The name Inwa (အင်းဝ) literally means "mouth of the Lake", reflecting its geographical location at the mouth of lakes in the Kyaukse District. Another theory states that it is derived from Innawa (အင်းနဝ), meaning "nine lakes" in the area. The city's classical name in Pali is Ratanapura (ရတနပုရ; "City of Gems").
The modern standard Burmese pronunciation is Inwa ([ʔɪ́ɴwa̰]), following the modern orthography. But the local Upper Burmese pronunciation is Awa ([ʔəwa̰]). Indeed, the spelling of the city in the royal records, all written prior to the modern Burmese spelling standardization drives, is အဝ (Awa), the phonetic spelling of the Upper Burmese usage. The most common Western transcription Ava comes from Awa via Portuguese.
Inwa was the capital of Burma for nearly 360 years, on five separate occasions, from 1365 to 1842. So identified as the seat of power in Burma that Inwa (as the Kingdom of Ava, or the Court of Ava) was the name by which Burma was known to Europeans down to the 19th century.
Strategically located on the confluence of Irrawaddy, and Myitnge rivers, and in the main rice-growing Kyaukse District of Upper Burma, the location of Ava had been scouted as a possible capital site as early as 1310 by King Thihathu. Though Thihathu eventually built his new capital at Pinya a few miles east inland in 1313, Thihathu's great-grandson Thado Minbya, who unified the Sagaing and Pinya kingdoms in September 1364, chose the site of Inwa as his new capital.
Inwa was officially founded on 26 February 1365 (6th waxing of Tabaung 726 ME) on a man-made island created by connecting the Irrawaddy on the north and the Myitnge on the east with a canal on the south and the west. The construction of the artificial island also involved filling in the swamplands and lakes (or Ins):†
The brick fortifications of Inwa do not follow the conventions of the earlier rectilinear city plans. Instead, the zigzagged outer walls are popularly thought to outline the figure of a seated lion. The inner enclosure or citadel was laid out according to traditional cosmological principles and provided the requisite twelve gates. (The inner city was reconstructed on at least three occasions in 1597, 1763, and 1832.)
The kingdom Thado Minbya founded with the capital at Inwa became known as the Ava Kingdom, the main polity of Upper Burma until 1555. During this period, the city was the center of a flourishing literary scene in which Burmese literature "grew more confident, popular, and stylistically diverse, chiefly through the efforts of monks who chose to write in the vernacular rather than, or in addition to, in Pali." The period also saw the second generation of Burmese law codes (dhammathats), which critiqued earlier compilations, new poetic genres, and the perfection of older verse forms as well as the earliest pan-Burma Burmese language chronicles. The city got a new "exquisite golden palace" in February 1511 by which King Shwenankyawshin is posthumously remembered.
During this period, the capital city was the target of the kingdom's rivals. It came under siege in 1404–1405 during the Forty Years' War. Over a century later, on 25 March 1527, the city finally fell to the repeated attacks by the Confederation of Shan States and the Prome Kingdom. It then became the capital of the unruly and often disunited coalition until 22 January 1555 when it was captured by King Bayinnaung. The city's 190-year run as the capital of Upper Burma came to an end.
The city became the capital of all Burma during Toungoo and Konbaung periods (1599–1613, 1635–1752, 1765–1783, 1821–1842). The city was the base from which kings Nyaungyan and Anaukpetlun restored the kingdom which had temporarily disintegrated in December 1599. In January 1635, King Thalun moved the capital back to Ava from Pegu (Bago). The city was sacked on 21–23 March 1752, and subsequently burned down on 3 January 1753 by the forces of Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom. King Hsinbyushin began the reconstruction of the city in March 1764, and moved the capital back to a newly rebuilt Ava on 23 July 1765. King Bodawpaya moved the capital to Amarapura in May 1783 but his grandson King Bagyidaw moved it back to Ava in November 1821.
The end of the city came via a natural disaster. Starting on 22 March 1839 (7th waxing of Tagu 1201 ME) the Inwa–Amapura region was hit by a series of earthquakes. The main earthquake hit the region, as far west as Sagaing, the next day, at five o'clock in the morning on 23 March 1839, and many tremors followed for days afterwards. The entire region was left in shambles in their wake. The capital was hardest hit: everything was leveled; many people and livestock perished. The city was not rebuilt. King Tharrawaddy chose instead to rebuild a new palace in Amarapura, and moved the seat of his government there in February 1842.
The former capital city site is a popular tourist day-trip destination from Mandalay. Tourists can still observe a few remnants of the capital, including Nanmadaw Me Nu Ok Kyaung, the Nanmyin Tower, the inner and outer brick city walls, etc.
Inwa is located 21 kilometres (13 mi) south of Mandalay. It is on the way from the Mandalay International Airport to Mandalay. Cars can go up to the Myitnge river. It takes a 3-minute boat ride to cross over to the former capital site. On the Inwa side, a number of horse-drawn carts await the tourist business.