Late for Nowhere

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Much ado about the ancient Pyu

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The road to Hanlin.

In June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that Myanmar’s ancient Pyu cities of Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra), Beikthano and Hanlin had been added to its World Heritage list. They are the first sites in the country to earn this designation. Following is an account of a visit I made to Hanlin before the UNESCO announcement was made.

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to get stuck in the mud.

Our pickup truck was bogged to the axles on an unpaved road somewhere in Sagaing Region, and we were going nowhere fast – but at least the sky was blue, the air cool, and the landscape of expansive rice paddies stunning in its emerald beauty.

It helped that our driver Thet Naing – who was also the owner of the floundering truck – maintained a cheerful disposition throughout our plight. He seemed oddly unperturbed about the prospect of being stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours or even days, laughing and shouting “Adventure travel!” as he gunned the engine and sent mud flying from beneath the spinning tires. Meanwhile, I struggled to push the vehicle from behind. Zero progress was being made.


Stuck in the mud.

How had we driven ourselves into this mess? Getting stuck was the price we paid for our monsoon-season visit to Hanlin, the site of an ancient Pyu city that flourished between the 4th and 9th centuries AD.

Thet Naing, my wife Pauksi and I had left Mandalay early that morning with the aim of spending the night in Shwebo 115 kilometers (70 miles) north. Hanlin was on the way, requiring a detour of only 15km off the paved highway, so we decided it would be worth a quick visit. We reached the turnoff to Hanlin after about three hours of driving. With locals assuring us that the unpaved road to the old city was “very good” despite recent rain, we proceeded without worry, bouncing our way through flat farmland.


Ethnic Bamar farm workers along the road the Hanlin.

As we neared our destination, the irrigated rice fields gave way to dry scrubland, an area once described by archaeologist Aung Thaw as an “almost barren and desolated” landscape that could have inspired a series of apocalyptic legends about the destruction of Hanlin.

In his 1972 book Historical Sites in Burma, Aung Thaw recounted one of these stories, which said Hanlin was founded thousands of years ago by a prince whose unspecified “misdeed” resulted in “a rain of ash and molten matter pour[ing] down heavily and bury[ing] the city completely”.

We heard a different account of the kingdom’s demise from Ma Khine, the guide who showed us around the ancient city. We met her at Shwegugyi Pagoda, our first stop when we reached Hanlin. According to Ma Khine’s version, Hanlin was destroyed by a rain of hot sand from the sky, after the king murdered his gentle brother with a dagger. The brother had refused the king’s order to demonstrate his ability to make gems fall from the sky for visiting Chinese diplomats.

While most of the city’s inhabitants died in the sandstorm, the gentle brother’s son escaped the destruction. Years later he returned to rebuild the city, and – as a devout Buddhist – his first project was to construct Shwegugyi Pagoda.


Old pagodas at Hanlin.

Shwegugyi is now surrounded by farmland dotted with dozens of ancient brick stupas. To the north lies the site of ancient Hanlin, while just south is Halingyi, a village of about 1,500 households famous for its natural saline hot springs.


Checking the temperature at Halingyi’s hot springs.


A villager gathers water from one of the hot springs.

Legends notwithstanding, archaeologists have determined that the area has been settled since at least the Bronze Age more than 4000 years ago, long before Hanlin was established by the Pyu sometime around the 3rd century AD.

Evidence of these early settlers is showcased at an excavation museum adjacent to Shwegugyi. The displays are arranged in tiers, with human remains and pottery exhibited at the subterranean level at which they were uncovered by archaeologists.


Excavation museum near Shwegugyi Pagoda.


Ancient human remains uncovered by archaeologists.

The site was one of two areas near Shwegugyi Pagoda excavated in 2005, uncovering fossilized human bones, earthen pots, bronze utensils, stone and iron weapons, and stone beads buried between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, according to a story published in the New Light of Myanmar at the time.

Most of the Bronze Age finds in the area have come from the salt fields south of Hanlin’s Pyu-era walls – including the area around Shwegugyi – with archaeologists such as Bob Hudson, an honorary associate at the University of Sydney, speculating that the occupation of the area in this “Late Prehistoric” period may have been related to the exploitation of local salt resources.

Hanlin itself did not appear until around the 2nd to 4th centuries, an era when “large walled central places” were established in the central Myanmar plains. These settlements – which also included Beikthano and Thayekhittaya – constituted the main centers of Pyu civilisation, described by Hudson in a 2005 research paper as “a system of largely autonomous walled sites with a shared culture”.

Segments of these ancient walls are still visible around Hanlin, and after we toured the museum we drove out to see the remains of the southeast gate of the ruined city, reduced over centuries to a low brick wall on the edge of an otherwise anonymous tract of farmland.


Remnants of one of Hanlin’s 12 gateways.

The presence of the city walls, encompassing a settlement 2 miles (3.2km) long and 1 mile (1.6km) wide, was discovered during excavations from 1962 to 1967. The city was determined to have had 12 gateways, of which three were exposed in the course of these digs.

Over the years farmers from Halingyi have also uncovered numerous ancient Pyu objects and ornaments made of gold, silver and bronze. According to Aung Thaw, many of these artifacts were melted down by farmers for their metal and thus lost forever, but some have survived and are on display at a modest museum in Halingyi village.


Pyu artifacts housed at a small museum in Halingyi village.

The collection, housed in a dark room on the grounds of a monastery, is small but fascinating. It includes Pyu coins, rings, bracelets, pottery and a few human skulls – the meager remnants of huge, pre-Bagan city about which little is known.

Legends of supernatural destruction aside, one of the biggest mysteries about Hanlin is why the city was abandoned. According to one popular theory, invaders from Yunnan enslaved or drove off most of the Pyu in the 10th century.

“It is noticeable that most of the structures where wood was used were destroyed by fire,” Aung Thaw wrote in Historical Sites in Burma. “The wooden gates at the entrances to the city were also burnt. Probably a great conflagration either by enemy action or by local accident had razed the city once and for all.”


An old monastery near Halingyi.

Other signs pointed to military action: “Of particular interest among the iron objects found outside the gateways are scores of caltrops with four spikes, any point of which inevitably protrudes upward when thrown on the ground. These were used to impede the hostile infantry or cavalry advancing towards the city.”

In whatever manner Hanlin came to an end, Hudson observed that the Pyu people continued to be mentioned in local histories until at least the 13th century, an indication that many of them survived whatever calamity destroyed their cities.

“Drift of people who had once identified as Pyu to new or more amorphous ethnic or other social identities may have been a matter of adaptation to new circumstances and new leaders,” he wrote, the new “circumstances” presumably being the establishment of Bamar culture in central Myanmar – and the subsequent rise of Bagan – after the 9th century.


Exploring Hanlin requires a bit of cross-country walking.


When our tour of Hanlin was over, Ma Khine pointed us toward an unpaved road that she assured us was in “good” condition and that would lead us north to the Shwebo-Kyauk Myaung highway. We followed her advice, and thus the real adventure began.

It wasn’t long before we started encountering stretches of mud that threatened to bog us down. Indeed, after about 10km of madcap rally driving by Than Naing, our truck succumbed to the sludge and ground to a sloppy stop.

After numerous attempts to free ourselves using our own limited resources – uselessly spinning tires and flabby muscles – we were rescued by a farmer who utilized an ingeniously traditional method: tying his bullock cart to the front fender of the truck and whipping the bejesus out of his two bulls until they pulled us out of the bog.


Rescued by a bullock cart.

Soon we were back in the pickup and speeding through the cool countryside, the endless waves of paddy tinted amber by the waning sun, the sky deep blue with the approach of twilight. Than Naing whooped with joy when he finally spotted pavement ahead. “Full action!” he shouted as he gunned the engine over the last bit of treacherous road before we touched down on blacktop.


Unstuck and back on the move.


Pavement at last.

We reached Shwebo around nightfall, all of us bruised, blistered and exhausted from pushing the truck through mud. But we were also exhilarated at having survived our own small calamity, which future chroniclers will surely add to the disastrous legend of Hanlin.

Written by latefornowhere

July 22, 2014 at 4:23 am

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized

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