited version of U San Lwin's translation, page 144)

12. The elephant Bagamat's mahout refuses to do him harm

On arriving back at his stockade, Rajadhirat summoned Nga Pyan, the former mahout of the elephant Bagamat. Rajadhirat knew that no other elephant could even challenge this elephant. Bagamat had once been a Mon elephant before being captured by the Burmese. Rajadhirat asked the mahout how this dangerous elephant should be dealt with.

Nga Pyan put forward two plans. The first was for him to head a quartet of she-elephants on which warriors of noble blood who were expert with the spear would be mounted. When they came upon Bagamat, Nga Pyan would call out the elephant’s name

Recognizing his former mahout’s voice Bagamat would not attack them. Then it would be just a matter of disposing of whoever was riding Bagamat and then he, Nga Pyan would take over.

The alternative plan was to enter into the Burmese encampment by stealth late at night and hammer spikes into the elephant's feet, pinning the elephant to the floor so that it could not move or leave the stockade.

King Rajadhirat decided on the second plan and rewarded Nga Pyan for his good ideas. He also selected Bawgati and Mapaing to accompany him on this mission. On the night when the raid was to take place, Nga Pyan peeled three lengths of sugar cane for Bagamat. The party successfully sneaked into the stockade past the dozing Burmese troops.

When they entered the shed where Bagamat was tethered, the elephant recognized the scent of his old mahout and stood quietly. Nga Pyan offered the sugar cane he had brought to Bagamat. He then spoke to the elephant:

"I have come with the king's order to nail your feet to the floor but now that I when I see you, I cannot do that. If you love me, your two brothers and your mother, when the Burmans try to harness you for the coming battle do not let them, go on a rampage within this stockade and then come home to me. My life will be spared only when you come back to me."

Bagamat nodded his head, tears welling up and rolling down his cheeks.

Bawgati and Mapaing remarked that the king had sent them because he was planning to joust on elephants the next day as he did not want Bagamat to be on the other side and if it was not to be done as the king had instructed, the responsibility should be solely on Nga Pyan. Then they left.

Meanwhile, Rajadhirat kept vigil through the striking of the third watch of the night ( ie, about 3 am), waiting for the news of the raid's outcome.

When Nga Pyan and party reached their camp at the stroke of the third quarter of the night, they were asked by the king whether his orders had been carried out. Nga Pyan related to the king what had actually occurred. The king was furious and slapped Nga Pyan:

" I had plans to raise you to noble status (thu-kaung pyu) if you had accomplished your mission. I'll have you and your family burned if your elephant does not come back."

(Slightly edited version of U San Lwin’s translation, 144-145; the Burmese of Banya Dala’s Razadarit Ayeidawpon, 319-320)

13. Preparations for war

On Wednesday, the 4th waxing day of the moon in the month of Tagu, Rajadhirat readied himself for the coming battle by planning how the troops would be arrayed on the battlefield.

Prince Dhamma Yaza would be riding the elephant Yan-gami escorted by 1,000 elephantry troops dressed completely in black carrying black lances and shields, followed by King Rajadhirat mounted on the war elephant Yan.

Rajadhirat’s elephant was to be harnessed to a gold howdah with ruby studded flaps, bravely flying gold pennants and a white umbrella in accordance with his high status. The son of Rajadhirat’s wet nurse Paik Kaman was to ride in the middle of the elephant guarded by 1,000 elephantry troops carrying gilt lances and shields.

To Rajadhirat's right, Deinmaniyut would ride the war elephant sired by Yaza at the head of 1,000 elephantry. Positioned to his left, the minister Maha Tha-mun would be mounted on the elephant named Maha Peik-toun at the head of 1,000 elephantry troops. The warrior Binnya Ram (Yan) would ride Pa-swe-tha-mun accompanied by Emuntaya with an unsheathed sword.

Prince Binnya Dala accompanied by 1,000 men would ride the war elephant Sri Maran, the white canopy of an umbrella spread above him. He was to be deployed close to the town of Dala. Smim Awananaing, mounted on the elephant Nga Yet-nwe would lead 2,000 troops riding by his side.

Meanwhile, Minyekyawswa had heard they were readying themselves for war and was in conference with his nobles. Yaza-thin-gyan cautioned the prince not to be hasty and to act judiciously as "one knows not the course of war just as one cannot fathom whether a white chick or black chick will hatch from a certain egg." Others agreed with his observation and Minyekyawswa continued to feast and drink with his nobles.

Meanwhile, Rajadhirat reminded Deinmaniyut that he had taken the responsibility to see that Minyekyawswa came out to fight.

Deinmaniyut rode in a gilt basket-like howdah with a red umbrella spread atop. Five female elephants and seven to eight hundred troops followed him with measuring poles, string and picks. Deinmaniyut went over to Minyekyawswa’s stockade at Pethakan and from a respectable distance began to measure and mark out frontages with rope and stakes.

Minyekyawswa saw this from a turret and sent his men to investigate. Asked what they were doing, the Mon troops replied that they had been sent by Deinmaniyut to mark out frontages for each unit that was to participate in laying siege to the fortifications.

(edited version of San Lwin’s translation, in the Burmese of Banya Dala, page 321)

14. On the verge of battle at Dala, 1416

When Prince Minyekyawswa learned that the Mons were preparing to lay siege to his stockade, he called together his ministers, and addressed them:

"I have marched here planning to get the Mon king. Now, the Mon king is going to surround us.

To be surrounded is not acceptable. We will leave the stockade and attack them."

None of the ministers dared say anything and each returned to his respective tat (unit, company).

Everyday Minyekyawswa gave his elephant Nga Chit Khaing two large bowls of liquor to drink. On that day he treated him to three bowls. Minyekyawswa drank a lot more than he usually did.

Before leaving for war, Minyekyawswa confided with his wife Min Hla as he held her in his embrace:

"I, the northern prince, am on the verge of taking eerything that the royal uncle, the Mon king, possesses and adding it to the tributary domains that I have gained by conquest.

When the royal elephant Nga Chit Khaing whoops like a crane in battle that is a sign that I'm about to win.

At Mohnyin (in the Shan-Tai states) with the whooping sound of a crane the royal desire was fulfilled.
(royal desire fulfilled = victory).

At the capital of Arakan there was the whooping sound of a crane and then the royal desire was fulfilled.

This time Nga Chit Khaing will once again sing like a crane and the capital of Pegu cannot escape from my hands."

[Note: Possible sexual innuendo here since it is really more than "embrace" his wife with
thon:-that = stroke, fondle; wash, bathe (Myanmar Abidan 521]

After confiding in his wife, Minyekyawswa went outside and assigned the lord of Myedu to Bagamat.

He ordered all the ministers, generals, and tat commanders to mount their elephants and horses and letting out a jubilant shout, he ordered them to follow him wave after wave.

He plied the royal elephant (hsin-daw) Nga Chit Khaing with one more round of drink and positioned his retainer (a-htein-daw) Nanda Thuriya on the middle of the elephant's back.

Over one hundred Shans (Tai) from Kale were ordered to wear pitch black robes and armed with spears to form a guard around his elephant.

Over 1000 Mohnyin Shan soldiers were armed with 3 throwing spears each.

Over 1,000 Burmese troops with gilt helmets, their shields of gold ornamented with peacock feathers were armed with 3 throwing spears each.

Noble cavalrymen wearing buffalo horns, wearing gold helmets, and noblemen clad in gold armour, surrounded him as he rode the royal elephant Nga Chit Hkaing.

The royal drum was sounded three times to announce Minyekyawswa's exit from the fort.

He marched forth without hesitation united with with his brave warriors in one group.

When Minyekyawswa left the stockade, the lord of Kale in the Shan states, Kye Taung Nyo also exited the stockade, mounted on the elephant Ye Thaw Boun with 50 elephantry, 700 cavalry and over 5,000 troops.

The king of Arakan followed on the war elephant Ye Myat Ke with 10 elephantry, 500 cavalry and 7,000 troops.

Then as the lord of Myedu climbed up on the elephant Bagamat, the elephant went berserk and started butting and trampling people and smashing things. The lord of Myedu had to dismount quickly.

On the opposite side, ready and mounted on his elephant, on the verge of commencing the battle, lord Rajadhirat poured water from a golden bowl over the front of the elephant and uttered the following vow:

" I call on the gods who safeguard the Teachings of the Buddha for 5,000 years to declare that this land is the domain of my father king Hsinbyushin, that it was so has been affirmed in a treaty (thissa-pyu) between my father king Hsinpyushin (Lord of the White Elephant) and Minyekyawswa's grandfather, Minkyiswasawke made at Thakyin.

If what I have declared is the truth may I be successful and may Minyekyawswa fall into my hands, while if it is not, may I lose the battle to him."

(based on U San Lwin's translation with extensive changes, pages 146-147, the Burmese of Banya Dala, page 322)

15. Prince Minyekyawswa's headlong charge

Minyekyawswa's headlong charge separated him from the rest of his troops.

The lord of Kale tried to catch up with him, but his elephant was in musth and distracted by the din raised by the saddle flaps on the cavalry and the noise of the elephants and men following him, he turned around and charged at them. (ye-thou-ton-hsin" not translated here? name or description?, ton = alternating cycles of motion and action; heights (MA 189))

This disruption prevented the cavalry and infantry from catching up with Minyekyawswa who was isolated far in front.

As Minyekyawswa and his 1000 brave warriors advanced, they spotted a column out ahead.

Told that it was Banya Dala, Minyekyawswa dismissed it because Banya Dala dared not face him.

Further on, as they came upon Banya Ram (Yan), Minyekyawswa with great disdain also passed him by as a worthy adversary.

Seeing Banya Dhamma Yaza coming up next, he too was dismissed after his men identified him.

Then a dazzlingly resplendent column came into view. Identified as Rajadhirat, Minyekyawswa declared:

"Out of all these it is my Elder Uncle Rajadhirat that I love the most. If I can defeat him, the rest will melt away. "

With the resounding beat of big drums, Minyekyawswa attacked and about a fifth of Rajadhirat's column scattered.

Next he attacked Banya Yaza and scattered the prince and a third of his forces.

Then he turned to Banya Ram's column and broke it up.

Awananaing was next in line but he stood firm and ordered his 7,000 troops to kneel behind their shields and hold their positions.

Rajadhirat, seeing this, turned to him with the deafening sound of war drums.

Banya Dhammayaza, Banya Ram (yan) and Banya Dala also converged on them when they heard the sound of the king's war drums.

Minyekyawswa, having penetrated too far, was isolated and surrounded by enemy elephants while elephantry troops harried his elephant Nga Chit Khaing with spear and sword.

The poor beast shook with pain and dislodged Minyekyawswa from his seat.

(Edited version of U San Lwin’s translation, page 147, the Burmese of Banya Dala, page 323)

16. The search for Minyekyawswa

In the billowing dust raised by elephant hooves and the feet of men, Minyekyawswa seemed to have vanished.

It was only after the third night watch had struck that the severely wounded Minyekyawswa was found under the asper tree as the royal seer had predicted. The lord Rajadhirat spoke to him:

"My son, that you are a young man does not dishearten me. (note: wun: "ma-nei:-bu:" which means "disheartened" translated as "I am not gloating over this" by U San Lwin?)

When you have been treated with proper medicine and are healthy again, if you wish to return to Ava, I will send you there.

If you wish to live in Pegu, I will marry you to my daughter and raise you to the position of crown prince (ein-shei). Nurse yourself back to health."

He then gave Minyekyawswa medicine but he refused to drink the medicine.

"When I came to make war with you elder uncle, I vowed that if I did not take Pegu that I would not return. I will not take the medicine. Now I have reached the end, as I will be named the slave (kyun) of another."

He did not take the medicine and died at the third stroke of night.

The ministers sent him to the cremation ground (thin-kyaing) and ordered that his bones be properly interred at the Kyat Thale pagoda.

(edited translation of U San Lwin, 147-148; the Burmese of Banya Dala, page 324)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Introduction to Rajadhirat translation

To date the Rajadhirat epic has not received much attention either as a historical text or as literature. Only the Burmese version, the Razadarit Ayeidawpon, has been translated into English.

An unpublished manuscript of this translation has been available for some time in Bangkok, at the Siam Society library, for instance. Copies of the translation were handed out at the Mon conference at Chulalongkorn University in October, 2007.

The senior Burmese scholar U San Lwin who is now near 80 and who lives in Burma was the translator. His fine translation displays great literary artistry in rendering the events of the epic in English. Unfortunately, the political situation in Burma probably means that this publication will never see the light of day. This project takes U San Lwin's translation as a starting point and makes some important sections of the epic available in English with a discussion of some of the interesting Burmese words and phrases found within it. Going back to the original Burmese, I have changed the translation in several ways. First, quoted speech is rendered as quoted speech and not paraphrased. Second, I have strictly followed the order of the original narrative and try to paraphrase as little as possible. Third, I have used the Burmese names in U Kala's Mahayazawingyi which means substituting a "y" for an "r" in many cases. U San Lwin apparently tried to go back to the original Mon spelling for Mon names. A comparative table of names used in the Burmese, Mon, and Thai versions of the work would definitely be useful. Mon names should be spelled according to their Mon translation and eventually I will extract this out of Nai Maung Toe's edited Mon edition. Fourth, lengthy prose in the original translation has sometimes been shortened if clarity and readability is enhanced. For instance, when the Mon and Burmese sides are shouting over the moat of the Mon stockade, short realistic bursts of spoken English are better. Fifth, idiomatic English words that sound dated or out-of-place has been substituted with more general language. My goal is solely to maintain interest in it and keep the ball rolling so that it does get the last stage of editing and then prompt publication.

The Rajadhirat epic is a huge topic that has hardly been touched on at all by historians or scholars studying Burmese literature.

A version of events quite close to that of the epic can be found in Burmese chronicles such as U Kala's Mahayazawingyi and the Hmannan Yazawin[Glass Palace Chronicle].

I have chosen to start with events near the end of the epic, leading up to what is arguably the climax of the epic, the death of Burmese Prince Min-ye-kyaw-swa. Most Burmese and Mon people know of this tale which reads much like a combination of traditional Buddhist Jataka tale of the Buddha's previous lives on earth and the Buddhist Mahavamsa epic of Sri Lanka.

Min-ye-kyaw-swa was said to be the reincarnation of Rajadhirat's son Baw-law-kyan-taw whom, according to tradition, Rajadhirat himself had murdered because of the perceived threat he posed to his rule.

U San Lwin's translation is also unique in another respect. Along with U Pe Maung Tin and Gordon Luce's translation of portions of the Hmannan Yazawin, his translation stands as a parallel corpus of pre-modern Burmese prose.

Historical works stand as the first real instances of Burmese prose outside of Jataka tales and Mahavamsa translations from Pali into Mon and Burmese. There are a lot of words and phrases in the Rajadhirat epic that are not in any currently available dictionary, so reverse engineering U San Lwin's translation to extract a glossary will hopefully provide an valuable aid to students learning to read Burmese.

The Rajadhirat epic is about warfare plain and simple. The inclination of most people, quite reasonably, is to shun warfare, in real life or in writing. After all, reading about violence perhaps begets more violence.

Anthropologists have even published a very popular manifesto, the Seville Statement on Violence, denying that warfare is an intrinsic part of human nature.

Whether warfare is part of human nature or not, works such as Rajadhirat and the Mahavamsa clearly show that warfare has plagued Burma and Sri Lanka for a long time.

Western historians can be said to have systematically avoided and underplayed the role of warfare in pre-modern Burmese history, despite the fact that warfare dominates the narratives of most indigenous historical chronicles. This is probably due to the increasing popularity of Buddhism in the west creating a focus on this particular dimension of Burmese culture. I am a Buddhist too, so I appreciate this, given the centrality of warfare in Burma's post-WWII political problems the legacy of warfare in Burma's pre-modern history should be dealt with in greater depth.

Towards the end of the Buddha's life in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta itself, the tribal Vajji people were wiped out by the kingdom of Magadha under the rule of Ajattasattu, regicide son of King Bimbisara who ruled during most of the Buddha's life (See Steven Collins, 1998, Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities, 437-445). Again, most people would probably wish to avoid this unsavory part of the Buddhist scriptures. Contemplating the human activity of warfare in all its terrible detail might, in the final analysis, be likened to meditations on a human corpse in a cremation ground, as found for instance in the Visuddhimagga. It is in this vein and to provide such a lesson that this translation has been done.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Judson's Burmese dictionary free at Google books

Judson's Burmese to English dictionary, which is still the only dictionary that has some of the archaic vocabulary found in old Burmese writings, is available for free at Google Book Search. you can view it onsite or download a pdf file. There are several editions available:

1. 1826 edition
2. 1852 edition
3. 1849 edition
4. Another 1849 edition

Judson's grammar is also available.
An old Anglo-Burmese dictionary from 1852 is also available.

Keep checking back at the Google Book Search Burmese Language category, since new titles are likely to become available.

Judson's bible translation is also available online. Reading the English with the Burmese in parallel is good language practice.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Why not making Buddhism part of the Thai constitution may actually make Buddhism stronger

Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand. By Kamala Tiyavanich. University of Hawaii Press, 1977, xxi + 410 pages, ISBN 0-8248-1781-8, U.S. $29.95. [Book Review]

The question of whether Buddhism should be made the official state religion of Thailand in the new constitution has been raging lately.

Before this time, Buddhism has not been the official state religion in the constitution, even though perhaps about 90% of Thais are Buddhist and the King is required to be Buddhist in the constitution.

The issue became political last week when Thaksin's satellite TV station rather opportunistically adopted the issue as its own for political purposes.

Perhaps slightly paradoxically, there are good reasons for those who want to see Buddhism thrive in the world not to have it written into the constitution as the state religion.

Relaxing state controls over religion, especially Buddhism, encourages local diversity. At the turn of the century (c. 1900) a lot of diversity in Buddhism in Isan and the north was wiped out by tight government regulation of the Buddhist religion as the above book on forest monks demonstrates.

Furthermore, when Buddhism becomes an appendage of Thai nationalism the future doesn't bode well for Buddhism as a world religion. How can a thinking person accept the universal applicability of a religion that exists in many countries from Burma to Sri Lanka to the west when it is tied to the vagaries of secular national politics in Thailand, something that can change rather rapidly as we've seen recently.

World reknown Thai Buddhist thinkers like Buddadhasa Bhikku and Sulak Sivaraksa (his website) seem to be critical of secular trends of nationalistic influence in Buddhism.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

John Strong on King Ashoka

Collection of readings on King Ashoka

This freely downloadable collection of readings on King Ashoka includes an article written by scholar of Buddhism John Strong entitled: Images of Aśoka: Some Indian and Sri Lankan Legends and their Development that discusses the legends associated with King Ashoka.

John Strong's The Buddha, a biography

John S. Strong. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001. xv + 203 pp. Illustrations, tables, Sanskrit glossary, bibliography, notes, index. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 1-85168-256-2. Reviewed by Jessica Main, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University. Published by H-Buddhism (September, 2003) [Book Review]

The approach of scholar John Strong's biography of the Buddha has broad applicability to pre-modern Southeast Asian history:
Strong begins with a concise description of the history of scholarship on the Buddha’s life that stretches from the late nineteenth century to the present. Then, he contrasts these academic portraits of the Buddha with "tales that have been remembered and revered, repeated and reformulated" (pp. 1-3) by practitioners of Buddhism throughout its history. Avoiding a strictly factual search for the "historical Buddha," Strong provides "a middle way between remythologizing and demythologizing, between myth-making and history-making" (p. 3). He discusses the human, contextual, and rooted parts of the Buddha’s life as well as the supernatural and mythical ones.
First, there are the visits by the Buddha to various localities that you often find in local chronicles (e.g. Tai state of Kengtung, Eastern Shan States). Second, there are the hagiographic accounts of Burmese kings in Burmese chronicles like U Kala's Mahayazawingyi. This includes descriptions of royal coronations (consecration, bhiseka) ceremonies that one finds in chronicle texts and religious inscriptions:
Next, Strong shows how the Buddha’s biography simultaneously reveals and reinforces the wider dimensions of Buddhist artistic production, ritual, doctrine, and history. In a series of brief sections, he describes the reciprocal relations that link the life story of the Buddha, the practice of pilgrimage, and the worship of relics Strong describes the ways in which sacred biography, art, and ritual reinforce each other.
Strong discusses rituals such as the water pouring ritual accompanies many important historical events in the Burmese chronicle such as Bayinnaung's reconquest of Pegu (Hanthawaddy, Hongsa) after the Mon rebellion of 1550 that deposed Tabinshweihti.

Strong also expands the notion of biography "beyond the one-life paradigm,"not unlike Yukio Mishima's trilogy, to previous lifes by including the Jataka tradition.

Tai Lue script manuscript (NIU)

Tai Lue manuscript for reading practice

Just spotted a Tai Lue script manuscript that could be used for reading practice.

Linguist John Hartmann of Northern Illinois University has put it online at his Tai Lue site together with a copy of his dissertation on the Tai Lue language.

I personally have many reasons to delve deeper into the Tai Lue script and language. 1) I've been wanting to have more meaningful conversations with my Ta Lue mother-in-law, 2) We have a lot of Tai Lue rock music videos with Tai Lue subtitles at home (long historical folk ballads too), 3) I also have a Tai Lue historical chronicle I want to read, 4) and a book of witty Tai Lue sayings and folk wisdom.

It appears that one can really kill three birds with one stone by learning how to read Tai Lue. The script is a lot like that of Tai Khuen and Tai Yuan (Lanna). Living in Chiang Rai delving deeper into Tai Yuan texts would be a logical thing to do, also the French scholar Anatole Roger Peltier has deposited a wonderful collection of Tai Khuen manuscripts in the Lanna Room (4th floor) of the Chiang Mai University's central library. My friend Peter Koret has probably delved into these. Must contact him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Upakhut , Upagupta - Saint and Spirit

Wonderful photographs of spirit and saint Upagupta or Upakhut at Australian National University's New Mandala blog which offers a short decription:
Upakhut is an important figure in local belief in many areas of Burma, northern Thailand and Laos. The stories of his origins are numerous. (For those interested, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta by John Strong has a wealth of detail.) In Sanskrit legend he is the son of a perfume maker and one of the early followers of the Buddha. In northern Thailand, many villagers believe that Upakhut is the son of the Buddha himself. Legend has it that he was conceived when a fish ate some of the Buddha’s semen when he washed his robe (or bathed) in a river. Upakhut was born and lives in a grand palace at the bottom of the ocean. One of his key roles is to provide protection on the occasion of major Buddhist festivals (poi luang) when he is taken from the river and installed in a temporary pavilion in the temple grounds.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Inka (pre-modern macro-) Economics

"A Network Analysis of Inka Roads, Administrative Centers, and Storage Facilities," by David Jenkins, University of Arizona, Ethnohistory 48.4 (2001) 655-687: .[Extract at Economist's View]

Been ruminating over this blog entry on macroeconomics in the ancient Incan (Inkan) state from Economist's View blogfor almost a week now.

It's like sitting down all by yourself at a banquet, there's a lot there to digest, so I'm going to digest it in serial blog entry fashion.

One might even argue that serial publishing in blogs could attack a subject in bite size increments better than a full blown paper does, a point pertinent to blogging and scholarship, perhaps.

Extract One:

Staple Finance and Wealth Finance

The Inka in the early fifteenth century were a chiefdom or perhaps an anomalous early state (Bauer 1992) of about twenty thousand people with a fairly simple social organization based on kinship ties and ruling hereditary chiefs. Initially their territory was limited, centered on what would become the city of Cuzco. Over the course of a hundred years, from about 1430 until the Spanish arrived in 1532, the Inka dramatically expanded their empire, incorporating by political maneuvering and outright conquest some eighty distinct polities into the Inka state. These conquered groups included other expansive empires, such as the highly socially stratified Chimu on the north coast, as well as small-scale states, chiefdoms, tribes, and autonomous communities scattered throughout the highlands.1

[This sounds a lot like the expansion of some states, especially the Burmese state, during roughly the same period, actually 1534-1581, versus the Inkan 1430-1532. The phrase "anomalous early state" indicates state-like features may have not been present. Will have to determine exactly what these are, since people have been using the notion of "state" in different ways for hundreds of years, something I address for Southeast Asian history in my recent paper. Of course, Peter Turchin at Cliodynamics has some great papers online that addresses the distinction between expansionary warfare and internal warfare (rebellion, revolt, uprising, insurgency), especially this paper.]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The laws of King Mangrai as myth or history? (Kirsch)

Thomas Kirsch review of: Wichienkeeo, Aroonrut and Gehan Wijeyewardene, translators and editors. The Laws of King Mangrai (Mangrayathammasart). The Wat Chang
Kham, Nan Manuscript from the Richard Davis collection. Canberra: Department of Anthropology, The Australian National University, 1986, in the Asian Folklore Studies, 1987, vol. 46 / 2 (Note: All back issues of this long-running journal appear to be online now)

This book review has a nice parry to a slightly dyspeptic Michael Vickery:
"In addition, the text might be examined for its historical contribution. In this regard, Wijeyewardene supports the caution urged recently by Vickery on the historical value of such documents. Vickery (1979: 170) sees them as a " confused mixture of fact and fancy due to people who were grossly ignorant of the facts of the past." Be that as it may, Vickery's comment suggests another perspective for these texts. If they are mixtures of fact and fancy, they might usefully be viewed from an anthropological framework: as "myth " rather than as "history." The Mangrai code, grounded in the heroic exploits of the founder King and in Buddhist dharma, evokes a Malinowskian " primeval reality " which provides a sanction and charter for the institutions of a dynamic Lanna Thai social order. Viewed as " myth," the text's facticity is irrelevant both from the perspective of the text producer and contemporary analysts. Thus, viewing this volume, we might profit from O'Connor's (1981: 224) suggestion that " law is a culturally constituted mode of analysis that projects an indigenous theory of society." As such, it must be studied symbolically as well as historically."
I would care to differ on one point though. If the text is viewed as myth, i.e. as intellectual history, there is still the issue of what age or era this intellectual history belonged to. Not to ask this question is to presuppose that Lanna's intellectual history was static and unchanging (continuity dominates all change) a big assumption which needs at least to be pulled apart and investigated in further depth. A recent paper by Grabowsky attempts to tackle this sort of intellectual history, when it enumerates and analyses the causes behind the fall of Chiang Mai to the Burmese (c. 1557) given in contemporaneous interpretations of events:
"Which were the deeper causes of Lan Na’s fall that were responsible for the loss of her independence? How far can these causes be dated back? Even the contemporaries gave no rational explanation in a modern sense. They saw first of all that it was the work of the spirits and demons in taking revenge for severe violation of ritual prescriptions (NT: khüt). But economic and ecological reasons were known as well, even if they were mostly mentioned as atypical incidents. A chronicle summarises the complex causes in eleven points ...Seven out of the eleven ... causes are related to violation of ritual regulations, but Cause 4 and Cause 10 cite the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources of the land as the causal factor. The drying up of the Huai Kaeo and other flowing waters hampered the drinking water supply of the town. Moreover, the unscrupulous cutting down of the trees in the forests (deforestation) in areas further away from Chiang Mai city had upset the ecological equilibrium in the plain of the Ping river and, perhaps, also have led to a reduction in rice production." (Grabowksy, 2004, pages 27-29)
The contents of the Lanna law books seems broadly similar to that of Burmese Dhammathats
"The first two sections relate to Mangrai, his accomplishments and the proclamation of his laws, " not contrary to dharma "..., thereby freeing his citizens from previously oppressive rule. ...Broadly, the initial part of the text... seems to be a circumstantial listing of offenses, varying conditions and appropriate punishments, mostly in the vernacular. The final part has a more didactic quality, consisting of parables illustrating pertinent principles and sprinkled with Pali terms."
Not exactly bedtime reading, the most memorable part of my brief perusal of a version of the Mangrai Dhammasat was a long list of different adulterous situations and the legal remedies for each:
"Issues of marriage, separation, divorce, inheritance and sexual behavior seem to be most numerous. Questions of theft, liability and homicide figure prominently. Civic responsibilities, proper official conduct, the status of slaves, ritual offenses, precedence and hierarchy, counterfeiting, trespass and negligence also occur. Fines appear to be the preferred form of punishment though banishment, mutilation and execution are allowed under proper circumstances."
Might be useful comparatively in the writing of social history as scholar of Burmese law Andrew Huxley suggests, particularly of the family:
"Overall, the code evokes an image of a social order grounded in Buddhist principles, hierarchically organized, but composed of individuals responsible for their actions, whose intentions and circumstances must be considered in determining the King's justice. The code is more one of restitution than of repressive sanctions."

Also check out in the same journal Anthony Walker's review of: Premchit, Sommai Amphay Dore. The Lan Na Twelve-Month Traditions. Chiang Mai: Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, 1992.


Grabowsky, Volker (2004). "The Northern Tai Polity of Lan Na (Babai-Dadian). Between the Late 13th to Mid-16th Centuries: Internal Dynamics and Relations with Her Neighbours, Asia Research Institute Working Paper, National University of Singapore, No. 17, January 2004. [Link]

O'Connor, Richard (1981) "Law as indigenous social theory: A Siamese Thai case," American Ethnologist 8: 223-237.

Vickery (1979) "The Lion Prince and related remarks on northern history," Journal of the Siam Society 67: 123-186.

The Northern Group Monthly Talks (Chiang Mai)

The monthly talks help by the Northern Group in Chiang Mai are Chiang Mai's principal intellectual fare. I've only attended one, by Niels Mulder, discoursing on his scandalous and unpublishable life as a young anthropologist in Bangkok during the 1960s.

The talks are held on the second Tuesday of each month at the Alliance Française across the street from the L'Ecole d'Extreme Orient in Chiang Mai. The history of group began way back in 1972 with the short-lived Northern Thai Society modeled along the lines of the Siam Society. The current group began in 1984. There are synopses of the talks in the Meeting Diary. There is a nice summary of the presentation on Champa by Michael Vickery:

"Introduction to the history and significance of Champa"

A talk by Michael Vickery

254th meeting - Tuesday 9th November 2004

Searchable Greek inscriptions library

An searchable online library of inscriptions that might serve as an example in some respects for a library of Burmese inscriptions. Part of the Cornell Greek Epigraphy Project. There are no online translation and glossary though.

AEFEK: Association d'Echanges et de Formation pour les Etudes Khmeres

Site highlights the great amount of research that is currently being written in the French language on Khmer history and culture. Extensive bibliographies and papers freely downloadable. Like most contemporary French work, unique in showing a deep respect and appreciation for the history and traditions of historical research, as opposed to obligatory undiscerning blanket criticism of scientific method and BEFEO research as "Orientalism" [Example]. Such an association for Khmer Studies, which concentrates on Ancient Khmer history rather than contemporary politics, would be nice for Burmese history also.


1. Inventories of Khmer manuscripts in French libraries [Link]

2. Lectures on Angkor and pre-Angkor (c. 1902-1930) [Link]

3. Bulletin de l'AEFEK (since 1999) [Link]

4. A page with biographies of Khmer scholars of Khmer [Link]

5. Links