10. Influence of Theravada Buddhism on Bagan literature

A multitude of epigraphs on different materials it Bagan around and beyond it proves that Bagan period was highly literate and highly educated. Inscriptions on stone metallic plates silver, gold, bronze, brass, lead, alloys, inscriptions on palm leaf, ink writing on folding papers (parabike) and walls of religious buildings run into several thousands.


The black scroll folded fanwise is called Parabike in old Myanmar and it was in use six hundred years ago or even earlier.

Soapstone (ကန့်ကူဆံ) is used to write white words on its black surface. It is handmade bamboo paper which is blackened by soot and rice glue.
Parabike long scrolls of paper folded fanwise in book albums is usually of paper.
Parabikes made of gold, silver, copper, brass and leather are often-mentioned in Myanmar literature.

For enshrinement in pagoda, metal Parabikes are used. Paper Parabikes are the most common. Paper is manufactured from wood pulp or bamboo pulp or rice-straw.
The wood pulp used in Myanmar proper is of the bark of a tree.

The white Parabike which is rarer than the black, is used for illustrations. The paper is easily destroyed in humid weather and they nearly survived after half a century.

Waithanthayar (Vessantarā)
In this parabike, the story of Vessantarā is illustrated. They are from the donation of white elephant to the donation of his son and daughter to a Brahmim Suzaka (Jūjakā).
Life of Buddha
The pictures of bathing in the mingalar lake, resting on the stone mat, informing the birth of son Yahula, to prince Siddhattha from Royal palace are also drawn.
Thingyan festival
The Tagu Thingyan festival, depicted in a Burmese manuscript, 19th century. (Source: British Library)
Paying homage to the king
Paying homage to the king on the New Year Day. (Source: British Library)

Six volumes of elephant size compiled by Archaeology Department entitled “Epigraphia Birmanica ” in the early decades of the 20th century could cover only the early period of Bagan. Professor G.H.Luce and his associate Professor U Pe Maung Tin the two lifelong scholars of Bagan history never finished their study and research on Bagan. A magnum opus. (a great work) produced by Luce is a set of three volumes named ‘Old Burma Early Bagan’ they are elephant size books one contains his writings, one contains illustrations and one explanations and indexes. The three must be read together. Before Luce died at old age, he is said to have told his associates that he would wish and pray to be reborn human in Myanmar to resume and complete his unfinished study and research of Bagan.



About U Pe Maung Tin and G H Luce

U Pe Maung Tin grew up as a Christian, but mastered Pali, the language of Buddhism, early in his career. This led him to become one of the world’s leading translators of Pali texts into English and interpreter of Buddhist doctrine to Western scholars.

He was close friends with professors J S Furnivall of the BRS and Gordon H Luce, who married his sister Daw Tee Tee in 1915.

Gordon Hannington Luce was a colonial scholar in Burma. In 1912 Luce was appointed Lecturer in English Literature at Government College, Rangoon, later a constituent college of the University of Rangoon. There he developed a lasting friendship with the young Pali scholar Pe Maung Tin. In 1915, he married Pe Maung Tin’s sister Ma Tee Tee.

His three volume Old Burma – early Pagan, covers the history, art and architecture of Burma and its capital city Pagan in the 11th and 12th centuries. Phases of pre-Pagan Burma, on the earlier history of Burma, appeared posthumously. His writings remain authoritative today and are widely cited.


Buddhist philosophical words and terms in Pali are found in epigraphs especially in stone inscriptions. The awareness of ” Impermanence” (အနိစ္စ ) and prayer for attaining ” Nivarna” (နိဗ္ဗာန်)as well as prayer for Buddhahood are often expressed in dedicatory records on stone slabs set up by the donors near the religious buildings and other works of public welfare they donated. –

In the reign of King Naratheinkha [A.D. 1170-73] there was a prominent Minister named Anantasuriya. His death song reflects how well understood the tenets of Buddhism were by the literate people of Bagan. The following is an English translation of his death song:

1. When one attains prosperity
Another is sure to perish
It is the Law of Nature
သူတည်းတစ်ယောက်
ကောင်းဘို့ရောက်မူ
သူတစ်ယောက်မှာ
ပျက်လင့်ကာသာ
ဓမ္မတာတည်း
2. Happiness of life as King,
Having a golden palace to dwell in
Court life, with an host of Ministers
about one
Enjoyment Shadow peace,
No break to felicity –
Is but a bubble mounting
for a moment to the surface of ocean.
ရွှေအိမ်နန်းနှင့်၊
ကြငှန်းလည်းခံ၊
မတ်ပေါင်းရံလျက်၊
ပျော်စံရိပ်ငြိမ်၊
စည်းစိမ်မကွာ၊
မင်းချမ်းသာကား၊
သမုဒ္ဒရာ၊
ရေမျက်နှာထက်၊
ခဏတက်သည့် ရေပွက်ပမာ
တသက်လျာတည့်။
3. Though he kill me not,
But in mercy and pity release me,
I shall not escape my Karma
Man’s stark-seeming body
Lasted not ever,
Verily it is the nature of every
Living thing to decay.
ကြင်နာသနား၊
ငါ့အားမသတ်၊
ယခုလွှတ်လည်း၊
မလွတ်ကြမ္မာ၊
လူတကာတို့၊
ခန္ဓာခိုင်ကျည်၊
အတည်မမြဲ၊
ဖောက်လွဲတတ်သည်
မချွတ်စသာ−သတ္တဝါတည်း။
4. Thy slave, I beg
But to bow down in homage
and adore thee!
In the Wheel of Samsara
My past deeds offer me vantage,
I seek not for vengeance
Nay, Master, mine awe of thee is too strong
If I might, yet I would not touch thee
I would let thee pass without scathe
The blood is transitory, as all
the elements of my body.”
ရှိခိုးကော်ရော်၊
ပူဇော်အကျွန်၊
ပန်ခဲ့တုံ၏၊
ခိုက်ကြုံ ဝိပါက်၊
သံသာစက်၌၊
ကြိုက်လတ်တွန်မူ၊
တုံ့မယူလို၊
ကြည်ညိုစိတ်သန်၊
သခင်မွန်ကို
ချန်ဘိစင်စစ်၊
အပြစ်မဲ့ရေး၊
ခွင့်လျှင်ပေးသည်၊
သွေးသည်အနိစ္စာ၊
ငါ့ခန္ဓာတည့်။

Translated into English blank verse by G. H. Luce


1.Yes, he is one who, wealth attained,
Shall pass away and disappear;
‘Tis, Nature’s Law.
သူတည်းတစ်ယောက်
ကောင်းဘို့ရောက်မူ
သူတစ်ယောက်မှာ
ပျက်လင့်ကာသာ
ဓမ္မတာတည်း
2. Within his golden palace hall,
Surrounded by his lords in state,
He sits serene.
But king’s delights, eddies small
On ocean’s face a moment seen,
Are but for life.
 
ရွှေအိမ်နန်းနှင့်၊
ကြငှန်းလည်းခံ၊
မတ်ပေါင်းရံလျက်၊
ပျော်စံရိပ်ငြိမ်၊
စည်းစိမ်မကွာ၊
မင်းချမ်းသာကား၊
သမုဒ္ဒရာ၊
ရေမျက်နှာထက်၊
ခဏတက်သည့် ရေပွက်ပမာ
တသက်လျာတည့်။
3. Should he show pity, and not slay,
But set me free, my liberty,
Is Karma’s work.
Of mortals here the elements
Last not, but change and fall away;
It is the Law.
ကြင်နာသနား၊
ငါ့အားမသတ်၊
ယခုလွှတ်လည်း၊
မလွတ်ကြမ္မာ၊
လူတကာတို့၊
ခန္ဓာခိုင်ကျည်၊
အတည်မမြဲ၊
ဖောက်လွဲတတ်သည်
မချွတ်စသာ−သတ္တဝါတည်း။
4. The sure result of supplicant acts
Or prayers, I wish not to transfer
To future lives:
T’ escape this fate, past sins’ result,
Is my desire. Calmly I’ll wait.
My heart is firm.
Thee, gentle lord, I blameless hold,
Freely to thee, I pardon give,
‘Tis not thy deed.
Danger and death are constant foes
And in this world must ever be:
It is the Law.
ရှိခိုးကော်ရော်၊
ပူဇော်အကျွန်၊
ပန်ခဲ့တုံ၏၊
ခိုက်ကြုံ ဝိပါက်၊
သံသာစက်၌၊
ကြိုက်လတ်တွန်မူ၊
တုံ့မယူလို၊
ကြည်ညိုစိတ်သန်၊
သခင်မွန်ကို
ချန်ဘိစင်စစ်၊
အပြစ်မဲ့ရေး၊
ခွင့်လျှင်ပေးသည်၊
သွေးသည်အနိစ္စာ၊
ငါ့ခန္ဓာတည့်။

Translated by R. F. Andrew St. John


Background history of the death song

Anantasuriya, was a wise and learned knight-cum-minister who served under two king brothers. The elder brother king who took by force the wife of younger brother in the latter’s absence. The younger brother knowing the crime of sexual misconduct committed by his elder brother slew the latter and he has ceded the throne. He mistakenly suspected that Anantasuriya was involved in that crime by not preventing it. So he ordered Anantasuriya to be executed. Anantasuriya composed the above death song extempore just at the moment he was about to die at the hands of the executioners.

When the King received his death song inscribed on a palm leaf and read it, he gave order to set Anantasuriya free. But it was too late. Anantasuriya was already done to death. The King fell into deep remorse. He told his ministers that in future death penalty should not be carried out immediately but it should be delayed at least one week.

Story of two King brothers and Queen Weluwaddy

Weluwaddy (Burmese: ဝေဠုဝတီ) was a chief queen consort of King Sithu II of the Pagan Dynasty. According to the royal chronicles, Sithu II overthrew his brother King Naratheinkha after his brother seized his wife Weluwaddy in 1174.

According to the chronicles, the future queen was born inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant in the forest of Myinsaing. She was found by a commoner family, and grew up to be a great beauty.

When King Naratheinkha came to power in 1171, the chief of Myinsaing sent her as part of his tribute to the new king. At the palace in Bagan, the king was not impressed by the country girl before him. He is said to have particularly disliked her ears, deeming them too large. He passed, and gave her to his younger brother Crown Prince Narapati who made her a junior wife.

Chronicles say that the former country girl blossomed into a sophisticated beauty in the next few years. The king’s mother had the girl’s ears surgically reduced, and personally taught her court etiquette.

She was finally noticed by the king himself one day when she accompanied the queen mother to a party at the palace. There, the king was taken by her beauty, and now coveted his brother’s wife. Naratheinkha’s attempt to seize her in the next few months would alter the course of history.

The king hastily came up with a scheme: He had a minister falsely report a rebellion in the extreme north of the kingdom at Ngasaunggyan (present-day Dehong, Yunnan), and ordered his brother, commander-in-chief of the royal army, to march there. As ordered, Narapati left with the army. When the army reached Thissein (modern Shwebo District), about 210 km north of Pagan, Naratheinkha raised his sister-in-law to queen. But the news reached Thissein within a few days as a cavalry officer loyal to the crown prince came up to deliver the news. Narapati turned around, and sent an elite company of 80 troops led by Commander Aung Zwa with the order to assassinate the king.


To a non-Buddhist the above death song of Anantasuriya may sound like the bewailing of a desperate fatalist who was resigned to death. But for Myanmar Buddhists it epitomizes the Law of Impermanence.

One famous English poet named J. Shirley also composed a verse in similar vein. It is entitled “Death the leveler”. For comparative study it is reproduced as follows.

Death the Leveler
  1. The glories of our blood and state

Are shadows, not substantial things;

There is no armour against fate;

Death lays his icy hand on kings;

Scepter and Crown

Must tumble down.

And in the dust be equal made,

With the poor crooked scythe and spade. 

  1. Some men with swords may reap the field,

And plant fresh laurels where they kill;

But their strong nerves at last must yield:

They tame but one another still:   

Early or late

They stoop to fate.

And must give up their murmuring breath

When the pale captives creep to death.

  1. The garlands wither on your brow;  

Then boast no more your mighty deeds;  

Upon Death’s purple altar now

See, where the victor-victim bleeds:

Your heads must come

To the cold tomb; only the actions of the just.

 Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.

It is interesting to note that though Anantasuriya and J-Shirley differed vastly in terms of time, place and circumstances as well as in race, religion and culture the two showed common philosophies on life law of Impermanence.

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4 thoughts on “10. Influence of Theravada Buddhism on Bagan literature

  1. At the above, it described Bagan period was highly literate. so What kind of literature and language were used in Bagan at the very beginning period of Bagan Dynasty and especially before Theravada Buddhism arrived?

    1. According to scholars that Pyu and Mon languages were using before the Bagan period. If you want to know detail about them you should go to National Museum at Yangon.

      The Burmese Epigraphy and Calligraphy hall on the ground floor contains exhibits on the origins and development of Burmese script/alphabet throughout history, as well as exhibits on other ancient and ethnic scripts.

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