Literature and Culture

Arakan (Rakhine) State was an independent sovereign state for over 5,000 years (from BC 3325 to AD 1784) with four dynastic eras: Dhanyawaddy, Vesali, Laymro and Mrauk-U. Throughout these four eras, Arakan developed a wealth of literature and culture.

The evolution of Arakanese (Rakhaing) literature was greatly influenced by Indian literature, probably due to the area’s geographical isolation from the Burmese mainland by the Arakan Roma mountain ranges. Traces of Indian influence remain in many aspects of Arakanese culture, including its literature, art, music, cuisine, and so on.

One of the earliest examples of Arakanese literature is the 'Saccaka paribajaka Jina' inscription on the underside of the Fat Monk image in Pan Zee Mroung in Mrauk- U Township. The stone engraving on this Fat Monk image is a Brahmin inscription from the 1st century AD (the Dhanyawaddy period). The Rakha Wanna, or Arakanese alphabet, used in Arakanese literature has evolved from the northern Brahmin languages. It has been influenced by Brahmin and related letter forms throughout the periods of Dhanyawaddy, Vesali, Laymro and Mrauk- U, to the present day.

Sanskrit and Pali literature also influenced Arakanese literature heavily. The standard shapes of Rakha Wanna characters were a mixture of ellipses and right angles in the Vesali period, and then predominantly square in the Laymro period. Although the alphabet from the earlier period of Mrauk-U was very square, the writing of the middle era used many more ellipses, and eventually evolved into a script of mostly circular shapes, like those of Southern India, by the end of Mrauk- U era.

The Anandacandra Inscriptions Pillar, a monolith inscribed with Sanskrit stanzas housed in a grille structure on the left side of the main stairway of the Shitethaung Temple, may be considered the earliest history book in Burma. This Vesali-era pillar was moved to Mrauk-U by King Mun Ba Gree (Munn Bun), the 13th King of the Mrauk- U Dynasty, in 1536. This square pillar rises 3.3 m (9ft 7in) from the ground and is 0.7m (2ft 4in) wide. It is made of fine-grained sandstone, which was widely used at Dhanyawaddy and for the early sculptures of Vesali. Three of its four faces are inscribed.

The eastern face has about one hundred lines of illegible inscriptions, probably containing accounts of earlier dynasties. This script closely resembles that of 6th Century Gupta copper plates of Bengal and, like earlier such pillars, retains some 5th Century characteristics. 5th Century forms are noticed in the vowels and may therefore be palaeographically dated to the end of 5th or beginning of the 6th Century. It was presumably written during the reign of Bhumicandra (Bhuticandra), who ruled between 489 and 520 AD. It is evident that the script had been in use for some time, perhaps as long as a century. The archaeological evidence from this period suggests that it was around this time that the capital was moved from Dhanyawaddy to Vesali.

The western face has 72 lines of text; it is the most legible and significant inscription on the pillar, consisting of 51 verses describing the King's ancestral rulers. Inscriptions like these are rare in Burma; King Anandacandra, who ruled Arakan around 720AD, and is credited with ordering the inscription, is held in very high regard by Arakanese and foreign historians alike. Dr E.H. Jonston (Professor of Oriental Studies of Balliol College, Oxford University, England) and Dr D.C. Sircar (former Superintendent of Archaeological Department of India) have dated the inscription to the beginning of the 8th Century AD. Dr Johnston's reading reveals a list of kings which he believed to have lived from the Candra Dynasty onwards.

The Holy Pitakai in Mrauk-U contains the Tipitaka (three baskets), a library of Buddhist scriptures known as the Pali Canon. These scriptures were used by the monks and novices of Taung-nyo Taik monastery during the Mrauk- U period. The Holy Pitakai was originally donated by the son of Mun Ba Gree, Mum Fhaloung (1571-1593) who is also known as Naradipadi Uritaw Thirithu Shah.

In addition to the stone inscriptions found in different parts of Arakan, there are several literary genres including poetry, annals, narratives and eulogies, which reveal much about the evolution of Arakanese literature. Inscriptions found on silver and gold coins in the eras of Vesali and Mrauk-U offer further clues to the development of Arakanese literature and culture.

In reference to culture, Arakanese cultural and traditional life and indeed the civilization of Arakan have always been closely linked to Buddhist thought and traditions. Further, many aspects of Aryan culture have been absorbed into Arakanese society. The traditional lifestyle and culture of Arakan can be studied in more detail at temples such as Shitethaung Temple, Koethaung Temple, Htukkant Thein Shrine, Anndaw Thein Shrine, and pagodas in Laungbwannbrauk, Maha Bodi Shwegu, Sakya Manaung, Zina Manaung, Lawka Manaung, the Pitaka Library, Konawang, Prasoegri Phara and the Museums of Mrauk U and Site-tway.

The people of Arakan have historically practiced Theravada Buddhism; almost 100% of the Arakanese (Rakhaing) are Buddhists and their religion is central to their national identity and culture. The Arakanese have followed the teachings of Buddhism since Gautama Buddha visited Arakan during the reign of King Chandra Surira in the 6th Century BC.

King Sri Chandra, one of the famous Kings of Vesali, is famed for having convened the fourth Arakanese council for the three Pitakas (Tipitaka). This assembly was composed of the 1,000 Rahats including 500 Rahats from Sri Lanka; throughout its history, Arakanese Buddhism has had extremely close links with Sri Lanka, as well as India. In 1784, the Burmese King Maung Wine (Bodawpaya) invaded Arakan and set all of the religious buildings on fire, including over 30 major and 3700 minor monasteries in Mrauk-U, the last capital of Arakan.

Ancient Arakan’s education system consisted not only of Monastic education but also the traditional style, which involved knowledge being passed down through an apprentice system. All of the major Buddhist Monasteries acted as Universities in the Arakanese Kingdoms, and taught skills for many different professions; the curriculum was known as the eighteen arts and sciences. For other professions, such as priests, scholars, religious teachers, Kings, warriors, chieftains, landowners, land labourers and craftsmen, the requisite skills were taught by senior professionals to apprentices in accordance with the caste system.

The health system in ancient Arakan totally depended on traditional physicians, who mastered the skills for medical treatment. They treated illnesses and diseases using one of the four grand elements: earth, water, fire and air. There were other physicians, who, more traditionally, would not prescribe medicine but cure diseases by suggesting dietary changes.

In the past, various traditional sports were contested in Arakan, such as Arakanese wrestling or “Kyun”, elephant racing, archery, sword or spear competitions, and boat races. The purpose of these competitions was to produce skilled warriors for the Kingdom’s Royal Army. Kyun wrestling and boat racing have remained popular among the public of Arakan to this day, although the other sports have not been practiced since before British colonial rule and the successive Burmese military regimes.

The culture of the Vesali era was highly developed, especially in the following areas: the minting and circulation of coins for currency, literature, art and music, clothing, architecture, masonry, and shipbuilding for international trade. Military power was increased during this era to protect both the nation and national culture.

During the second Mrauk-U era, developments were made in the following areas: military, politics, administration, literature, science, chemistry, medicine, education, and industrial production, especially bronze. Religious developments included the building of Htukkant Thein Shrine, Shitethaung Temple (80,000 Buddha images), Koethaung Temple (90,000 Buddha images), and U Ritetaung Pagoda, all of which are Arakanese cultural landmarks.

One of the most famed cultural and artistic works of Arakan is the Maha Muni Buddha Image that is now housed in Mandalay in central Burma. This Buddha statue was taken from Arakan in 1784 by King Bodawpaya as a war trophy. It is 4 metres high, weighs 6.5 tons, and is made of bronze. Archaeologists believe the image was probably cast during the reign of King Chandra Surya, who ascended the throne in AD 146.

Much of Arakan’s literature and many of its cultural and architectural works, including Buddhist monasteries and pagodas, historical palm leaves (the books of the time) and the Royal Palace of Mrauk-U were stolen or destroyed after Arakan was invaded by the Burmans in 1784.


...Posted By... Arakan Research Centre ...Date... Saturday, October 29, 2011. ...Post Title... , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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