Book Reviews

Burma’s Lost Kingdoms:

Splendours of Arakan

by
Pamela Gutman
, photography by
Zaw Min Yu

2001. 188 pp., 180 colour and b/w photos, 5 maps, chronology, bibliography, glossary, index. 28.5 x 22 cm. Hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-98-1 $45.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-98-4


Burma’s Lost Kingdoms

Splendours of Arakan
Book review by Reinhard Hohler

(Tai Culture Vol. VI No. 1 & 2)


Arakan is one of the most unknown areas in the mainland of Southeast Asia, because it is far out in the wild west of Burma proper behind the mountainous barrier of the Arakan Yoma Range. There it streches along the Bay of Bengal, from the Naaf River as the border to Bangla Desh to Cape Negrais as part of the Irawadi Delta. Strangely enough, it is also the homeland of one of the oldest Buddhist traditions we have: the casting of the Maharnuni image, dating back to the time of the Buddha.    The chronicles tell us that Buddha visited the Selagiri Hill opposite the town of Kyauktaw with 500 disciples and journeyed into the city of Dhanyawadi at the request of King Sanda Suriya where his image was casted for the first time. All the following kings of Arakan, even after they have shifted their capitals to various other places, always venerated this sacred image, until it was finally carried away in the year 1784 as war booty under King Bodawpaya of Amarapura, who built the famous Arakan Pagoda in modern Mandalay. Since that time, Arakan, or the Land of Silver, has lost its independence and constitutes today one state within the Union of Myanmar.
   Pamela Gutman, an art historian, was first sent to Arakan in 1972 by Gordon H. Luce, author of the seminal Old Burma - Early Pagan ( New York 1969). She took her PhD in 1977 from the Australian National University for her thesis on Ancient Arakan, with special reference to its cultural history between the 5th and 11th centuries. Until today, she is an Honorary Associate Fellow of the University of Sydney.
   The book is a successful mix between a colourful coffee-table book and a more scholarly publication. The text is accompanied with a blend of 185 coloured plates, photographed by Zaw Min Yu, who has travelled widely in Burma and throughout the world, 9 construction plans of important pagodas and 5 maps, showing the sites of the old capitals of Arakan. The book’s contents are divided into 2 parts, a short note on the photography, a very useful historical time chart, bibliography, glossary, and index. The first part is setting the introduction and historical overview to Arakan, while the second part is illustrating the cities, shrines and sculptures. A special chapter is dedicated to the nat or spirit shrines which Arakan shares with other countries of Southeast Asia. Particular powerful spirits guard the cities and the country. Interesting to note is the female Wunti Nat who bears some resemblance to images of the Shakti cult of medieval Bengal (pp. 164-165).
   The traditional histories claim the origins of the Arakanese in a remote past when Marayu founded Dhanyawadi after having cleared the country of demon-like creatures, who may have been Chin mountain tribes. Dhanyawadi was a typical mandala city of early Southeast Asia, connected to the open sea by the Kaladan River. The power of the kings stemmed from the control of water storage systems to maintain the fertility and prosperity of the land. Paramount to the history of Arakan is the famous Shit-thaung pillar, a stone stele inscribed by kings from the 6th century on and carried from capital to capital. The Shit-thaung pillar inscription of Anandachandra, who ruled the next important city Vesali in the 8th century, records a genealogy of 22 kings. Anandachandra is described as a devout Buddhist, who welcomed monks from Sri Lanka to whom he sent an elephant and robes. Also, in the 8th century the Mranma, the modern Burmese, overran the Pyu cities of the Irawadi Valley and founded their center in Pagan. It is unclear, if the Rakhain people belonged to them.
   With the rise of the Burmese capital at Pagan, a series of Arakanese cities in the Le-mro Valley succeeded each other: Sambawak, Parein, Hkrit, and Launggret. It was King Min Saw Mun, who finally founded Mrauk-U with the help of a Muslim army from Bengal in 1433. The kings, though Buddhists, used Muslim titles, some issuing coins with Persian script. Under King Min Bin, Mrauk-U became the strongest fortified city with the help of the Portuguese in the 16th century. In the 17th century, the Dutch settled at Mrauk-U under King Sanda-thudhamma, whose coronation ceremony was attended by the Portuguese Jesuit Sebastian Manrique. The Dutch traveller Gautier Schouten visited Arakan in 1660. After that, Arakan lost more and more its influence and strength, and in 1784, the Mahamuni image was removed from Arakan to the Burmese king.
   Gutman describes the art and architecture of Arakan as art between two cultures: Hindu and later Islam and European art from the west, Buddhist art from Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, including Mon art, from the east. The oldest sandstone sculptures were found at the Mahamuni shrine in Dhanyawadi: lokapalas, dvarapalas, nagas and naginis, also some figures of bodhisattvas, dated to the Gupta period of the 5th century. The Selagiri images (p. 50) are similar to Mon Dvaravati in Thailand. Very interesting are the Bengali Buddhist Mainamati bronzes (p. 56) and standing stone images of Vishnu (p. 60). The Buddha images of the Le-mro Valley are in the Pala-Sena art of Bodhgaya and look alike to Sri Lankan, Pagan, Lanna and Sukhothai ones One crowned image (p. 68) even shows Nepalese-Tibetan influence.
   The main body of the book combines the vivid description of Mrauk-U as the earthly counterpart of Godking Indras’s Tavatimsa heaven. The area of the city is about 8 square kilometres with a palace site of nearly 2 square kilometers, where 49 kings resided in more than 350 years. The wooden palace disappeared a long time ago, once hiding some Khmer bronzes taken in war from Angkor Wat to Ayutthaya and thence to Pegu and to Arakan in 1600, before they were taken back to Burma in 1784. Over 70 important monuments, most of them built in grey sandstone brought from the coast, and various smaller shrines remain today and will be excavated or restored (plan 5 on pp. 76-77).
   The Shit-thaung, or Pagoda of 80,000 Buddhas, is the highlight of any visit to Mrauk-U with 3 labyrinthine passages and remarkable reliefs, depicting the 3 worlds of Buddhism. The whole structure resembles Mount Mem, the holy abode of the 33 gods of Hindu mythology. But the arched facade and the dome shapes of the roof stupas recall Islamic architecture of pre-Mughal Bengal. The Koe-Thaung, or Pagoda of 90000 Buddhas, is the largest one in Mrauk-U, while the Htu-Kan-Thein (p. 117) looks like a European fortress. There was a foreign enclave west of the city, where ships could safely harbour.
   The bronze images of Mrauk-U are well protected in the Palace Museum. A typical image is a crowned Buddha in the Yongle style of the Ming dynasty in the 15th-16th centuries (pp. 148-149). A series of composite Buddha images represents the 5 Buddhas or Bodhisattvas of our time: Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, the historical Gotama and the future Mertaya (pp. 154-155). Quite popular were Buddhas, holding a fan while preaching to the ogres (p. 159), and bronze models of votive stupas and shrines (p. 161). Also well known was the technique of lead glazed tiles and the production of jars with underglazed decoration (p. 162).
   Gutman built her brilliant work on Emil Forchhammer’s Report on the History of Arakan ( Rangoon 1892). The most recommended book to read is about the experiences of Friar Manrique in Arakan: The Land of the Great Image by Maurice Collis ( New York 1943). The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan by San Tha Aung (Rangoon 1979) is not mentioned in the bibliography, also the references of Paranavitana (p 110) and Zhou Daguan (p 100) are missing. Finally, the only subject the reviewer misses in this book are the origins of the Sanskrit inscriptions in Arakan, a script which can be traced back to the Egyptian hieroglyphs. But last not least, this excellent book of Pamela Gutman and photographer Zaw Min Yu is filling an important gap in the art history of Southeast Asia.

[Read a review from the International Quarterly for Asian Studies] [Read a review from Antiquity magazine] [Read a review from Asian Perspectives] [More Orchid Press Reviews]