To clear the way for his unusually long and prosperous reign, the 12th-century King Narapati-sithu of Pagan disposed of an entire regime, including his ruling brother, numerous other family members, their supporters and courtiers and, finally, the late king’s tutor. The tutor was Anantathuriya, a renowned Burmese poet who, while awaiting sentence of death, composed such moving verses that the king relented. A stay of execution was ordered; but alas, it was too late. The poet had been beheaded before his reprieve was heeded. Only his poem survived, an elegy on remorse and the transitory nature of life well suited to haunting both the king and the pagoda-strewn ruins that Pagan soon became.
The young Wendy Law-Yone learnt this poem at school in Burma in the 1950s. Her history teacher was wont to recite it with trance-like feeling through a set of ‘mesmerising teeth … so large and higgledy-piggledy they constituted an obstacle course whenever she opened her mouth to speak’. Reaching the