Beikthano (Vishnu)

An Ancient Center of the Pyu People of Myanmar

Beikthano transliterated from “Vishnu” the Preserver. the second of the Hindu triad. is the oldest of the 3 ancient Centres of Pyu Civilization.

Chronologically Beikthano flourished during the 1st to 5th centuries CE. the second being Thayekhittayar (Srikestra) now called Hmawzar which lasted from the 5th Century to the 7th Centugy. Hanlin. the last Pyu Kingdom was located farther north in the Shwebo District of Sagaing Division and was most probably the Pyu Kingdom that the Chinese chroniclers described in their dealings with the “Piao” and records of delegations from the Pyu kingdom to the Chinese court in 801-802. At any rate. Halin was sacked and burned in 832 by the Nanchao Kingdom from the north.

Beikthano city is located 12 miles west of Taungdwingyi Township. Magway Division on the Taungdwingyi-Magway Highway. Its co-ordinates are latitude (20°) North and (95° / 23’) East and is built on ground 450 feet above sea level. The ancient city of Beikthano covered an area of 3.3 square miles. The eastern city wall was 10.000 feet in length. the northern wall was 9.000 feet. the southern wall was 8.000 feet. while the western wall has collapsed owing to soil erosion caused by the action of the Yanpè Creek.

Beikthano was defended by two walls. a City wall and an inner Palace Wall. Both of these walls were more circular (or rather rhomboid) than square in shape.Huge. specially shaped bricks had to be baked to be fitted as proper corner stones for these walls. Neither the City walls nor the Palace Walls were defended by moats. The majority of the Pyu citizenry lived outside the city walls or in the surrounding countryside.

They were content to live in houses made of wood and bamboo but insisted on their monasteries being built of wood and brick and their city and Palace also achieving corresponding grandeur. An account of Beikthano was recorded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese chronicle Man Shu in the chapter “The Southern Barbarians as follows:

“The circular wall of his (the Pyu King’s) city is built of greenish glazed titles (brick) and is 160 li. It has 12 gates and three pagodas at each four corners. . . Their house tiles are of lead and zinc. . . They have a hundred monasteries with bricks of vitreous ware. embellished with gold and silver. vermillion. gray colours and red kino.” [Taw Sein Kho (1895). The Pottery and Glasware of Burma 1894-95”.Superintendent of Govt.Printing. Rangoon.]

The usual dates ascribed to the Beikthano kingdom are from the 1st Century CE to the 5th Century CE when the city gates and the Palace Walls were burned to the ground.

Charcoal from the excavated sites have been radio carbon-dated to the 1st century C.E. Conflicting scientific evidence however emerged at the 5th Radio Dating Conference (1962) of the International Dating Conference. Cambridge University. U.K.. where the decay of Radio carbon (14) from samples from Beikthano indicate that they should be more properly dated to 1950 B.C.E.. i.e. to nearly 2000 years earlier than the First Century C.E. The charcoal samples for these analyses were taken from the two lowest strata of a religious edifice unearthed at site No.(9) as well as charcoal from the two bottom strata at site No.(10).

Religious Beliefs

One mystery surrounding Pyu religious beliefs is that although they built hundreds of monasteries and were Buddhist attested by contemporary Chinese chronicles. there is a surprising dearth of Buddhist artifacts in all three Pyu Kingdoms.

This has led to conjectures that the Pyu received their Buddhism from Andra Pradesh in Southern India. The excavations have uncovered artifacts that are related to those found in Andra Pradesh. with dates corresponding to the periods in which most of the Andra Buddhist material at Amaravati and Nagarjunakone was made ( i.e. during the second to fourth centuries.)

As Prof. R.L.Brown. Professor of Indian and Southeast Asian Art History at the University of California at Los Angeles succinctly puts it:

“Another problem is that no Buddhist artefacts have been found at Beikthano. One suggestion is that this mysterious absence is due to Andran Buddhist influence predating the adoption of iconic representations of the Buddha and thus represents the aniconic period at Amaravati (before the end of the second century.)[ Brown. R.L. Pyu Art. Looking East and West”]. U Aung Thaw offers a similar suggestion that the Buddhist sect at Beikthano rejected the worship of the Buddha image. [U Aung Thaw. Reports on the Excavations at Beikthano. Rangoon. 1968. p.66]

Hanlin in Upper Myanmar resembles the two other Pyu sites in having no Buddhist artefacts either.

Pyu Culture

Beikthano city and its environs reflect the culture of the Pyus. The populace cremated their dead and buried the ash in funeral urns or jars outside or even within their dwellings.

They appear to have gained considerable expertise in the making of burial urns. Over 700 such urns have been uncovered together with 45 intact covers and show the influence of many decorative styles.

They were also accomplished masons. being able to construct brick walls and edifices that have lasted to the present day. The insides of some buildings have been artistically decorated with stucco figurines. lime-wash and paintings.

The craft of blacksmithing seems to have been also developed as evidenced by the iron-work on the City Gates. hinges and decorative scroll work and the production of iron weapons such as swords. spear-heads. arrow-heads and bows.

The Pyus also seem to have been adept at pottery making. judging from the 2060 pots and jars uncovered comprising pots for water carrying. jars for water storage. and cooking pots.

The gate to the city wall at dig No.8 has also revealed a twice life-sized marble figure presumed to represent a Nat (Animistic) Spirit Guardian of the City indicating that Pyus were also accomplished sculptors in marble.

A small paper-thin exquisite gold cup and two similar silver cups that have been excavated bear witness that goldsmithy and silversmithy too were well developed among the Pyus.

Skeletal Remains

When one of the religious edifices (Dig. No. 14) was excavated a stretched out skeleton near the south wall was uncovered. Along the north wall were lined up two piles of human bones. The outstretched skeleton remains were carefully marked. labeled and shipped to Prof. Dr. H. Zaw Htun of the Faculty of Anatomy. Institute of Medicine. Yangon for scientific examination.

Dr. Zaw Htun’s findings indicated that the remains were of a healthy Mongolian male. 25 years old and 5’ 5” tall. The cause of death was due to a heavy blow delivered to the right temple.

Beads

A total of 780 beads. comprising large numbers of earthenware beads and (29) stone beads were recovered from the excavations. At building No. (17) alone 500 beads were found and possibly indicates that the building was some sort of bead factory. Some of the stone beads were coloured either red or yellow or black. The art of colouring stone beads seems to have reached an unprecedented high during the Pyu period.

Conclusion

Beikthano was destroyed in the 4th or 5th Century C.E. Buildings and city gates were consumed by fire. indicating that it was the result of enemy attack. After a short period as a ruined city. it was rebuilt again as a succeeding kingdom. only to be sacked again and burnt to the ground. However the Pyu people continued to occupy the surrounding countryside in spite their no longer having city-walls and a Palace to protect them. The next Pyu kingdom was established down-river at Thayekhittara (Sri Kshestra). 5 miles west of Pyay that grew to prominence during the 4th and 5th Centuries CE.

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