Beikthano, Vishnu City: An Ancient Pyu Center

By Thaw Kaung

Myanmar Perspectives, Vol:II 6/97

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    Beikthano is the Myanmar word for Vishnu, the Hindu God who manifests himself in a chain of divine incarnations or avatars (i.e. descents into temporal order), the two chief incarnations being Rama, the good king whose deeds are recorded in the Ramayana, and Krishna.Although this ancient site is called Beikthano Myo or Vishnu City, it is not an Indian or Hindu site, but an early Buddhist center built by the Pyu people of Myanmar. The Pyus were a civilized nation from the early years of the Christian era and have left behind many traces of their predominantly Buddhist culture. Throughout the central plain of the Ayeyawady and parts of the Sittaung vally the Pyus established towns and cities, the principle ones being Thayekhittaya (Srikshetra) near pyay (Prome), Beikthano and Halin (near Shwebo) in the north.

    Of these three principle Pyu sites, Beikthano is probably one of the earliest as it flourished from about the first to the fifth century A.D.

How to get there?

    You can easily go to Beikthano by train from Yangon, Mandalay, or Bagan. You should get off at Taungdwingyi Station in Magway Division and take a taxi or a pony cart to the ancient site which is about 12 miles to the west.

    If you are traveling by car or by bus it is on the way to Bagan, can be reached from either Yangon or Mandalay. Although there are no modern hotels in Taungdwingyi, the nearest town, you can stop for the night at comfortable inns and guest houses frequented by local travelers, and also enjoy good Myanmar, Chinese or Indian food with the typical Central Myanmar flavor.

What to see?

    At first sight, for the casual visitor, there does not seem to be much left at Beikthano except the ruined brick structures. For tourists and visitors who are interested in history and archaeology, Beikthano is one of the best examples of early Pyu civilization and well worth visiting.

    No inscriptions or Buddha images have found during excavations in Beikthano, and this points to a very early period in Buddhist culture. The radio-carbon datings confirm this. The early form of Buddhism practiced here had monasteries and stupas, but no images of the Buddha as are to be seen in Thayekhitaya and later in Bagan.

    The first thing that you will notice is the city wall, shaped rather like a rhombus, with each side measuring about two miles. The massive fort walls were much higher during the early years of this century, and were constructed of huge baked bricks. Unscrupulous contractors found a ready source of bricks for building roads and railway tracks during the colonial times, and hence the walls on some sides like that on the west have completely disappeared, due not only to human depredation but also to natural causes. These immense fortifications stood on higher ground, about 330 feet above sea level, and commanded the surrounding fertile plain with its lovely lakes and rivers.

    The northern and southern walls are better preserved. Excavations carried out over 35 years ago, exposed wide gateways which gradually curve inwards, the ramparts on either side extending about 86 feet down an entrance passageway, to enable the soldiers to have complete control over those entering the city. There are also recessed for sentries.

    Inside the ruins of the city, you can now see a large brick structure measuring about 100 feet by 35 feet. Archaeologists think this is an important monastic building as there are eight cells opening onto a long corridor-like hall. The small cells are similar to those found in monastic building of South India, especially among the old Buddhist monasteries of Nagarjunakonda in Andhra State.

    Near the ruins of this monastery is the ruins of a stupa; only the base remains and it is round in shape, with two concentrate retaining walls. This is similar to old Buddhist stupas at Amaravati. There are four cardinal points.

    Another structure excavated seems to be a religious one also, but related to the Pyu burial customs. It was probably a kind of sepulcher, because stretched human skeletons and human bones and burial urns were found all around. U Aung Thaw, the late Director-general of Archaeology who personally carried out the early excavations, surmised that cremated bones were temporarily buried or stored until a sufficient number was accumulated for a ritual secondary burial.

    U Chen Yi-Sein, a former member of the Myanmar Historical Commission, in a recent research paper identified Beikthano as the Lin Ying (Vishnu City) of ancient Chinese records. It was an important trading center on the land-route between India and China, and also with the Pyu and Mon people.

    There is at present no site museum and small Pyu symbolical coins, clay and stone seals with letters in the South Indian Brahmi script found at Beikthano are now on display at the National Museum in Yangon.

The Legend

    Beikthano, to the Myanmar people is a legendary place recorded in our chronicles, a place which has at last been excavated, so that we can visit it to explore the ruins, which our minds conjuring up the rivalry between a beautiful princess and a powerful king, her half-brother.

    The legend begins in Tagaung which is supposed to be the capital of the earliest kings of Myanmar. At one time it was ruled by a powerful Queen whose lover was a fire-breathing Naga serpent who could assume human form. After hero Maung Pauk Kyaing slew the Naga lover and became king, twin sons were born to the Queen. They were both blind, so they were put on a raft and floated down the Ayeyawady River. After an ogre nymph cured their blindness, the younger prince married Baydayi at Pyay and had a son Duttabaung who became a powerful king at Thayekhitaya.

    Duttabaung's father also had a daughter named Panhwar who became a great Queen at Beikthano. Her mother was the ogre-nymph and so she was the half-sister of Duttabaung. The legend records the rivalry between Thayekhitaya and Beikthano and of the fighting that took place. At first the Queen was able to repel all her enemies and forces sent by King Duttabaung with the help of a big magical drum called Atula Sidaw given to the Queen by Sakkra the Lord of the Celestial Beings. Whenever enemies approached Beikthano, the city created according to the legend, by the god Vishnu, the big drum would be sounded making the water of the Yan Pe (Repelling enemies) River to rise rapidly and flood the surrounding plain so that no attacking army could cross it. Duttabaung had to resort to a stratagem to take away the magical powers of the drum before he could capture the city. Queen Panhtwar eventually lost and Duttabaung took her back to Thayekhitaya to be his Queen consort.

   The area all around the ruins, is a lovely countryside where present day Myanmar people live in peaceful villages like Kokko Gwa. The Yan Pe Chaung, a rivulet, is near the village and two lakes Gyo Gya Kan and In Gyi are near the "Palace Site." There is another village called Inywa Gyi near the In Gyi lake. The villagers grow rice and vegetables even as the Pyu people would have done two thousand years ago.

   The celebrated pagoda built by Queen Panhthwar, called Shwe Yaung Daw, is to the north-east of the "Palace Site." This lovely pagoda, in such tranquil surroundings is well-worth visiting. The local villegers, the people of Taungdwingyi and the Sayadaw (Abbot) of the Shwe Yaung Daw monastery have all worked together to renovate and maintain this venerable shrine.

   The Buddha in previous incarnations was reputed to have lived in this area as a White Elephant and also as a White Chicken (Kyet-Phyu-Daw) at different times. The Shwe Yaung Daw pagoda has two elephant statues guarding the northern side, instead of the usual Chinthe, mythical lion figures. You can also see eight white chicken figures on the stupa. They all commemorate the legend. There are also ancient wood carvings of exquisite workmanship.

   The vast cultivated plain, the tranquil villages and beautiful scenery with lakes and rivers surrounding the ancient ruins, testify to the peace-loving nature of the villagers, who will warmly welcome visitors from far and near who come to visit them.