Today is the birthday (1516) of Bayinnaung Kyawhtin Nawrahta (ဘုရင့်နောင် ကျော်ထင်နော်ရထာ) king of the Toungoo Dynasty of Burma (Myanmar) from 1550 to 1581. During his 31-year reign, which has been called the “greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma,” Bayinnaung assembled what was probably the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia, which included much of modern-day Myanmar, the Chinese Shan states, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Manipur and Thailand. Bayinnaung was born Ye Htut to Mingyi Swe and Shin Myo Myat. His exact ancestry is unclear. No extant contemporary records, including Hanthawaddy Hsinbyushin Ayedawbon, the extensive chronicle of the king’s reign written two years before his death, mention his ancestry. In 1724, almost a century and a half after his death, Maha Yazawin, the official chronicle of the Toungoo Dynasty, first proclaimed his genealogy. According to Maha Yazawin, he was born to a noble family in Toungoo (Taungoo), then a former vassal state of the Ava Kingdom. Despite the official version of royal descent, oral traditions speak of a less grandiose genealogy, saying that his parents were commoners from Ngathayauk in Pagan district or Htihlaing village in Toungoo district, and that his father was a toddy palm tree climber, then one of the lowest professions in Burmese society. The commoner origin narrative first gained prominence in the early 20th century during the British colonial period as nationalist writers, such as Po Kya, promoted it as proof that even a son of a toddy tree climber could rise to become the great emperor in Burmese society. All history serves the purposes of the historian.
Although he is best remembered for his empire building, Bayinnaung’s greatest legacy was his integration of the Shan states into the Irrawaddy-valley-based kingdoms. After the conquest of the Shan states in 1557–1563, Bayinnaung put in an administrative system that reduced the power of hereditary Shan saophas (hereditary rulers), and brought Shan customs in line with lowland norms. It eliminated the threat of Shan raids into Upper Burma, a longstanding concern to Upper Burma since the late 13th century. His Shan policy was followed by Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885. The Shan are still one of the major ethnic groups in Myanmar with their own language and distinctive culture.
Bayinnaung is considered one of the three greatest kings of Burma, along with Anawrahta and Alaungpaya. Some of the most prominent places in modern Myanmar are named after him. He is also well known in Thailand as Phra Chao Chana Sip Thit (พระเจ้าชนะสิบทิศ, “Victor of the Ten Directions”). His empire was a loose collection of former sovereign kingdoms, whose kings were loyal to him as the Cakkavatti (Universal Ruler), and not to the kingdom of Toungoo. Ava and Siam revolted two years after his death, and by 1599, all the vassal states had revolted, and the Toungoo Empire completely collapsed.
Bayinnaung, who began his reign as a “king without a kingdom,” ended his reign as an “emperor without an empire.” According to Than Tun, Bayinnaung conquered territories not to colonize them but to gain the loyalty of their rulers. He kept conquered kings and lords in their own positions as long as they remained loyal to him. Tun Aung Chain adds that “the extensive polity was held together not so much by formal institutions as personal relationships” based on the concepts of thissa (သစ္စာ, ‘allegiance’) and kyezu (ကျေးဇူး, ‘obligation’).” This was nothing new. Bayinnaung was simply following the then prevailing Southeast Asian administrative model of solar polities in which the high king ruled the core while semi-independent tributaries, autonomous viceroys, and governors actually controlled day-to-day administration and labor. As such, the “King of Kings” governed only Pegu and the Mon country himself, leaving the rest of the realm to vassal kings in Ava, Prome, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Martaban, Siam, and Toungoo. He regarded Lan Na as the most important of all the vassal states, and spent most of his time there in peacetime.
Bayinnaung administered Lower Burma with the help of ministers, the vast majority of whom were of ethnic Mon background. His chief minister was Binnya Dala, known for his military and administrative abilities, and literary talents. He introduced administrative reforms only at the margins. By and large, he simply grafted the prevailing decentralized administration system, which barely worked for petty states like his native Toungoo, to the largest polity ever in the region. It did not work for mid-size kingdoms like Ava, Hanthawaddy, Lan Na, and Siam. He, perhaps inadvertently, did introduce a key reform, which turned out to be the most important and most enduring of his legacies. It was his policy to administer the Shan states, which had constantly raided Upper Burma since the late 13th century. The king permitted the saophas of the states to retain their royal regalia and ceremonies, and feudal rights over their subjects. The office of the saopha remained hereditary. But the incumbent saopha could now be removed by the king for gross misconduct although the king’s choice of successor was limited to members of the saopha’s own family. The key innovation was that he required sons of his vassal rulers to reside in his palace as pages, who served a dual purpose: they were hostages for good conduct of their fathers and they received valuable training in Burmese court life. His Shan policy was followed by all Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885.
Bayinnaung introduced a measure of legal uniformity by summoning learned monks and officials from all over his dominions to prescribe an official collection of law books. The scholars compiled Dhammathat Kyaw and Kosaungchok, based on King Wareru’s dhammathat. The decisions given in his court were collected in Hanthawaddy Hsinbyumyashin Hpyat-hton. He promoted the new law throughout the empire so far as it was compatible with customs and practices of local society. The adoption of Burmese customary law and the Burmese calendar in Siam began in his reign. He also standardized the weights and measurements such as the cubit, tical, and basket throughout the realm.
Another enduring legacy of Bayinnaung was his introduction of a more orthodox Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma and the Shan states. He propagated the religious reforms begun by King Dhammazedi in the late 1470s. He viewed himself as the model Buddhist king and distributed copies of Buddhist scriptures, fed monks, and built pagodas at every new conquered state from Upper Burma and the Shan states to Lan Na and Siam. Some of the pagodas are still intact. Following in the footsteps of Dhammazedi, he supervised mass ordinations at the Kalyani Thein at Pegu in his orthodox Theravada Buddhism in the name of purifying the religion. He prohibited all human and animal sacrifices throughout the kingdom. In particular, he forbade the Shan practice of killing the slaves and animals belonging to a saopha at his funeral. His attempts to eliminate animist nat (spirit) worship from Buddhism, however, failed.
Bayinnaung donated jewels to adorn the crowns of many pagodas, including the Shwedagon, the Shwemawdaw, the Kyaiktiyo, and many less famous ones. He added a new spire to the Shwedagon in 1564 after the death of his beloved queen Yaza Dewi. His main temple was the Mahazedi Pagoda at Pegu, which he built in 1561. He tried but failed to secure the release of the Tooth of Kandy from the Portuguese in 1560. He later interfered with the internal affairs of Ceylon in the 1570s, ostensibly to protect the religion there.
His kingdom was mainly an agrarian state with a few wealthy maritime trading ports. The main ports were Syriam (Thanlyin), Dala, and Martaban. The kingdom exported commodities such as rice and jewels. At Pegu, overseas trade was in the hands of eight brokers appointed by the king. Their honesty and business-like methods won the esteem of European merchants. The capital was so fabulous that contemporary Europeans were said to “never tire of describing Pegu—the long moat full of crocodiles, the walls, the watch-towers, the gorgeous palace, the great processions with elephants and palanquins and grandees in shining robes, the shrines filled with images of massy gold and gems, the unending hosts of armed men, and the apparition of the great king himself.” The king appointed officials to supervise merchant shipping and sent out ships to undertake commercial voyages. The prosperous life at the capital, however, was probably not replicated at the countryside. Annual mobilizations of men greatly reduced the manpower necessary to cultivate the rice fields. Harvests at times fell perilously low, causing severe rice shortages, such as in 1567.
Bayinnaung’s empire was built on what is sometimes called “breathtaking” military conquests, but his success was more than just Portuguese firearms, foreign mercenaries, and massive forces. There was also a strong element of personal charisma. Certainly, he benefitted from the arrival of Portuguese cannon and matchlocks in large quantities. Portuguese weaponry proved superior in accuracy, safety, ballistic weight, and rapidity of fire to Asian-made firearms. Finally, Bayinnaung was able to marshal more manpower than any ruler in the region. He required every new conquered state to provide conscripts for his next campaign. Using both larger forces and superior firearms, he had no trouble reducing Manipur and the entire Shan world to tributary status. His larger forces and their greater fighting experience proved to make the difference against Siam, which too was a wealthy coastal power with a powerful well-equipped military.
It turned out however that Siam was not his greatest adversary. It was the remote mountainous states like Lan Xang, Mohnyin and Mogaung whose guerrilla warfare gave him constant trouble. Many of his men died from starvation and disease while fruitlessly searching for elusive bands of rebels, year after year. (The death toll must have been significant since it is mentioned in the chronicles.) He was fortunate that the charismatic guerrilla leader Setthathirath died. In the end, his military might alone could not bring lasting peace. He needed competent local rulers, who commanded the respect of the local populace, to rule the lands on his behalf.
These individual ingredients alone cannot explain Bayinnaung’s success. The same ingredients were available to his successors. Yet no one (in Burma or elsewhere in the successor states of his empire) could put them together. One historian notes: “From his teens until his death, he was constantly in the field, leading every major campaign in person. The failure of other kings who attempted the same conquests is the measure of his ability.” Bayinnaung died on 10 October 1581 after a long illness. His eldest son and heir-apparent Nanda took over the throne without incident. But the empire, which Bayinnaung had built on military conquests and maintained by both military power and personal relationships with the vassal rulers, crumbled shortly after.
Nowadays Myanmar cooking is divided into homestyle cooking and royal cooking. It’s hard enough for me to describe homestyle cooking, let alone royal style. Hop a plane. The difference between home and royal cooking is more one of quantity than quality. Rice is the staple, and various main dishes and side dishes accompany the rice. Royal meals involve many more dishes than home meals, but the general cooking methods and ingredients are the same (although royal dishes can involve more meat). Indigenous vegetables predominate. Here are two videos. The first is quite detailed and shows cooking in the Shan style from Inle lake.
The second shows a rather festive dish, and indicates, if the first doesn’t sufficiently, how obscure some of the ingredients are for Westerners.