Innwa – Ava
Innwa, the Renowned Capital by U Thaw Kaung
Of all the many capital cities of Myanmar, Innwa (or Ava), like Bagan at one time, achieved international renown. Even the whole nation of Myanmar became known in England, France, and America as the Kingdom of Ava during the early Konbaung period in the 19th century.
The origins of Innwa goes back many centuries as it first became the capital of Myanmar not long after the eclipse of Bagan. In 1364 A.D King Thadominbya first founded Innwa at a strategic location where the Myitnge River entered the mighty Ayeyarwady, the lifeline of the country. Twenty kings ruled in Innwa for over 200 years during this first period.
Throughout various wars and conflicts, it remained as the capital of Upper Burma for several centuries, off and on. Among all the capitals of Myanmar Innwa was the capital for the longest period. Even during the time when the capital shifted to Taungoo and Hanthawadi (Bago), Innwa remained an important cultural center for the Myanmar people.
After the glorious period of Kings Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, Innwa became the capital for a second time from 1597 A.D when King Bayinnaung’s son King Nyaungyan left the Lower Myanmar capitals to go back to Upper Myanmar. Ten Kings ruled there for over 150 years during this second period.
There was a brief period in 1752 when Innwa was occupied by the Mons of Lower Myanmar, but King Alaungphaya soon re-establish the Myanmar Kingdom at Shwebo, and his son King Sinbyushin in 1764 shifted back the capital to Innwa. This was the third time that Innwa became the capital.
Although the capital was moved to Amarapura nearby in 1783, King Bagyidaw soon shifted it back to Innwa in 1822, for the fourth and final time.
It was during the time of these Konbaung Kings that Innwa became renowned far and wide. Even after the capital was shifted to Amarapura, Myanmar was still called the Kingdom of Ava by many foreigners. The royal court was also known as the Court of Ava.
After the first Anglo-Burmese War, when King Tharawaddy came to the throne in 1837, Innwa was finally abandoned as the capital city in 1841.
Why was Innwa the capital for such a long time? This question can easily be answered when we look at a map of the area. First, it is on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady, the lifeline of Myanmar. The river was also the main “highway” as boats and small ships were the only means of transportations from Upper to Lower Myanmar until colonial times, when railways and motors roads were first built.
Secondly, Innwa is located in an important military strategic position, with the natural defense boundaries of the Ayeyarwady River on the west, the Myitnge River to the north and the Myittha River to the south-east. The early kings of the Innwa cut a channel to join the Myittha and the Myitnge rivers and thus made the surrounding area of Innwa into an artificial island.
Thirdly, Innwa at the mouth of the Myitnge River has access to the rice bowl of Upper Myanmar, the area around Kyaukse where rice had been grown since pre-Bagan times.
The name Innwa means in the Myanmar language “the mouth of the lake” or “entrance to the lake”. At one time there were nine natural lakes around Innwa, and the first founder of the capital had to fill in four lakes to establish the city.
Some scholars say that Innwa comes from the Myanmar word “A-Wa” meaning “entrance” or “mouth” as it is at the mouth of the Myitnge River. But some scholars think that the original name was “Inn Na-Wa” or “Nine Lakes” from the nine lakes that were in this area.
Today, Innwa is a peaceful, pleasant, small town, easily reached by car or bus from Mandalay. As it is on an island visitors should cross over on ferries the Myitnge River or the main Ayeyarwady River from Sagaing. The shortest route is to go by road from Mandalay ten miles towards Sagaing and about a mile before reaching the Innwa Bridge to take a beautiful tree-lined avenue to the left. After about half a mile the road ends at the small ferry point. Cars can also be ferried across. But the most delightful way to see Innwa is to cross by the boat ferry and take a pony cart on Innwa.
The old palaces and residential buildings are all gone, but massive brick walls and tranquil moats remain. See the Gaung Say Daga near the Ayeyarwady: from there you have scenic views of Innwa Bridge and the Sagaing Hills.
Visitors should not miss seeing the famous Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery, built by Queen Me Nu, the Chief Queen of King Bagyidaw, in 1818 for the famous Nyaung-gan Sayadaw, U Po and later the learned U Bok. Incidentally, this queen was the grandmother of our last Chief Queen Supayalat. Unlike many of the old monasteries of Myanmar, this monastery is not built of teak wood but is a stucco decorated brick building.
Near this monastery is the Htilaing-Shin Pagoda, built by King Kyansittha of the Bagan Dynasty. There are several other famous pagodas like the Lawkatharaphu and Laydat Gyi Pagodas in the southern part of the city. Like Bagan, only the pagodas and the monasteries remain. Old wooden carvings at Bagaya Monastery are very beautiful.
The only building left from the old palace buildings complex is a brick and teak watchtower called Nanmyin Watch Tower, 27 meters tall. At one time it was popularly known as the “Leaning Tower of Innwa” because an earthquake of 1838 tilted it to one side but in recent years the tower has been renovated and straightened out. The Department of Archaeology has carried out numerous restoration works at Innwa in recent years.
Unlike Mandalay and some of the other royal cities of Myanmar, Innwa’s city walls do not form a square or rectangle, of regular shape. As the city was a capital for a long time and as various Kings enlarged its area, the city walls form an irregular shape which some people have compared to that of a Chinthe, the mythical lion statues that are found in front of Myanmar Pagodas.
The classical name of Innwa is Ratanapura, “the city of gems“. Even though the grand palaces and the powerful kings are no more, Innwa is still a precious place, a place renowned in Myanmar history and one that will provide a rewarding memorable visit.