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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: February 2018

8 - Silver Links! Bagan–Bengal and Shadowy Metal Corridors: 9th to 13th Centuries


This chapter isolates Bagan from its traditional moorings to Southeast Asian polities and highlights its westward links, particularly its relations with medieval Bengal, an expansive polity. The distinct geography and enigmatic history of Bagan — situated in an arid zone and driven by perennial cycles of conquest, expanding frontiers and growing exchange relations with small polities located between it and Bengal — illustrates how polities in the region responded to crisis and change. The region stretching from India's northeast into Burma experienced different trajectories of state formation, political legitimation and monetization; its nature can neither be studied within conventional paradigms of the state, nor by the “little kingdom” model (Schnepel and Berkemer 2003), the triad of time, change and linear evolution being irrelevant (Aung-Thwin 1991). Nor can its growth be analysed within a world-systems framework of cores and peripheries. Therefore, a different notion of political economy linked to time and change, distinct from the conventional notion of a sequential progression — from the prehistoric, through classical-ancient, to medieval, to the modern (Aung-Thwin 2002) — is necessary for our understanding of this region.

Enigma of Bagan

In its four-hundred–years-plus history (849 to ca. 1287 ce), Bagan displayed a state-driven religious policy, a state-directed labour system, a statesponsored building programme and state-administered trading practices. There was a direct and circular relationship between spending on religion, increased agricultural production, proportional demographic expansion and state development (Aung-Thwin 1985, p. 27). In this distinctive political and social formation, how important was trade and what was the role of money in Bagan's economy? What connections were forged by Bagan, with its silver supplies, with neighbouring polities? What follows is a visualization of Bagan's international connections, through tracing exchanges between Bagan and Bengal, to explain the curious absence of silver circulation in Bengal at a time when Bagan was reportedly accessing silver deposits. Was this silver traded at all? Why was it not exported as done previously? And what prevented the silver from reaching Bengal?

A Brief History of Money

A new polity in the mid-9th century, Bagan faced challenges on land while struggling to create a space for itself (Lieberman 2009, pp. 16–17). It seems isolated, cut off from silver supplies to its north and from the bay trade to its south.