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.