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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 8, 2021

On a thickly humid day, flanked by dense forest of a deep green, rows of archers astride skittish horses struggle to control their mounts. Their local allies, armed with bows and tightly clutched spears, have their eyes focusing on a mass of men surging forward towards them. Infront comes a vanguard of the beast terrifying the Mongol horses; elephants, adorned in gold, armour and broacde, their tusks spiked and decorated, tall towers on their backs housing archers and spear throwers. The Mongol commander is afraid but refuses to show it; it would do no good to show fear before the men and the vassal troops. As calm as he can, he orders the cavalry to retreat to the treeline and dismount; they would stand before the oncoming host of the King of Pagan, modern Myanmar onfoot, armed with nothing but their bows and the will of Eternal Blue Heaven. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Of all the foreign ventures ordered by Kublai Khan in his later years, it was the invasions of Burma, or rather,, Myanmar, which are among the most poorly known in the west. While not as overtly disastrous as the more famous campaigns against Japan or Vietnam, which we have previously covered, the fighting in Myanmar still showcased the limits of the Mongol military, where tactical victories could not always translate into strategic success.


    By the 13th Century, the Kingdom of Pagan [pronounced somewhere between Bagan, Pakam, Pokam] had dominated Myanmar since the mid 9th century. Considered a golden age, from its strategic position on the Irrawadday River, the city of Pagan was the capital of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic kingdom straddling both upper and lower Myanmar. Military conquests backed by expanding infrastructure, irrigation and administrative systems laid the groundwork for a stable and regionally dominating empire. Population growth and infrastructure led to the increased development of Lower Myanmar, coupled with the expansion of arable lands to support it. To legitimize themselves, the Kings of Pagans patronized Thereavdic Buddhism and built monumental architecture to celebrate themselves. Huge donations of arable land to the Buddhist monasteries gradually put more and more of the kingdom’s wealth and resources in the hands of the monks; by the thirteenth century, the Pagan kings found themselves in a more and more desperate economic situation, struggling to reclaim lands from the entrenched powers but continually needing to build monuments to legitimize themselves and maintain Buddhist support for their power. Skillful kings  like Kalancacsa, reigning 1084-1111 were able to balance all the elements of the Pagan kingdom, its various ethnic groups and traditions and the Buddhist clergy, but the kings of the thirteenth century lacked this ability- particularly Narathihapade, who took the throne in 1254. By then, long held tensions were bubbling beneath the surface, and the once un-developed Lower Myanmar was becoming a major population and political centre that the king in Pagan struggled to control. 

And with so many kingdoms of the thirteenth century, this crockpot of troubles was aggravated by the addition of an extremely potent ingredient;  the Mongol Empire.


    Pagan, separated from China and the Song Dynasty by the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan and Dai Viet in Northern Vietnam, had escaped the attention of the Mongols during their first forays into these kingdoms in the 1250s, as we have covered in previous episodes. With the initial submission of these regions in that decade, the Mongol Empire now shared a border uncomfortably close to Pagan’s northeastern-most outposts. It was in 1271 that the Great Khan Kublai’s first envoys reached the Kingdom of Pagan, requesting the submission of its monarch, King Narathihapade, as well as the necessary trade and tribute demanded upon all subjects of the Mongol Emperor. History has not been kind to Narathihpate, often presented as a vain and greedy ruler. Usually, you’ll be pointed to this incrisiption he place on the Mingalar Zedi Pagoda in 1274, King Narathiha Pati, supreme commander of 36 million soldiers and who is the consumer of 300 dishes of curry daily, enshrined fifty-one gold and silver figurines of kings, queens, nobles and maids of honour, and over these a solid silver image of Lord Buddha Gautama one cubic high, on Thursday the Full Moon of Kason of the year 636.”


Of course, Narathihapade did not command 36 million soldiers, though his ability to consume curry in prodigious amounts is outside the realm of our discussion today. This is however an example of the earlier mentioned needed for Narathihapade and the Burmese kings to legitimize themselves through large monuments and inscriptions. His kingdom facing an economic problem undermining the very power of its monarchy and his own ancestry and position on shaky ground, Narathihapade had to shore up  his position with boasts and monuments, wasting valuable resources but lacking options. The political system he inherited demanded he put on a show of nearly supernatural power regardless of the reality- a problem hardly unique to the Pagan kingdom, mind you- but one which contributed to the spurning of Kublai’s envoys. The next year Narathihapade followed this up by attacking one of Kublai’s vassal tribes in Yunnan, the Jin Chi, who Marco Polo calls the Cardanan, meaning ‘gold teeth.’ In 1273, Narathihapade completed his trifecta of antagonizing the single most powerful man on earth by killing Kublai’s envoys sent to demand recomponense. By doing so, Narathihapade ensured Kublai, in order to maintain the requisite show of supernatural power and invincibility around the Chinggisid monarchy, would need to react with miltiary force. Kublai’s miltiary response was delayed by the final push against the Song Dynasty and the first invasion of Japan in 1274. Troops could not be deployed to the frontier with Myanmar for some time, and perhaps in recognition of, Narathihapade struck first.


    The King of Pagan sent an army into Yunnan in early 1277, though this was probably more of a raid than a full scale invasion. The local Mongol garrison was relatively small, as low as 700 or as many as 12,000, depending on the source. Under their commander,  a fellow named Qutuq, the garrison was enlarged by rallying a number of local Achang and Jin Chi tribesmen. It should be noted in general when we discuss the conflicts with the Mongol-Yuan troops and regional powers in this period, we are mainly talking about forces like this: a small Turkic and Mongolian core around a commander, sometimes a Mongolian, sometimes a Central Asian Muslim or Turk, and the majority of the forces between locally raised troops or perhaps even southern Chinese. The reasons for this were manifest. Firstly, truly Mongolian troops were rarely assigned for garrison duty, being at their greatest use on actual campaign or protecting Kublai’s steppe frontiers. The climate, generally hot and humid, was extremely difficult on both the Mongols and their horses, and the often rugged, densely forested or riverine terrain itself made the preferred wide-ranging horseback warfare less effective, while also minimizing available pasturelands to feed the horses in the first place. A small Mongolian garrison would be maintained in Yunnan’s highlands and small pasture for the remainder of Mongol rule in China, and indeed, there are people of Yunnan today who claim descent from the Mongols- the Khatso, who in the last decades have sought to make contact with Mongolians to “reclaim” some of their “ancient customs.”


    Anyways, it was a small body of Mongols and many more locally raised troops under the command of Qutuq who set out to repel the army of Narathihapade in 1277. One of the main descriptions of the ensuing engaement comes from that famous Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, who at the time of the battle was a new arrival in Kublai’s distant court at Khanbaliq. In Polo’s account, command of the Yuan forces is given to the general Nasir al-Din, the son of Yunnan’s governor, a Central Asian Muslim named Sayyid Ajall Shams ad-Din. Polo’s mis-attribution to Nasir al-Din is an easy enough mistake to understand; it’s likely Polo never had in his notes or memory the name of a minor commander like Qutuq, but did recall an association between the well known Nasir al-Din and an exciting battle again the King of Mien, as Polo refers to Narathihapade. For our reconstruction today, we will agree with the scholarship and place Qutuq in command of the Mongol troops.


The site where Qutuq and the Pagan King met is contradicted in the sources, either in the Vochang Valley in Baoshan, or at a site the called by the Burmese  Nga-caung-khyam [Ngasaynggyan- sorry David] in modern Yingjiang. The two sites are approximately 100 kilometres apart, though Nga-caung-khyam is the more commonly given location. It seems that Narathihapate led the invasion force himself, a mixed force of infantry and cavalry spearheaded by a contingent of elephants: on their wide backs were towers built to house archers.


    Qutuq was worried and outnumbered, but chose the site of battle carefully. Entering on a level plain early in the morning, he ensured the Yuan flanks and rear were protected by trees, while the ground before them was bare. Qutuq likely arranged his forces in a standard formation for steppe armies, a center and two wings, while Narathihapade’s force advanced in two large, extended wings of cavalry and infantry, staggered behind the line of elephants in the vanguard- 2,000 of them, if we blindly accept Polo’s numbers, along with 60,000 men on foot and horse.  It would be shocking if Narathihapade brought even half as many as this.


    According to Marco Polo, the Yuan commander rallied his seemingly outnumbered men through a short speech:


    And calling to him all his hrosemen, he exhorted them with most eloquent words that they would not be of less might than they had been in the past, and that strength did not consist in numbers but in the valour of brave and tried horsemen; and that the people of Mien were inexperienced and not practised in war, in which they had not been engaged as they themselves had been so many times. And therefore they must not fear the multitude of the enemy but trust in their own skill which had already been long tried in many place in so many enterprises that their name was feared and dreaded -not only by the enemy but by all the world; so that they must be of that same valour as they had been. And he promised them certain and undoubted victory.”


    After loudly playing their instruments, Narathihapde’s army advanced. The Mongols tried to hold firm, but the scent and sight of the elephants frightened their horses. Once he saw this, Qutuq acted quickly. He ordered his men into the forest beind them, dismounting and tying the horses’ reins to trees, then advancing on foot back onto the plain. Once in the open, the Mongols- and their local allies- began firing volley after volley of arrows into the elephants. The Burmese archers shot back, but clumped as they were in their towers they could not compete with the powerful Mongol bows. Though the elephants’ thick hides could not be penetrated, they panicked under the concentrated barrage of arrows. Before the elephants could meet the Yuan line, they became uncontrollable, and tried to escape: either through the trees, destroying the towers on their backs, or through the Burmese lines. 


    With this break in Narathihapade’s advance, sections of the Mongols began remounting their horses while the remainder provided covering fire, until the whole force was once more on horseback. Further details of troops movements are scarcer, but the lines finally met and fighting continued until noon. King Narathihapade worked his way up and down his lines encouraging his men, ordering fresh forces from his reserve, but, as per Marco Polo’s account, they were frustrated by the superior armour of the Mongols and their skills with the bow. Finally, Narathihapade and his men began to withdraw, but the Mongols pushed the advantage and it turned into a rout. Losses on both sides were heavy, but the smaller Yuan force had had the better of the day. 


The sudden attack and flight of its King made Pagan a more pressing matter to the Yuan court, which finally ordered Nasir al-Din bin Sayyid Ajall against the kingdom in winter 1277. Provided a force of 3,800 Mongols, Cuan and Musuo peoples, Nasir al-Din reached the important fort of Kaung Sin along the Irrawaddy River. Nasir’s force was however too small to progress far into the country, and the onset of hotter weather encouraged him to withdraw back to Yunnan early in 1278. Before he did so, a seemingly humbled Narathihapade agreed to pay tribute to the Great Khan and allowed 100,000 households along the Yunnanese-Burmese border to be placed under Yuan control. When Narathihpate was slow providing tribute, Nasir al-Din returned later in 1278 to enforce the treaty terms. Little is revealed about this expedition, but in July 1279 Nasir returned to the Yuan capital of Dadu with captured Burmese elephants in tow. 


By 1279 the Song Dynasty had been destroyed, yet Kublai Khan’s appetite for conquest was not sated, and his attention was increasingly drawn to the kingdoms across southeast Asia where Song loyalists could flee: Dai Viet, Champa, and Pagan. Once Narathihapade again lapsed on the treaty terms, Kublai had little difficulty ordering a proper invasion of Pagan while an invasion of Vietnam was already under way. The Great Khan must have imagined his rule would soon extend right into the Indian ocean. In December 1283, a full invasion of Pagan was launched, with 10,000 soldiers from Sichuan and Miao tribal auxiliaries under the command of Mongol prince Sang’udar.  Sang’udar’s army travelled jointly by land and on vessels on the Irrawaddy, taking Kaung Sin, Biao-dian and even the ancient Burmese capital of Tagaung in 1284, before withdrawing around May before the onset of the summer heat.


So quick was the Mongol movements that Narathihpate fled the capital of Pagan in a panic: it was for this flight that he earned the epithet Taruppye [also written Tarukpliy], “he who fled from the Chinese.” Tarup is the Burmese term for the Chinese, but was at this time used to refer to the Mongols- as such, some have argued it’s possibly a corruption of tujue, or Turk, in reference to Turks among the Mongol army, although the etymology is too difficult to pin down precrisely. 


Narathihapade sent one of his top ministers to Khanbaliq to talk terms, and discuss making Pagan into a Mongol protectorate, but these were protracted and went nowhere- or atleast, nowhere fast enough to improve Narathihapade’s position. His flight from the Mongols following his earlier defeat and the sudden overrunning of much of Upper Myanmar greatly diminished his authority, augmenting the existing crises his kingdom was facing- particularly a revolt among the Mon in Lower Myanmar, ongoing since 1273. 


Perhaps realizing the opportunity provided by the erosion in Narathihpate’s power, the Yuan rapidly ordered another march into Burma, this time under Kublai’s grandson and the Prince of Yunnan, Esen-Temur- not to be confused with another of Kublai’s  grandsons, Yesun-Temur, who reigned as Great khan from 1323-1328. With 6,000 Yuan troops and 1,000 Jin Chi auxiliaries, Esen-Temur forced his way through Burma in late 1286, taking Taguang again and Mong-Nai-Dian before possibly reaching the city of Pagan itself in spring 1287- it should be noted that some historians like Michael Aung-Thwin are not convinced the Mongols ever reached Pagan itself. Compounding the chaos, the broken and humiliated Narathihapade was murdered by his own son in 1287. 


In this breakdown, the Yuan seemed poised to finally bring Pagan under Chinggisid authority. Yet for all the Mongols’ military might, there was little they could do to stop disease from ravaging many of their troops and summer heat punishing the rest. Kublai’s grandson Prince Esen-Temur was forced to abandon Myanmar by 1289 with considerable losses. For troops used to less tropical climates, the rigours of campaign in Myanmar’s hot, humid summers and the quick spread of disease made them particularly deadly.


Diplomacy was sought as alternative; in the aftermath of the fighting after King Narathihapade’s death, one of his sons, the 16 year old Klawcwa, managed to claim the throne with the aid of the famous “Three Shan Brothers.” These brothers were members of the Pagan elite with military backgrounds, rising in stature for valiant efforts against the Mongols. It should be noted that, despite the popular description of the brothers as members of the Shan people, a Thai-speaking people in the region, there is no evidence whatsoever for what their background was; as noted by Michael Aung-Thwin, the description of them as Shans does not appear until the first English language comprehensive history of Burma, written by Sir Arthur Phayrie in 1883! The contemporary sources simply describe them as princes and a part of Pagan’s elite. Yet this single, perhaps accidental, description of them as Shans in a single secondary source from the nineteenth century has become part of their image in the literature ever since- an interesting example of why we should not blindly keep citing and reciting secondary literature, but revisit the primary sources as much as possible, and how modern boundaries of ethnicity are not useful or applicable when discussing events centuries in the past.  What is more significant for our purposes today than their ethnic origins is that by the time of Klawcwa’s ascension, they were among the most powerful men in the kingdom.


King Klawcwa managed sought to reverse the disastrous policy of his father with diplomatic appeasement of the Yuan. In order to regain control over the lower reaches of Pagan and increasingly powerful vassals like the Three Brothers, Klawcwa needed to not fear another disruptive Mongol attack. In 1297 he sent his son-in-law, Kumārakassapa to Khanbaliq, a clear sign of submission- one wasted as the Three Brothers revolted the next year, killed Klawcwa and placed his 13 year old son Sawnit on the throne as a puppet. This was the casus belli for the final Mongol attack on Pagan. On the order of the new Great Khan, Kublai’s grandson Temur Oljeitu Khan, Klawcwa’s son-in-law Prince Kumārakassapa was sent with a Mongol army to avenge the fallen king.  Over winter 1300-1301, the Yuan army besieged the heavily fortified Myin-saing, defended by the Three Royal Brothers,  which held out and ultimately bribed the Mongols into withdrawing,  taking Prince Kumārakassapa with them- an anti-climactic end to the final attempt to extend Mongol authority over Myanmar.


For the Three Brothers, their prestige after another successful repulsing of the Yuan was immense. The King in Pagan was a puppet as the three brothers essentially divided the old kingdom among themselves, each ruling as a de facto monarch in their own rite, until the last surviving brother, Sihasura, declared himself the King of Pagan in 1309. The descendants of one of Sihasura’s brothers would found the Ava Dynasty in 1364. While the Mongols failed to conquer Pagan, they did for a few years collect tribute from its monarchs; while they did not destroy the kingdom themselves, their attacks ruined irrigations systems and paddyfields, undermined the power of the Pagan kings and helped bring about the dissolution of the kingdom by the fourteenth century. Despite winning most of the field engagements, climate forced Mongol withdrawals and tactical successes could not be turned into strategic victories. With the retreat of the army in 1301, Myanmar essentially left the attention of the Yuan, though many of its princes would continue to pay tribute to the Great Khans for decades to come. 


Our next episode will take us to one of the least known of all Kublai’s failed expeditions, the attacks on Java, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.