Lost Glory: Reviving Arakan Art

The state of Rakhine (previously known as Arakan) has lately been in the news for the violent clash between two religious communities which has adversely impacted the lives and livelihoods of many. Challenges of forced mass displacement, statelessness, absence of basic necessities and uncertainty for the future has troubled the Muslim Rohingyas. The state has been socio-economically neglected due to its peripheral location but has found international attention in part due to its desperate inhabitants crossing the borders to reach Bangladesh, India and other locations in Southeast Asia for survival. The ongoing conflict has overshadowed the important fact that this region was an epicenter of cultural activities during the 15th -18th centuries. The region, which is also home to other ethnic groups like the Chins, Chakmas, Khumi and Mro, has innumerable heritage sites and valuable evidence of a thriving cultural past. There was a time when this region was richly adorned with beautiful palaces, exquisite temples/pagodas and impressive cities which showcased inhabitants’ artistic excellence. Images and descriptions of its grandeur crossed frontiers with several travelers and craftsmen contributing to spreading its creative spirit. Sadly, most of its glorious heritage is under the threat of being forgotten and, today, remains in ruins. Interestingly, Arakanese history extended over a much larger socio-cultural landscape and influenced many more people than the present day territorial boundaries. It is vital to revisit the cultural symbiosis and the trans-regional artistic links of the past and to successfully regain the capacity and urge to recover its lost glory.

Arakan’s powerful kingdom was established by King Noromikhla (1429-1433) who used to bring artisans from the Bengal Sultanate, with its capital in Gaur. The Bengal Sultanate (14th-16th centuries) used to encompass a vast terrain, covering areas of present day Bangladesh, India (state of West Bengal) and Myanmar (state of Rakhine). It was strategically located and culturally influenced Arakan immensely. Power in Arakan changed hands several times in recent centuries, firstly with the Burmese occupation of the area from 1784 to 1826 followed by the British occupation from 1826 to 1948; each rule left its imprints.

The region has been historically referred to by various names. From Roshang in Bengal to Rakhangapura in the Sri Lankan chronicles; from Yakhai in Ayutthayan chronicles to Arakan locally. The region saw the amalgamation of a traditional Southeast Asian Buddhist court with an Indo-Muslim culture, the latter being the impact of the Sultanate in Bengal. The influence was very much visible in the courts of the Arakanese kings (in the sphere of poetry and writing, calligraphy, music, painting) and is a reiteration of the plural space which existed, necessary for the blooming of a composite culture.

Arakan was central to the construction of a Bengali identity and connections between the two areas ran deep. Whether it was the preaching and practicing of Tantricism, the migration of Bengali Vaishnavas from Navadvipa to Arakan, or the reference to Arakan in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore (Indian poet, philosopher and Nobel laureate), the strong linkages were for all to see. Tagore believed that Arakan had the strength to bring Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism together. The cross-border connections are evident when one examines the Ballad tradition and folk poems of eastern Bengal (current day Bangladesh). One such Ballad being the Suja Tanayar Vilapa which means the lamentations of Suja’s daughter (the Mughal prince Shah Suja’s daughter was forcibly married to the king of Arakan and disliked eating ngapi/fish paste, thus her complaints). The 16th and 17th centuries saw the Bengali language spoken widely in Arakan with Chittagong and Mrauk-U being the two important centers of Bengali literature. In fact, Sanskrit titles written in the Bengali script have been found on some Arakanese coins. Moreover the court of Arakan decided as to which Kavya or Mahakavya (epics) would be translated in Bengali for the Bengali population in Arakan.[1] There was regular movement of monks between Arakan, Bengal and Tibet which reached its height in the 16th century (according to Tibetan sources) with Arakan playing a crucial role in transmitting the Buddhist imagery of Pala Bengal to Pagan.[2] Thus, there were clear signs of intermingling of different thought processes and beliefs, enriching the Arakan cultural trajectory.

The ancient cities of Mrauk-U (the Arakanese capital that was described as ‘a second Venice’ by a 17th century visitor), Dhanyawadi and Vesali (named after the famous Indian city Vaishali) dazzle the cultural repertoire of Arakan. It is believed that all three cities had stone walls and the Selagiri Hills had stone sculptures and inscriptions dating from the 6th to the 16th centuries. The Petroglyphs of Pyaingdet-taung and Padaw, add to the artistic range of this region. Pagodas such as the Shittaung or ‘Shrine of Eight Thousand Images’ were richly decorated with birds, fish and parades of horses and elephants.[3] Craftsmen would be commissioned by rulers like Ananda Chandra (c.720-c.729) to create religious objects for both Hindu and Buddhist institutions. Thus one finds varied items being created like lotus flowers of silver for use in Hindu puja (worship) before deities, the Buddha, and the Bodhisattvas, as well as gold and silver leaf for palace decoration.[4]

The city of Mrauk-U (also called Myo-haung) was founded by Min-saw-mwan in 1433. The diaries of the Augustinian Friar Father Sebastian Manrique, who visited Arakan between 1628 and 1633, describe the Mrauk-U palace as comprising an audience hall and private apartments built of gilded and lacquered teak.[5] The temples of this region were richly decorated with images of the Buddha, men in native attires dancing, boxing and wrestling, and kneeling devotees bearing lotus buds.[6] The famous ‘Maha-muni’ Buddha image which can be seen today in Mandalay was brought from Arakan. The square shaped strong face of the Buddha is a typical Arakanese image (Arakan became known as the ‘Land of the Great Image’). A number of bronze objects (bells with ancient Arakanese and Sanskrit inscriptions along with miniature stupas) have been found in Dhanyawadi (c. AD 146-788) and Vesali (AD 788-1018).[7] Father Manrique’s accounts describe the textile splendours of the Arakanese courts where weavers were highly respected.[8]

Elizabeth Moore, while describing the architecture of the state, especially its monuments (15th and 16th centuries), compares it with the tradition of Bihar (a state in eastern India), again highlighting the similarity in cross-border architectural forms. Two characteristics deserve mention, firstly the use of brick and stone and secondly, the fortress-like appearance of the religious buildings surrounded by walls with almost no decoration.[9] It is believed that the Arakanese traded with Southern India, as ‘dipams’ or lamps (typical of South India) have been found with a lamp found in Vesali (pre-11th century) having the Arakanese script inscribed on it.

Rakhine state is scattered with innumerable artistic jewels which require sustainable preservation and protection. But the state faces multiple challenges like an absence of professional expertise, no systematic cataloguing, non-uniform renovation, and poor connectivity. Its inability to attract enough tourists is also a hindrance in providing a motivating factor for looking after its priceless treasures. The state has suffered from border conflict and the looting of art, which has interfered with the maintenance of artifacts. However, the shared cultural history of this region has always remained important, with prolific writers like Amitav Ghosh bringing its beauty in his novel The Glass Palace. It would be useful to embrace this artistic past and use it to build stronger bonds for the future across national borders. Art can also be used as a communicative medium to express one’s opinions about contemporary issues and raise social awareness.

In 2003, a new concept was developed by the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO which stated that heritage includes both tangible things like monuments and architectural forms as well as intangible things like oral tradition, languages, music and performing arts, festive events, rites and social practices, cosmologies, learning systems and beliefs, the process of creation, skills and know-how. The intangible heritage still lives on in the state through the celebration of its festivals and religious rituals like the water festival of Kasone where people pour water to the Bodhi tree. Thus, there is also an urgent need to survey the living culture of residents in the area. The Government plans to nominate Mrauk-U for World Heritage Listing and the Ministry of Culture’s archaeology department along with the state authorities have been trying to work out the process of digital mapping.

Finally, the younger generation needs to step in to protect their own heritage. Innovative ideas and creative minds can create a canvas of hope and positivity, art being a very powerful instrument in channeling exclusivist tendencies into an inclusive outlook. Also, Myanmar needs to participate in the larger debate on the future of Asian art. Its art maestros need to find a common platform where they can express their concerns and show solidarity with other fellow-creators, thereby creating a fluid and stimulating regional aesthetic space. Some steps have recently been taken in the right direction, as an exhibition of paintings by three Arakanese artists was organized in Yangon to convey the message of togetherness against the backdrop of Rakhine culture and landscapes. Also six artists from Myanmar were included in the regional survey exhibition of the annual Dhaka Art Summit as South Asian artists. This is an interesting development as it takes us back to the history of Arakan where artistic boundaries were porous and people were not restricted by territorial markers.

Museums all over the world also have a role to play in promoting the artistic excellence of Myanmar. Special exhibitions, talks, seminars and promotional events on Burma collections can not only raise interest but also lead to funds being raised for protection and preservation. The Ashmolean museum in Oxford has a sandstone Buddha statue from Arakan (1200-1400); the Buddha is making the gesture of touching the earth to bear witness to his Enlightenment along with two heads of Mara’s demon warriors below trying to disturb his meditation. It is a reminder of the beautiful craftsmanship of the area which everyone should cherish. Instilling pride in one’s own trans-national cultural history and developing a healthy sense of togetherness could be a starting point in creating communal harmony in a state which is struggling with the politics of exclusion.

[1] Chakraborti, Dr. Swapna Bhattacharya (2006), Islam in Arakan: An interpretation from the Indian perspective: History and the Present, Kaladan News, 11 October &  Bruijn, Thomas de, Culture and Circulation: Literature in Motion in Early Modern India, https://books.google.co.uk/
[2] Gutman, Pamela (2001), Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan, Bangkok, Orchid Press, pages 150 & 61.
[3] Gutman, Pamela, Hudson, Bob, Htin, Kyaw Minn and Aung, Kyaw Tun (2007), Rock art and artisans in the Lemro Valley, Arakan, Myanmar, Antiquity, Volume 81, No 313, September, pp. 657- 673.
[4] Singer, Noel. F (2007), Sculptures from Vaishali, Arakan, Arts of Asia, Volume 37, No 4, July-August, p.100.
[5] Lu, Sylvia Fraser (1994), Burmese Crafts-Past and Present, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 18-19.
[6] Ibid., pp. 69-71.
[7] Ibid., pp.124-131.
[8] Ibid., p. 254.
[9] Moore, Elizabeth (1998), ‘Religious Architecture’ in Falconer, John, Moore, Elizabeth, Kahrs, Daniel, Birnbaum, Alfred, Di Crocco, Virginia McKeen and Cummings, Joe (eds), Myanmar Style-Art, Architecture and Design of Burma, London, Thames and Hudson, pp. 36-37.

Author: reshmioxford

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is currently an Academic Visitor in the Asian Studies Centre in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She was previously a research associate in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in SOAS, University of London where she worked on land conflicts in Myanmar and on the political economy of the Indo-Myanmar frontier. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations in the University of Indonesia (UI) and was a researcher in the Economic Research Center, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta.She is a political scientist with specialization in food security and agricultural policies and has an M.Phil and Ph.D in the subject from the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.