"Please stop Crony capitalism-nization in Myanmar Now!"
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Burma’s Lost Kingdoms Splendours of Arakan (4)

Book review by Michael W. Charney (Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Asian Perspectives Vol. 42 No.1 University of Hawaii Press)

Western Burma (or Arakan) has long been Burma’s neglected corner for historical and art historical research. In the early 1890s, Eniil Forchhammer, a colonial-era scholar, produced the first lengthy study of the epigraphy arid art history of early western Burma (Report on the Antiquities of Arakan, Rangoon, published by the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1892). Other scholars followed, including San Shwe Bu, in the early decades of the twentieth century, and U San Tha Aung, in the early 1970s, contributing significantly to our knowledge of pre-eighteenth-century western Burma. Pamela Gutman added much to this literature in 1976, when she submitted her Ph.D. dissertation, “Ancient Arakan, With Special Reference to its Cultural History between the 5th and the 11th Centuries,” to the Australian National University. Since then, Gutman has published numerous articles on the numismatics and art of western Burma. In the 1990s, a relative “boom” occurred in the historiography on pre-modern Burma, covering early modem trade, state formation, European interactions, cultural exchanges between western Burma and Sri Lanka, and art history. While the present volume appears to be targeted to a popular audience, it touches upon some of this historiography and helps to summarize it into a coherent survey of early western Burmese history.
The book consists of a balance of photographs by Zaw Min Yu and Gutman’s descriptive text. The photographs are of a very high quality and should prove informative to anyone who has not yet visited Mrauk-U, the royal capital of the early modern kingdom of Arakan (c. 1430s-1780s), or the towns that preceded it. Although travel to western Burma was restricted for some time by the Burmese government, it is now open to tourists, and Mrauk-U is accessible up the Kaladan River from the town of Sittwe.
Gutman’s text provides a summary of some of the key events and developments in western Burma ‘s history in order to put the photographs into context. Forchhammer (1892) provides a more detailed discussion of the temples than that offered here, but Gutman compensates for this by her incorporation of material on Buddhist images and other developments not considered by Forchhammer. Gutman also draws attention to recent developments, such as the “destruction” of the Santikhan mosque, presumed to be an early fifteenth-century structure (p. 86). Along a similar vein, Gutman’s discussion generally raises awareness of the changes that Mrauk-U’s structures have undergone, making on-site analysis difficult (p. 100).
As with any book, there are problems. It is likely the case that the style of this volume appears to be geared to a popular audience. Thus, specific citations of pages and volumes are not used. Only a slim survey of the literature appears in the bibliography, with several crucial works missing (for example, Catherine Raymond’s “Etude des Relations Religieuses Entre le Sri Lanka et l’Arakan du XIIc au XVIIIc Siècle: Documentation Historique et Èvidences Archèologiques,” Journal Asiatique 283(2): 469-501, 1995, and the various works of U San Tha Aung). This reviewer strongly recommends that any future edition of this book utilize specific citations, and include a broader survey of the literature, so that it will be more useful to scholars.
With a coherent general survey of early western Burmese art and architecture and a very absorbing body of photographic material, this volume will appeal to a wide audience. While its usefulness for researchers is limited, for the reasons mentioned above, those desiring an introduction to western Burma will find this to be an interesting book.


Leave a Reply