Discovery Could Fill Out Historical Record on Little-Known Burmese King

By Zarni Mann 15 January 2014

MANDALAY — Burmese archaeologists and historians said Tuesday that a recently discovered stone tablet dating back more than 900 years could help to shed light on the largely untold life of King Sawlu, son of Burma’s much better known King Anawrahta.

The experts said the stone inscription, found in Myittha Township, Mandalay Division, was written in Mon, Pyu, Parli, and Gone Shan languages, as well as another unknown script. The tablet is believed to have been chiseled in the early 11th century and mentions a monastery built and donated by the wife of Sawlu.

The experts said only some lines of the stone inscription are still legible, with the slab found not fully intact and some pieces still missing.

“From just a few words that we were able to read in the Mon language, it said that King Sawlu ruled the nation by the teachings of Lord Buddha. This means Sawlu was not a bad king as history has portrayed him,” said Naing Ba Shin, an expert of ancient Mon inscriptions who formerly worked for the government’s Department of Archaeology.

“If we could read more, and if we could get the remaining parts, we would know more untold details about King Sawlu and his queen, and this might change some part of history,” he added.

Sawlu has long been considered a disappointing heir to King Anawrahta, who, as founder of Burma’s Pagan Dynasty, is widely regarded as one of Burma’s greatest monarchs. Accounts of Sawlu’s reign describe the king as a drunkard who was fond of gambling and was eventually dethroned by a popular rebellion.

Due to the brief time that he spent as king—reigning less than a decade—and the imposing legacies of both his predecessor and successors to the throne, history has largely neglected to offer a detailed account of Sawlu’s life.

The Burmese experts said they were in the process of researching the temples, pagodas and statues built and donated by Sawlu, with the recent discovery adding a significant contribution to their efforts.

“We’ve been researching inscriptions written by King Sawlu, but there were very few about him to study. Recent findings disclose more about him and inspire us to study more about him,” said Myint San, a Pyu language expert.

Part of the stone inscription was found while workers were cleaning Myittha’s Paytaw Monastery compound, where a new monastery is slated to be built in November. Additional pieces of the stone slab were unearthed as researchers descended on the site after news of the initial discovery was reported by local media.

The inscription is etched onto a stone slab some 2.6 feet wide, 4.3 feet high and 5 inches thick. The various languages are inscribed on both sides of the tablet.

According to the researchers, only a small portion of the text is legible and states that the Maha Anuruda Deva Rama Monastery was donated by the Sawlu monarchy in the king’s quest to attain Nirvana.

“The year of inscription, in the Burmese year 415 [circa 1052 AD], is clearly written. And the words written on this stone are very similar to other inscriptions of that time. So we can say this stone inscription dates back about 1,000 years,” said Myint San.

However, the researchers acknowledged that given the poor condition of the tablet’s inscription and the fact that large portions of the slab are still missing, the discovery may lead to as much debate as revelation regarding the long-dead king.

“As with many other historical discoveries, there will always be controversy surrounding the year of inscription, the language, about the people, et cetera. There is always a justification to debate, and that is what archaeologists and historians do,” said Naing Ba Shin.

Win Maung, an expert on Burmese traditional arts and a member of the team currently researching the Sawlu tablet, said that inscriptions in Mon, Pyu, Parli and Gone Shan languages were confirmed, but one script remained unknown.

“Because it was written many years ago and was broken into pieces, we still can’t confirm some of the language,” he said. “We have a lot of research ahead, of course.”

The abbot from Paytaw Monastery and interested elders and youth in Myittha are preparing to erect a small building to conserve the centuries-old stone inscription while researchers continue to probe the finding.

“More experts’ help is needed to research more about this valuable stone inscription,” Win Maung said. “We hope remaining parts of the broken stone slab are found.”