Buddhism Pagan (Bagan)
Tilman Frasch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0022


For about 250 years, from c. 1044 to 1284 CE, Pagan (or Bagan, in modern Burmese transcription) was the capital of a kingdom covering most of what is modern-day Myanmar (Burma). During this period, more than 2,500 Buddhist monuments—stupas, temples, and monasteries—were built in and around the city alone; further religious edifices were erected in the provincial centers of the kingdom, such as Pakkoku, Sale, Salin, and Myinmu. The people of Pagan were in close contact with other Buddhist communities of South and Southeast Asia, most notably Sri Lankans, Northeast Indians, and the Khmers, and perhaps with the Tibetans and Chinese as well. Between these regions and communities, there was a regular flow of royal ambassadors, Buddhist monks, artists, pilgrims, and other travelers, who exchanged letters and Buddhist scriptures, skills, and ideas. Given this position as a nodal point in a wider Buddhist network, the Buddhism of Pagan was cosmopolitan in nature, embracing influences from various sources and different traditions. Particularly in the late 12th and the early 13th centuries, when increased contact with external Buddhist communities coincided with the maturation of internal developments, Pagan became the crucible in which the major features of Burmese Theravada were mixed.

General Overviews

As one of the major Buddhist countries, the history of Theravada Buddhism in Burma, its relations to politics and the state, and its organizations and practice have been studied from various angles. Ray 1936 and Ray 1946 were among the first works to provide an overview of Burmese Buddhism, while Bechert 1966, with its comprehensive analysis, offers a good starting point. Bechert has also contributed significantly to the understanding of “schools” or “sects” in Theravada Buddhism (in Bechert 1980). A major topic in the scholarly discussion has been the forms and purposes of royal reforms (or “purifications”) of the sangha. Aung-Thwin 1979 put forth the argument that these reforms always served the rulers to reclaim monastic property, especially land holdings, but this view has been challenged by Lieberman 1980 and Tin Maung Maung Than 1993, among others.

  • Aung-Thwin, Michael. “The Role of Sasana Reform in Burmese History: Economic Dimensions of a Religious Purification.” Journal of Asian Studies 38.4 (1979): 588–671.

    Argues that purifications or reforms of the sangha in Burma always served an economic purpose as well, by enabling rulers to reclaim and repossess land and property owned by Buddhist monasteries. See Lieberman 1980 for a different view.

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus. Vol. 2, Burma, Kambodscha, Laos, Thailand. Frankfurt: Metzner, 1966.

    A meticulous comparative study of Buddhist organizations and practice in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, focusing on the 20th century, but with much on earlier periods, too. A bit old-fashioned in its text-based approach, but informed and insightful. A second, enlarged edition of Volume 2 was published in 2000 by the Seminar für Indologie und Buddhismuskunde, Göttingen.

  • Bechert, Heinz. “The Structure of the Sangha in Burma: A Comparative View.” In Studies in History of Buddhism: Papers Presented at the International Conference on the History of Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 19–21 August 1976. Edited by A. K. Narain, 33–42. Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 1980.

    A brief outline of the history of the sangha in Burma, with reflections on the concept of “schools” and “sects.”

  • Lieberman, Victor. “The Political Significance of Religious Wealth in Burmese History.” Journal of Asian Studies 39.4 (1980): 753–769.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021911800028424

    Contests the notion that reforms of the sangha in Burma served economic ends.

  • Ray, Niharranjan. Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1936.

    Traces Indian influence in early Burma, much in the spirit of the “Greater India School” of Indian historiography.

  • Ray, Niharranjan. An Introduction to the Study of Theravada Buddhism in Burma. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1946.

    An early outline of the history of Buddhism in Burma to the end of the 19th century, using evidence from chronicles and inscriptions that had become accessible in the first quarter of the 20th century.

  • Tin Maung Maung Than. “Sangha Reforms and Renewal of Sasana in Myanmar: Historical Trends and Contemporary Practice.” In Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia. Edited by Trevor Ling, 6–63. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993.

    An excellent overview of the history of religious reforms in Burma, with a focus on the more recent periods.

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