The land that is known as Arakan by the foreigners is called Rakhaing-pray by its own people, Rakhaing-thar (Arakanese) who were titled this name in honour of preservation on their national heritage and ethics or morality.

The Maha Muni Image and its Rough Path

Posted by Arakan Indobhasa Saturday, July 25, 2015 0 comments

U Khin Maung Saw, Berlin

1. Introduction:

Maha Muni Image is a colossal image cast in bronze and inlaid with gold. Hence, this statue became the envy of almost all of the kings of Burma. Whenever they expanded their empire, they tried to rob this holy image. Finally in the year 1784 A.D, the Burmese King Bodawphaya succeeded to annex Arakan into the Burmese Empire and took the holy image.

Here again some Arakanese, headed by U Htun Zan (U Htuan Zan) and U Thande, went to Ava to request the Burmese king to liberate Mrauk U from the incompetent King Maha Thamada of Arakan like the way some Arakanese requested King Min Gaung (Man Khaung) of Ava in 1403 that Min saw Mun (Man Saw Muan) be overthrown. It cannot be ruled out that it was a conflict between the Arakanese from the North and those from the South because Maha Thamada and his predecessor were not from Mrauk U but from Rambree Island.

Believe it or not, according to some Arakanese Chronicles, Alaungphaya (Alomphara) alias U Aung Zeya, founder of the Konbaung Dynasty, the last dynasty of the Burmese kings, was an Arakanese (Rakhaing) prince, whose mother fled the kingdom while she was pregnant because there was a palace revolution at Mrauk U and her husband, the king was killed. The Arakanese Chronicles stated that it was the main reason why Alaungphaya and his sons never invaded Arakan during the reign of Alaungphaya and his two elder sons although Arakan was very weak at that time. It was shown in history that Alaungphaya and his successors invaded and annexed almost all of their neighbors, including the kingdoms of Mon, Siam, Changmai, Langxiang, Assam and Manipur but not Arakan.

Some traditional Burmese historians like Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, U Pho Kyar and Deedok U Ba Cho supported this hypothesis.

When Burmese king Bodaw U Waing sent his son, the crown prince then, to invade the Kingdom of Arakan and to snatch Maha Muni Image, the Arakanese did not resist properly, hoping that the Burmese army headed by the crown prince would overthrow the hated king of Arakan, Maha Thamada and liberate Arakan because the Burmese crown prince was a son of Bodawphaya that means he was a grandson of Alaungphaya, hence, he was also of Arakanese abstraction. Only Maha Thamada's followers resisted. The hope of the Arakanese (Rakhaing) was illusory, however. The Burmese army annexed Arakan and took the Holy Shrine of Maha Muni Image to Ava.

The Burmese Royal Armies looted this colossal image from the Arakan City or Mrauk U after the Burmese conquest of the Rakhaing Kingdom in 1784. They used the Arakanese prisoners of war, about thirty thousand including the last King of Arakan, Maha Thamada, as slave labor to carry that colossal image across the mountain range and for other slavery works like the reconstruction of Meikhila Lake, the aborted war against Siam etc. etc.
After the Burmese conquest, the Arakanese Kingdom was abolished forever. The Burmese totally forgot that they shared the same language, culture and religion with the Arakanese. Their conquest resulted in a complete destruction of Arakan and her people. The Burmese troops had a great amount of savagery in their disposition. Equally distressing was the loss of the national symbol, the Maha Muni Image.

The statue can be seen nowadays in the outskirts of Mandalay. The Burmese called this image Phaya Gyi (Phara Gree) which is the literal translation of Maha Muni. During the British Era, the temple was called ‘The Arakan Pagoda’ by the British.

During the First Anglo-Burmese War many Arakanese helped the invading British armed forces with the hope that they could liberate their country with British help. Apart from that, there was agreement between the Arakanese and the British that the Holy Image would be returned to Arakan. The hope of the Arakanese (Rakhaings) was however, illusory because the statue was never given back to the

Arakanese even after the whole of Burma became a British colony from 1886 to 1947, with the gap of three years Japanese occupation 1942 - 45.

2. The legend

It is believed that the Maha Muni Image was cast at about 563 B.C during the reign of King Sanda Thuriya (Chandra Suriya) of the Dhanyawaddy Dynasty in the presence of Lord Buddha himself accompanied by 500 disciples who were Arahats.

According to the legend, Lord Buddha and King Sanda Thuriya (Chandra Suriya) were bosom friends in one life, while they were cow herds. They were very fond of each other and therefore they left a statue or a picture of the person, when that person had to travel to other place. That’s why Sanda Thuriya (Chandra Suriya) requested Lord Buddha to leave his statue when he had to go back to India and Lord Buddha agreed.

It is also believed that five copies of the Image were also cast and Lord Buddha predicted that the Holy Image (the original) would remain in Arakan for 5000 years.

U San Shwe Bu, on the other hand, wrote: The great outstanding feature in the history of Arakan is the account of Buddha's sojourn in this country and of his supervision over the casting of his image. The story of his seven day's visit with five hundred Rahandas, his lengthy discourse pregnant with prophesy delivered on the top of the hill opposite the town of Kyauktaw, his Journey into the city of Dynnyawaddi at the request of King Sanda Thurya, the casting of the image by men and gods, have been very clearly set forth by the able researches of the late Dr. Forchammer and need hardly be mentioned again in the present sketch. The Mahamuni tradition is the oldest of the kind we have. It permeates the whole religious history of Arakan and the images that at present sanctify a thousand temples and pagodas in this country are the replicas of the first great and only faithful copy of the Master.

Interesting as all these facts may appear there is, however, one great flaw which defies any attempt at reasonable explanation. King Sanda Thurya ascended the throne of Arakan in 146 A.D. all available records are pretty well clear on this point. If we take 483 B.C as the date of Buddha's death there is a very large gap of over six hundred years between the two events, his sojourn in Arakan and his death at Kusinara. This is quite difficult to explain away and judging from the extreme paucity of documents that treat of those far-away days. I am inclined to think that the problem is one likely to be added to the long list of unsolved riddles of the universe. It is true books belonging to this country have a fatal defect, that they represent facts and beliefs at the time they were written, or acquire the form in which we now find them, without much reference to facts at the time at which they were supposed to have happened. Besides this Burmese books especially bear unmistakable signs of being treated, that is to say, they often take up an important event, enlarge upon it, and then relate how it was prophesied generally by Buddha many centuries before.

In spite of these adverse peculiarities of the East, I entirely agree with the learned Doctor that the Mahamuni Tradition is not an after-thought. It is genuinely old and was implicitly believed in by successive generations that came after it. Kings of Arakan, even after they had shifted their capitals to various other places, always recognized it as a sacred duty to visit it from time to time and generally made it the occasion for great religious feasts of charity. In such cases they invariably left some votive offering, may be a small shrine or an image, as a memento of their distinguished visit.

On the other hand it is not my purpose here to try and reconcile this great discrepancy in time as I am convinced of the utter futility of the task. The very fact that neither Buddha nor any of his five hundred Rahandas who accompanied him into Arakan ever made mention of this unique event in the many subsequent discourses delivered in India is sufficient to tempt one to lay down the pen so far as this point is concerned”.
Here I would like to say, Buddha was Nepali, born in Nepal and made ‘Pre-Nirvanna’ in India.

According to Indian sources, the earliest Buddha statues, paintings and images can be traced back only after four hundred or five hundred years after his death and not earlier. Apart from that some Buddhists believe that Buddha himself had forbidden the production of his pictures or statues for worshipping, instead he recommended to follow his teachings and philosophy, the Dhamma, through his ‘sons’, the Sangha.

In Zinnahta Pakathani Kyam (Jinnatha Pakasani10) written by the Abbot of Kyee Thei Lay Htat Monastery, there is an interesting story, how the ‘God of Destruction’ Maara11 was tamed by the Arahat Uppa Gutta, about 300 years after the Pri-Nirvanna of Buddha.

According to that legend, the Arahat Uppagutta (Shin U Pagote) gave a harsh lesson to the ‘God of Destruction’ Maara (Maar-nat) by hanging a putrid corpse of a dog at Maara’s neck. Since Ahrat Uppa Gutta was mightier than Maara, Maara could not remove ‘his necklace’ for a week. When the ‘God of Destruction’ Maara was tamed and said that Buddha was so kind to him but the Arahats were so cruel, so he wished to become a future Buddha in one of the coming ‘worlds’, however he would never wish to become an Arahat. Then, Uppagutta asked Maara how Buddha looked like, because he had never seen how Buddha looked like and requested Maara to create the image of an ‘Imitation Buddha’. Maara said he could show Uppagutta, how Buddha and his Arahats walking together to receive offerings, however, Uppagutta had to promise him that he should not pay homage or worship those creations and imitations because it was not the real Buddha.

Uppagutta promised. Then Maara created those imitations. Unfortunately, however, Uppagutta forgot his promise and he worshipped those imitations. Then, Maara's body flew like a bullet and hit Mount Meru.

Based on this legend, it has to be concluded that there were no pictures and sculptures of Buddha at that time, otherwise, the Arahat, Uppagutta did not need to ask Maara to create an ‘Imitation of Buddha’.

Not only in the case of the Holy Image Maha Muni, but also in the other Pagoda Legends of Burma, including the legend of the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda, all of them were constructed while Buddha was alive. In the legend of Shwe Dagon Pagoda, it was also stated that the Pagoda was built by human beings and Devata (Nats) together. We have to consider that in all religions, the legend and the real history are different. Here I would like to suggest: “Let the believers to continue with their own faith and let the historians write their own facts, theories and hypotheses in their own papers or publications.
The readers should decide themselves.

3. The attempts of the Burmese kings to snatch the holy image.
3.1. The First attempt

About the year A.D 1050 King Anawratha (Aniruda) of Pagan invaded Northern Arakan and forced Arakan to become his vassal state. At that time Arakan was ruled by a king of the Pyinsa (Pransa) (Prancha) Dynasty whose name was not mentioned in Burmese chronicles. King Anawratha (Aniruda) wanted to take the Maha Muni Image to Pagan, however, his attempt failed. The Arakanese Chronicles recorded this Invasion as "The king of the Prus came together with ninety thousand Pru soldiers" because the Arakanese called the king of Pagan as ‘Pyu Ta Thein Shin’ (Pru Ta Thein Shan) "The Supreme Commander of one hundred thousand Pru soldiers".12 This was the first attempt of the Burmese kings to snatch the Holy Image, and also it was the first historically recorded contact between the Burmese kings and Arakanese kings.

3.2. The second attempt

Arakanese and Burmese chronicles recorded that the Arakanese king Min Bilu (Man Bilu) was murdered by his minister Athinkhaya (Athankhaya) at A.D. 1068. Min (Man) Bilu's son Min Ye-Baya (Man Ree-Baya) took refuge by King Kyansittha of Pagan and requested the Burmese king to help him regain the throne. However, King Kyansittha was not able to help him, most probably it was more important for the Burmese king to solve ethnic conflicts between the Burmese and their archrivals, the Mons, because there were wars between the Burmese and the Mons during the reigns of his two predecessors, King Anawratha and King Saw Lu. Only in the year A.D. 1104 Min Ye-Baya's (Man Re-Baya's) son Prince Letya Minnan (Latya Mannan), who was born in Pagan City, had succeeded to persuade King Kyansittha's grandson and successor King Alaungsithu. It was also possible that there were no ethnic conflicts under King Alaung Sithu because the king himself was a Mon-Burmese hybrid. So, he could help the Arakanese prince. In this way Prince Letya Minnan (Latya Mannan) regained the Arakanese throne and established the Prem Dynasty.

The Arakanese Chronicles recorded this incident as "The king of the Prus came with one hundred thousand Pru and one hundred thousand Talaings and helped Prince Letya Minnan, the real heir of the Arakanese throne". Alaungsithu tried to take the Holy Image but his attempt too, aborted.

U San Shwe Bu, on the other hand, wrote: “In 1078 A.D. Min Bhi-lu of Arakan was killed by a noble who usurped the throne. Min Re-baya the heir apparent fled with his family and took shelter at the court of Kyan-sittha of Pagan. The fugitive prince remained in exile for twenty five years during which time a son was born to Min Re-baya and is known in history as Let-yar-min-nan. It is true that Kyan-sittha promised to restore the royal fugitive to the Arakanese throne but the lack of suitable opportunity prevented that monarch from redeeming his promise. On the death of Min-Re-baya Alaung-si-thu who had already succeeded his grandfather determined to place Let-yar-min-nan on the throne of Arakan.
To carry out this object he sent 100,000 Pyus and an equal number of Talaings both by land and sea into Arakan. There was some show of stubborn resistance at first which the more disciplined troops of Burma gradually but surely overcame. Thus Let-ya-min-Nan came unto his own in 1103 A.D. and as the Pyus were instrumental in bringing this about he is also known to the Arakanese as the king created by the 100,000 Pyus. When these soldiers had accomplished their task and just on the eve of their departure for Burma they visited the shrine of Mahamuni. There they found it so richly stored with gems and gold that overcoming all religious scruples they began to despoil the temple of all its vast wealth. From the image itself the Pyus scooped out the greater portion of the back, the Talaings cut off the whole right leg and carried away these treasures into their country a distinct fulfillment of Gotama's dicta”.

It has been shown in history that the second attempt of the Burmese to snatch the Holy Image made some damages to the statue because 50 years later, the Arakanese King Datha Raza (Dassa Raja) had to restore all damages caused by the Mons and the Burmese.

3.3. The Third attempt

The military power of Arakan was proven already when Min Bargyi (Man Bargri) conquered back the 12 towns including Chittagong and Tri Pura in A.D. 1532, which traditionally belonged to the Kingdom of Arakan. During his reign the Burmese king Tabin Shwe Htee had re-established the Second Burmese Empire with the help of his warrior brother-in-law General Kyaw Htin Anawratha alias Bayint Naung. They tried to annex Arakan into the Burmese Empire and to snatch the Holy Image, too. General Kyaw Htin Anawratha invaded Southern Arakan; however, their invasion forces were repelled by the Rakhaing forces. Tabin Shwe Htee had to swallow his pride, approached Burmese and Arakanese Buddhist Monks to play the role of peace mediators. The peace treaty was signed by both sides and the Burmese invading armies retreated.

3.4. The fourth attempt

Later, during the reign of Min Phalaung (Man Phalaung)15 (A.D.1571-1593), the youngest son of Min Bargyi (Man Bargri), King Bayint Naung, co-founder of the Second Burmese Empire and the successor of his brother-in-law Tabin Shwe Htee became very proud because he had annexed all of his neighbouring countries including Langxiang and Siam. So, in the year 1581 his armies and navy marched towards Arakan. However, his forces were totally defeated by the Arakanese in all fronts and he was forced to sign a peace treaty. King Bayint Naung was well known in Burmese History Books as ‘the co-founder of the Second Burmese Empire’. He was a pride of the present military government and named him ‘The Founder of the Second Union of Myanmar’.

3.5 The fifth attempt:

Burmese king Bodaw U Waing sent his son, the crown prince then, to invade the Kingdom of Arakan and to snatch the Maha Muni Image in 1784 AD. After the Burmese conquest, the Arakanese Kingdom was abolished forever. The Burmese totally forgot that they shared the same language, culture and the religion with the Arakanese. Their conquest resulted in a complete destruction of Arakan and her people. The Burmese troops had a great amount of savagery in their disposition. Equally distressing was the loss of the national symbol, the Maha Muni Image.

4. Different Versions about Maha Muni Image in Mandalay
There are some different versions about the Maha Muni Image.

4.1. The first version stated that the statue now found in Mandalay is the original one. Many

Arakanese and almost all Burmese believe this version. The main reason for the Burmese invasion was to take the Holy Image and since they conquered the whole country, no wonder, they could take the genuine one and many imitations.

4.2. The second version said that the one in Mandalay is merely a copy and the original is still in the caves of the forest near the small town of Kyauktaw in Arakan because the Arakanese noticed that the Burmese invaders might take their Holy Image, and therefore they had hidden the original statue, replaced with a copy just before the Burmese conquest. This statue will reappear one day. During the British Era, some people claimed that they had seen that statue. One had to go through a tunnel behind a Bo tree. U Aung Tha Oo claimed at page 136 of his book published in 1956 that he had been to that tunnel, but he could not enter inside because the roots of the Bo tree had blocked the tunnel. According to him he met a person who had been inside the tunnel and paid homage to that statue in the 1930’s.

4.3. The third version stated, when the Burmese crown prince tried to take the statue on the raft, the statue fell down in the river and disappeared. Hence, the Burmese had to take the copy only. A few years later, some Arakanese found the statue back in the river, carried out from the river and named the statue Phayapaw (Pharapaw) which can be roughly translated as "the re-appeared Buddha-statue". This Statue is now in Mrohaung (former Mrauk U). The new temple was built with its original style and the throne of the former statue (now in Mandalay) could be still seen inside the new Temple.

4.4. The fourth version stated, the original Maha Muni Image is still in Arakan. It is the statue near Kyauktaw because it was hidden in the tunnel near the small town of Kyauktaw before the Burmese invasion armies reached Mrauk U. This is statue near Kyauktaw looks exactly like the statue in Mandalay; however, it has the size of a normal human being.
Some Arakanese believe, one of the latter versions must be true. Their reason is: "Lord Buddha himself had predicted that his image should stay in Arakan for five thousand years and the past history has proven already that the attempts of King Anawratha, King Tabin Shwe Htee as well as King Bayintnaung of the First Burmese Empire and the Second Burmese Empire respectively had failed, so, why the attempt of the king of the Third Burmese Empire should not also be failed". They argued, Buddha was born and died as a normal human being with a normal human body, but he attained Enlightenment and became Buddha. The statue in Kyauktaw has the size of normal human being. The one in Mandalay however, is a colossal image.

4.5. U San Shwe Bu’s version

“In the closing scene of its variegated history Bodawpaya of Burma comes in, a fit character for a fit occasion. After his final conquest and so- called pacification “solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant” he directed the famous image to be conveyed into Burma. This was accomplished in the year 1785 A.D. The excess of patriotic fervor led some people a few years ago to declare that the real image was lost in the creek close to the site in the course of its removal and that the soldiers fearing the king’s wrath took away a substitute. Attractive as this country proclaims the image that now adorns the Arakan pagoda at Mandalay to be the genuine one”.

Whether the statue in Mandalay is the genuine Maha Muni Image or not, the pride of Arakan was degraded and almost all Arakanese consider it as a robbery. Even now, two centuries later, some Arakanese, particularly from Northern Arakan occasionally named the Burmese as Phaya Damya (Phara Damra) “Thugs of the Buddha Statue”.

5. The Restoration of the Holy Image

Whether the Holy Image was cast while Buddha was alive or made only in second century AD as U San Shwe Bu stated, it was sure that after the sacred image was finished it was suitably installed. The Holy Image was undisturbed for a period of over nine centuries between 2nd to 11th Century AD. During that time it became the religious centre of the kingdom and all its neighboring states. Hence, this statue became the envy of almost all of the kings of Burma. Whenever they expanded their empire, they tried to rob this holy image.

5.1. King Datha Raza’s (Dassa Raja) contribution

On his astrologers’ advises that the city of Pyinsa (Pransa) was no longer fit for occupation because all its good fortune had departed, Let Ya Min Nan (Lat Ya Man Nan) built the new city of Parin (Prem) (Puremma). Fifty years later King Datha Raza (Dassa Raja) ascended the throne. The new king was powerful and just and the country enjoyed general peace and prosperity. Following the example of all his predecessors he decided to pay homage to the Maha Muni Image. He sent some Ministers in advance to make the necessary preparations for his stay there.

Unfortunately, however, these Ministers returned back and informed the king that the temple could not be found. The King Datha Raza then entrusted these men with his personal jewels and instructed them to reward any person who could direct them to sacred spot. At the beginning, it was not easy for the ministers to find a guide. Finally, with the assistance of two Mros they found the place. These men were rewarded as ordered by the king.

When news of the discovery of the Holy Image was informed, the king immediately set out for the place with his entire court. The Holy Image was found in the ground buried up to the neck. The right leg and the greater part of the back were missing. The shrine was completely destroyed by fire.

The king at once saw the exposed nature of the place. He knew that its general isolation among the hills was the frequent cause of the shrine being desecrated by some tribes who made periodic visits of plunder into these parts. He decided to take the Holy Image to the capital city just to avoid those problems in the future. He transported the Holy Image by water way into the ancient city of Dhanyawaddy. According to the chronicles, the invitations were sent to all the neighbouring kings, dukes and princes to visit Arakan and share with him the supreme merit to be acquired by undertaking the entire repairs of the most sacred image and shrine. The gathering of ruling monarchs, dukes and princes was a representative one. Firstly they had to repair the Holy Image by reconstructing the missing parts. Then they had to erect the shrine on which all their skill, energy and resources. All races presented there, shared the building of the surrounding walls. Thus, some were given duties to carry out the work on the east of the shrine, some to the west, some to the south and so on. The temple and the walls were decorated with exquisite carving. The latter contained human figures representing all the races of the earth, as traditional belief of 101 races, namely the seven races of Mramar, the four races of Mons, sixty races of Kalas (in modern belief Indo-European tribes) and the thirty races of Shans (in modern belief Mongolian tribes). There is no doubt that this second building of the Maha Muni was a great historic event. The historical site, though little is left at the time of U San Shwe Bu’s survey, is the evidence.

The spot selected was a small hill at the north east corner of the royal city. The relics and gems buried by king Sanda Thuriya (Chandra Suriya) were also unearthed, removed and buried again at the northern end of this hill. The stone slab placed on the mouth of the pit was so heavy that one thousand men could not even be sufficient to shift it from the place, so stated in the chronicles. Believe it or not, the chronicles stated that the whole work was finished within seventy one days. After finishing the restoration, all races and tribes subjected to the King of Dhanyawaddy were given duties to visit the temple once in every three months for the purpose of carrying out such minor repairs as were considered necessary from time to time. But some of the tributary tribes were given definite work and special duties to perform. They were required to guard the place always. The details of the allotment of such specific duties were also recorded in stone tablets at the four cardinal points.

U San Shwe Bu, who was an officer at the Archeological Survey Department, recorded in 1918, almost 100 years ago, that those records could not be found in their usual places though he was told by an authority, whose name he did not want to mention, that they were still there.

5.2. Restoration and maintenance of the Holy Image

There is no doubt it became the tradition and duty of each and every Arakanese Monarch to pay homage to the Maha Muni as well as to restore and maintain the shrine and premises because some mountain tribes occasionally tried to plunder. Here I would like to cite U San Shwe Bu: “It will be seen that the present account deals with the principal events only. But it must not be supposed that during the long interval between these epochs the image and the shrine were allowed to remain in peace. The frontier tribes such as the Chins, the Mros and the Saks periodically descended from their mountain homes and harassed the kingdom whenever it was known the ruler of the country was weak or incapable. On such occasions they always made it a point to visit the shrine and after taking away all the riches it contained they invariably set fire to it. Whenever this happened the then reigning king would forthwith rebuild it and make good the loss. In the chronicles this occurs with painful regularity.”

5.3. The Holy Image during the Mrauk U Dynasty

The holy shrine and premises were well protected by the kings of the Mrauk U Dynasty because all kings were devoted Buddhists though some of them bore pseudonym Muslim Titles. Some of them cast reproductions or duplicates of this Holy Image and these imitations were put in the temples and pagodas donated by them.

This Statue was taken to Mrauk U. The new temple was built in its original style.
When Min Phalaung (Man Phalaung) died in 1593, his son Razagyi (Razagri) succeeded the throne(1593-1612), and the military power of Arakan reached its peak. This time, the Arakanese armies could invade, occupy, plunder and destroy Hanthawaddy or Pegu, the capital of the Second Burmese Empire. They took the daughter of the Burmese Emperor, Cambodian statues and white elephants which the Burmese had taken as booty from Siam a few years ago. These statues were originally taken from Angkor Wat to Ayuddiya by the Siamese as booty after they annexed Cambodia centuries ago. These statues were kept in the premises of the Maha Muni shrine. Later in 1784, after the Burmese conquest of Mrauk U, these statues were taken to Ava as booty and till now they can be seen in the premises of Maha Muni Pagoda near Mandalay.

Here I would like to cite Maurice Collis: "The Arakanese invasion of Burma in 1599 during the reign of Bayin-naung's successor, Nandabayin; ruined that country for the time being. It broke up into petty states. All Bayin-naung's glory passed to Razagri. Possessing the white elephant and the Maha Muni he had a right to call himself the champion of Buddhism. Arakan, not Burma, became the centre of the Buddhist world. --- By 1610 Bayin-naung's grandson, Anaukpetlun, had again united the greater part of the country. He was most anxious to get back the white elephant, and in 1616 proposed to the Viceroy of Goa a joint attack on Mrauk-u, declaring that if he secured the animal the Portuguese could take the rest of the loot. But the proposal came to nothing. Arakan was too strong."

Again, Maurice Collis described about the situation of Buddhism in the year 1630 during the reign Min Hayi (Man Hari) alias Thiri Thudhamma (Sri Sudhamma). In his book The Land of the Great Image in page 168 it was written: "The Buddha had died in 543 B.C. Altogether 2173 years had elapsed since then, and for that immense period the image of the Founder of the Religion had remained on Sirigutta, the oldest, most mysterious, the most holy object in the world. The relics detailed to the disciples on Selagiri had all been found and enshrined. Arakan was a sacred country; it was the heart of Buddhism; and he (King Thiri Thudhamma) as its king, was the most notable Buddhist ruler in existence. Grave indeed was his responsibility. He had not only to maintain the state as the homeland of the Arakanese race, but as the one place on earth where an authentic shape of the Tathagata was preserved, a possession of greater potency then the most precious relics".

6. Maha Muni Image in Burmese Hands

After Bodaw U Waing’s son took the statue to Ava, not like their predecessors during the Pagan

Dynasty, who cut and took some parts of the image, the Burmese king built a huge temple for the holy Image. The statue can be seen nowadays in the outskirts of Mandalay. The Burmese called this image Phaya Gyi (Phara Gree) which is the literal translation of Maha Muni. Whenever the temple was damaged by fire or natural catastrophes they repaired it immediately.

While the last king of Burma, King Thibaw and Queen Supaya Latt were taken by the British to exile, they requested the British officers to grant them permission to pay homage to the holy shrine, however, their request was turned down by the British officers because they feared that the crowd would snatch the king and queen.

During the British Era, the temple was called ‘The Arakan Pagoda’ by the British.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the British could not alone defend against the Japanese invasion and asked the Chinese for help. Chaing Kai Shek sent two Chinese divisions to defend against the Japanese invasion. These Chinese soldiers during their retreat to China wanted to rob and melt the Image which was full of gold and jewels. Many thousands Buddhist monks in Mandalay came out with bamboo sticks, guarded the holy Image and surrounded the temple premises and told the Chinese Ku Ming Tang soldiers that they had to kill the monks before they could enter the temple.

Finally, the officers ordered their soldiers to retreat.
 Nowadays there is an Abbot with many monks who take care of the temple and Holy Image. The monks give early offerings to the Holy Image. In addition there is a ceremony of washing the face of the Holy Image, done personally by the abbot, at about 5:00 AM daily. Both became traditions so that many Burmese in Mandalay and Shan pilgrims from the highland go and watch this ceremony.

There were rumours that some generals of the present military junta wanted to steal some gold and jewels from the Holy image and wanted to open the belly of the statue where the relics were stored. Many monks did not tolerate it and therefore some monks were arrested and disrobed.

Burma is the land of rumours and some rumours are true and some are not true. It is not because the people are gossip and rumour mongers, it happens because there is no press freedom in Burma since 1962 and all newspapers as well as Broadcasting and TV stations are state owned. All news and publications are censored. There are some but very few private owned journals and magazines, however, the editors have to submit novels, articles, jokes, poems, cartoons etc. etc. to the censorship board called ‘Sarpay Sisityay’ and only after getting permission from this board, the editors can publish them. Hence, it is no wonder that the news media totally depends on rumours.

There were some rumours in the past too. An earthquake in Rangoon in the early 70’s caused some minor damages in Shwe Dagon Pagoda. The Umbrella full of gold and jewels worth 35 million US Dollars at that time, donated by King Mindon, had to be repaired. Rumours came out that Daw Khin May Than, the wife of the then dictator General Ne Win had snatched some of them. A year later she died of a minor operation in London and many people believe that she had to answer a curse. Who knows?

Again in the mid 70’s there was a strong earthquake at the ancient city of Pagan and many ancient temples were destroyed. The rumours came out again that the authorities had stolen antiques. Nobody knew whether it was done by the authorities or by people living nearby or the re-construction workers, later many of those antiques were smuggled out from Burma to Thailand. Many Burmese antiques fill Thai antique shops up to now.

During the Second World War, the Botahtaung Pagoda was hit by allied bombing and destroyed. The rumours came out that, the then Adipati or Chancellor of Burma, Dr. Ba Maw and family had taken the Diamond-Bud of the umbrella. Nobody knows, whether it was true or not. Later, after the Japanese surrender, Dr. Ba Maw was arrested by the Americans and put into jail in Japan for trial. However, he was lucky because the British bailed him out from the Americans to counter balance the power of General Aung San who became very popular in Burma. In any case, there was no come-back for Dr. Ba Maw until his death in 1977, although he and his party participated in 1952 and 1956 elections.

According to Burmese Buddhist belief, he/she who steals the properties or relics of a temple or a monastery, that person as well as his/her collaborators had to reap the consequences of their misdeeds. Either in this life or after death they have to suffer an unlimited period in Maha Awizi (Maha Aviji), the deepest of all hells or Narat. Despite of that belief, as in the proverb, ‘The hungry stomach cannot make a good politician’, some Burmese plundered and plunder the antiques and relics from Pagodas and temples, smuggled these out of Burma to Thailand. This is really a tragedy and shame!

7. Conclusion
As I have written earlier, whether the Holy image was made in 563 BC in the presence of the Lord Buddha and his 500 disciples or cast only in 2nd century A.D as U San Shwe Bu pointed out, this was not my main point in this essay. I would like to say that not only in the case of the Holy Image Maha Muni and many of the Pagoda Legends of Burma but also in all religions, legends and real history are different. It is to point out that the Holy image went through many centuries of ups and downs depending on the strength of the ruling monarch of Arakan until 1784 and that of the Burmese rulers after 1785. Some parts of the Holy Image were either robbed or destroyed and later replaced by the new donor.
In the same way, the present author wants to emphasize that whether the statue in Mandalay is the genuine Maha Muni Image or not, and although the Burmese reveres the statue, Arakanese pride has been degraded and thus most of them consider it as a robbery. Even now, more than two centuries later, some Arakanese, particularly from Northern Arakan occasionally name the Burmese as Phaya Damya (Phara Damra) “Thugs of the Buddha Statue”. Almost all Arakanese whether from the north or the south, are distressed by the loss of their national symbol, the Maha Muni Image.

Nat Worshipping Arakan

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Arakan state is in western Burma and borders Bangladesh to the northwest. It is a narrow coastal strip of land open to the Bay of Bengal. The area is subject to heavy rainfall that enables the cultivation of rice, one of the region’s most important resources. It is separated from Central Burma by the Arakanese mountains (Rakhine Yoma), with their dense vegetation, and both sides regard them as a natural border. The successive capitals of the ancient Arakanese Buddhist kingdom, including the city of Mrauk-U between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, were built on the largest plains of the region, the fertile area located between the River Kaladan and the River Lemro.

In Arakan, like anywhere else in Burma and in many other parts of Southeast Asia, religious practices have been a mix of Buddhism and spirit (nat) worship. During my field work in Mrauk-U, Mra Swan Dewi (Mra Svan Devi) was the first nat I was informed about when I started research into local worship, and that was probably because her palace and statue had just been built.1 The story of this spirit, as well as the recent building of her sanctuary, are to a certain extent different from other tales and practices related to the world of spirits and their cults in Arakan. This allows me to highlight a modality of the Burmese implantation in the country’s peripheral regions (usually labeled “ethnic”), that is to say—as in this case—a society that is descended from its own ancient kingship in the Arakan region, whereby the Burmese authorities use religion as a means of legitimizing its hegemony over society in the process of nation building. This process, further developed in this article, enables us to have a better understanding of the kind of relationship that exists between central and local political authorities through religious practices. The purpose of this article is also to show how this process of Burmese political consolidation is made possible thanks to a specific social category of the Arakanese population, perceived as the local referring authority. In so doing, it calls into question the notion of “Burmanization” at a very local level.

Arakan state

Arakan state’s geographical location is characterized by a narrow opening to the Chittagong hinterland and the Indian subcontinent, and its relative isolation from the rest of Burma until a new road linking Yangon via Mrauk-U to Sittway, the state capital, was built in 2001. The first capitals of the kingdoms in Arakan are said to have been established between the seventh and fourteenth centuries. But still very little is known about them, except that they were close to Indian civilization, including Mahāyāna Buddhism, as shown by archaeological and epigraphic remains. During the Pagan period, the region was likely to have been already relatively autonomous from Burmese influence (Frasch 2002). Despite a complex history and long tradition of conflicts with its neighbors—Burmese, Mon, Indians, and Tripura—the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan during the Mrauk-U period (1430–1785) managed to develop its own autonomous political system.2 Due to rice cultivation and extensive commercial relationships with regional traders, the kings ruled the region by progressively dominating the local lords.3 However, the Mrauk-U kingdom collapsed in 1785 when the Burmese conquered the country. Moreover, they removed the most revered Buddha image in Burma today from Arakan to their capital, Amarapura. This statue, the Mahamuni Image, considered to be the palladium of the Arakanese kingdom, was believed to have protected the kingdom and its inhabitants for many centuries.4 After the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824–1826, which ended in the conquest of Arakan by the East India Company, the seaport of Akyab (Sittway) was preferred to inland Mrauk-U due to its better living conditions. During the British colonial era, the new masters did not impose an indirect administrative system, except for populations living in the highlands that were integrated into a special division in the Northern Arakan District. They governed the region in the same way as the rest of Lower Burma, increasing social and cultural interaction among these plain-dwelling populations through equal access to administration and education. The former capital of the Arakanese kingdom, Mrauk-U, is now the capital of a township in Arakan State, surrounded by rice-growing villages. The Arakanese consider Mrauk-U to be the core of their culture and traditions. It is a small town with a market and an administrative center, with merchants and civil servants occupying an important role amongst its inhabitants. Since 1993, it has also undergone important changes under the military regime in connection with national policies promoting Buddhism and tourism with the intention of transforming it into a second Pagan.

The social and political situation of the country since independence has meant that it remains relatively isolated, especially in terms of the movement of people and the exchange of goods. Slow economic development, the lack of electric power in most parts of the region, and the lack of infrastructure such as roads and bridges are the main factors explaining why, until recently, Arakan has remained mostly agricultural, although it grows hardly enough rice for self-sufficiency. Burmese and Arakanese share close social, linguistic, cultural, and religious universes, but both insist on being different. Belonging to a distinct group is highly valued, and this is illustrated by the fact that marriage between the Arakanese themselves and the use of the Arakanese language are encouraged and much appreciated. The Arakanese speak a Burmese dialect, considered by linguists to be an archaic form of Burmese. Schematically, written Arakanese is similar to written Burmese, whereas the spelling is quite different. Syntactic markers and some vocabulary also differ. Although their Buddhist kingdom ceased to exist more than two centuries ago, the Arakanese today still refer to it and its palladium—the Mahamuni Image and consider themselves as still belonging to the same particular religious (Buddhist) and historical community, which explains why they have a strong sense of Arakanese identity.

The world of the spirits in Arakan

When the Arakanese talk about nat in the context of their beliefs, they are not referring to the pantheon of the thirty-seven nats famous in Burma but to the local nature spirits and territory spirits. Each locality and each natural phenomenon provides a potential dwelling place for a nat and at the same time, that is regarded as the nat itself. In other words, nat are guardians of the land but also constitute the land itself. Nat is a generic term used to refer to any kind of spirit in general. But in this specific case, as they are believed to possess and control the land, they are called shan or shan má (Brm. shin or shin má), meaning “owner,” “lord,” and “lady,” and most of the nat connected with the territory are female. This means that nat protect the population living on their domain, but at the same time, they can harm people, spoil crops, or provoke misfortune if offended. Thus, the general attitude expressed towards them is a mixture of both fear and respect. Two different approaches to the world of the spirits can be identified among the inhabitants of Mrauk-U. On the one hand, there are people whom I call “the Scholars” (although the term does not perfectly reflect the complexity of the reality). This social category of local figures is characterized by the fact that in general, they have a high level of education, belong to the higher social classes, and enjoy real recognition and prestige from other inhabitants because of their knowledge of texts related mostly to Buddhism and its daily practices and of Arakanese historiography. Regardless of whether they are monks or lay people, these scholars are respected in Mrauk-U as members of society, defining themselves firstly as Buddhist (to be Arakanese is to be Buddhist). This social recognition, which I call “personal authority or influence”, can be explained by the high status accorded to written culture by Buddhist society and by the scholars’ capacity to share their knowledge. They have an “academic” approach and study historical sources, and ancient monuments, and are familiar with published or written texts such as stone inscriptions or manuscripts, mostly written by people formerly affiliated with the royal court. For them, in contrast to oral tradition, the world of the nat is closely linked to the past and to written history, either related to the civilization of ancient India and the world of its deities, or to the equally prestigious history of the former Arakanese kingdom and its royal court practices. They emphasize the association with Ancient India, for example, by finding etymological connections between the names of Arakanese nat and those of Indian gods. They also do not worship nat, at least publicly. As “true Buddhists” they are contemptuous of such rituals, which associate them with the superstitions of the uneducated (that is, villagers) whom they consider inferior. In this way, they also implicitly distinguish themselves from the Burmese. However, I came to realize that despite their knowledge, these scholars only had a limited understanding of local practices and rituals nowadays dedicated to nat. Mastering this “written knowledge” allows them to be regarded as the best custodians and warrants of the values and traditions of Arakanese society, and, as such, of the moral order. Therefore, people often consult them to obtain advice about issues in daily life.

On the other hand, there are others who have a much more empirical approach to, and knowledge of, the spirit world. They consider nat to be everywhere. Whenever they face difficult situations in life in which Buddhism can hardly help (such as illness, money or family problems, and accidents), Arakanese, as Burmese, can choose from a wide range of practices, which are not exclusive, to diagnose, cure and, beyond that, to prevent and protect: astrology, spirit cults, traditional medicine, recitation of magical and protective incantations (mandan), amulets, and so on. Following this, nat are regularly worshipped, individually or via the cults’ ritual specialists (nat ma or nat kaung ma), when the situation requires it. They are also embodied in songs recited by mediums, and manifest themselves when entering the medium’s body during the annual collective celebrations (nat pwe) on the basis of residential groups, and dedicated to these lords of the territory. The cults are followed primarily by those who cannot claim any authority from mastering written knowledge.

The descriptions of both approaches have been simplified. However, there are many different attitudes towards nat at the local level, depending on factors such as social and economic environment, educational level, or gender, since women seem to be more active in practices and rituals devoted to nat than men. Despite these differences, there are mutual interactions, and both recognize the spirits as lords of an area over which they have jurisdiction. The configuration of these domains, similar to administrative divisions of the former kingdom of Arakan, leads me to assert that there was some kind of dominance among local cults that the Arakanese kingship instituted in order to consolidate its control over local populations. This is in pursuance of the principle according to which local inhabitants admit the authority of those who exert control on local spirits. My fieldwork shows that the most respected and powerful spirits are precisely those lords who are supposed to control either the ancient cities of Arakan or the gates of the kingdom. In other words, both associate the spirit world with the protection of the former kingdom through the ritually organized control of the territory. These two approaches indicate two levels of a cult, one at a local level for which nat are associated with the general welfare of a residential group, and another that was more state-centric and was formerly organized by the Arakanese kingship. They constitute a whole Arakanese ritual system linked with their territory.

The story of mra swan dewi nat

There are as many different versions to the story of Mra Swan Dewi nat as the number of people who tell it, but its basic structure and sequence is always more or less the same. In the following versions, the first was told by a woman, a shopkeeper living in Mrauk-U, and the other by an informant who is a well-known scholar in Mrauk-U and who also plays a part in this story.

Version One

It is said that this lady, Lady Mother Mra Swan (May To Mra Svan Arhan Ma) was the sister of an Arakanese lady. She was once married to an Englishman.

A female naga (snake) abandoned three eggs, two sisters and one brother. A hermit found them. He meditated and decided to keep both sisters, Do Kra Jam (the elder sister) and Mra Swan (the younger one). The hermit could not feed them as he was a man; he then meditated and some milk spurted out of his fingers thanks to his power. This allowed him to feed both sisters as the milk never stopped spurting from his fingers. An old woman came and visited the king. “My Lord, I have two very beautiful daughters but they are not married yet. Keep them close to you,” she said. Because they were too young, they slept in the palace with the servants. They prayed that they would not be forced to marry. Mra Swan fled from the palace because she was young and did not want to be married.

The statue today has bracelets around its ankles and does not look in the direction of the village from where she fled. A poem about her says: “In the Pontut area, if outside the plain of Purin (“Parein” was the name of the kingdom’s ancient capital in the twelfth century), Mra Swan stays away from people” (literally “she does not greet”).

Version Two

The story starts in the time of Vesali (an ancient city-state of Arakan, eighth to tenth centuries). At that time, a powerful hermit named Shida Deva acquired supernatural powers thanks to the practice of meditation. This hermit meditated on top of Babu Hill in Mrauk-U. Whilst meditating, he heard a voice and found two big eggs close to the place where he usually sat for meditation. One week later the eggs hatched and two young female babies appeared. They were twins: Kra Jam (the younger), and Mra Swan (the elder). The hermit visited the king and asked him to look after them at his palace. The king accepted and they grew up in the palace. When they were sixteen years old, they both suddenly disappeared. People searched in vain for them everywhere. The king was very sad. However, thanks to his supernatural powers, the hermit knew that they had both been transformed into nat. He then suggested to the king that he make two statues of the princesses to keep them in the palace and worship them as the Ladies of Arakan, the guardian spirits of Arakan. In this way, they both became regarded as the “queens” of Arakan. During the Lemro period,12 the kings kept these statues on the eastern side of the palace and every year an important celebration (nat pwe) was organized in order to honor and worship them. When King Man Co Mvan established a new dynasty, the capital of which was Mrauk-U, he only kept the statue of Kra Zam, which remained on the eastern side of the palace. She then came to be known as the Lady of Mrauk-U (transliterates as Mrauk U Shan ma) and was honored by every king of this dynasty in a special celebration in November. Nine different kinds of offerings were given to her: nine different kinds of cakes, flowers, umbrellas, and water. These presents were expected to please the lady of the territory (the Lady of Mrauk-U) so that she would protect the inhabitants against illness, help their city prosper, provide good harvests, and secure them from enemies and other misfortunes.

When the Burmese conquered Arakan (1785–1824), they paid no attention to either of these goddesses. Forty years later, when the English took control of the region, their commander Thomas Campbell Robertson settled in Mrauk-U and stayed at Rvhe gu Hill (in Mrauk U). He then married (see below) Mra Swan, the eldest of the queens of Arakan. In 1826, when Akyab (Sittway) became the main British settlement in the region, Robertson moved to the city, took the statue and placed it in a small shrine. Eighty years later, the statue disappeared.

In 1992 three regiments of Burmese soldiers settled in Arakan. Among the leaders of these regiments, a colonel encountered some problems in the front line in the northern part of Arakan where he was stationed. One night, his wife Ma Win Sein was visited in her dreams by a beautiful young woman wearing traditional dress. This lady told her, “If you want your husband’s problems to be solved, you have to worship me. I am Mra Swan. I will free your husband from his problems.” The next day, the colonel’s wife consulted the chief monk of the Sakyamanaung Monastery (in Mrauk-U) in order to find some explanation for her dream. The monk told her who Mra Swan was and encouraged her to build an altar at the same place where Mra Swan was said to have lived in ancient times. (The wife also consulted the narrator of this story. Following what the monk said, he also suggested that she should build a statue of Mra Swan dressed as a Vesali princess. In due course, within a month, a well-known Mrauk-U artist built the statue, and a second one painted it.)
They then installed the statue. Before the installation, soldiers fired twentyone shots into the air with the intention of protecting people from danger and to repel malevolent spirits. They repeated: “If there are spirits living in this area, they will run away.” Then a celebration took place called seitti tan, which means “to become alive” for a nat. This was also meant as the consecration of the statue itself. Monks were invited to recite some mandan. An important ceremony followed, organized and led by mediums and musicians, during which Ma Win Sein offered nine different kinds of presents to the goddess, begging her to relieve her husband of his problems. The ceremony took place in 1996. After a fortnight, things were said to have improved for her husband. Three months later, he was promoted and transferred to Lashio, a city in the northern part of Burma. Since then, once a year, Ma Win Sein has been sending money to Mrauk-U in order to worship and honor the nat. The inhabitants of the villages said they have had more protection and better rice and oil crops since that time.

Analysis of the legend

In short, the two narratives are about the revival of a cult to a powerful local spirit for whom the building of its statue and shrine are the more tangible aspects, as there were none before. Both emphasize the importance to the Arakanese of spirit cults, the role of protagonists, and point to changes in recent history. The story has to be considered in two parts: the legend, and the other that is found in version two that is related to the construction of Mra Swan’s image.

Mra Swan is one of the only spirits I have studied for whom I could find such a complete and elaborate biography. Usually only a little information can be obtained about nat thanks to the rich oral culture of the spirit mediums and the rituals and ceremonies they perform to honor the nat. In songs, nat are described in association with their palaces or by particular traits, but rarely by their entire legendary narrative. Thus the first version of the legend told by an ordinary villager, consistent with the kind of information obtained in Arakan about spirits, was less detailed than the second one, but it provided a general framework for the story. The second version, narrated by a scholar, reflects a strong Western influence, probably as a result of his education and the tendency to rationalize. At the same time, the scholar insisted on the continuity of Arakanese society despite the changes that took place during the different dynasties, which even led him at one point to mix the legendary narrative with historical facts.

Foundation of the legend: the birth

The first part of the story is a blend of two recurrent themes found in Burma. In Burmese chronicles and folklore, and in Mon-Khmer traditions, there are many stories of a naga female (or nagi) or of a doe giving birth and a hermit taking care of the baby.14 Despite variations, all versions take up the theme of how human characters, born from nagi eggs and endowed with great powers acquired through their birth and/or the hermit, became founders of either a city, a well known site, or a dynasty. In Burmese stories, however, the children of the nagi are more often depicted as brothers, whereas in the Arakanese legend, they are sisters. Thus Kra Zam became the lady guardian spirit of Mrauk-U, while Mra Swan was the guardian of Parein, and both were considered as superior nat of the territory. Although this point is consistent with the Arakanese configuration in which spirits are most often ladies, we can however conclude from this first part that this legend has nothing specifically to do with the Arakan region. On the contrary, it seems to be linked to an ancient set of legends shared by other populations in Burma. As a human being, it (the nat) was an exceptional person with special qualities, and the powers he or she once possessed that continue to exist after transformation into nat simultaneously mark the site of its territory as the capital of a kingdom. It is also noteworthy that in these legends, also found elsewhere in Southeast Asia, ophidian beings “are a representation of autochthonous principles and, as such, symbolize legitimate sovereignty over the land for the kings who marry them”.

Mra swan’s disappearance

In both versions of the second part of the nat story, the process of transformation from a human character to a nat who goes on to protect the capital and its inhabitants remains elusive. This elusiveness is consistent with other Arakanese nat stories, in which the process is also not described. We do not know whether this transformation was brought about by its escape during a long journey acting as a rite of passage, or while it was still alive, as the character was equipped with supernatural powers. We also do not know if it took place after a violent death. This was often the case for most of the nat belonging to the Burmese pantheon of the Thirty-Seven Lords, and it sometimes also happened to Arakanese nat. Indeed, in Arakanese spirit stories, the main if not only recurring theme I have been able to identify in my fieldwork is the one of the king’s queen/wife who also became a powerful spirit known as “the lady,” with an important domain (the whole country, its capital, or a region) after dying from a tragic and violent death. In the Mra Swan legend, however, this is not the case as she becomes a nat before (or without) being a queen. Anyhow, it seems to me that it was the escape itself that brought about her transformation into a nat, an escape which also meant her refusal to marry the king, despite being brought up to become a queen. I shall return to this theme later in the article.

Furthermore, although a woman, she is seen as a weikza. Weikza are human beings endowed with supernatural powers as the result of having engaged in specific practices such as alchemy, the casting of spells, magic formulae, and so on. Mra Swan was seen as a weikza because of the nature of the milk she was fed and due to her intensive practice of meditation in which, according to my informants, “she kept self-control.” Moreover, the ability to appear and disappear at will is a power usually attributed to weikza, which is implicitly given to Mra Swan in the story here, and which underlines at the same time the importance of her escape. It should also be taken into consideration that some informants deny Mra Swan the stature of a nat, preferring that of a weikza. However, a weikza is generally male, and scholars say he cannot be transformed into a nat. This was analyzed in the Burmese context. The female weikza might be an illustration of Arakanese specificity, but there is a lack of information on this point. The uncertainty surrounding both her transformation and stature—whether Mra Swan is a nat or a weikza—allows different interpretations and, we assume, anchors the spirit in the locality. It has anyhow to be linked with a growing trend in contemporary Burma to worship powerful and maybe more consensual figures such as weikza because their method of gaining power through meditation, for example, makes them more acceptable in terms of Buddhist values than spirits. Asked for additional information about Mra Swan, the spirits’ mediums told me little about her, except that she was a powerful spirit, the Lady of Parein, the nat that protected the city.
Furthermore, compared to the transformation of figures into nat that take place in the Burmese pantheon, we can assume, while a human being, she represented symbolically a challenging or subversive power against the king, who was then transformed into a local tutelary spirit. Indeed, the idea of the ritually-defined alliance between a male human ruler—an Arakanese king, an English governor, or a Burmese military commander—and the female spirit is a central aspect in the cult of Mra Swan as it also appears in other Arakanese cases of female nat.

Relationship with political authorities

Capital cities, and more generally any important part of the physical territory (river, island, villages, and so on), are considered to come under the control of a female spirit in Arakan. This lady nat reigns over it just like a lord does over his fief, and thus over its population. Ladies of the territory represent an indigenous principle illustrated by the fact that these spirits were in origin “powers of the soil,” but which have become elevated to that of Lady, Queen of the Place. The word dewi or devī, as in the name Mra Swan Dewi, indicates this, with a double meaning that can be translated either as “queen” or “goddess.” However, as already mentioned, the word usually employed in Arakan is shan or shan ma, meaning “lord” or “lady” respectively, or possibly miphra, “queen.”

Further research is necessary to determine more precisely the relationship that spirits have with the kings of Arakan, and at times with queens, and to shed more light on ancient cults in order to understand the link between spirit cults in court rituals and local cults. However, as a general principle, the status of nat implies a necessary relation with them, so that the population living under their jurisdiction can be controlled. In the Mra Swan story, it is said that the king offered nine kinds of presents to the nat so that she would protect the villagers and their crops.19 There are a few other references made to describe such a relationship, either quoted by spirit mediums or vaguely indicated in local songs, in which the king makes annual offerings to a particular nat so that he or she would protect the kingdom against enemies and ensure its health and wealth. The Arakanese configuration of spirits, mostly female, implies the theoretical possibility of an alliance between the king and the locality represented through the cult of these nat, characterized by a marriage alliance. In the story of Mra Swan, it appears in two forms: the escape of the spirit, which refuses it, and in the marriage celebration ascribed to the English official.

In this context, the episode of Thomas Campbell Robertson is important and all informants have mentioned it. The story of this British officer leads us to assume that “marrying” a spirit and thus controlling it is actually a way of controlling the local inhabitants. In 1825, as the regiment approached the capital Mrauk-U to expel the Burmese occupants who had ruled the city since its conquest in 1785, Robertson, who was in charge of the expedition, took part in a special ceremony after the first abortive attack. The day after, Robertson succeeded in defeating the Burmese Army, becoming master of the city, and inaugurated British rule over the region. The ceremony that took place was called a “marriage,” which literally meant that presents were given, “the offering (to) and worship (for) taking [the bride]” (yu pa sa puzaw, from yu, “to take,” and also “to marry”). For the Arakanese, there is no doubt that there is a causal link between what they specifically refer to here as a “marriage celebration,” with the nat having access to, control of, and rule over the area. A few references to this celebration can be found in articles in the Journal of the Burma Research Society.20 For example, San Baw U mentions that “someone advised that if a formal marriage between her and Mr. Robertson was solemnized, victory would be assured.”  It should be noted however, that Robertson (1853) himself made no mention of this in his book on the first Anglo-Burmese war. As Collis (1923) suggests, he probably participated in a ceremony, whose symbolic meaning was no doubt very alien to him, as it was conducted on the initiative of his Arakanese followers. I found no other evidence of a marriage between a nat and the ruler of Arakan. I consider it one of the most important events in the story of Mra Swan, which helps us understand the construction of the shrine and statue to the nat in light of the political situation of the country since 1988. This fact illustrates and indicates how the historical figure of this official was appropriated by the local people to explain the British conquest, and also allowed another ruler to imitate it by reactivating (or even inventing) the cult. This representative of an external or foreign power was placed in a position in which he had to submit, at least at a symbolic level, to the local power, as a condition of gaining access to the population.

The role of the burmese

The practice of honoring a nat in order to obtain success and protection and then worship the spirit after it has provided for them is a common practice among the Burmese urban population. In this regard, I would like to explore the roles of different protagonists in the story of Mra Swan, and specifically those of the Burmese people. For instance, the wife of a wealthy Burmese military officer restored the cult of a local spirit and worshipped it for the protection it had given her husband. However, their role in the revival of the Mra Swan cult in Arakan may have not been so fortuitous, as is highlighted further on.

It has to be stressed here that the Burmese cult of the Thirty-Seven Lords was made popular as a result of the religious policy of Burmese Buddhist kings. The kings tried to achieve unification by imposing a centralized pantheon of spirits, incorporating local or autochthonous cults, as well as in the process of Burmanization, when historical characters from Burmese dynasties were cast in the form of particular spirit cult figures. The relationship between Burmese kingship and local cults, formed through many levels of interaction, is nevertheless ambivalent. In a way, the cult of the Thirty-Seven Lords reinforces the Burmese king’s power over local populations and therefore helps to avoid dissent. In this respect, the Burmese cult of the Thirty-Seven nat is not only associated with the edification of Burma, but is also part of this integration process. At a local level, from the standpoint of inhabitants, this cult is regarded only as worshipping a nat, viewed as a Lord presiding over his territory, and as the guardian spirit that protects and provides wealth for the region. This means, at least symbolically, that the Burmese king acknowledges the sovereignty and legitimacy of a local figure. However, there are no records of an Arakanese nat in the Burmese pantheon, nor is there any mention of them in any historical event or in any story that took place in Arakan.

The place

This brings us to stress the choice of location for the shrine or “palace.” As mentioned earlier, Parein is the name of an old capital of the Arakanese kingdom. There are a few references to this city in the Burmese chronicles, which tell us of its foundation during King Lek-yaminnan’s reign. The ruler, it is said, only recovered his grandfather’s usurped throne with the help of the great Burmese King Alaungsithu. The purpose here is not to assess the historical veracity of the event, but to underline the fact that the foundation of this Arakanese capital had some connection with Burmese history. In other words, this event justifies, from the Burmese side, the intervention—whether in the past or today—of a Burmese ruler on the pretext of securing the welfare of Arakan and its inhabitants. Additionally, we can make the assumption that in the story of Mra Swan, her refusal to marry the king meant that she refused to form an alliance with this foreign ruler for fear that the locality was to be integrated into a Burmese-centric state, which appears coherent from the Arakanese side.

Promotion of the spirit cults by the kings

The making of statues and the construction of palaces dedicated to nat are not common practices in Arakan. It should also be noted that naming a nat shrine a “palace,” as it is usually called, is more of a sign of respect than a depiction of a reality. Nat “palaces” are just basic wooden shrines, mostly built on a single pole, and in which nothing specific is placed. It may be just a natural cave, or a magnificent tree, considered as the dwelling place of a particular nat. More rarely, small statues of nat are found installed in their palaces. In the ancient capital of Mrauk-U, there is one at the Lady of Mrauk-U’s palace, and another in the shrine of the guardian of the king’s palace. We assume that Arakanese kings sponsored or supported the nat cult to which these statues were dedicated, but they mostly disappeared after the kingdom’s conquest. The statues represented powerful nat because they were believed to protect the kingdom as guardians of its gates, of the king’s palace, or of its capital cities. However, the statues visible today are generally small, if not hidden, in sharp contrast to the new dwelling place of the Mra Swan Dewi nat.

The construction of Mra Swan’s shrine is emblematic of a recent trend in building or restoring minor figures’ statues in the Mrauk-U region, whether nat or other beings.25 This trend could be partly explained by initiatives conducted by Burmese authorities to restore the city and refurbish it in order to attract tourists and pilgrims after the ancient capital of Arakan’s kingdom was declared an “archaeological zone” in 1993.

The palace of the nat

The shrine dedicated to Mra Swan is quite different from others in Arakan. This “palace” is located right in the middle of fields, about five miles east of Mrauk-U, near the village of Pan Mo, and half a mile from the village of Parein. Built on top of a hillock, a bamboo pavilion protects the palace, which is basically a room built with bricks and cement, and closed on three of its four sides by “half” walls connected to the roof by thick steel latticework. A villager26 opens the door to this pavilion for any visitor who comes to make offerings. The statue is located in the middle by the east wall, facing west.

The human size of the statue and dimensions of the palace are both remarkable. There is also clear evidence of wealth in the decoration of the palace (plastic floor covering, brick walls, large offering pots), which may be aimed at Buddhist worship but not necessarily for Arakan spirit cults. On the right-hand side, there are traditional offerings to the Buddha (a coconut and three bunches of bananas in a large pot). Above this, a glass case protects an Arakanese Mahamuni-style Buddha statue beneath two white umbrellas (hti). In front of this area for offerings, there is a box for donations and a flat, round wishing stone placed on a table. On the left-hand side, there were four golden plastic pots of offerings when I visited the site and a cord on which the medium’s costumes for future celebrations were hooked together.

The statue of Mra Swan faces the entrance, her head is slightly turned upwards, and the Parein Palace is supposed to be located in the direction behind her. It is carved in a single block of stone. Two hti are placed on each side. She is also supposed to be dressed “in the traditional way,” which means that she wears bracelets around her ankles, and is dressed in a way that corresponds to the fashion of ancient times.

Worshippers have stuck golden leaves on the surface of the statue to show their respect. This is probably the only evidence of local worship of the spirit by the inhabitants of Mrauk-U and its surrounding villages. The general aspects of the shrine and various items inside it differ from other places dedicated to nat and, in comparison, generate a feeling of strangeness, indicating an unusual way of worshipping.

To summarize, there are three significant points regarding this shrine: its size, its iconic presence, and its ostentatious wealth. These aspects contrast with that of the usual spirit cults, which, if not hidden, are at least usually more discreet in Arakan as people believe that the spirit world should not be publicly exposed. The wealth dedicated to this shrine is all the more relevant as, on several occasions, people told me that due to recent inflation and growing poverty, they could no longer afford to give annual offerings for various nat they worship.30 This was indicative of the wealth of the new sponsor and his correlative stature.

The cult of the nat

There are, however, different kinds of nat pwe still held in Arakan today to honor the guardian spirit of the village and the guardian of the region, called an “island.” This means that every household in the area has to contribute to this communal ceremony of offerings to the guardian nat in order to have protection, health, and eventually good crops for the coming year. During ceremonies, all the powerful spirits of Arakan are invited to be propitiated. However, to my knowledge there are no ceremonies specifically organized to worship the guardians of Arakan state or cities, such as the nat of Parein or the Lady of Mrauk-U at their respective shrines. They are only honored during the ceremony organized for the guardian of the village. If we are to accept the assumption that ancient kings used to patronize the shrines of most important guardian spirits at the state level, we can see through these examples how the Burmese are symbolically acting like rulers of ancient Arakan. By building an ostentatious shrine (compared to others in Arakan) dedicated to Mra Swan and worshiping it in an annual ceremony, the Burmese protagonists have come to own the ancient local cult and have established how to worship the divinity in a Burmese way. Although the building of Mra Swan shrine was originally a private initiative, this event probably had implications beyond the mere protection of an individual. The Burmese wife of a military officer played a role which was all the more significant, since her husband represented the central political power. As in the case that Robertson depicted in his story, through the act of worshipping this nat, the Burmese could reinforce their power and legitimize their control over the local population by means of the spiritual world. It became all the more obvious as the army took part in the actual building of the shrine, and during the consecration ritual in repelling bad spirits. We have to relate this detail to the 1988 situation when the Burmese military power decided to deploy new resources and build new army camps throughout the country in order to consolidate its power following the anti-government demonstrations. By reviving a cult, which probably was formerly sponsored at the (Arakan) state level, the Burmese military acted symbolically, as if it was doing it towards the ancient Arakanese kingship. This provides an interesting illustration of how the power of a new ruler can be legitimized, whether it is by English or Burmese rulers.
The construction of the shrine to the nat Mra Swan needs to be situated within the wider context of building and renovating sites dedicated to spirits in contemporary Burma, in Central Burma, and also in Shan state. In the latter case, the Burmese figure of “Shan-ess” was introduced. Officially, the Burmese government does not support spirit cults, contrary to the policy that existed in the past in the Burmese Buddhist kingdom, which was well attested to during U Nu’s government). Although there is no evidence of any explicit support from the junta, its indirect implication is clearly made by that of the military family members, as in the case of Mra Swan.

However, the recent trend of restoring local spirit cults in Arakan is somehow surprising for, as I have already stated, there has been no such “Arakanese spirit” that was worshipped in the Burmese pantheon of the Thirty-Seven nats.

The role of the arakanese

Should my assumption be valid, it is interesting to consider the role played by Arakanese protagonists as intermediaries through their participation in the process, which at first appears like “Burmanization.” It seems to me that the fact that local people are involved as part of this process legitimizes the actions of Burmese rulers. More precisely, as we have analyzed, the worship of a local nat by a Burmese officer, through the actions of his wife, at a symbolic level transforms and confirms him as the “Lord of the place.” This provides him with the legitimacy of domination over the local population, as we have seen in the case quoted in the oral tradition regarding the British officer. Although the parallel observed between the two stories seems to confirm my assumption, it is nevertheless important to be cautious about how to interpret why the Arakanese took part in the event as agents of their own subordination. First, the Arakanese may have had no other choice than to obey this order, which actually was more of a command than a request, to build a statue. Indeed, although Arakanese experts may have an advisory capacity, their opinion is usually not taken into consideration in the case of disagreements with the Burmese authorities, which have coercive power.

Another approach is to regard the Arakanese protagonists involved in this story from a more sociological point of view: the monk, the painter, the narrator of the story, and the craftsman. Indeed at first glance, it is strange—from an orthodox point of view—to imagine that a Buddhist monk acted as a central agent in the origin of the statue. This monk from Sakyamanaung Monastery, who was consulted by rich donors from Mrauk-U, had spent several years in Pagan, and was probably influenced by religious practices in Central Burma. Although monks are supposed to be confined to and follow the monastic rules in Buddhism, it is well-known that they were often engaged in other domains of activities such as astrology, alchemy, and traditional medicine associated with magical and religious practices. It is also important that the monk as well as other Arakanese protagonists belong to the category of scholars that I mentioned earlier whose knowledge is based mostly on textual tradition, on Buddhism, and on the history and civilization of the ancient Arakanese Buddhist kingdom. In the Mra Swan story, it is precisely because of the nature of such knowledge, and not as local specialists of spirit cults, that people take their opinion or advice seriously. It further suggests that their contribution to the building of a shrine to the nat is a factor that gives them this social recognition, and is included as part of the process which constitutes their scholarship, as we shall see when looking at the notion of “Burmanization” in the next section.

Also, as mentioned earlier, they generally do not worship nat and for that reason have a limited knowledge of spirit rituals that they tend to look down on, if not actually reprove, for the sake of their rational position and exclusive view of Buddhism. This is probably why Burmese donors, who spend so much money and energy on practices that concern spirit worship, which they know little about and consider inferior, do not bother them.

One anecdote indicates the need to consider the different protagonists. The first time I visited Parein in order to see the nat statue; the shrine was closed so I had to wait for villagers to open it. They clearly had no intention of talking about Mra Swan. However, I learned from them that there was no statue of the nat or any practice of spirit cults around the site before the shrine was built. Despite my questions, they remained vague in their answers. It is generally the case that people consider themselves as “true Buddhists,” and are especially reluctant to talk about spirits, not only because of being considered “backward” or “superstitious,” but because they fear that the information collected could be used improperly by the researcher. They may also have feared that honoring nat without following traditional rules could offend them and make them angry. The spirit world, for those villagers who do not belong to the social category of scholars that I mentioned, is real and present. It was also probably out of the question for them to participate in what they might have considered to be the appropriation by the Burmese regime of their territory and inhabitants through spirit powers. It would also have meant that they recognize, at least at a spiritual and symbolic level, the sovereignty of the Burmese authorities.


I define the main underlying question of “Burmanization” as a process of establishing Burmese domination on the country’s peripheral population through cultural and religious policies. The cult of the Thirty-Seven Lords is about the integration of groups seen to be marginal both geographically, ethnically, and from Burmese rule. Thus, we have to distinguish two aspects in the process: the imposition of Burmese culture on the locality itself, and the ethnicity issue.

As a first step, the building of Mra Swan palace appeared to me to illustrate an “obvious” Burmanization process in a peripheral region of Burma through local cults. Following what has been said about the role of the Arakanese, it is important to look more closely at the process of local inscription. I suggest here that to a certain extent this event has been integrated in such a way as to create a tradition (ro ra) that is truly labeled as Arakanese. Two factors would strengthen this hypothesis: after its construction, pictures of the statue were sold in Mrauk-U inside the emblematic pagoda of this ancient capital of Arakanese heritage. The Mra Swan nat appears in the Encyclopedia for History of Buddhism and Rakhapura (Arakan) written by an Arakanese (Danya Wati Aung Zay Ya 2003), dedicated to Buddhism and Buddhist sacred places and shrines in Arakan, whereas to my knowledge there was no prior mention of the shrine in Arakanese literature. In this book, the caption under the picture of the statue is in English: “Guardian Princess Mother Mra Thwin, Mrauk-U”; and also in Burmese: Mrauk U mro saung nat thami Mya Thwin may daw pon. A short mention in Burmese states that “It is the picture (of Mra Swan may daw gri) which was wonderfully worshipped at the beginning of the British period (by the masters-to-come), owing to a saying (‘In the Pontut area, if outside the plain of Parein, [Mra Swan] stays away from People’).” It is equally significant that there is no reference to the recent building of the sanctuary by the Burmese, and that the image is presented in connection with Mrauk-U and ancient Arakanese history with facts found in colonial writings. It is thus progressively integrated or reintegrated into Arakanese historiography and tradition. This is supported by the fact that the statue is supposed to be truly designed as a typical Arakanese princess because local and well-known Arakanese craftsmen of Mrauk-U did the work. They usually copy models from Mrauk-U ancient temples.

However, beyond changes in the local “spiritual visual landscape” with new sanctuaries such as the one dedicated to the nat Mra Swan, one should not draw too hasty a conclusion on the “Burmanization” issue. And more importantly, one should consider if there has not been a true change in Arakanese ritual activities. For example, who are the worshippers involved in the annual celebration dedicated to the spirit? And who, in this case, is performing the ceremony? As Brac de la Perrière has demonstrated (2007 and 2008), spirits’ mediums are major agents in the integration of local cults to the Burmese nation. These questions require investigation.

The construction of the shrine and the nat’s statue has been analyzed as a method by which a Burmese military officer obtained symbolic recognition as the ruler of a region and in doing so settled his domination. This is based on the fact that Burmese historiography legitimized the intervention in this former capital (Parein) during the Pagan period, as well as the episode involving the British officer, and indicates a way, attested in historiography, of legitimizing the position of a ruler. The Burmese here act as kings, as they used to, by constructing a shrine and statue and sponsoring them, and by providing wealth and special offerings and consecrating the palace of the nat. Such actions correspond to the common Burmese way of introducing Burmese cults into localities and thus “Burmanizing” local cults. This implantation of a Burmese cult in Arakan was made possible because the local legend had few bibliographical elements.

However, there was no “Arakan-ess” figure in the Burmese pantheon, nor was there any local alliance with this implicit Burmese ruler because of her refusal to marry the king in the story of Mra Swan. The progressive transformation of the nat Mra Swan into the figure of a weikza seems to overcome some of these difficulties. Different elements from the Burmese side would support this idea: the appearance of the nat in the dream of the military officer’s wife, and the nature of her powers and the demonstration of their efficiency by her disappearance, which at the same time indicate a weikza stature. Her refusal to marry the king no longer appears to be negative, but on the contrary is valued as a sign of a religious calling dedicated to Buddhism; in the same way as certain meditation practices and other spiritual movements well attest to among women in contemporary Burma. This figure of weikza then appears in the vocabulary, as she is designated as a may to. The expression has a double meaning, since to is an honorific term, and can be translated as either “royal mother” or “a [female] weikza,” similar to the popular bodaw (transliterated as bhui: to) which is its male counterpart in urban Burma. Different items in the shrine would indicate the same thing. Mra Swan’s shrine and statue play on this double meaning, but as a royal figure, it conforms to Arakanese literary tradition.

It is significant that several words designate the nat Mra Swan. Suffice it to say here that, even for one denomination (may daw), some meanings differ from one informant to another, which might indicate that the localization of a Burmese cult is still in progress and maybe in transformation. Localization might not have occurred at the origin but later, and in doing so may gain more local support from urban Arakanese followers. This transformation occurs easily as the legend was not elaborated at the origin, and also because there were no figures of an “Arakanese nat” to (re-)settle in Arakan.

The story of the nat Mra Swan illustrates ancient, complex, and mutual interaction between Arakanese and Burmese with constant influences and adjustments, one opposite the other. As Brac de la Perrière has demonstrated (2008), the importance of dialogical relations is inherent to the process of identification for both sides.


Although sharing many common features in their religious traditions with the Burmese, the Arakanese have built their own specific relationship with nat in their local rituals. The Arakanese spirit world is connected to their own history and physical territory through the presence of their former kingdom. Even if the Burmese presence started to influence the Arakanese, probably with the beginning of the Burmese conquest or during the nineteenth century, cults of local spirits continued to be the expression of Arakanese local culture. The recent building of spirit shrines, however, presents a dynamic insight into the actual relationship that takes place between the central Burmese and other minorities in Burma, in this case, the Arakanese. This specific example of a new spirit cult is not just an isolated event, but belongs to the more general process of Burmanization in the building of the Burmese nation-state.

To a certain extent, the building of the shrine honoring Mra Swan and the spirit cult associated with it corresponds and shows the revival or the re-emergence of political power that is exerted over local spirit cults. To this extent, and as shown in the local legend, there is a historical continuity of the relationship between this local spirit and the representative political power—only the representative of this central authority changes. Control over the local population and the appropriation of local spirit cults, which allows political authority to strengthen its power and increase its legitimacy at a local level, is somehow typical of the history of the construction of the Burmese Buddhist nation. Its application to the region of Arakan, as demonstrated in this article, is, however, quite new.


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Anandacandra inscriptions on Shitethaung Pillar in Mrauk-U describe King Dven Candra as the father founder of Vesali. Not only nine Candra Kings but also sixteen kings descended from Dven Candra and other kings ruled over the country with Vesali as the Capital.

Situation and Structure 
Vesali was the Capital when Candra dynasty reigned over the country. It lies five miles north of Mrauk-U. The city walls and palace site can be clearly observed in photographs taken from aerial view. By studying these photographs and the article 'Rakhine Capital' written by Prof. Daw Thin Kyi (Journal of Myanmar Research Society Vol 52 Part 2, 1970, December) and through field-works, the structure of Vesali will be described as follow.

To the west of Vesali runs Rann-Chaung, a tributary of Kaladan River. Lying east to the city is the mountain range extending from Kaladan to Lemro River. The old palace city wall forms an irregular square with a narrow and curved part. The walls are almost straight in east and north but are curved in the west and south. A Rann-chaung tributary runs across the city.

The widest distance between the north and south walls is about 1000 feet and between the east and west walls about 6500 feet.

These walls are the outer walls and there is another inside, the inner wall. The inner wall is encircled by a moat. Inside these walls is the palace site. The extent of the palace site is about 1500 feet from north to south and about 1000 feet from east to west.

There are so many wells for drinking water inside the city and even a large lake in the east. During the golden days of this city, majority of the population lived within the outer city, whose walls enclosed the fields in which they worked.

Vesali Stone Stair
Vesali can be completely called Vesali Stone Stair City or Vesali Stone Pier City. Some remnants of Stone Stair can be still found close to the northwest of the palace city on the Rann-chaung tributary. At present, only the lower part of the Stone Stair can be seen at low tide as the stones from upper part have been taken away by the villagers nearby for their uses. At Vesali Period, the Stone Stair would serve as an important pier for sea-going sailing-ships. The city would be crowded with sailing ships from Vesali and other countries travelling to and fro for trading purposes.

Thaunggyat-taw or Frontlet Relic Pagoda 
The road to Mahamuni from Mrauk-U passes through and halves Vesali. Taking this road, the south wall of Vesali can be seen at the distance of four and half miles from Mrauk-U. Just in front of the wall is a hill on which Thaunggyat-taw pagoda stands. At the top of the ridge extending the southwest of Thaunggyat-taw pagoda is a stupa from where a stone inscription containing Ye Dhamma verse was found in May, 1965. In 1957, the stone inscription of Niticandra's queen was recovered from a ruined stupa at Unhissaka hill north of Thaunggyat-taw pagoda. In that year, Viracandra's inscription was found at a ruined stupa on a hill north of Unhissaka hill. The letters in these inscriptions closely resemble to those used before six-century. The names of Niticandra and Viracandra are inscribed on Anandacandra inscriptions.

Thalla-waddy Village 
Pauktawbrung village is situated closed to the inner side of the south wall of Vesali. Now a day it is called Thalla-waddy Village. Forty years ago, an inscribed copper plate was obtained at a mound near the city wall at a distance of two furlongs from this village. It is a land grant record of a Vesali king. The second inscribed bronze bell was recovered from a pagoda on Aboungdawdatt Hill south of Thallawaddy village ten years ago. The scripts of the two inscriptions are identical and written with letters used before six century. The monastery of the village is situated on a small mound. It is said that the Anandawdaya monastery built by Anandacandra was once situated on that mound. There is a well dug during Vesali period in the monastery compound. When a place was cleared for building a Sima, a collection of stones were found. They are base slabs used for erecting the stupas and stone status after carving. It is suggested that there would be a grotto beneath the mound.

Vesali Village
The palace site serves as the settlement grounds of Vesali Village. Some ancient ruined cetiyas, broken Buddha images, broken stone statues and carvings are found to be scattered on the hills lying along the road from Thallawaddy to Vesali Village.

On going to the north, there is a large lake, the former moat of the palace site. After the lake, one will reach the Vesali village. The village monastery lies on a hill now called Lak-khat Taung. Some Nat statues and Bodhisattva figures are found on the hill. This believed to be the origional site of Anandacandra Inscription Piller which was moved to Shitethaung Temple by King Mong Ba Gree. It is said that Lakkhat Taung or loom batten hillock gets its name as there is a stone slab used to set up the statues and it looks like the frame of the reed in the loom. Adjacent to Lakkhat Taung is the palace site. At one place of palace site, there is a headless statue with four arms and a child figure on each side. It is Vishnu statue. On its back, there is a conch shell motif also seen on the stone slab capping the Anandacandra Piller. King Mong Ba Gree made the statue with four arms like this be carved in the gallery of Shitethaung temple.

Memorable inscription for building a pagoda 
The palace site is encircled by a moat. A stone inscription with the same script as the Anandacandra Inscriptions was recovered from the moat. The difference is the way of writing of "Ra" alphabet. "Ra" is written as the English alphabet "J". Now the inscription is observed in Mrauk-U Museum.

The Great Image of Vesali 
Lying north to the Vesali village is the Sanghayana or Buddhist synod hill. The great image of Vesali believed to be built by Maha Taing Candra's queen, rests on a hill near it. The image was carved of a large single block of sandstone. It is praiseworthy how such large stone could be carried to the top of the hill. Now some ancient styles of the image are disappeared as some monks changed the eyes of the image with the false eyes from foreign countries. Other than the eyes, the frontlet of the image is also richly ornamented.

In 1959, Vesali monastery Sayadaw found an inscription containing Ye Dhamma Verse in Pali, used before six century on cleaning the walls of the campus.

Vesali free from protection
Vesali palace city and the ruined pagodas near by have turned into fond of treasure-trove hunters. Brick rubbles and broken stone statues and images are scattered here and there. Stone stair, arch-ways, city walls and palace site are almost completely destroyed. There is no one to take care or protect the city so they all are in great disorder. As it is not in the same condition as the ancient Rakhine capitals viz Parein, Laungret which were washed away by the mighty Lemro currents, some precious things may still stay in the soil. If the old city is systematically excavated it is sure that some evidences invaluable to the study of Rakhine history will appear.

The presence of the pier for the sea-going sailing-ships indicates that Vesali would have dealings with foreign countries. Vesali had cultural relations especially with the northeast India. Communications with the area were made not only by sea but also by land.

The various of silvers coins bearing the inscriptions and a bull motif have been being discovered around Vesali. These coins indicate that the trade relationships of Rakhine with foreign countries were flourished during Vesali period (4 to 8 centuries AD). It is evident; therefore, that Rakhine does not tag behind the time. The civilization of Vesali would be at the highest level in the world at that time.

The decorated carvings of stone and metal images, stupas, statues and lamps were discovered from Vesali. They unmistakably point out the high level of art that Vesali had attained.

The materials used in stone carving are very hard sandstones. So the tolls used must be much more harder. Therefore, it is known that Vesali people could produce and use the metals with high hardness.

Moving the huge stones from a distant place, carrying these stones to the top of the steep hills, making circular stone plates and casting the coins indicates the level of technology that Vesali had attained.

Bronze bells and copper plates were to be inscribed. Besides them other substances may also be used. Bell, copper plate and stone inscriptions in Sanskrit give an indication that Sanskrit would be popularly used in Vesali. As the language was used only by higher standard people, the Sanskrit scholars would invent a language for public use.

Household utensils such as stone plates, pots, golden sash, rings, bracelets and ear-plugs were also discovered around Vesali.

In Vesali period, Ye Dhamma verse would be inscribed at all pagodas built. Stone inscriptions containing Ye Dhamma verse were abundantly found at many ruined pagoda in Vesali and the area nearby. The meaning of Ye Dhamma verse is as follow.
Of these dhammas which arise from causes
The Tathagata has declared causes
Lord Buddha preached about the causes
And the effects gained by the causes
And that which is the ceasing of them, Nirawda Thitesa
This the great ascetic declares.
The verse, which is considered as the essence of Theravada spirit, bears testimony to the fact that Buddhism flourished to an utmost degree in Vesali. The relationship of Vesali with foreign countries especially Ceylon would be established for Buddhism.

Unability to go against Sankara 
Deciphering Anandacandra inscription and studying paleography of inscription on the coins, Johnston and Sircar suggested the date of the founding of Vesali to be 320 AD or 350 AD. Rakhine chronicles record that Vesali declined in 957 AD.

The golden days of this city were contemporary to the days of Thayekhitaya. It had been the capital of Rakhine Kingdom where the Rakhine culture had its full bloom for about 600 years before Pagan came into existence. At present, Vesali is in ruin in accordance with Sankhara. It has been for about 1000 years that Vesali came to an end. But we have been discovering the workmanships of Vesali people till now.

Note: The related figures of stone inscriptions, copper plate inscriptions, bronze bells and Vesali coins described in this articles can be seen in the book, "Scripts of Rakhine, 6th century and before" written by U San Tha Aung.


Translated by -
Kyaw Soe Naing
2nd M.B.B.S
I.M (2)

Source: The Rakhaing Tha-Ha-Ya Athong Megazine No.3

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