Saturday, April 26, 2014

Burmese Heritage


The Union of Myanmar, more commonly known as Burma, has a very rich and culturally diverse heritage. The Burmese are the majority of the population while Kachin, Chin, Arakanese, Shan, and Karen form important minority groups cultivating their own traditions. Since the late eighteenth century, the area covered today by the Union of Myanmar was known to Westerners as Burma. The renaming of the country by the military government a few years ago is still a controversial issue for political opponents, though 'Myanmar' was the usual literary name for the country since the earliest days of Burmese epigraphy.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the history and culture of the ethnic minority groups living in Burma. This issue of the Newsletter highlights some aspects of recent research on Burma. The country's deliberate isolation for several decades and the political controversy the military regime evokes notwithstanding, a number of scholars have devoted their efforts either to long established fields of research or to lesser explored areas. The recent controversy between Guus Houtman and Elizabeth Moore on the restoration of the Shwedagon has shown, however, that research on the country can be a walk on the tightrope.1
One of the hot spots in Burma Studies is Arakan, the present day Rakhine State in Western Burma. Jacques Leider recently completed a groundbreaking PhD on the Mrauk-U period (AD 1430-1785). In recognition of a growing interest in the Burmese littoral, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) sponsored an international conference on Lower Burma and the Bay of Bengal, the proceedings of which will be published this Fall by the KNAW Press as The Maritime Frontier of Burma. Political and Cultural Interaction during Ages of Commerce, c.1000-1800 (Amsterdam, 2001).

A Buddhist nun with offerings at the Shwedagon stupa in Rangoon/Yangon.
Pamela Gutman, who has dedicated many years to the study of the ancient history of Arakan, allows us a close look at recent archaeological research conducted in Mrauk-U. The fortified city of Mrauk-U was Arakan's capital for four centuries, and the impressive remnants of old Arakanese temples and pagodas still stand as a living reminder of the past. Excavations at the mid-sixteenth century Koe-Thaung shrine, one the largest religious buildings at Mrauk-U, show influences on rakanese culture from the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Bengal. For Mrauk-U it would be of immense value to set up an international conservation project like the one that has been so successful in Pagan.

Pagan not only boasts some of the most impressive pagodas, but it is also presently one of the best known tourist sites in Burma. Research on Pagan has produced an ever wider range of books and articles. Tilman Frasch has given new impetus to the outstanding philological tradition on Burmese epigraphy founded by Gordon Luce, U Pe Maung Tin, Charles Duroiselle, and others, in his masterly Pagan. Stadt und Staat (Stuttgart, 1996). Here he provides us with a bird's-eye view of research on various aspects of Pagan's history. The thousands of stupas and monasteries of Pagan reflect the impact of Buddhism on the early Burmese state and provide evidence for the close relationship between the early Burmese and the civilization of the Pyu. The enduring legacy of the Pyu is explored in an article by Janice Stargardt. She shows how Pyu settlement patterns, irrigation works, and the adoption of Theravada Buddhism left major imprints on the historical geography of Burma that endured until the late nineteenth century.

Another defining element of Burmese culture is Burma's unique legal tradition, a field which has been brought to light by, among others, Andrew Huxley, who explores this vast field here. Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, well known for her research on the spirit cults, will discuss aspects of the worship of the nat. Brac de la Perrière works from a long-standing French tradition of research on Burma, which will get further attention from Marie-Hélène Cardinaud, currently the head of the Burmese language department at INALCO in Paris, in a paper on the history of Burmese Studies in France.

The following papers show that Burma provides exciting avenues for research. I sincerely hope this Burmese Heritage issue will contribute to the promotion of Burma Studies at large. Despite an increased interest in the country and its current problems, the number of Western scholars specializing in the vast field of Burma studies has unfortunately remained very small. Likewise co-operation with Burmese researchers has also been difficult hitherto and it is hoped that there will be more room to exchange views with our Burmese colleagues in the future. *


1. Times Higher Education Supplement (1 December 2000).
See also the IIAS Newsletter Interview with the Guest Editor, Stephan van Galen

Stephan van Galen, MA works for the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and is currently preparing a PhD on Arakanese History, AD 1515-1690 at Leiden University.
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