Beikthano or ‘Vishnu City’ – Myanmar’s Most Ancient Urban Center – Burma’s Vaishnava Foundations

Original Source Airavat on Google Pages no longer available. This a combination of my research along with other sources. I actually worked on this months ago forgot it in the drafts. Though it is incomplete I feel it important to share at this time. I apologise for any errors.

Lakshmi at center and Vishnu on the right. Interior Sculptures – Shittaung Paya (en:Shite-thaung Temple) – Mrauk U (Myuhaung) – Arakan State – Myanmar (Burma). Photo by Adam Jones. NOTE; In Vietnam, very late and false claims identify obvious Shiva Linga worship as being the worship of a former Champa King. This same process of usurpation and erasure of Vedic history is found in Burma as well. Thus the above obvious Lakshmi Narayana sculpture is claimed to be a depiction of a former Burmese King. For centuries Theravadin extremists have attempted to erase Myanmar’s Vedic Vaishnava past. This effort rages on today.

The earliest human settlements in ancient Myanmar were along the coastline, in the fertile plain along the Irrawady River, and probably in the remote mountain ranges. As per local chronicles the first historic kingdom was established by Hindu immigrants, led by Prince Abhiraja of the Sakya warrior clan that ruled Kapilvastu. He founded the city of Sankissa (modern Tagaung), and also conquered the Arakan region.

The Mon people living in the coastal districts have a tradition that Hindus from southern India, specifically from the lower courses of the Krishna and Godavari Rivers, crossed the sea in ancient times and settled on the Irrawady delta. Their culture and language migled with those of the Mon.

The Thirty Seven Nats – Thurathadi (Saraswati), Sandi (Chandi), Paramethwa (Shiva), Mahapeinne (Ganesha), Beikthano (Vishnu) in Burmese representation. 1906 painting

Indigenous Burmese word ‘Nat’ is mistranslated as ‘spirit’. It is in fact the Sanskrit ‘Natha’ meaning ‘Lord’. This is a self-evident fact confirmed by the name of Bagan, Burma’s oldest sole remaining Vedic Temple, Nathlaung Kyaung. Modern translations such as, ‘shrine confining the spirits’ reflect Theravadin Buddhist hegemonic policies that attempted to weaken and erase rival ‘devotional’ religious traditions. The impact of atheistic doctrines are at times subtle. Yet when investigated, they reveal an outlook cold and stark. Thus we see today ‘Nat’ is translated as ‘spirit’ yet the original word Natha, often translated as ‘Lord’, in fact comes from ‘nathate’ “he helps, protects,” from the Proto-Indo-European root *nā- “to help.” Original religion is based upon such divine help, love and affection – the full emotional involvement of the Soul with the Supersoul.

According to the traditional history of Arakan, the first king of the province came from Benares on the Holy Ganga in India.

The discovery of stones inscribed with the ancient Indian Brahmi alphabet, used in the records of the Maurya Empire (326-185 BCE), prove that these traditional accounts have a basis in fact. Archaeological remains prove that the Sanskrit and Pali languages of India’s Vedic Civilization were cultivated in Myanmar, and that its people had adopted the Brahmanical and Buddhist religions then prevailing in India. Moreover the rulers of different kingdoms in Myanmar all had Sanskrit names.

Vishnu (Beikthano in Burmese) on his Eagle mount, Garuda, in a traditional Burmese depiction

Historic Kingdoms

Bagan, Myanmar ( Burma) Nathlaung Kyaung Vishnu Temple allegedly built by King Taungthugyi (r. 931-964 AD) yet dated earlier by some scholars. Nathlaung Kyaung Temple is the only remaining Hindu temple in Bagan and the most ancient Temple of any kind in Bagan. The structures of the original temple have disappeared, although the main hall remains. Originally, the temple contained statues of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu, including Gautama Buddha; however, today, only seven remain. The brick temple was isolated and unrepaired for many years, damaged by earthquakes.
The temple is set on a square template with steep-rising upper terraces. It may have been built by Indian artisans brought into Bagan (Pagan), during the 10th century AD, to work on it and other temples. As the oldest temple in Bagan, its style influenced and inspired the numerous other Buddhist structures that followed.

At the time of the Buddha, a Kshatriya clan form North India ruled upper Myanmar for 16 generations. Later this kingdom was lost and the clan founded a new state in lower Myanmar, with Sri-Kshetra (modern Prome) as capital. Here they merged into the original inhabitants, the Pyu people. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang who visited India in the 7th century CE mentions this kingdom of Sri-Kshetra in his book. A Sanskrit inscription on the pedestal of a Buddha image bears the local ruler’s name: Jayachandra-varman.

Beikthano, named after Lord Vishnu, is the oldest urban site so far discovered in Myanmar/Burma. It’s remains—the structures, pottery, artefacts, and human skeletons—date from 200 BCE to 100 CE. Vishnu city was the first capital of a culturally and politically uniform state in the history of Burma and it was a Vaishnava based Civilization

Hiuen Tsang mentions another kingdom to the south of Sri-Kshetra called Dvaravati. This was ruled by the Hinduised Mon people. The Mons also inhabited the coastal regions of lower Myanmar, which were known as Ramannadesa.

As per epigraphic records a Hindu dynasty called Sri-Dharmarajaniya-Vamsa ruled in Arakan between 600-1000 CE. Coins found in the region have the names of rulers like Dharma Chandra, Niti Chandra and Vira Chandra. The capital of this kingdom was Vaisali whose ruins (modern Vethali) are found near Mrohaung.

The greatest of all these historic states was the Pyu Kingdom of Sri-Kshetra. It had 9 fortified garrison towns, while the capital Sri-Kshetra was over 40 km in circumference. It was protected by a moat and a wall built of glazed bricks, which had 12 gates and towers at the four corners. Within the city lived thousands of families, with over a 100 Buddhist monasteries, and an opulent royal court awash with gold and silver.

Lord Vishnu Carving at Myanmar’s Ancient Nat-Hlaung Kyaung Vishnu temple. It is one of the oldest temples in Bagan at dated 11th Cent AD but it’s original foundations are much more ancient

The significant absence of Buddhist statuary and relics of Pyu inscriptions fixes Beikthano (Vishnu) culture at an earliest stage of Pyu chronology. Clearly the city named after Vishnu was founded by Vaishnavas – Followers of Vishnu. As an Avatar of Vishnu, Buddhism developed as a new Dharmic Flowering within the same Culture Milieu

On the east of the Pyu Kingdom lay the Thai Kingdom of Nan-Chao—its rulers claimed descent from Ashok of the Maurya Empire and its Sanskrit name was Gandhara. In 754 CE the Thai king defeated the Chinese and invaded Sri-Kshetra, receiving the submission of the Pyus. A branch of the Thais, the Shan, settled in upper Mynamar and gave their name to the region. Again in 832 CE the Thais invaded, this time entering the capital city, plundering its wealth and taking 3000 prisoners.

But the Pyu Kingdom survived this blow. A new capital was established at Arimardanpura (Pagan) in 849 CE, which continued till the 11th century. By this time a new power was making its presence felt in Myanmar.

The Myamma People

The Myamma (modern Bamar)trace their original home to Tibet and, passing through India, reached the forested regions of Myanmar at a remote period. Their being no substantial local population, the Myamma multiplied rapidly and probably also recieved a small infusion of Indian immigrants into this mass.

Front view of Lakshmi Narayana Sculpture from Shittaung Paya Temple, Myanmar

The Myamma were tough and warlike, when compared to the Pyus or Mons, and the decline of the Pyu Kingdom was their opportunity. They established their own rule over Pagan—in 1044 CE Aniruddha, the greatest ruler of Myanmar, ascended the throne. He conquered and annexed the Mon Kingdom, in the process embracing the Hinduised Mon culture, adopting the Mon religion (Theravada Buddhism) and scripture, and adopting the Mon script for writing. Aniruddha’s conquests covered the whole country, including parts of Arakan. Even the proud Shan princes had to submit to Aniruddha.

The earliest forms of Sri Lankan Indigenous Helabasa that survives today is spoken by the ‘Veddha’ Hela people. It is said in the oral tradition that the Buddha spoke Helabasa on his three separate visits to the Island. A written record of Buddha’s first discourse to the Hela in the original Helabasa text was found recently and has subsequently been published. Although some may argue otherwise, it is inconceivable to think that the Buddha would speak any other language when he specifically instructed the Dhammadutha (‘missionary’) sages to impart the Dhamma (i.e. the teachings of the Buddha) in the mother tongue of the people so they may absorb the Dhamma in its entirety. Around the 5th century AD, a group of Buddhist monks whose intentions were to re-introduce Buddhism to the birth place of the Buddha in India (which by this time had declined) decided to translate all the old Helabasa Dhamma text into Pali (the language of the Buddha’s birth place). It is said in the oral tradition that after everything was translated into Pali; the original Helabasa texts were heaped into a pile ‘seven elephants high’ and burnt. From this point onwards, Buddhism had to be taught in the Pali language. The Hela who knew nothing of Pali were now unable to make use of all the wisdom of Buddhism. This misguided act of burning texts was a great injustice to the Hela and a gross insult to the Buddha and his teachings.” This was most likely the era when the original Buddhism of Lord Buddha was replaced by the ‘Atheistic’ doctrines of ‘Theravada’ Buddhism. The very act of ‘book burning’ is a clear indication of the mindset involved. It is based upon the denial of truth and ignores the spirit at the heart of the original template of religion.

His son Tribhuvanaditya-dharmaraja (1084 CE) built the famous Ananda temple, inspired by the designs of contemporary Indian temples. He also sent funds for the repair of Bodh Gaya in Bihar, and married a Chola princess. South Arakan acknowledged his supremacy. His grandson was married to an Indian princess from Pattikhera (Tripura).

Internal dissensions and intrigues plagued the ruling family for the next few generations. At this time a new danger was looming on the horizon. In 1254 CE Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China, conquered the Thai Kingdom of Gandhara (Nan-Chao) and scattered the Thai people—branches entering the Shan region and others going south into Siam (modern Thailand).

In 1271 CE Kublai demanded the submission of Myanmar. The latter retaliated by boldly sending an army into the borderland, which was defeated. Revolts broke out across the country, and the king was murdered, but the knockout blow was delivered by the Mongols. Kublai Khan’s grandson marched into Pagan and completely destroyed it. The Mongols though did not stay to rule the country, which entered a phase of political disintegration and cultural decay for the next three centuries.

Modern and ancient names

The name Burma, familiar to people from the colonial period, was a corruption of Brahma (Bramma) and was initially believed by philologists to be derived from the Vedic God of that name. Given the Indian influence on South-East Asia in those times this appeared logical.

But from inscriptions it becomes apparent that it was the tribal name Myamma, which was Sanskritized to Mramma, and later became Brahma or Bramma. This is because of the adoption of the Sanskrit and Pali languages by the various peoples of Myanmar in ancient times.

This name Bramma was later anglicised to Burma, and continued through the colonial and post-colonial periods till it was changed to Myanmar. This change harks back to the glorious period of Myamma rule and the political unification of the country. And since the Myamma tolerated and openly embraced the cultures of the various peoples of the country, it’s fitting to revert to the old name for the country.