The Early History of the Mons

Sudara Suchaxaya

The Mons were one of the earliest peoples settled in Southeast Asia. According to the Brumese chronicles, they were the first people settled in Burma as well,  immigrated from some where in central Asia several centuries before the Christian Era. Linguistically, the Mon language belong to the Mon-Khmer family.

In the beginning they settled in the area between the lower Salween and Sittang rivers, and established the kingdom called Suvannabhumi, which is mentioned in the early Indian literatures and Chinese records. Around this time there was another state called Pyu centered at Sri Ksetra near Prome in central Burma, to the north of the Mon kingdom. The Pyu people ethnically the Tibeto-Burman, constructed Buddhist monuments and made Brahmanic artifacts. Several Arabic geographists called the country of the Mons Ramannadesa, derived from the ancient Mon word Rmen meaning the Mons themselves. In contrast, the Burmese called the Mons Talaings, derived from Talingna, a place name in southeastern India.

According to the chronicles, the Mons were the people who constructed the Swedagon Pagoda in Rangoon about 2,540 years ago. However, what is obvious is that the Mons introduced Buddhism into Burma for the first time. In the third century B.C. according to the chronicles, Suthammavadi or Thaton, the center of the Mons at the time, had close contacts with India particularly during the time of King Asoka, who sent missionaries called Sona and Uttara to Suwannabhumi.

One of the Mon chronicles mentions that the Mon kingdom at Thaton was established in 302 B.C. by two princes of an Indian king called Tissa. This first kingdom of the Mons had 59 kings who succeeded the founders of the dynasty. The Mon kingdom at Thaton actively contacted and traded with India and Lanka, and received Indian civilization in various aspects including language and religion, particularly Hinayana Buddhism. In fact, the Mons played the role of introducing Indian culture to other peoples in southeast Asia, such as the Burmese, the Thais and the Laotians. Besides the religion, the Mons had an advanced knowledge of agriculture. They were experts in irrigation, and turned the river basins in Lower Burma into fertile paddy fields.

In the 8th century, the Pyu's capital was moved to Halin to the north. In 832, Nan Chao from the south eastern part of China invaded north of Burma, and took many Pyus as war-prisoners back to Nan Chao. Those survived Pyus moved south and settled near Pagan in 849, but never again powerful. Their weakness brought about the emergence of another people called Marmma or Burma, who from the 9th century immigrated into Burma from the border area between China and Tibet.

Soon afterwards, they took the initiative over the Pyu's territory, and since then the Pyus never again appeared significantly in the Burmese history. While the Pyus were invaded by Nan Chao, the Mon kingdom at Thaton expanded its power to the Irrawaddy river basin in central Burma. Subjugating the Pyus under their control, the Burmese became powerful and tried to invade the Mons in the south, who pulled back to their original place. This time the Mons founded their capital at Pegu (Hamsawadi) in 825, having two princes called

Samala and Vimala as their chiefs. The chronicles include 17 kings who ruled Pegu from 825 to 1043. In the 11th century Thaton became weak caused by invasion conducted by King Anurutha of Pagan. The victorious king brought from Thaton not only the war-prisoners and various treasures, but renowned monks and holy Buddhist scriptures, including the Mon King Manuha. Mon chronicles lamentably record this event that the Great Thaton was totally devastated and left entirely deserted.

King Anurautha's reason to invade Thaton was to have enough monks in his kingdom to reform Buddhism there, which was Tantric with full of declined elements, practiced by the Ari sect followers. The king was very much concerned with the Buddhism in his kingdom and he wanted to convert his people to Hinayana Buddhism, which at that time was prevalent in Thaton. At the beginning King Anurutha asked King Manuha to send him the Tripitaka conserved in Thaton, following the Shin Arahan's advice, who was a Mon monk devoted himself on the Buddhism reform activites in Pagan. King Manuha refused and naturally King Anurutha took the chance to invade Thaton with his powerful army.

Although the Mons lost in the battle, their culture prevailed in their victor's court. For example, the Mon language replaced Pali and Sanskrit which had been the religious languages employed to make inscriptions. Theravada Buddhism from Thaton had the largest followers in Pagan. Thaton continued to have a close religious contact with Lanka which had long been the center of Theravada Buddhism, later spread into all countries in Southeast Asia. To put the Mons under his rule, the following King Kyansittha had one of his daughters marry a Mon prince. Later they had two sons, and one of them became Kyansittha's successor called Alongsitthu, during whose reign Pagan could have the whole control over the Mons.

Besides, during the reign of Kyansittha, inscriptions were made in both Mon and Burmese languages. Some of the inscriptions were also made solely in Mon, freely expressing the superiority of the Mon culture over that of the Burmese. The Mons remained under the Burmese control until 1287, when Pagan was destroyed by the Mongols. The Mon leader called Wareru, a son-in-law of Ramkhamhaeng re-established independent Mon kingdom at Moulmein. Moulmein remained as the capital of the Mon kingdom until 1369, when the capital was moved back to Pegu. Until the reign of King Ratchathirat, Pegu or Hongsawadi was the most important trade center in the Gulf of Bengal. The zenith of the revived Mon kingdom was during the reign of King Thammachedi from1472 to 1492.

In 1551, the Mons again was invaded by the Burmese during the reign of Tabinshweti, and the Tong U dynasty of the Burmese ruled Thaton until 1740, when Sming Tho Phuttiket once again regained independence from the Burmese. This powerful Mon king went to invade Ava with his army, which accelerated the fall of Burma. In 1757, Along Phya regained the Burmese independence, and consequently the Mons came to be under the Burmese. Since then the Mons never again became independent.