The reign of King Bayinnaung of the Taungoo Dynasty has been described by a historian as the “greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma.” The empire he built is known as the largest in the history of mainland Southeast Asia, and in honor of the 464th anniversary of his coronation, we think his story is worth visiting.
Future-emperor Bayinnaung was born in 1516 as Ye Htut – presumably a commoner whose parents were employed by the royal family of Taungoo to take care of baby Tabinshwehti, who would later go on to be king. Ye Htut grew up with the future king and eventually became his right-hand man and brother-in-law.
Ye Htut’s military prowess came to be so prized by Tabinshwehti during his conquest of the Hanthawaddy kingdom – a rival Mon kingdom centered at Bago – that he was given the name “Bayinnaung,” meaning “king’s older brother” and was named heir to the throne.
However, when Tabinshwehti was assassinated in 1530, Bayinnaung’s claim to the throne was ignored by several usurpers who split the kingdom, which included much of what is today lower and central Myanmar.
Bayinnaung, still a military genius, clawed the kingdom back and was crowned king at Taungoo in 1551 and at Bago on January 12, 1554 – exactly 464 years ago.
Bayinnaung went on to conquer and repeatedly subdue Manipur (modern-day India), the Shan states, Siam (modern-day southern Thailand), Lan Na (modern-day northern Thailand), Lan Xang (modern-day Laos), and Arakan (modern-day Rakhine State).
Historian Victor Lieberman has written that Bayinnaung’s kingdom spanned “from Manipur to Cambodian marches and the borders of Arakan to Yunnan” and was “the most powerful monarchy in Asia except that of China.”
However, Bayinnaung did not colonize all of these lands or rule them directly, instead making local kings his vassals and demanding tribute from them, as was common among Southeast Asian conquerors of that age.
For that reason, soon after Bayinnaung died after a long illness in 1581 and passed the throne to his children, the largest empire in Burmese history crumbled.
Bayinnaung is still remembered in Myanmar as one of the three greatest kings, along with Anawrahta and Alaungpaya, who also founded great empires. He is also remembered in Thai history as the “Conqueror of Ten Directions” and in Laos history as an overlord whom the legendary king Setthathirath resisted.
The video above shows Bayinnaung’s territory explode outward during his reign before shrinking down over the next few centuries to the shape and size we know Myanmar to have today.