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Southern Buddhism In South-East Asia

Buddhism of the Pyu


Passages from the Pali canon written on gold and silver media and dating from the 5th and 6th centuries have been discovered at Sri Ksetra, the capital of the Pyu.  This makes it certain that the Sinhalese form of Buddhism was already dominant there.  As in Ceylon itself, this was followed by a period with strong influences from Sanskritic forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, including both Mahayana and later Mantrayana, but it is likely that (again as in Ceylon) the older form of Buddhism retained considerable allegiance at a popular level.  Little is known about the specific doctrines of  Pyu Buddhism, but it is clear that there is considerable continuity with later Burmese Buddhism.  Archaeological evidence shows the presence of a major stupa cult which continues to this day, while the reports from Chinese sources demonstrate that monasticism was already of major importance in the Pyu kingdom.  Particularly interesting is the fact that the practice whereby all young men are expected to spend a period as a Buddhist monk or novice is already reported for this date - this is still widespread in South-East Asia. 


The Pyu must have obtained knowledge of Buddhism from the Mon to the south and perhaps also from Arakan which was in close contact with eastern India.  Indian technical influences are present from c. 200 B.C., although it is clear that South-East Asia has a long pre-history of cultural development.  In the early centuries A.D. strong influences (including the introduction of an alphabet) from South India and Ceylon make it almost certain that Buddhism was also introduced from there at this time, most probably in its Pali form - if it was not already present.  Like the subsequent Burmese dynasties the Pyu territories probably varied frequently in extent, perhaps including most of present day Burma (or even beyond) under its most powerful kings but confined to a smaller territory in Central Burma at periods of weakness.  Pyu influence declined rapidly from the 9th century.


Those of ancient Buddhism: the twelve- or eight-spoked wheel, the bodhi tree, the throne, the footprints of the Buddha, the stupa and later the Buddha image.


The ruling Pyu dynasty was replaced by a Burmese-speaking one in the 9th century.  The Pyu language continued to be used in some inscriptions alongside Burmese for several centuries, but eventually ceased to be spoken (it is not known when).  Probably, however, the present-day inhabitants of Central Burma are largely descended from the peoples living in the same area during Pyu times and some at least of their Buddhist traditions go back to the same period.

Main Centre

The main centre of Pyu culture seems to have been in Central Burma at Sri Ksetra (Old Prome) and earlier at Beikthano (100 miles to the north).