Sampan Travel visits the ancient kingdom of Sri Ksetra on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. Photos by Belinda Lawson.
Adorned above the sign at the Red Dragon Hotel in Pyay are three musicians, a dancer, and a squat clown poised gaily. They are the talisman to the ancient Pyu city of Sri Ksetra, or Thayekhittya, Myanmar’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The musicians and the clown were unearthed in the 1960s and are evidence of the genesis of Myanmar music, sourced from the oldest civilization known to have lived in this corner of the world. And yet, scant space in Myanmar marketing material is given to these musicians, nor their ancient city.
Rise and Fall
Visiting Sri Ksetra today one must first travel to Pyay.
Set on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, Pyay was an important trading hub during the Bagan era, later occupied by the Mon before Alaungpaya rose to power as the head of the Konbaung Dynasty in 1752. Pyay then boomed under the British as an important transit point (known as Prome) for goods running up and down the country.
Stretching over five by five square miles, five miles east of Pyay is Sri Ksetra, a Sanskrit name meaning “Fabulous City” or “Field of Glory.” Some legends claim it was built by the mad King Duttabaung, along with an army of ogres and other supernatural beings in BC 443. Other international scholarship states that the city did not come into full fruition until the 5th Century AD, at its zenith until the 9th Century.
The Chinese described the Pyu as peaceful people who loved life and hated killing, to the extent that they would not wear silk as it involved causing injury to the silkworm. This did not prepare the Pyu well for the marauding Nanchao who rode down from modern China in the 9th Century, sacked Sri Ksetra, captured 3,000 prisoners, and threw the rest into the flames of their burning city before returning north to their own capital, Yunna-fu.
Today, due to the lack of shelter or services at the site, we don’t recommend you attempt to explore on foot. Bicycles are not permitted, but cars are. Tuk-tuks are usually available to hire upon arrival, as are—occasionally—motorbike taxis and oxen.
The jewels of Sri Ksetra are three giant stupas (of an original nine), built by King Duttabaung. The first of these you will come across when driving along the main road toward the site from Pyay.
This is Payagyi, one of the oldest stupas in Myanmar. Its primitive design is a world away from the more elegant form of those that were constructed during the Bagan Empire. The second great stupa is Payamar, just inside the entrance to the main site, and similar to Payagyi in style but sprouting tuffs of turf.
Bawbawgyi Paya, the third great stupa, is the most impressive construction on the site. A 50-yard cylindrical stupa with a golden hti at the top; one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in Myanmar, and indeed in Southeast Asia.
At the center of the site are the foundations of a large brick building thought to be the palace. Further on from this is the Rahanta Gate and next to it the Rahanta Cave Temple within with are eight Buddha Images looking back toward the city.
The Five Players
A short walk from the Rahanta Gate is the site museum where visitors can view replicates of the Five Players of Thayekhittya: a flautist, a drummer, a dancer, cymbal player, and a clown, each less than 11 inches in size.
The originals were stolen in the middle of the night from the museum at Hmawza in March 1967, just weeks after they had been discovered:
“…accidentally the dwarf old clown only three inches in height, rather weak and poor in art value, was struck by the window frame and fell down to the floor and left behind. No doubt, if a human being, he would surely feel terribly sad to have parted with his dear ones.”
So wrote the Mon scholar and author Dr Nai Pan Hla who was at the forefront of the quest to find the four missing musicians—the “most striking, the most impressive, the most precious art treasures so far excavated in the long span of Myanmar history!”
Believing that the artifacts would have been bought by a collector ignorant of their status as stolen national treasures, articles were written and with ardent yearning entreaties were dispatched across the globe. The cause was taken up by senior-editors at the National Geographic Magazine and even First Lady Nancy Reagan.
In Autumn 1983 a multi-millionaire by the name of Robert H Ellsworth, of Fifth Avenue New York came forward to announce that the players were in his possession (he had reportedly paid half a million dollars for them) and in Autumn that year he traveled to Myanmar to return the artifacts to the Archeology Department in a grand ceremony.
The story attracted worldwide attention and helped reignite the debate of national treasures being returned to their home country. Indeed, that same month the United Nations General Assembly voted on the resolution for the “Return of Historical Art Objects,” adopted by a vote of 120 to 0.
The Sri Ksetra Musicians are today in safe custody at the National Museum in Naypyitaw.
Where to next?
The case provoked a spike in interest in Sri Ksetra, yet it was not to last. Visitors to Myanmar today —understandably—make a beeline for Bagan, while the more adventurous might make it as far as Mrauk U.
Admittedly, Sri Ksetra is not as aesthetically remarkable as either, and should not take priority in a visitor’s first two-week trip to Myanmar. But to curious expats and locals, the ancient Pyu city warrants a place on the bucket list, as do the Five Players in Naypyitaw.
Sampan Travel’s Ancient Empires journeys facilitates such a visit, also incorporating Beikthano (“City of Vishnu”) another Pyu city, and Bago, the site of the ancient Mon city of Hanthawaddy. The journey concludes at Bagan. Naturally.