Saturday, January 19, 2008

Burma’s Lose Kingdom

Burma’s Lose Kingdom

By Pamela Gutman


Along the Bay of Bengal, in the northwest corner of Burma lie the splendid capital cities of ancient Arakan: Dhanyawadi, Vesali, the cities of the Lemro valley and Mrauk - U (Myohaung). Mentioned in Ptolemy's Geography in the 2nd century AD, Arakan was from earliest times a cosmopolitan state with a vigorous and complex culture. Indian Brahmins conducted the royal ceremonial, Buddhist monks spread their teaching, traders came by land and sea , and artists and architects used Indian and Southeast Asian models for inspiration. Through Buddhism, Arakan came into contact with other remote countries, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet and China. To the east were the many early empires of Southeast Asia: Mon, Khmer, Burman and Siamese , and to the west Hindu empires were replaced by the Islamic courts of Bengal and Delhi. This is the first comprehensive study on the history and civilization of Arakan. It serves as an excellent introduction to its hitherto almost unknown schools of sculpture and architecture.


While current research does not tell us when the centre of power moved from Dhanyawadi to Vesali, from the style of its sculpture and the palaeography of its inscriptions we can assume that this happened around the beginning of the sixth century.

The Mahamuni shrine at Dhanyawadi retained its importance as a sacred centre, as remains of later structures in the vicinity bear out. Vesali was even more open to Indian influence than was Dhanyawadi. More easily reached by the overland route, it also took advantage of increased trade in the Bay of Bengal.


From this time we can reconstruct the history from contemporary written accounts. The inscription of Anandacanda , written around 728 AD , gives the names and reign periods of eighteen of his predecessors , the earlier of whom may have ruled at Dhanyawadi. The kings of earliest Candra dynasty, who ruled from end of the 4th to the beginning of the 7th centuries , are said to have descended from the lineage of the Hindu god Siva , and the lineage is mentioned again in connection with Anandacandra's grandfather , Vajrasakti. The inscription describes Anandacanda's grandfather, Vajrasakti. The inscription describes Anandacandra and his immediate predecessors as Mahayana Buddhists. This would not, however, have predecessors as Mahayana Buddhists. This would not, however, have precluded the existence of a Hindu royal cult as was the case in both India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Candra kings certainly did not neglect to support the local Brahmins, the bearers of Sanskritic culture at court. Anandacandra says that he built four temples, named after himself, for the Brahmins, the bearers of Sanskritic culture at court. Anandacandra says that he built four temples, named after himself, for the Brahmins as well as providing them with land, servants and musicians.

The nature of Arakanese kingship suring this period is illustrated by an interesting plaque discovered together with a round-based bronze vessel during the construction of the road from Vesali to Mrauk-U. The plaque aptly illustrates the symbolism behind the abbiaeka or lustration ceremonies performed to consecrate Buddhist kings, but wjhich is derived from Hinduritual and practice. The significance behind the symbolism is that the king during the royal consecration became a future Buddha as well as a dhamaraja, a ruler of the law, responsible for the spiritual and temporal well being of his people. The country was seen as a microcosm of the universe whose maintenance was ensured by the dharma of Indra, the king of the gods who as one of the chief assistants to the Buddha controlled the cycle of the seasons and consequently the fertility and prosperity of the county.

The square plaque has a round indentation in the centre into which the bronze vessel fits. Around the indentation is a ring of lotus petals, then twelve auspicious signs connected with the function of kingship. These are a srivatsa diagram representing the goddess of fertility and prosperity Sri, who was believed to enter the king during the royal consecration; the winged conch, double fish and vase of abundance , symbols also associated with prosperity; an umbrella , piar of fly whisks , elephant goad and a bull , the auspicious royal symbols; a pillar, which also symbolised link between the heaven and earth , and a peacock and a deer representing the sun and the moon , the heavenly bodies which rule the universe. The corners of the plaque are filled with lotus buds and leaves, the whole being surrounded by a beaded border.

The plaque is a representation of the universe, within which is a mandala which establishes the king as its centre in his country, seen as the microcosm of the universe. In Hindu - Buddhist cosmology, the circular universe was thought to be surrounded by an enormous rock wall, represented on the plaque by the square border. This encloses an ocean with four island continents, here represented by the lotuses set in each of the four corners. In the centre of the universe is Mount Meru, the axis of the world and the abode of Indra with whom the king was identified, denoted on the plaque by the central ring of lotus petals. The twelve symbols arranged within a circle around the centre are intimated, denoted on the plaque by the central ring of lotus petals. The twelve symbols arranged within a circle around the royal dharma, the king's given power to maintain the fertility and prosperity of the country. In the ceremony of the royal consecration, the properties of these symbols were absorbed into the waters contained in the central vessel, which were ritually poured over the king's given power to maintain the fertility and prosperity of the country. In the ceremony of the royal consecration, the prosperity of these symbols were absorbed into the waters contained in the central vessel, which were ritually poured over the king. As a consequence of assimilating these properties, the king therefore became a god on earth, a cakravartin or turner of the wheel of mundane and supra-mundane law which would guarantee his country's protection and wealth. Later texts describe the participation of both Brahmins and Buddhists in this ceremony.

The Shit-thaung inscription describes Anandacadra's most important activities as the building of Buddhist foundations and commissioning objects of worship and records his building many monasteries and providing them with slaves, fields and buffaloes. His religious donations also included gold and silver caityas containing relics of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, the goddess Cunda and others, and Buddha images made of brass bell metal and copper, as well as ivory, wood , terracotta and stone. The inscription relates that he had innumerable clay models of stupas made, and commissioned the writing, or copying, of holy scriptures. He made donations to monks who came to his city from many parts of the Buddhists world, and indeed sent gifts including an elephant and rodes to the congregation of monks in Sri Lanka. His subjects benefited through public works such as the building of wells and pleasure gardens, and through the justice he administered daily from the palace. Following the example of the Imperial Gupta emperors, he always released capital offenders.


Mounds strewn with broken sculptures, dressed stone and bricks, suggesting that these were the sites of ancient shrines dot the site of the old city of Vesali. Shwe-daung-gyi, “the Great Golden Hill” is northeast of the palace at Dhinnyawadi. It may, therefore be the site of a royal shrine. In local legend it is the burial ground of a Pyu king and his army which unsuccessfully attempted to invade the city in the 10th century. At Letkhat-taung, east of Vesali village, a number of very damaged life-sized images have been found. Sanghayama hill, reputedly the site of a Buddhist synod, has also revealed architectural fragments and sculptures.

The excavations undertaken at Vesali in the 1980s have begun to uncover some of its formers splendour. The four sites between Tharlawaddy and Vesali villages within the city walls have revealed a Buddhist ordination hall, a monastery, and a building which may have been connected with a royal cult, as a damaged stone image of a bull on a brick throne was recovered there. We have seen that the royal cult of the Candras may have been Shaivite as was the case at Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia, the pre-Angkorian city of Isanapura, where a building was designated as a stable for Nandi, the riding bull of Siva who inhabited the central shrine there.

Two lintels found at Mrauk-U appear to belong to the Vesali period. Both bear a strong resemblance to the 7th century lintels found in Thailand and Cambodia. On either side ornate makara heads spew forth an arcature are loops of pearls or garlands. This lintel type, while ultimately deriving from a form found in the rock-cut Buddhist architecture of Ajanta in western India-influenced schools to the west at this time illustrates the shared artistic vocabulary used in mainland Southeast Asia before the eighth century.

Another lintel fragment was found during the 1996 excavations of the Nibuza pagoda at Maruk-U. The Ni-buza surmounts a hill even today regarded as sacred and the fragment might have belonged today regarded as sacred and the fragment might have belonged to an earlier structure there. It is decorated with a caitya arch flanked by two bulbous serrated pillar capitals. Within the circular niche of the arch is typically post-Gupta in style and the capitals resemble those found in the western Indian rock-cut caves at Ellora dated in the 8th century.

Also found at Mrauk-U, and now the excellent Museum there is a column sculpted on there sides which once was engaged against a well at the entrance to a shrine. The base had addorsed, realistic elephant forequarters at the corners, and in the centre of each is an orge's face with bulging eyes, teeth horribly bared and a long curling mane. Above the base, framed in an archway, the river goddess Ganga, carrying a flywhisk, stands on her vehicle, the makara. Ganga, is commonly found among the deities at the entrances of both Hindu and Buddhist shrines in India, although the only other depiction of a river goddess in Southeast Asia is on a mid-7th century pre-Angkorian pilaster from Isanapura or Sambor Prei Kuk. Here too the figure is depicted alone within a frame which professor Boisselier contended is a representation in miniature of the temple itself. Both the figure and the architectural frame follow the style developed from the Gupta art of Ajanta by the Western Calukyan kings in south India in the second half of the 7th century. As in the lintel described above, makara heads disgorge the arcature.

On the other two faces indentical half arches each frame a lithe male figure which appears to step from behind. Probably door guardians, they wear clothes and ornaments similar to those found in the Calukya sculpture of southern India, as well as a “Scythian” conical helmet often adopted by temple guardians of the south. Above these guardians of the door is a continuation of the reduction of the main body of a building of the type to which the column belonged. The general shape suggests the from of a South Indian temple fronted by a columned hall on a plinth, the whole surmounted by a vaulted roof with upturned eaves. Above this “shrine” is a panel depicting a lotus, and the uppermost panel has vyala caryatids at the corners flanking a small figure of Garuda apparently emerging from a sea of intricate foliage.

The from of the shrine from which the column ultimately derived is southern Indian of the late 7th or early 8th centuries AD, although there are similarities with the contemporary architecture of Thailand and Cambodia. The column, which would have formed part of the main doorway, illustrated in miniature the main features of the temple proper, so we are able from these fragments to get a glimpse of the style of temples yet to be uncovered at Vesali.

In addition, some sculptures discovered at other sites have come from religious structures. A number of these are kept in a shed at Vesali village. All are in the red sandstone typical of sculptures of this period. They include a massive image of Visnu, some two metres tall, as monumental in conception as pre-Angkorian Visnu images of the same period. The god's head and upper arms are missing, and his lower hands rest on the heads of Cakradeva and Gadadevi, his personified attributes. Others include the goddess Ganga and door guardian, but most are too damaged to allow identification. Most can be seen to belong to the late and post-Gupta periods in style, and the garments indicate that the sculptors were variously influenced by the art of northeast India and the Pallavas of the south around the seventh century.

While most of the Buddha images found at Vesali are damaged or fragmentary, some show connections with the northern Buddhist centres of India and the Pyu sculpture of Sriksetra in Burma proper. The recent discovery of a group of red sand stone images in high relief at Selagiri, the hill where the Buddha is said to have landed opposite modern Kyauktaw, is important in that it shows how the Arakan sculptor reinterpreted Indian models. The attempts at rendering perspective were only achieved in some paintings in the Ajanta caves in western India. Although Selagiri is closer to Dhanyawadi than Vesali, their style places them in the Vesali period and shows the importance of the Selagiri to the Buddhism of the time.

The reliefs, now at the Mahamuni Museum, originally surrounded a brick stupa at the base of the southern side of Selagiri hill. Most depict events in the life of the Buddha, while a related image found 70 years ago shows the Buddha preaching to a royal figure. Like the Mahamuni sculptures, the figures are depicted against a plain background and are surmounted by a plain, oval -shaped halo. The hair is treated as rows of coils, dipping slightly over the forehead and the facial features show a tendency to portray local physiognomy, with a longer nose and fuller lips than is usual in Indian sculpture. The bodies pressure a continuous flowing surface and there is no attempt to define muscles.

Two sculptures representing the Englightenment are identical .The Buddha sits in padmasana, right leg crossed over left in the Northern Indian manner, with the right hand touching the ground in the attitude of calling the earth to witness his victory over the demon Mara, the personification of desire and death. The figure is surrounded with a scalloped reredos , similar to some found is Bengali bronzes, illustrating the light which emanated from the body of the Buddha after he attained Enlightenmented. He sits under a stylized Bodhi tree on an attempt to indicate perspective.

The next image shows the Buddha delivering the First Sermon. He is seated in the so-called “European position” on a rectangular throne with his feet placed on a lotus pedestal, his hands in dharmacakramudra, the attitude representing the turning of the wheel of the Law. To his right kneels a bearded ascetic and to his left a monk, both with hands clasped in adoration. The first of these may represent the forest monks noted for their ascetic practices, while the other may represent the monks living in cities or major monasteries. Below deer sit on either side, indicating that the First Sermon took place in the tury art of Ajanta and later at Nalanda, and further west at Dvaravati in modern Thailand.

In the rendition of the final episode of the Buddha's life, his death or Parinirvana, the dying Master lies on his side, hand under head, under three sala trees signifying the grove in which this event took place. Below are three remarkably life-like mourners, seated in attitudes of extreme grief. Perspective is attempted through portraying the mourners in the foreground larger than the Buddha, who is shown reclining on a ledge sloped to emphasize depth through the play of light, and by the sala trees in the background, illustrated in an appropriately smaller scale.

Plate 38 depicts a crowned figure of a male standing in an hieratical, frontal pose on a round base. Both arms are broken so any identifying attributes have been losts. The ornaments and garments are similar to those found both at Vesali and Nalanda. The plain aureole behind the head indicates divinity, and this together with the royal ornaments and the masterfully achieved serenity of the face suggests that the figure may be a Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. In the later Mahayanist Buddhist art of eastern India the scene of the Enlightenment, the Buddha in bhumisparsamudra is often flanked by the Bodhisattvas Padmapani Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, and this may have been the case here.

Stylistically the Selagiri images ultimately derive from the classical Gupta tradition, and this group shows similarities with the art of Ajant, especially. Which the Buddha figures continue this tradition, there are strong links with the later Buddhist art of Northeast India. The Buddha seated in padmasana, rather than the virasana preferred in the south, indicates an east Indian connection. The rendition of the robe, especially the flap over the left shoulder, shows a connection with Buddhist practice at the Indian schools of Kurkihar and Nalanda, as well as Dvaravati in Thailand.

The Selagiri reliefs illustrate the spread , in the sixth or the seventh century, of Mahayanist influence from the schools of northeast India to Arakan, as indeed is well documented in the neighbouring polities of Pyu Sriksetra and Mon Dvaravati. The paucity of Buddhist remains from this period in India does not, unfortunately, allow us to be more specific about the nature of this influence. Other sources attest to the spread of the Mahayana to Arakan and its neighbours during this period. The Tibetan historian Taranatha includes Rakhan, which must be Arakan, in his description of the Koki countries where, he tells us, the followers of Vasubandhu, the 4th century Buddhist philosopher, spread the Mahayana. The Chinese traveler Yijing (635-713) recorded that the four principal schools of Buddhism were known in the Eastern frontier countries of India, as well as over the mountains, in countries including Dvaravati and Sriksetra, in modern Thailand and Burma.

Two bronze Buddhas found in a ruined stupa near Vesali and now kept at the Let-kauk-zay monastery at Mrauk-U typify the style of the period. Both are stylistically related to the Selagiri reliefs but appear to be slightly later in date. Both were originally covered with a protective substance giving the surface a glazed appearance. One sits, legs crossed in padmasana, the left arm broken at the elbow and the right raised in vitarkamudra, the gesture of elucidation of folds around the neck, the waist and over the legs, and he sits on a low waisted throne decorated on the upper portion merely with a row of rather crudely drawn circles. The treatment of the hair, the rounded face and the supple smooth modeling of the body again show a connection with the late Gupta, Pyu and Dvaravati Mon styles.

The second image, whose protective surface was removed by the monks, stands erect, the right hand in the gesture of reassurance, abhayamudra, and the left holding the hem of his robe. The figure is placed on a plain, drum-shaped pedested which has been broken at the base but a few characters indicate a Sanskrit dedication of around the 7th century. Which the face, body and garments compare with those of the previous image, the stance is interesting in that it is clearly linked with a series of images found throughout Southeast Asia and in Sri Lanka dating from the around the same time. Sometimes called “missionary” images as they were previously thought to be among the earliest Buddhist relics in the region, those from Sri Lanka and Java are copied from South Indian models, but this and some Mon examples from both Thailand and Burma have more in common with the late Gupta art of north India. All ultimately derive from a famous image at Kosambi in north-west India believed to be a true likeness of the Great Sage made during his lifetime and possessing miraculous powers, in much the same way as the Mahamuni image was regarded in Arakan and beyond.

Some imges were obviously made at well-known workshops in India and were brought to Arakan by monks, travelers or traders. A bronze Buddha standing under the Bodhi tree found at Vesali belongs to the type made at the Bengali Buddhist centre of Mainamati. The standing Buddha, his left arm broken and his right raised in vitarkamudra, is rather crudely depicted and somewhat damaged. He has a detachable prabhavali or flaming surround of some interest. In the centre is a Bodhi tree encased within a beaded border from which stylized flames issue. The apex is crowned by a flaming cakra or Wheel of the Law on a pedestal, flanked by two birds. Over 100 Buddhist images with similar prabhavalis were found during excavations of the Arakanese Candra kings were also discovered. Those with similar treatment of the figures have been dated in the 8th century. Mainamati Buddha images of this period have also been found in Java and Thailand.

A seated Bodhisattva image, now rather damaged, was found in the ruined Mrunchaungwa stupa at the northeast corner of the outer wall of Dhanyawadi and is now at the Mahamuni Museum. The Bodhisattva is seated in maharajalilasana, the position of royal ease, reminiscent of the images at the Mahamuni shrine. The right hand, possibly holding a small round object, rests on his raised knee. His left hand also rests on his knee from behind which a springs a blue lotus with a book laid on top. This identifies him as the Bodhisattva Manjusri, popularly associated with knowledge, who was one of the better known Bodhisattvas worshipped in East Bengal during this period. The horseshoe shaped halo behind is typical of the Bengal Mainamati bronzes of the 7th-8th centries. The pedestal on which it was originally placed is now unfortunately missing.

A later tablet found during the Nyi-daw excavations has the Buddha sitting in dhyana or meditation mudra on a lotus base. There are indications of drapery in the robes falling over his chest. The figure is paced within an arched reredos with rampant lions standing on elephants on either side and makaras at head level. Three medallions above the head contain sacred syllables in proto-Bengali script. The reverse of the tablet is rounded, widening towards the base, which has a small hole in which a relic would have been placed. The influence of the Pala-Sena art of Bodhgaya is apparent here.

We have seen that the worship of Visnu as Vasudeva, Practiced by the Gupta emperors, gained ready acceptance by the Candras of Arakan, anxious to emulate their imperial tradition.

As in eastern India, the most frequent sculptural form was four-armed, standing erect with the lower arms resting on the heads of ayudhapurusas, the personified weapons of the god. While there are many fragments of Vismu images found at Vesali and Mrauk-U which may be dated from the 6th to 8th centuries, only one surives intact. Those remaining are often regarded as benevolent or malevolent spirits by the local people, who retain almost no memory of what once was an important cult.

A headless standing image of Visnu was found at Wuntitaung, a site locally known as the dwelling place of a spirit which protected the country. The figure is worn and the two upper arms are broken above the elbows. Visnu stands erect in the posture known as samapadasthanaka, his lower hands on the heads of two chubby personified weapons.The figure at his left gazes at the god, his right arm passing over his body and holding a camara, the flywhisk, symbol of royalty, which appears behind him. Behind his head is a weathered cakra, identifying him as Cakradeva. The figure at the right offers a cylindrical object, the gala or mace of Gadadevi. Visnu wears a broad necklace, armbands and the Brahmanical cord, waistband and a scraf knotted at his hips, the folds falling gracefully.

The body is well proportioned and smoothly modeled, while the decoration, although ornate, is restrained and the drapery is treated in a naturalistic manner. An attempt to relieve the static posture of the main figure is achieved by the flexed posture of the ayudhapurusas and the contraposto of their arms and attributes.The inspiration for Mathura, a style which lived on in Eastern India for two or three centuries afterwards. Visnu with his two personified attributes was his best-known form in Eastern India, although it was not adopted elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

One of the most beautiful sculptures remaining from this period is a damaged Visnu head, its contours gently rounded in the manner of the best tradition of Gupta sculpture. The calm and benign expression, partly closed eyes and slightly smiling lips, illustrate what the historian Harle described as the definition of the Gupta style, “a turning inward, an ability to communicate higher spiritual states.” While the headdress is not found in India, it does have counterparts in pre-Khmer art of the 6th century.

A better-preserved sandstone Visnu, now in the Mrauk-U Museum, has been limed and painted in recent times. The god stands erect. His upper arms are now missing, the lower right hand rests on a cakra which is supported by a pillar with a square base and a rounded capital, the left on a gala with a lotus base, a row of diminishing coils and a ring at the top. Visnu's ornaments are elaborate. His headdress, the kiritamakuta, curves in at the sides, and has a three-pointed fillet decorated with a row of tear shapes. Behind the head is a large oval halo. Around his waist are a series of ornate belts, while his yajnopavirta, the Brahmanical cord, falls ftom the left shoulder around the right knee, and his vanamala, forest garland, is looped twice, between the hips and around the knee. His legs are apparent beneath his lower garment, with the back panel draped rather stiffly in three tiers behind.

The facial features of the image are sharply defined, arched eyebrows meeting in the middle, a sharp pointed nose and thin lips curved in a smile. The graceful proportions of the earlier images have been forgotten. The head is a fifth of the total height, the arms are legs short.

While the image is basically dependent on earlier forms, a new wave of influence from northern India is apparent. The proportions, facial features and elliptical halo can be traced to the art of Nalanda during the late 7th and early 8th centuries. The hard surfaces and elaborate ornamentation are typical of early Pala art at Paharpur at the same period.

Towards the end of this period the local chronicles record the establishment of a new city where Mrauk-U area. Recent excavations at the Ni-buza pagoda, which stands on a hill still today regarded as sacred, and discoveries at Tharapabbatta hill indicate occupancy in the 9th and 10th centuries.

By the middle of the 9th and 10th century Arakan was invaded by the Tibeto-Burmas who still dominate. Their cousins, at the same time, were conquering the Pyu and Mon of central and lower Burma and establishing their capital at Pagan. In the succeeding centuries Pagon dominated the cities and the culture of Arakan.

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