The Australian National University
Department of Asian Civilisations
Buddhist and Hindu images
art and architecture
|Description:||The early history of Arakan has been generally considered to be that of a province of eastern India, and hence its study has been neglected by both Indian and Southeast Asian historians. This dissertation seeks to examine the dynamics of the history from the beginnings of urbanization until the rise of the Burmese empire which subsequently dominated Arakanese culture. The first chapter deals with the geographical and ethnolinguistic background to the development of the earliest cities. In the second, all the inscriptions of the period, in Sanskrit, Pali and Pyu are catalogued and edited. The inscriptions issued by the kings establish a chronology for the period and illustrate the nature of the cult surrounding the institution of kingship, while copper-plate and votive inscriptions elucidate the nature of state organisation and the popular religion. Chapter Three deals with the coinage which emerged following the development of a centralised economy, and discusses the impetus for this and the role of the king on whom the prosperity of the country depended. A comparison with similar coin types in Southeast Asia is made and the catalogue includes all the coins yet discovered. The sites of the most important monuments are discussed in Chapter Four, which catalogues all the architectural and sculptural remains. A comparative analysis of the Buddhist and Hindu images and of the minor arts reveals, to a greater extent that do the inscriptions, the nature of contact with India and the rest of Southeast Asia. The conclusion deals with the political and cultural history which thus emerges, examining in detail the rationale behind the development of the concept of divine kingship in Arakan.|
|Appears in Collections:||ANU Digital Theses|
It's not easy to collect information, record and thesis regarding about history and culture of Arakanese in Burma. In my personal point of view, there are only a few scholar that they are willing to public in Myanmar language. Therefore, when I study about Arakanese history and historical art objects, most of references are from foreign sources that done by foreigner. I would like to share one of the best talk by Jacques Leider which is full of resources and knowledges. It would be most appreciates that you comments something for this talk.
Original Link @ http://www.intgcm.thehostserver.com/diary2002_230th.html
230th Meeting – Tuesday, November 26th 2002
Arakan, a Buddhist Kingdom of Southeast Asia
A talk by Jacques Leider
Present: Dianne Barber-Riley, Mark Barber-Riley, John Cadet, Kate Callahan, Bill Dovhey, Roshan Dhunjibhoy, Leo A. Von Geuson, Peer Hijmans, Carole Hernandez, Otomi Hutheesing, Maggie McKerron, Ranee Lertleumal, Brian Migliazza, John Moncreif, Niels Mulder, Nicole Ngo, Mark Osborne, Pierre Quartier, Emmanuelle Richaud, Ian Ross, David Steane, Duang Tan Le, Alix Txe, Michael Vickery, Ricky Ward, Arthur Wright. An audience of 26.
The full text of Jacques Leider’s talk.
1. The geographical setting and the population
Starting on Bangladesh’s eastern border, Arakan covers the stretch of land which runs south to Cap Negrais where we reach Lower Burma. Arakan's heartland is the fertile plains of the Kaladan and the Lemro River running in a north-south direction towards the Bay of Bengal.
The classic Pali name of this area is Dhanyawati, which means rich in grain, and indeed, rice cultivation has always been the backbone of Arakan's economy. A striking feature seen on any topographic map is the mountain barrier which separates Arakan from the Irrawaddy valley. This is the Arakan Yoma running down from the Himalayas in a north-south direction. It is a mountain range densely covered with jungle forest. Passes crossing the Yoma were few and they needed to be cleared, roads had to be repaired and taken care of annually. Monsoon rains in Arakan are among the heaviest in the whole of Southeast Asia and can reach a level of over 5 metres or 16 feet per year. Climatic conditions render coastal navigation difficult for many months of the year. Nonetheless, when you are in Arakan it is easier to go to Bengal than to Burma. The study of Arakan's history and culture can only be undertaken if we pay attention to its close connection with Burma, Bengal and India at large.
Who are the contemporary inhabitants of Arakan? Like everywhere else in Myanmar, we face a complex situation. The so-called Arakanese nowadays form the majority of Arakan's multi-ethnic population. They are a Tibeto-Burman group closely related to the Burmese and they speak a Burmese dialect with archaic features when you compare it with the modern Burmese language. Scholars generally consider that the Burmese settled in the Kyaukse area in Upper Burma during the ninth century AD. So the Arakanese may either have arrived earlier or roughly around the same time, being merely a branch of the Burmese in ethno-linguistic terms.
Hill tribes like the Mro, the Daingnak, the Kami and the Cak are Tibeto-Burman as well and likely settled in the country before the arrival of the Rakhine-tha, as the Arakanese call themselves. The British annexed Arakan after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). During the early colonial period, there was a heavy influx of Muslim Indian labour, coming mainly from Chittagong. This led to a demographic imbalance, notably in the border areas with Bengal where, since the 1920s, the Indian Muslims formed an overwhelming majority of the population. This situation led to communal and political problems that have not been solved up to now. It is possible that the Muslim population of Indian origins now forms roughly a third of Arakan's population.
2. Early History of the Kaladan and Lemro valley (Central Arakan)
The early history of Arakan is still largely a blank spot on our map of Southeast Asian history and has as yet not attracted sufficient scholarly attention. While many studies have been dedicated to the Indianization of Southeast Asia by way of the sea, there has been barely any effort to understand the connection by land between India and Burma. Arakan is obviously one of the frontiers between South Asia and Southeast Asia and thus should recommend itself as an interesting field of study. The land connection involves for example the question of how Indian Buddhism expanded into Burma and what forms of exchange and communication between Burma and India passed by the land route, i.e. through Arakan.
Our actual knowledge of the early history of Arakan is restricted to the Upper Kaladan valley. Traces of settlement in this area go back to the 2nd century AD. Attention of local scholars and archaeologists has focused on the site of Vesali where excavations were undertaken only twenty years ago. It is probable that Vesali was for some time the centre of a local chiefdom that flourished between the 4th and the 8th century AD. Our knowledge of the civilization of Vesali is based on the archaeological evidence of the foundations of brick buildings, a city wall and a surrounding moat, on iconography, and coins bearing the srivatsa symbol and occasionally the name of a king.
In terms of political and dynastic history, our most precious source is a list of kings given on the so called Anandacandra stone pillar placed near the Shit-taung pagoda in Mrauk U, the later capital. Besides a succession of legendary kings, the Anandacandra inscription contains a list of kings who reigned between the fourth and the seventh centuries AD. They all bear titles which included the name of Candra. These Candra kings were very likely related to the Candra dynasty of Harikela in southeast Bengal.
Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism and possibly Brahmanism coexisted in Vesali. We can only speculate on the population of this early kingdom. It is reasonable to assume that they were of Aryan stock and probably mixed with a local Tibeto-Burman population. At what time exactly the Arakanese or Rakhaing as they call themselves, immigrated and settled in Arakan is, as I previously said, a matter of further research, but it could be tentatively dated to the 8th or early 9th centuries AD. Were there any Mon in this area? Do Pyu coins found in Arakan suggest that there were Pyu people living in Arakan? We do not know. The problem is similar to the one we face elsewhere in Southeast Asia, for example the arrival and progressive settlement of the Thai people in the river plains of Thailand. Did they conquer the country? Did they peacefully mix with the already established population? Did they arrive by waves or they trickle down south? And so on. As for Arakan, we simply do not know.
Local dynastic lists, as found in the Arakanese chronicles, reach back to a legendary king Marayu who would have lived in the 3rd millennium BC. The strong feeling of religious identity of the Buddhist Arakanese has developed around the myth of the Mahamuni statue. According to Pamela Gutman, an Australian scholar who did research on the early Arakanese history, the Mahamuni is a statue of the Buddha, probably Mahayanist, and dating back to the 4th to 6th century AD. For most Arakanese, though, it is an unshakeable article of faith that during the lifetime of Lord Buddha,
King Candasuriya of Arakan invited the Buddha to Arakan. The Enlightened One flew through the air and descended on Mount Selagiri near the modern Kyauktaw village where King Candasuriya requested the favour of having a true to life copy made of the Buddha. The veneration of the Mahamuni by the Arakanese and the importance of this paragon statue for the Arakanese monarchy for centuries is next only to the prestige and the status of the Phra Kaew in Thailand. In one way or another, the Arakanese have always ascribed a magical power to the sheer presence of the Mahamuni statue on their soil and so the fate of their kingdom was, in their perception, intimately linked to the statue. In 1785, the Burmese, led by the son of King Bodawphaya, conquered Arakan and deported the statue to Upper Myanmar.
The history of Arakan from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD is still hidden in the dark. It is generally referred to as the Lemro period. Lemro means 'four cities' in Arakanese, and indeed this is the period of a succession of four cities whose names were Pin-sa, Pa-rein, Khreip and Laung-krak. Lemro is also the name of the river along which these cities were situated. Apart from the last one of these cities, not much is known of the other ones, where there have been no archaeological excavations at all. There has been as yet no serious study of the chronology of the period. We have at the moment only various dynastic lists whose dates do not match each other.
The greater part of the 14th century, for example, is covered by the reign of a king who is said to have reigned for a total of 106 years (Min Hti 1279-1385).
This period runs parallel to the rise and splendour of Pagan in Upper Myanmar. Tilman Frasch noted that the inscriptions of Pagan contain hardly any useful information regarding Arakan. In the later chronicles, it is said that King Alaungsithu of Pagan invaded Macchagiri, which could possibly be identified with northern Arakan, but even if we accept this evidence, there is little more that could be said about the matter. At least one of the Arakanese chronicles also refers to an intervention of King Alaungsithu, but one can hardly interpret this single fact as a sign of Pagan hegemony.
The study of Bengal's history, too, does not provide hard facts that could, even partly, dispel the mist surrounding Arakan's history during these centuries. As Pagan art and architecture are so much indebted to the Pala art of Bengal, it is not so far fetched though, to believe that there were likely direct contacts made between Upper Myanmar and Bengal which involved Arakan as well. We know very little about the kingdom of Patteikhaya situated in the area of Chittagong and from where King Kyanzittha received a bride.
It is also not so far fetched to consider that Buddhist monks fleeing the progress of the Islamic expansion found a refuge in Arakan and Upper Myanmar, as they did during an earlier period in East Bengal and Assam. Muslim power in Bengal was established in the 13th century, but while the Buddhist university of Nalanda may have died a sudden death, it is likely that Buddhist communities in East Bengal stayed on for a longer period and could have ultimately repaired to Burma and Arakan, where Buddhism was strongly established.
3. The Rise of a Kingdom: Arakan's Age in the Bay of Bengal
The emergence of a kingdom - 15th and early 16th c. (1404-1531)
The mist surrounding Arakan's early history gradually disappears at the end of the 14th century as the historiographical sources, though written later, contain slightly more factual information on the reigns of the kings. We also have various dynastic lists, some references in the Burmese chronicles, coins and a few inscriptions. But much information regarding the early kings of the so-called Mrauk U dynasty is legend and myth. There are clearly facts behind these legends, but to state them in clear terms involves some degree of speculation.
At the end of the 14th century, the political situation in the capital Laung krak had deteriorated and the kings of Ava succeeded in appointing, at least for a few years, a member of their own royal family to the throne of Arakan. In 1406, an army sent by Ava invaded the country, the Arakanese king ran away, and the Burmese appointed a governor. But this man was ejected a few years later when Mon troops sent from Pegu (in Lower Burma) took control over the country.
This situation, when Mon and Burmese kings fought for control over Arakan, lasted until around 1426, when the king who had fled the Burmese invasion twenty years earlier, came back. He came back allegedly with the help of Muslim fighters. As there are no contemporary Bengal sources available, we do not know if these Muslim troops were mercenaries or if they were indeed provided, as an Arakanese chronicler wants us to believe, by the Sultan of Bengal. (Sultan Jalal-ud-din). As these later chronicles contain even more unlikely stories surrounding this king, official support from the Sultan of Bengal is doubtful.
The king we are referring to was Min-co-mwan, who then became king for the second time around 1426. In 1430, he founded the city of Mrauk U, which remained the capital of the Arakanese kingdom until 1785.
The successors of King Man-co-mwan enlarged their territory along the coastline to the north-east and to the south where Mon governors under the authority of Pegu were probably still in charge until the middle of the 15th century.
These Arakanese kings also fought the hill tribes of the Sak in the north. Sak is the name of an ethnic group of northern Arakan which is now very small. I believe that the term as used in the chronicles refers to the Tripuras of Eastern Bengal. Slowly these Arakanese kings grew more confident of their power and were able to deal on a par with their neighbour kings of Ava. In 1454, the Arakanese king met his counterpart from Ava and they agreed on a common border, the watershed of the Arakan Yoma, the mountain range which separates Arakan from Burma.
From the second part of the 15th century on, the Arakanese kings were also taking part in the struggle for the control of the port-city of Chittagong. Their competitors were the Sultan of Bengal, the local Muslim governors and the kings of Tripura. At the end of the 15th century and during the first part of the sixteenth century, Chittagong was the most flourishing port of the sultanate of Bengal. We are rather well informed about the importance of Chittagong, which received its first visitors from Portugal around 1516.
The Portuguese sailors and chroniclers called it Porto Grande and many of them who did not want to live under the control of the Estado da India based in Goa, came to settle there.
In relation to the rest of Bengal, Chittagong was situated somewhat on the periphery. Unsurprisingly this situation allowed its local governors to be relatively independent and the 1521 description of the Portuguese embassy to Bengal clearly demonstrates that a cosmopolitan elite of Muslims coming from the Middle East and Western India unselfconsciously dominated the city.
This point needs to be emphasised as Chittagong lay closer to Arakan than to the greater part of Bengal and when the Arakanese succeeded, three decades later, in firmly controlling the city, it had for them an incomparable strategic advantage and became of major economic importance.
Stepping out of Bengal's shadow (1531-1571)
Up to the early 16th century, the small kingdom of Mrauk U grew in the shadow of the great and prestigious sultanate of Bengal. Under the dynamic reign of King Man Pa (1531-1553), Arakan developed a profile of its own and clearly demonstrated its strength, its pride and its ambitions.
Man Pa attacked southeastern Bengal and probably succeeded in maintaining Arakan's sway over Chittagong for several years. Unfortunately the indigenous sources on Man Pa eulogise the king's military expeditions to a point that makes it rather difficult to say when, and up to where the Arakanese troops actually marched. It probably happened around 1539 or 1540. After this date, the Decadas da Asia of Diogo do Couto, (Portuguese chronicles) are suddenly silent regarding Portuguese activities in the area of Chittagong. On the other hand, the unstable political situation in southeast Bengal, and notably in Chittagong in 1538 and 1539, makes an Arakanese invasion at that time likely.
In 1545/1546, Man Pa successfully resisted a Burmese invasion, by land and by sea, led by the first emperor of the Taungngu dynasty, Mintayashweti or Tabinshweti. We would be going too far to state that the Arakanese won the battle against the Burmese. It was rather their skilful defence system that helped them to dissuade the Burmese from staying in the country. The defence system comprised of a system of dykes and water reservoirs that flooded the surroundings of their capital, and also, the city was defended by an intricate combination of the natural protective shield of the surrounding hills and successive ranges of brick walls, artificial lakes and stonewalls.
According to the Arakanese sources, in 1534 the king also successfully beat off a Portuguese armada. To celebrate his success, he founded, it is said, the Shit-thaung pagoda. This pagoda remains until today the most important sanctuary of Mrauk U and its architecture demonstrates a strong influence of Bengal's 16th century Muslim architecture.
There is no doubt that the invasion of Bengal and the resistance against the Burmese invaders, firmly established the kingdom's reputation in the region. But the confusing account of battles led by Man Pa's successors against Tripura and the local Muslim lords of the Chittagong area shows that Arakan in the middle of the 16th century was only one among several more or less equal competitors. This changed at the end of the 16th century.
The Age of the Warrior Kings (1571-1638)
I have called the decades from 1571 to 1638 the age of the Warrior Kings as war and expansion are the hallmarks of this period. During the successive reigns of three kings, Man Phalaung, Man Rajagri and Man Khamaung, Arakan vastly expanded its territory. During the early seventeenth century it succeeded in controlling the whole coastal strip from the Feni River, far north of Chittagong, down to Cape Mawdin/Negrais, the southwestern tip of Lower Burma. It threatened both Eastern Bengal, which was frequently invaded, and Lower Burma.
In 1576, an important year in Indian history, the troops of the Mughal emperor Akbar conquered Bengal and put an end to the independent sultanate of Bengal. This conquest destabilised the political order in south and eastern Bengal. Afghan Muslim lords fled with their troops to East Bengal, many local lords, Hindu or Muslim, resisted the conquerors, so that despite the annexation, the Mughals had to struggle for three more decades before they really controlled the whole country.
Bengal was weak and the Arakanese kings immediately seized the opportunity to renew their control over Chittagong. This time they maintained their power over the flourishing port-city. From approximately 1578 to 1666, Chittagong was the most important port of trade of Arakan and a pillar of its economic life. The export of locally made textiles, slaves captured from all over Bengal thanks to annual slave-raids, salt, sugar-cane, elephants from Arakan's jungles, and rubies coming over the Arakan Yoma from Ava, ensured a flow of income which the earlier kings had never known. This newly found wealth further stimulated the territorial ambitions of the kings.
In 1580, merely two years after occupying Chittagong, King Man Phalaung successfully resisted a new attempt by the Burmese to conquer Arakan. Bayinnaung, the Burmese Napoleon, the conqueror of Ayutthaya in 1569, failed dismally. The chronicles don't elaborate, but the reasons for this failure were probably the same as the first time. The Arakanese successfully ruined the progress of the Burmese troops who finally negotiated their retreat.
About twenty years later, in 1598, King Man Rajagri, the son of King Man Phalaung, allied himself with the king of Taungngu (in Central Burma) and laid siege to Pegu, the capital of the Burmese empire. Pegu fell. The Burmese emperor Nandabayin, who for over a decade had bled white the rural countryside to conscript men, mostly Mon, into the armies he sent against Siam, was deported to Taungngu and sometime later executed. The Arakanese king, quite rapidly, had returned home with a white elephant, a princess and other members of the royal court of Burma, and thousands of Mon, who were resettled in the Kaladan valley. But when the King of Siam, Naresuan, invaded Lower Burma to get his share of the booty, the Arakanese came to help the King of Taungngu's relatively weak forces. They sent another fleet to cut off the waterways so that the Thais, lacking provisions, were forced to retreat.
Probably around the same time, the Arakanese took advantage of the power vacuum in Lower Burma and occupied the port-city of Syriam, one of the three main Burmese ports integrated in the Bay of Bengal trade network. As the Arakanese king did not feel himself able to revive the flow of trade that had been hit by several years of warfare and severe depopulation, he entrusted Syriam to one of his Portuguese captains, Felipe de Brito y Nicote. De Brito had been in the service of the Arakanese king for twenty years, and now he saw the opportunity to make himself independent. He went to Goa, asked for the help of the Estado da India and returned not only with a daughter of the Vice-king, but also with a promise of future military support. Basically he had to count on his own forces, but in a way he had redeemed himself with regard to the Portuguese crown and with official backing, he could reject the authority of the Arakanese king. In 1602, de Brito was firmly in power, a power based on a bunch of fellow Portuguese countrymen, on alliances with local Mon lords, and probably also on favourable terms to revive the local trade. As a matter of fact, the Arakanese who had hoped to derive some profit from this trade and from the control of Syriam came out as the big losers. In 1605 and 1607, the Arakanese sent fleets and tried to regain control over Syriam, but on both occasions their fleets failed to get the better of the Portuguese artillery and the newly erected stone fortifications. But in 1613, the Burmese troops of the King of Ava successfully attacked Syriam and put an end to de Brito's mini-state. A Portuguese fleet sent from Goa arrived late and could not prevent the disaster. It was unable to help de Brito, who was soon executed by the Burmese, and his surviving men, who were deported to the region of Shwebo in the north. On Arakan's northeastern frontier, the king faced a comparable situation.
On the island of Sandwip lying at the mouth of the Meghna River to the northeast of Chittagong, another Portuguese captain, who, unlike de Brito of Syriam had never been at the service of the Arakanese king, behaved as an independent lord. His name was Sebastiao Tibau and for the Arakanese he was, for a number of years at least, more of an annoyance than a threat.
Just like de Brito, Tibau appealed to Goa for help to maintain his local power. When the fleet sent by Goa to save de Brito in Syriam failed to do so, Tibau called for their help to attack the capital of Arakan and thus take control over the whole country. In 1615, the Goan fleet took the lead in the attack and sailed up the Kaladan River. But as the Arakanese were well prepared and had the support of two Dutch ships, the Portuguese fleet failed dismally. The year 1615 marks the end of more than a decade when Portuguese captains were able to shape events in the region.
These details explain why at the time and for succeeding decades, Portuguese communities still flourished along the coast of the northeastern Bay of Bengal and why Portuguese mercenaries became an essential part of the troops of the Arakanese kings.
Arakan's rise was possible because of the weakness of its neighbours at the end of the 16th century. But in the 1620 and 1630s, the Mughals had full sway over Bengal and a new reinvigorated Burmese kingdom had taken root around the capital of Ava. So any further expansion of Arakan was impossible. Arakan lived under a constant threat by its hostile neighbours, but this threat did not jeopardise Arakan's regional hegemony towards the end of the 17th century.
Contentment and prosperity (1638-1692)
In 1638, a former minister, Narapati, took power and gave rise to a new dynasty on the Arakanese throne. This happened, curiously, in the year 1000 of the Arakanese Era (sakkaraj). The new king spent several years to firmly establish himself on the throne. But this dynastic break did not fundamentally change the policy of the Arakanese kings.
What were the human and material resources that enabled these kings to be what they were and to do what they did?
First of all, one should recall that the valleys of the Kaladan and Lemro rivers are fertile plains for rice culture, and could thus feed a large population. Rice was a staple product that became a major export item during the 17th century.
Secondly, Arakan suffered little from deportations due to invasions, unlike what happened in other parts of Southeast Asia, so that the population may have been growing over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Nonetheless, the kings of Arakan pursued a keen policy of increasing their demographic base by deporting large numbers of Bengalis from East and South Bengal's countryside. At the end of the sixteenth century, these deportations were probably directly linked to the expansionist designs of the kings, but during the seventeenth century, they were actually at the core of a flourishing slave trade that made Arakan the main 'producer' so to speak for slaves in the Bay of Bengal.
The slave trade as such lay in the hands of the mixed Portuguese community settled in the Chittagong area. With their Arakanese crews, they sailed or rowed up the rivers of Bengal and deported the population of whole villages to Arakan's ports. The policy of the kings was such that all people who had any kind of professional qualification and technical abilities had to join the royal service groups, while all the other unqualified people were sold into slavery.
From the 1620s to the 1660s, many thousands of slaves were bought by the Dutch VOC and deported to Batavia. The Dutch would probably have bought more than they did, but hundreds of slaves often died before they even reached the Dutch ships. Ironically many of these Bengalis caught in East Bengal were sold in a market on the opposite Coromandel coast.
The Arakanese of today do not appreciate when the Burmese refer to their dark complexion as coming from their mixing with Indian blood. There is no doubt though that in the 17th century whole villages in Arakan consisted of Bengalis who were either Muslims or Hindus and worked as lamaing, agricultural service groups, on the lands of the kings.
Thirdly, after the Arakanese conquest, Chittagong maintained its importance as an entrepôt port on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal. Besides rice and slaves, locally produced goods such as cotton textiles, sugar, salt and betel nuts were exported. As we mentioned, rubies from Upper Burma found their way over the Arakan Yoma mountain range and were exported to India. Arakanese elephants were also exported.
There was no indigenous trader class. Most traders were Muslims from South and Southeast Asia and they created the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Arakan's capital, which was described by Sebastiao Manrique, a Portuguese monk, and Wouter Schouten, a Dutch doctor, in the middle of the 17th century. On the other hand, Dutch sources make it clear that members of the royal house were involved in the export trade. Here lies one of several similarities with Ayutthaya, whose kings also had commercial assets besides their territorial i.e. agricultural wealth. (Similarities: importance of trade for the state, traders-identities, and involvement of the court)
One should not forget that, as a consequence of successful wars and invasions, the kings readily amassed a considerable fortune. One may think for instance of the booty made when Pegu was taken. If we can believe Portuguese and Italian descriptions of the early 17th century, Pegu must have been one of the richest cities in the world at the moment when the first Taungngu Empire was dismembered. One may also think of the royally sanctioned piracy that went on for decades, until the eighteenth century when Arakan lost its prestige as a regional powerhouse, but kept its image of seafaring terror.
Fourthly, the main tool of territorial expansion and defence was the Arakanese navy. In a country where rivers are the most convenient way to go from one place to another, it seems obvious that boats are the principal means of communication. In terms of military power, it was the fleet that was the main instrument of the kings' power. As in Burma, a large part of the population in Arakan was organised in royal service groups. Some would be sweepers, craftsmen, artists or farming the royal rice fields. A lot of them were soldiers and they were living with their families in villages, many of which had originally been founded for the establishment of specific royal service groups. We do not unfortunately have many details about these matters, but the case of the Mons deported in the early seventeenth century becomes rather clear through historiographical and administrative sources.
A sizable number, probably a third of the Arakanese royal forces, were not ethnic Arakanese. Besides the Mon and the Portuguese who have been highlighted, there were also Muslim mercenaries in Arakan. Some Afghan lords may have fled with their men to Arakan after the Mughal conquest of Bengal in 1576. Well educated Muslims also gained high positions at the court of Arakan. Some of them had earlier been captured by Arakanese fleets on the high seas and deported to Arakan.
The fleet manned by all these men counted several hundred and even thousands of boats and ships. Portuguese and Dutch sources do indeed occasionally talk of thousands of boats. Besides the two-masted sailing ships, probably manned by Portuguese and Portuguese mixed bloods, the main force of the Arakanese fleet were mostly sturdy rowing boats used on the rivers as well as for navigating along the coast. Their construction allowed them to survive storms. At the same time, they allowed fast movements that could surprise an enemy and thus have a psychological impact that was undoubtedly part of a well-calculated tactic for gaining an early advantage over the enemy.
In 1624, the Arakanese fleet destroyed an entire Mughal fleet lying near Dhaka. They performed a similar deed in 1664 when Bengal's government was weakened by a year of transition between two governorships. But two years later, the new governor of Bengal, Shaysta Khan, put into effect a well-planned and masterly organized military campaign to re-conquer Chittagong. In 1666, Chittagong fell.
The Mughal governor Shaysta Khan, who had also taken the lessons from the earlier Mughal failures to invade the coastal strip north of Chittagong, had bought off many Portuguese. Chittagong was lost and with it went a great part of Arakan's trade and the revenues of the kings. Arakan itself was not invaded by the Mughals, though there had been plans to do so.
It very much seems that, despite the considerable loss, the court of Arakan and the king himself were not seriously weakened during the next two decades. One may think that the royal house was rich enough to sustain the military establishment that had been created to defend the kingdom. While thousands of Bengalis tilled the rice fields of the Kaladan valley, many thousands of Arakanese settling around the capital had been at the kings' disposal to man the fortresses at Chittagong and around the city. These men had been annually shifted. Where were they to go? After 1666, after the Mughal conquest of Chittagong, the court probably faced a big problem of integrating a massive flow of people who came back to Arakan's heartland. Nonetheless the country remained stable and the royal authority did not waver until the end of the King Candasudhammaraja's long reign of 32 years. Candasudhammaraja died in 1684. A few years later, the kingdom of Arakan was in shambles. Towards the end of the century, the inner political order literally broke down because kings lacked the resources to maintain the full control of the country.
The palace guard set up kings who were puppets. Pretenders to the throne were roaming the countryside and trade was badly hit by the decline of a central political authority. This situation lasted until the early 18th century. But even if the kings then recovered part of their earlier power, the kingdom never regained its former extension and strength. It was the Burmese King Bodawphaya who in 1784 sent his troops to Arakan and took control of the country. The Mahamuni statue was taken to Mandalay. The court of Arakan, the Brahmins and many Arakanese were deported to Upper Burma as well.
6. Studying Arakan's Cultural Development
Obviously Arakan's history can just be studied for itself. But this approach may be somewhat narrow and borders in some ways on a form of self-centred local history, nationalist history or contributes to the building of a myth of Arakan. If we take a broad approach, extending our view to the neighbouring areas in the Bay of Bengal, to India, to Burma and the wider world of Theravada Buddhism, we may have a chance to get a better understanding of Arakan's unique past.
1. A cultural frontier
First, there is a tremendous interest in studying Arakan as a frontier area. It lies at the border where South Asia hits Southeast Asia. It is a part of Southeast Asia, but it cannot be studied without directly referring to Indian's culture and history and especially Bengal, which is its closest neighbour. Looking at the neighbouring regions from an Arakanese point of view, Bengal is indeed more accessible than Burma proper.
On the one hand, we have to acknowledge that Southeast Asia and South Asia are geographical and cultural spaces that can be differentiated. On the other hand, any study of a frontier like Arakan points to the fact that we are dealing with open frontiers where there is as much a coexistence of differences as a field of mutual influence and exchange. So scholars may wonder what we can know about the relationship between Arakan and its neighbours beyond the outline provided by the chronicles and other narrative sources? What kind of influences can be identified in the fields of art and architecture, iconography, numismatics, religious cults? One may focus more generally on the relations between Islam and Buddhism. Was there any kind of religious or cultural syncretism?
A number of facts are known already, but need much further investigation. The cult of the pirs, Muslim saints at places called Badr Maqam along the coast from Bengal to Tenasserim is well known, but has never received thorough academic attention. The field of Arakanese numismatics, where the influences of Bengal are clearly perceptible, needs further investigation.
In an inspiring paper, Swapna Bhattacharya from the University of Calcutta has analysed the poetry of the Muslim poets of Bengali origin who lived at the 17th century Arakanese court and could relate their work to the political context of Arakan-Mughal relations. (Dawlat Qazi and Al Alaol)
Arakan itself is a cultural ground much more complex than the historical narrative of the kings may suggest. We have to pay attention to the diversity of its population (ethnic groups), the opposition between people of the plains and people of the mountains, the differences of the conditions of people living in North and Central Arakan, closer to Bengal, and those of South Arakan, closer to Lower Burma. In the context of such an approach, the contemporary political border separating Bangladesh, India and Burma has no intrinsic meaning. Unfortunately there is no culturally sensitive dialogue or productive academic exchange between these countries, focusing on the issues outlined here.
2. Arakan as a part of Myanmar/Burma
Another approach could focus on Arakan's place in the context of Burmese history. Mon and Pyu influences have been discussed in relation to Burmese culture and history, but close to nothing has been said about the Arakan-Burma relationship. Arakan's historical development is distinct and quite original and it definitely shows many differences with the evolution in Burma proper. On the other hand, it shares with Burma many ethnic, religious and cultural affinities. Anthropologists may even reject the label of "ethnic minority" when referring to the Arakanese.
In the context of Myanmar Studies, Arakan is thus of special interest. First of all from the point of its linguistic development. Arakanese is an archaic dialect of Burmese that shows a lot of regional varieties that have not hitherto been studied. It is an Arakanese poem that is generally accepted as the first piece of Burmese literature. But historians of Burmese literature generally assume that Arakan was influenced by the Upper Myanmar kingdoms, rather than the other way around.
In ethnic terms, the Arakanese are closely related to the Burmese, but they have developed distinct cultural traits. This cultural variety has also up to now been poorly acknowledged. How much is this cultural development due to a distinct development, to a mixed ethnic and religious heritage or to the cultural impact of the neighbouring areas? Such a study is not without social and political overtones. To tell a Buddhist Arakanese for instance that the status of women in Arakan seems to have been strongly influenced by Islamic customs will speedily raise controversy.
We do not know exactly when the so-called Arakanese arrived in Arakan and how we have to imagine their invasion or penetration into Arakan. This problem raises the question of the later relations between the Tibeto-Burma population of Arakan and the emerging kingdoms in the Irrawaddy valley. At least for the last five hundred years, it should be possible to further develop the study the relations between Arakan and Upper and Lower Myanmar.
Looking at the architecture of religious monuments, there is a clearly perceptible switch from an Indian/Western influence during the 16th century to a Lower Myanmar influence starting at the latest around 1630. Mention Buddhist iconography and you find another field to explore.
Such an approach questions the nationalist approach where all history is history of the Burmese majority while local and ethnic history gets attention only when like a minor river, it flows into the greater stream of the culturally predominant. National and nationalist historiographers are successors of the colonial historiographers who were mainly interested in the history of the Burmese who had left texts and monuments, while equally culturally important or relevant minorities such as Mon, Arakanese or Karen would not deserve an autonomous existence as objects of study.
Sources for you
- ▼ 2011 (9)
- ► 2010 (38)
- ► 2009 (102)