What’s in a name? Origins of ‘Naypyidaw’

There’s been much confusion in English language media with respect to the translation of the name of Burma’s national capital, Naypyidaw (နေပြည်တော်). Conventional translations range from “abode of kings” to “royal capital” to “seat of the king” to “royal city.” All of these are mostly correct, but are without nuanced context.

To much intrigue and intrigue, the name Naypyidaw was first disclosed in December 2005, when an army spokesman announced that a new Naypyidaw regional military command would be established at the site. In July 2006, General Shwe Mann formally recognized that Naypyidaw would serve as the country’s new capital. The 2008 Constitution affirmed that Naypyidaw (officially spelled Nay Pyi Taw) is Burma’s new capital. The initial reaction was perhaps summed best by a leaked US diplomatic cable:

The various rumors and theories about the capital relocation share a single common thread: this is the work of Senior General Than Shwe, and him alone. Most of Burma’s ancient kings attempted to cement their legacy by relocating the kingdom’s capital. Than Shwe’s audacious naming of the new capital as “Seat of the King” suggest to many Burmese that the move may reflect his illusions of grandeur or is perhaps another sign of his possible dementia.

Literally, Naypyidaw simply means “royal city of the sun.” Naypyidaw can be broken up into the following words:

Word Translation
nay နေ sun, solar
pyi ပြည် kingdom, royal city
taw တော် royal, sacred

Why sun?

Traditional Burmese narrative holds that Burmese kings descended from a “solar race” (နေမျိုး, ne myo). Burmese kings commonly legitimized their authority by claiming descent from the solar race, often referenced in the origin stories of royal-commissioned historical chronicles. According to Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, C. 1580-1760 (1984):

Since at least the 16th century, Burmese monarchs married their sons to their daughters, nieces and granddaughters. If a prince succeeded to the throne, his wife with the purest royal blood commonly became his chief queen, and their eldest son was usually (though not invariably) designed heir apparent. These customs assumed that Burmese kings belonged to a unique “solar race” said to have started (according to alternate traditions) either with Mahasammata* or with Pyuzawhti*, offspring of a sun spirit. – Lieberman, p. 83

*In Buddhist mythology, Mahasammata (မဟာသမ္မတ, Maha Thammada) was considered the first king of the world and founder of the Sakya dynasty, to which Gotama Buddha belonged. *Pyusawhti (ပျူစောထီး) is the semi-mythical founder of the Pagan dynasty, the son of a solar prince and a naga princess.

So it’s no surprise that Burmese monarchs aligned themselves to the sun in order to legitimize their rule. The sun was an important sign of royalty. Nemyo was commonly used as a royal style. Moreover, the Burmese monarchy was symbolized by the dancing peacock (ကဒေါင်း, ka daung), which actually represented the sun, with the peacock’s displayed tail feathers analogous to the sun’s rays.

Connection to the Past

In pre-colonial days, Naypyidaw was regularly used as a suffix in reference to Burmese royal capitals (အင်းဝနေပြည်တော်, ရတနာပုံနေပြည်တော်, etc.). By the same token, the military government clearly appropriated this royal title for use in the name of the new capital, harkening to the good old days.

I find it interesting but unsurprising that the Burmese military would subscribe to these elements of pre-colonial Burmese history. After all, none of the post-colonial Burmese governments sought to establish an indigenous national identity that spanned both majority and minority heritages. And the Burmese military clearly has a natural affinity for the country’s Burman royal militaristic past. Three Burmese monarchs, Anawrahta, Bayinnaung, and Alaungphaya, are widely studied as military icons and even abut the entrance to the country’s premier military academy, the Defense Services Academy (DSA).


One thought on “What’s in a name? Origins of ‘Naypyidaw’

  1. Wagaung says:

    The spelling Nay Pyi Taw reflects their adherence to the monosyllabic Burmese language regardless of names such as Yangon, Mandalay, Mawlamyaing, Myitkyina etc. (fair enough the also new old Pyin Oo Lwin), so rather pedantic or semi-literate in established English usage of the names from the colonial days. Definitely suffering from grandiose delusions. As to the Sun there was however a royal tradition – thar go Thadoe, kyun go Nemyo – meaning a royal prince would be called Thadoe as in Thadoe Minhpya of the Ava Dynasty whereas a serving man usually a general received the title Nemyo as in Nemyo Mahathura Bala Minhtin.

    The other indication of their own educational status even in Burmese is the inability to distinguish between the common noun naypyidaw (royal capital) and a proper noun. We’d had Naypyidaw Restaurant, Naypyidaw School, Naypyidaw Shoes etc. but never Naypyidaw naypyidaw, only Innwa Naypyidaw (Ava), Yadanabon Naypyidaw (Mandalay) etc. in Burma until these clowns came along.

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