The First Burmese Empire Pagan was the first established centre of Burma; it was founded in 849 at a strategic location on the banks of the Irrawaddy. It was also close to the mystical Mount Popa, the most significant centre of nat (spirit) worship in Burma, which pre-dated the arrival of Buddhism. in 1044 King Anawrahta seized the throne at Pagan. Twelve years later, he was converted to Theravada Buddhism by Shin Arahan, a missionary-monk from the Mon court at Thaton; he immediately set about building the Shwezigon temple. In 1057 Anawrahta declared war on the Mons to capture the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, which the Mon King Manuba refused to give up. Anawrahta beseiged the Mon capital of Pegu for months until Manuba surrendered and the city was destroyed. Anawrahta returned to Pagan with the Mon royal family, 32 white elephants (each of which was laden with the sacred books of the Tripitaka) and Thaton's remaining 30,000 inhabitants - including craftsmen and builders. The Mon king was dedicated to the Shwezigon as a pagoda slave. But despite their inglorious defeat, the sophisticated Mons proceeded to dominate Pagan's cultural life for the next century - many of the thousands of pagodas at Pagan are Mon in style and the Burmans evolved their script from Mon.
Anawrahta also succeeded in breaking the power of the Shan states. Despite his war-like tendencies, Anawrahta is said to have been a very religious man. He is believed to have dispatched a ship laden with treasure to Bodhgaya in India, where the Buddha gained enlightenment, to pay for the restoration of the Mahabodhi temple. Anawrahta was killed by a wild buffalo in 1077, but by then he had already put in place the foundation of the First Burmese Empire. During his son, King Sawlu's, reign (1077-1084), the kingdom continued to expand. It grew even bigger under King Kyanzittha's reign (1084-1113), when parts of the S Tenasserim region came under the control of Pagan. Kyanziftha began the construction of the Ananda pagoda - the most famous temple on the Pagan Plain. The 12th century was Pagan's Golden Age, when it was known - rather optimistically - as 'the city of 4 million pagodas'. The Pagan civilization is believed to have been supported by rice cultivation, made possible by a highly developed system of irrigation canals.
In 1248 King Narathihapati came to the throne; he is reputed to have been a hedonist who enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. He completed the lavish Mingalazedi pagoda at Pagan in 1274-but appears to have gone bankrupt in the process. Pagan's economy fell apart and no more pagodas were built. In 1287 Kublai Khan led a Mongul invasion which captured the city and brought the First Burmese Empire to an undignified end. The king fled to Bassein earning the title Tarakpyenrin (meaning the 'king who fled from the Chinese'), leaving the Monguis in his beautiful royal capital. The Mongul military campaign against the Burman kingdom of Pagan was recorded in the diary of Venetian merchant Marco Polo when he visited the Imperial Court of China 5 years later. After 5 months exile in Bassein, the Burmese king tried to return to Pagan but made it only as far as Prome, where his eldest son was a governor. He murdered his father by forcing poison down his throat and then battled with his 2 brothers for the throne. He succeeded- but was deposed in 1298, marking the end of the Anawrahta Dynasty.
The kingdom broke into a number of smaller states. From 1298-1364 the Shans established power in Upper Burma, with their capital at Ava (founded 1364/5), near modern Mandalay. From 1364-1554, the Shans dominated the Irrawaddy rice growing area and expanded into what is now Kachin state and along the Chindwin River. The Shans did not manage to amalgamate into a single powerful empire - but remained split into small kingdoms, frequently feuding against one another. Only the W kingdom of Arakan remained completely independent and spread N into Chittagong (in present-day Bangladesh). The Arakanese capital was at Wethali until 1433 when they moved it to Mrauk U (Myohaung).
The Mon kingdom prospered as a trading centre, exporting rice to India and Malaysia. Queen Shinsawbu (1453-1472) raised the height of the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. The queen went so far as to donate her own weight in gold to gild the outside.
The Second Burmese Empire Many Burmans fled S from Shan domination and established a centre around Toungoo and the Burmese and the Shan kingdoms remained in a permanent state.
The kingdom survived, sandwiched between the Shans to the N and the Mons to the S. When King Minkyino came to the throne in 1486 there was a revival of the Burman national spirit and the Toungoo Dynasty was founded. In 1530, the 16-year-old Tabengshweti succeeded his father and decided to re-unite Burma. He captured the Mon port of Bassein in 1535 and then went on to attack Pegu. He stormed the city 3 times, succeeding in 1539. With Bassein and Pegu under his belt, he then captured Prome and was recognized as the undisputed king of Lower Burma.
Meanwhile, to the N, the Shan King of Ava was gaining notoriety for persecuting monks and plundering pagodas. Kings who engaged in such activities never lasted long in Burma, and, sure enough, his actions prompted a conspiracy to overthrow him. When he was successfully ousted, the Shans United and took Prome and then besieged the strongly fortified capital of Arakan, Myohaung. While besieging the city the Shans heard word of a Siamese invasion from the E. The Shans had expanded their empire too quickly and were unable to control such a vast swathe of territory. As the Shan kingdom began to disintegrate, Bayinnaung (Burman King Tabengshweti's son-in-law) inherited the throne in 1550 and re-established Burman control over Lower Burma. He attacked Pegu 3 years later and the Mons fled to Prome; Bayinnaung then targeted Prome and the city was starved into surrender in 1542. Bayinnaung crowned his successes with the capture of Ava in 1555. In doing so, he destroyed the power of the Shan states and laid the foundations of the Second Burmese Empire. But Bayinnaung was not content to stop there and turned his attention to neighbouring Siam. First, he captured Chiang Mai, then set his sights on Ayutthaya. The King of Ayutthaya was known to have 4 white elephants which Bayinnaung coveted - white elephants had great religious significance as they were (and are) believed to symbolize an earlier incarnation of the Buddha. On the pretext of a manufactured border dispute, King Bayinnaung launched a successful attack on the Siamese capital in 1564.
The Siamese king, queen and youngest son were taken prisoner and the heir to the throne was left to govern as a tributary king. In Burma, the deposed king of Ayutthaya became a monk and his younger son died. King Bayinnaung, in a compassionate moment, then allowed his widow and children to return home to Ayutthaya - a move which proved to be a tactical error as their return prompted the tributary king to re-assert his independence. Bayinnaung was furious and launched a fresh Burmese invasion of Siam. He left with 200,000 troops, many of whom died during the subsequent 7-month siege of Ayutthaya. The Burmese finally captured the city however and the belligerent King Bayinnaung went on to attack Vientiane in Laos (see page 686). But King Razagyri of Arakan took advantage of the depleted Burman army and attacked Toungoo, taking the white elephants as booty. From then on the King of Arakan had the title 'Lord of the White Elephant'.
For all his warmongering, Bayinnaung seems to have been a model Buddhist: he forbade the sacrificing of slaves, horses and elephants and sent brooms of his own hair (and that of his wives) to sweep the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Ceylon. He eventually died in 1581, apparently leaving 97 children, and was succeeded by the eldest, Nandanaung, who ruled from 1581-1599. King Nandanaung did not have his father's force of character, military skills or administrative ability. In 18 years, he lost nearly everything his father had fought for and the empire broke up again due to internal feuding. In 1636 the capital was moved to Ava, but by then the empire was in decline. While it was disintegrating, the Mons were once again becoming increasingly assertive; they re-established their kingdom in the S, with Pegu as the capital. Avawas recaptured by the Mons in 1752, with the help of French arms. The king was taken captive back to Pegu and the Second Burmese Empire floundered as the toungoo Dynasty dissolved. The Mons then shifted their capital back to Ava.