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A Glorious Hindu Legacy: Indic influence in Southeast Asia.


Hinduism in Burma (Myanmar)

Burma was known as Indra-Dvipa. Hindu settlements began to be established in Burma before the first century A.D

Horace Hayman Wilson who used to be professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, says:

 "The civilizations of the Burmese and the Tibetans is derived from India."

(source: Hindu Superiority - By Har Bilas Sarda  p. 180). 

It is contended that this relationship can be traced back to the time of the Buddha. Hindu settlements were set up in Arakan, Tagaung, Srikshetra, Thaton and Pegu at a very early period. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that the entire culture and civilization of Burma was borrowed from India and not from China. Ptolemy, the geographer, tells us that in the 2nd century A.D. many places in Burma had Sanskrit names. Indian religions flourished in Burma. Many religious structures having the images of Indian gods and goddesses have also been found from Burma. 

Burmese history had been buried for a century or more as part of "Farther India."

The Burmese who are most Hinduised are the Mons. Some of their places have Pali names. The Mon kingdom in the 6th century A.D. was known as Dvaravati. The rulers of this kingdom had mostly Indian names. The Mon settlements of the Hindus were known as Ramanna-desa.

(Note: Considered the national epic of Myanmar, the Yama Zatdaw, an adaptation of Ramayana, has been influenced greatly by Thai, Mon, and Indian versions of the play. The Burmese name for the story itself is Yamayana, while zatdaw refers to the acted play).

The Yama Zatdaw was introduced by oral tradition during King Anawratha's reign. It was influenced greatly by Ayutthaya Kingdom, during which various Konbaung Dynasty kings invaded the kingdom. The invasions often brought back spoils of war, including elements of Ramakien (Thai version of Ramayana) into the epic. The characters of Yama Zatdaw share the same features and characteristics as those in the original story. However, in acting, the costumes are a mixture of Bamar and Thai elements. The names of the characters, in general, are Burmese transliterations of the Sanskrit names. Rama is known as Yama; Sita is known as Thida; Ravana is known as Dat-thigiri).

Ramayana and Mahabharata the two ancient Sanskrit epics of India exerted a profound impact upon the cultures of South East Asia and have played no small role in the Indianisation of the major portion of that region. Out of ASEAN TEN at least seven nations Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have received the influence of Hindu culture since the early days of Indian colonisation. 

(source: Ramayana in Myanmar).  Refer to Rama or Ramchandra.

The Pali literature of Burma on law is based on the Dharamsastras of Manu, Narada and Yajnavalkya. The art of Burma was also influenced by the Indian art. 

In Burma, the finest temple is the Ananda at Pagan. It occupies the center of a spacious courtyard which is 564 ft square. There is no doubt of its derivation from Indian type. Temples of the same type existed in Bengal and most probably suggested the model of the Ananda temple. 

Charles Duroiselle, pioneer of Burmese Studies in France, who composed the Epigraphia Birmanica, says on the Ananda temple

" There can be no doubt that the architects who planned and built the Ananda temple were Indians. Everything in this temple from Sikhara to the basement as well as the numerous stone sculptures found in its corridors and the terra-cotta...adoring its basement and terraces, bear the indubitable stamp of Indian genius and craftsmanship...In this sense, we may take it, therefore, that the Ananda, though built in the Burmese capital, is an Indian temple."

(source: Ancient India - By R. C. Majumdar p. 497).

Michael Symes author of An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava in the Year 1795 p. 326 says: "The Burmans, we are told, call their Code generally, Dharmasath or Shastra; it is one among the many commentaries of Manu. Mr. Syme speaks in glowing terms of the Code."

(source: Hindu Superiority - By Har Bilas Sarda p. 180-181).



Hindu Bas-relief inside the Nan Paya Temple, Burma.


Nan Paya temple at Myinkaba, Near Pagan, Burma.


The names of its rivers are Sanskrit names - Irrawati, Brahmaputra and Chindwin. Her head of state is also known as Adipadi, which is the Sanskrit Adhaipati, referring to the chief executive. 


The  Pagan Kingdom (849-1287) is considered to be the first Burmese empire.

During the time of the Pyu kingdom, between about 500 and 950, the Bamar, people of the Burmese ethnic group, began infiltrating from the area to the north into the central region of Burma which was occupied by Pyu people that had come under the influence of Mahayana Buddhism from Bihar and Bengal . By 849, the city of Pagan (now spelled Bagan had emerged as the capital of a powerful kingdom that would unify Burma and filled the void left by the Pyu.

(image source: Pagan Kingdom).


Indian-Hindu influences must certainly have been the strongest if not the earliest influence upon that countryside. The Sarabha Gate, still standing, is commonly associated with 9th century King Pyinbya.

It is the frontispiece to what will become Pagan a century and half later. It is Hindu in design and structure. This great out reach of Indian-Hindu style is also evident in some 9th century ruins surrounding Angkor Wat. This Hindu push through India, Burma, Thailand, Indochina and Indonesia must have been an extraordinary one, certainly equal to the Graeco-Roman thrust on the Mediterranean cultures. It left behind an indelible imprint upon the civilizations of those two peninsulas of Asia stretching deep into the Indian Ocean. The mark of its art, architecture, and its religion are still to be found in these Buddhist and Moslem countries.


A paltry 2 per cent of the Burmese population amounting to 240,000 accounts for Hindus that too happen to be Burmese Indians. But Hinduism held a major sway over Burmese history and thereupon its literature.

Yama Zatdaw is Burmese rendition of the Ramayana.

The dominant ethnic group, Bamar living mostly in countryside follow Nat worship which has several adaptations of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The Burmese God Thagyamin, King of the Nats rides a three-headed elephant is identified with Indra, the king of Hindu Gods. Burmese Buddhists are devout of Thuyathadi, counterpart of Goddess Saraswati. As the Goddess of knowledge, She is avidly worshipped by students before examinations. Some other Gods are as well worshipped by Burmese Buddhists.

Burmese language as such contains plethora of loanwords from Sanskrit and Pali, many being connected with religion. In Burmese culture several Hindu traditions are still perceived especially on the Burmese New Year festival, Thingyan and also during weddings. Hinduism along with Buddhism greatly influenced the royal courts of Burmese monarchs including their formal royal titles. The coronation ceremonies were also Hindu in origin. The architecture seen at places like Pagan reflect profound Hindu influence.

Hinduism throbbing high in South East Asia (Part II of III) - By Ratnadeep Banerji).

Nathlaung Kyaung: Hindu Temple in Myyanmar

Located in the city walls of Old Bagan, Nathlaung Kyaung is only surviving Hindu temple in Bagan. Dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Vishnu, the square brick temple was built in the 10th or 11th century, making it one of the earliest temples at Bagan.



Dedicated to the Lord Vishnu, the square brick temple was built in the 10th or 11th century, making it one of the earliest temples at Bagan.


The Nathlaung Kyaung (or Nat-hlaung-kyaung), located slightly to the west of Thatbyinnyu and inside the old city walls, is the only remaining Hindu temple in Bagan. It was possibly built by legendary King Taungthugyi (r. 931-964) about a century before King Anawrahta (r. 1044-1077) brought Theravada Buddhism to Pagan with the conquest of Thaton.

Whenever it was built, the fact that it was not destroyed indicates a tolerance of Hinduism in Buddhist Bagan. Nathlaung was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and served as the temple of the Indian merchant community at Bagan and brahmins in the service of the king. It may have been built by Indian artisans.

Only the main hall and superstructure of Nathlaung Kyaung still stand. The square temple is made of brick and has steep upper terraces, a dome and crumbling gopuram/sikhara (Indian-style finial). Originally there were Gupta-style statues of 10 incarnations of Vishnu housed in niches in the outer walls; seven of these survive. Badly damaged brick and stucco reliefs of Vishnu can be seen on each of the four walls.

The high mandapa (porch that extends from the temple) was given by a Malabar Vaishnavite saint in the 13th century. The only mandapa in Bagan, it was originally covered by a wooden awning.

In the 1890s, a German oil engineer took the large Vishnu statue from the temple; it can now be seen in the Dahlem Museum in Berlin. The temple was badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, and considerable repairs were made in 1976, especially to the second story.

(source: Nathlaung Kyaung: Hindu Temple in Myyanmar). 

India To Renovate Temple In Myanmar

In a major boost to its cultural and historic ties with Myanmar, India Tuesday agreed to renovate and restore a 12th century temple in the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar's Mandalay region. Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna made the offer to the three-month-old Myanmarese civilian government. The Ananda Pahto, which dominates Bagan's skyline with a 167 foot temple tower, is one of the oldest of temples in Myanmar. Bagan is about 125 miles away from Myanmar's second largest city, Mandalay.

Ananda Pahto, along with the mighty mid-12th century temple Thatbyinnyu Pahto, dwarf all other modern constructions in Bagan including the archaeological museum there.

(source: India To Renovate Temple In Myanmar).

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Updated - October 22, 2008