Bagan and beyond

Aedeen Cremin

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Bagan and the world: Early Myanmar and its global connections

Goh Geok Yian, John N. Miksic and Michael Aung-Thwin (eds)

Yusof Ishak Institute: 2018

When the keynote speaker tells a major international conference that he is about to bite the hand that feeds him, you know you’re in for a provocative debate. Many issues are aired in this slim but essential volume. Most revolve around identity and definition, questions more painfully current today than they seemed at the time of the Bagan Conference in 2012. Bagan city flourished between the ninth and fourteenth centuries CE and is today a World Heritage site: within forty-two square kilometres there are more than 3,000 Buddhist monuments, remaining from the 4,474 recorded in the fifteenth century.

There is a superficial parallel with Angkor, which flourished at approximately the same time, but the differences are great: Angkor has fewer monuments but they are more varied and have been studied in much greater detail, particularly over the past twenty years. When the same amount of research goes into Bagan, many of the questions raised in this book will be answered. In the meantime, the work gives us a solid base for future work, as each of the authors has provided an extensive bibliography. The paper by Bob Hudson on the radiocarbon dates for “Pyu” cities (early first millennium CE) will be an indispensable reference.

The texts are fairly dense, but all the authors make the subject matter easy to follow and all write so well that no expertise is required to follow the arguments. I know little about money, though I have heard it is a good thing to have, but was enthralled by Rila Mukherjee’s paper on the economy of Bagan, alluringly entitled “Silver links! Bagan-Bengal and shadowy metal corridors”. It marshals an astonishing array of facts and sources, from Tang records to colonial geographies, on the topics of trade routes, money-cowries, religion, political intrigue and, of course, coinage.

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