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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Burma’s Lost Kingdoms Splendours of Arakan (2)

Book review by Charles Higham (Antiquity March, 2002, p 277)

A surviving Indian text records that in the mid 3rd century BC, the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka ordered a mission east by Gavampti, Sona and Uttara, to spread the knowledge of Buddhism. Historical and archaeological research has demonstrated that the exchange of goods and ideas led to a rich vein of Indian influence among the early states of Southeast Asia. This is manifested in the adoption of Sanskrit titles, aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Brahmi script and use of coinage and seals. In 1985, an article entitled ‘The Indianisation of Southeast Asia’ appeared in the World Atlas of Archaeology. It provided a map showing the principal sites where Indian influence has been documented. Curiously, this map does not include one site on the Arakan coast of western Burma, the region most likely to have been among the first to engage in trade relations with the Empire of Ashoka.
This omission is the more remarkable because it is recorded, in a local tradition, that the Buddha himself visited Arakan, landing on Selagiri hill with 500 disciples. He was greeted by the King Candrasuriya, itself a good Sanskrit name, and agreed that his image be created. The resulting mahamuni statue is believed to be the only true and contemporary likeness, and is generally regarded as one of the most sacred objects in the Buddhist world. In 1784, it was seized from its resting place in Arakan and taken by King Bodawpaya to Mandalay. It is now so covered in gold that the original form cannot be discerned.
Of all the countries of Southeast Asia, the late prehistory and early history of Burma is least known, and within Burma itself, most research has concentrated on the early states of Pyu and Pagan. Therefore, this synthesis is aptly entitled. The early Arakanese kingdoms have been overlooked in studies of early Southeast Asia, and this book does much to rectify the imbalance.
After a summary of the sequence as a whole, the book describes the principal stages in the development of civilization in four chapters. It begins with the earliest city of Dhanyawadi, and describes the mahamuni tradition and surviving archaeological and sculptural remains dating from 300 to 500 AD. Although it must be beyond doubt that late prehistoric sites ancestral to the first cities exist in Arakan, archaeological research has yet to tackle this important period. We learn much of the early royal line from the Shit-thaung pillar, an inscription in Sanskrit that was added to by kings of the Arakanese Candra Dynasty from the 6th century AD. According to tradition, the pillar was regarded as a legitimizing force, and was moved between successive capitals before reaching Mrauk-U. The most important and informative section of the inscription was the work of King Anandacandra. and dates to 729 AD. It details the names of 22 kings dating from the 4th century. It also describes his religious foundations and endowments, and donations to monasteries as far afield as Sri Lanka.
In the early 6th century, the capital was moved from Dhanyawadi to Vesali. The second chapter describes this city, the walls of which enclosed an area of 450 ha. The author stresses its convenient location on a river, giving it access to the sea and trade routes. These brought objects of Mediterranean origin to Arakan, while Vesali coins have been recovered in Bangladesh. Excavations have also uncovered the foundations of Buddhist monuments which, according to the Shit-thaung inscription, received patronage and gifts from the king whose palace lay in a central, walled precint within the city.
The third chapter is devoted to the kingdom that flourished in the Le-Mro valley from the 11th to the 15th centuries, a period when Arakan came under the influence of Pagan to the east. It is thought that the first capital, Sambawak, was founded in 1018. Unsettled conditions, internal uprisings and the predatory ambitions of Pagan to capture the mahamuni image made these unsettled times in Arakan, and the capital moved at least five times until the foundation of Mrauk-U in 1433.
The fourth section follows the history of Mrauk-U, a history strongly influenced by the arrival of Portuguese in the middle years of the 16th century. Arakan then became a force to be reckoned with, disposing of a strong navy and engaging in widespread trade. While foreign merchants and artisans had their own cantonments outside the walls of Mrauk-U, the city itself captured the imagination of European visitors, one of whom wrote in 1660 that ‘It would be difficult to imagine a more entrancing landscape’.
The scholarly importance of this book lies not only in its descriptive material of a long-neglected area, but also for the way in which it permits comparisons to be made with similar and contemporary transitions to civilization in Central Thailand, the Mekong Valley and coastal Vietnam. While it stands alone as a synthesis of this key area, the text is enhanced by a generous number of outstanding colour images taken especially by Zaw Min Yu. These display the rich artistic heritage of Arakan over almost two millennia, and contribute to making this volume a vital and handsome addition to the literature on early states in Southeast Asia. In future, no historic atlas will have a reason for excluding Arakan.

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