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What Is A Pagan History Essay

Pagan is a historic urban center on the Ayeyarwady River in Burma (now known as Myanmar). The building cycle at Pagan has several noticeable oscillations since the eleventh until the thirteenth century. The generous dedication of resources to the substantial monuments during the early building stages of Pagan indicated a move to consolidate new national, political and religious formations (Hudson, Nyein, & Maung, Asian Perspectives, 2002) . For a brief background on Pagan, it was the power-base of eleventh century warrior-kings whose military commanders became civil administrators, the nobility. By the thirteenth century, its control extended to the borders of modern Myanmar. A key element of life in the kingdom was the overriding desire for salvation through merit (Aung-Thwin, 1985). The physical manifestation of this desire was the construction of monuments decorated with artworks that illustrated the exemplary lives of Buddha (Hudson, 2008). Subsequently, Pagan ceased to be a power center in the early fourteenth century. Today the spatial development of the Pagan area appears to be economically driven, and the religious significance of the historical sites to the local people, through their exclusion from living in the area, has been ignored (Philp & Mercer, 1999). However, the focus of this paper dates back to the many centuries ago of how Pagan influenced the formation of a national, religious as well as political identity on the people in Burma.

The first known non-Burmese kingdoms emerged in the lower Ayeyarwady valley. These kingdoms were strongly influenced by Hindu-Buddhism ideas. It was only subsequently, when a pure Buddhist kingdom was found. Pagan was the capital of the first Burmese kingdom from the 11th – 14th centuries after its first great ruler, King Anawrahta (1044-1077), captured the Mon capital and unified Burma. The rise to predominance of Theravada Buddhism, attributed to Anawratha’s time, then begun. Theravada Buddhism believes in a substantial assemblage of monuments, statues, and ritual items. Thus, Pagan’s mainly brick monuments were erected for the glory of Buddhism and the spiritual advancement of those who sponsored the construction (Hudson, Nyein, & Maung, Asian Perspectives, 2002). With that, Buddhism began to flourish during the Pagan period. During the 11th-13th centuries, the Pagan area consisted of temples intermingled with housing and work places as the people lived within the walled area of the ancient city (Philp & Mercer, 1999). The residences were thus enmeshed in the cultural and built fabric of the landscape and there was no separation between the carrying out of religious duties and rituals, work and society. With Buddhism gradually becoming an integral part of the everyday lives of Burmese people, it was inevitably embraced by the people. In fact, within the 11th century, Theravada Buddhism became the official state religion. By the 13th century, the very proliferation of small monuments across Pagan suggests that the religious merit that accrued from endowing an individual monument, as believed in Theravada Buddhism, represents an increase in participation in monument building at the village level (Hudson, Nyein, & Maung, Asian Perspectives, 2002). Thus, it was with the massive Buddhist culture in Pagan, intertwined with the daily lives of the people that eventually resulted in a unified religious identity in Burma. Even as of today, with a population of around 47 million in Myanmar, a staggering 89% are Buddhists (Philp & Mercer, 1999).

In view of the success Pagan has achieved in making Buddhism a religious identity in Burma, Buddhism was thus further drawn on to instill a national identity. During the Pagan Dynasty, State-sponsored Buddhist missions were made to newly conquered areas in order to assimilate local religious practices to those of Upper Burma, the kingdom of the Burmans (Philp & Mercer, 1999). This attempt to transform a multi-ethnic society into a homogenized nation state has also been carried out in practice with the widespread and systematic persecution of ethnic minority peoples (Smith, 1991). These attacks carried out by predominantly Burmese troops is a consequence of nation-building processes which have sought to supplant complex, fragmented, sometimes over-lapping local identities in favor of a single, undifferentiated national identity. Although to many, nationalism suggests that despite the inequalities that may divide the people in a country, there is a comradeship which unites them across space. However, in Burma, it is believed that a national identity is one which has to be both Burmese and Buddhist. Therefore, Pagan has constituted one of the main tools used to conjure up a collectively held idea of the nation, one in which a Burmese Buddhist identity is affirmed at the expense of both ethnic minority and religious minority groups which inhabit the country (Philp & Mercer, 1999). Hence, Pagan alone has not only brought about a common religious identity to the people in Burma. The national identity of Burma, which is an identity that is not only Burmese, but also Buddhist, has been altered with the influential presence of Pagan.

The third influence Pagan has brought about to the people in Burma would be a change in political culture. More specifically, it was the way the Burmese people allowed themselves and their country to be governed ever since Buddhism began to present its importance in Burma. The cultural sites in Pagan had been appropriated to fulfill the ideological objectives of the ruling kings. The temples and monuments at Pagan, while having a strong religious significance, were also potent symbols of the rule of kings and dynasties, and their iconography underscores a political message from the time of their construction. Buddhism was used to ingratiate itself with its neighbors, particularly those countries in which this religion was widely practiced (Philp & Mercer, 1999). More simply, there was reinforcement in the connection, not only between Buddhism and a national identity, but also between Buddhism and kingship. The king often presented himself as a future Buddha, who would incarnate in this world to help humankind in the quest for salvation (Philp & Mercer, 1999). The king’s royal duty would be to build temples and monuments to the Buddha, in his bid to promote Buddhism. This role associated with kingship was an integral part of explaining the multitude and magnitude of royal monuments in Pagan. The veneration of the Buddha’s relics was used to create, affirm, and legitimate the authority to rule (Philp & Mercer, 1999). For to the people in Burma, a king was only valid of his reign judging by the number, magnificence, splendor and conditions of its temples and monasteries (Spiro, 1982). Therefore, Pagan, which brought about such a strong Buddhist culture in Burma, in turn changed the way Burmese people viewed governance and thus changed the political culture in Burma.

To conclude, the first change that Pagan brought about would definitely be of a change in religious identity. The people in Burma lived, breathed and embraced Buddhism as it was integrated into their everyday lives. However, it was only subsequently, with the success in the spreading of Buddhism, which allowed it to be drawn on to further instill a national identity amongst the Burmese people. This national identity was not only Burmese, but Buddhist as well. Buddhism was also largely used by the people in Burma to judge the eligibility of kings to rule Burma. Vice versa, the kings proved their right to kingship by the number and magnificence of religious monuments and temples that they built. All in all, Pagan has influenced the formation of collective identities in Burma in a whole diverse of ways. Today, Pagan still remains a location with living religious monuments highly venerated and worshipped by Myanmar people, although a large part of it has been developed into a tourism precinct.

(1266 words)

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Figure : A field of Buddhist stupas at Pagan, 2006

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