Yangon, 7 March 2015
In 1430, King Saw Mon founded a new capital at Mrauk U, in what is now the State of Rakhine, for a Kingdom of Arrakan of which he was the first ruler. Mrauk U lay at the head of several navigable tributaries of the Kaladan River, and so could command the trade routes in the Bay of Bengal, on which the kingdom’s wealth was founded. It became a transit point for goods such as rice, ivory, elephants, tree sap and deer hide from Burma, and of cotton, slaves, horses, cowrie, spices and textiles from Bengal, India, Persia and Arabia. It also lay at the edges of a broad plain, where abundant rice could be grown to feed the city’s population. The area was dotted throughout with hillocks, ideal for capping with splendid pagodas which earned their founders much merit, but also for acting as watchtowers in strong defensive walls which linked hillocks together and could keep the kingdom’s jealous or rapacious neighbours at bay. It was, in all senses, a happy choice for the new kingdom’s capital.
Exactly two hundred years after the city’s founding, a Portuguese monk, Fray Sebastian Manrique, who was to live in India for forty years, visited Mrauk U, as part of an official mission. In a book he wrote about his time in Asia, “Itinerario de las missiones del India Oriental”, he dedicated several chapters to his visit to Mrauk U. “This great city”, he starts, “stands in a lovely valley, some fifteen leagues wide, wholly enclosed by high rocky mountains, which serve as natural fortifications”. The city was bisected by a network of waterways linked to the nearby river, which were “the principal means of traffic, both public and private”. Most of the houses were thatched bamboo and wood structures, held together by “Bengal cane, as we call it in Portugal”. Even the palaces “are made of these reedy materials”. The size and ornamentation of the houses, and not their materials of construction, were what proclaimed the station and wealth of their owners. Inside, wall mats were hung “of the finest texture and of many colours”. No doubt, the richer and more important the owner, the finer and more elaborate the wall mats. The better houses and the palaces also had rooms of wood “ornamented with carving, gilt mouldings, and enamel work in various tints”. Some of the palaces went one further, having rooms of sandalwood and other aromatic woods. One of the richer palaces included a “House of Gold”, a pavilion decorated from floor to ceiling with gold, which housed golden statues, dishes and other vessels. The royal palace boasted a ceremonial hall, with a golden roof “ornamented with flowers of different colours”, supported by thirty gilded wooden pillars. The monks didn’t do too badly for themselves either. A number of the temples and monasteries in which they lived were as sumptuous as the palaces, richly endowed as they were by their wealthy and important founders, who were seeking thereby to gain merit. Most of the temples were “pyramidal in shape”, with a spire that ended in a gilt metal globe on which small bells hung that tinkled in the wind (I presume the good Friar was referring to the stupas, which sit at the centre of temple complexes). The temples’ interiors were decorated with “frescoes done in gold and colours”. Several years later, he again visited Mrauk U on an official mission, and this time he was lucky to be there when the king was crowned. He described in breathless detail all the pomp and ceremony which accompanied the crowning. This print, by the Dutchman Wouter Schouten, gives an idea of what Mrauk U looked like at this time.
The happy times did not last. Warfare between the local kingdoms was endemic, as each king tried to grow at the expense of his neighbours. In one of these local wars, King Bodawpaya of the neighbouring kingdom of Burma got the upper hand, helped along, it must be said, by vicious internecine struggles, all worthy of a Shakespearean history play, that were being played out between Arrakanese kings and their impatient heir-apparents, and between them and various usurpers. In 1784, the Burmese army attacked
and eventually took the city, razing it to the ground. They took care, though, not to destroy the stupas and associated temples; the soldiers did not want to lose merit. But they stripped them and the rest of the city of all the movable loot they could lay their hands on. What part of the population they did not kill, they enslaved. And so, laden with vast quantities of booty and 20,000 slaves, King Bodawpaya and his army returned home to celebrate, leaving death and desolation behind them. The kingdom of Arrakan and its capital city were no more.
The site was too good to abandon completely. Gradually, people moved back into the city and partially repopulated it. But now it was just a small market town, with the modest lives and modest dreams and modest destiny of such towns. Its citizens lived out their lives in the shadow of monuments from Mrauk U’s royal past, which slowly crumbled away and were overgrown by vegetation.
But Mrauk U’s glorious past was not completely forgotten. Echoes of its history were passed down. Now that Myanmar has come out of its self-imposed isolation from the outside world, and the world has accepted the country back into the community of nations, Mrauk U has become a tourist destination. Not like Bagan, which hosts the ruins of another vanished kingdom, nor like Inle Lake, another popular tourist destination, nor even like the capital Yangon. A much more modest destination, because it has little tourist infrastructure and is hard to get to: seven hours by private boat from Sittwe, several more by the public boat; six hours by car on a spine-crushing road, several more by public bus. But a trickle of tourists do make it through.
We have just been part of that trickle. We hired bicycles, a wonderful way to move around this town whose dimensions are small and whose traffic is contained, and we slowly criss-crossed it, riding down potholed roads, side streets of beaten earth
half-finished roads on which toiled labour gangs of women
even across desiccated paddy fields when the half-finished roads were impassible
observing all the very rural life that passed us by. Most of the houses are still made of wood and “reedy materials”
but from the few modern houses we saw brick and concrete are clearly now the building materials of choice for the wealthy. The network of waterways are still being used, although now sadly choked with plastic and other debris of modern life.
Bicycles and motor bikes are the mode of transport of choice
with two-seater bicycle rickshaws playing the role of local taxi
and ten-seater tuk-tuks playing that of local buses (ten seats is a nominal number; the drivers seemed to be able to squeeze twice that number into them).
As in all ages and in all places, the wealthier disdain these proletarian forms of transport, although they now favour four-wheel drive cars with tinted windows rather than the palanquins and elephants of old. On the edges of town (which were reached after no more than ten minutes by bike from the town centre – and we rode slowly), chickens, pigs, and the odd cow join the human melée. And everywhere, young girls and women (never men and very rarely boys) are walking slowly to or from the wells and reservoirs which dot the town, ferrying the households’ water, no doubt as they had been doing nearly four hundred years ago when Friar Manrique criss-crossed the town – such a waste of women’s time! And the water they were collecting fitted no definition of “drinking water” that I know of.
The town has schools, but all in a shocking state of decrepitude
and in any case many children were put to work in various trades: child labour seems the norm here, not the exception. This country’s military dictators have much, much to answer for.
And so it was that we rode and we observed, and we meditated on what we observed, until the next stupa, or temple, or ordination hall from Mrauk U’s past loomed out in front of us. We visited many during our two days, but I will mention only three. The first is Mro U-hnauk Phara
because it was the first temple we visited, but also because we were intrigued by the very ornate edifice constructed out of galvanized corrugated iron sheets that preceded the ancient stupa.
The materials of construction may be humble but the designs are really quite complex. We got used to seeing these structures in front of many of the stupas in town. Both my wife and I immediately remarked on how much these constructions reminded us of the stavkirke in Norway.
The second site I will mention is Koe Thaung temple, which sits out in the middle of paddy fields a little way out of town.
Its design is said to be based on Borobudur in Indonesia. We wouldn’t know, not having been able to visit Borobudur because of a volcanic eruption. But Koe Thaung certainly has charm, what with the serried ranks of stupas lining its terraces
and the hundreds of Buddhas, each with a different face, lining the galleries that encircle the edifice.
When the rice paddies around the temple are planted and green, it must be very beautiful.
The third is actually a grouping of temples and stupas, all situated in a large open space. From the vantage point of the high terrace of one of these, I could see most of the group laid out before me.
Immediately ahead is the Laymyekhna, with the four Buddhas in its internal gallery facing the four cardinal points, and its attendant Nyidaw Phara. Just behind it the Htukkanthein, a fortress-monastery. At the base of the hill in the background, is the Shite-thaung temple, the most important religious edifice of the old city and known for its three encircling galleries with Buddhas and friezes. This is where the coronation during Friar Manrique’s second visit took place. Over to the left is the Ratanabon Temple.
But what also struck me was the apparent indifference of the townsfolk to these venerable monuments. The open space was turned over to the growing of rice and vegetables. There was constant traffic along the roads and tracks which crossed the space as people went about their business. There were goats and cows cropping the grass around the edifices. And I was suddenly reminded of those paintings from the 17th and 18th Centuries, which were also recording the remains of a fallen city, ancient Rome in this case, mouldering slowly away as a new city lived its life around them
This particular painting, by Claude Lorrain, is a view of the Forum, with the arch of Septimus Severus in the left foreground, the three remaining columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the middle ground, the arch of Titus in the background, and at the very back the Colosseum. And all around these ruins, the Romans are leading their lives.
Now I don’t want to make too much of a parallel between Rome and Mrauk U. Rome had been a huge city, many times bigger than Mrauk U had ever been. It had also held sway over a much larger territory than Mrauk U had ever done. On the other hand, the collapse of Rome, although over a longer period, was probably as total as Mrauk U’s. Medieval Rome, and perhaps even Baroque Rome, was probably no bigger than Mrauk U is today and just as backward. If it hadn’t been for the Pope, there are good chances that Rome would have disappeared. The Pope kept Europe’s attention on the town, while the pilgrims were a handy source of income, along, later, with the sons of Europe’s aristocracy. They flocked to Rome in the 18th and 19th Centuries because it was the thing for an educated young man to do, and paintings like the one above were produced for them by the hundreds. Rome was also lucky to have become the capital of the newly unified Italy, which brought it the power (and wealth) of national government. In contrast, Mrauk U seems to have been forgotten by all once its last king fell. If the new government of Myanmar can ensure that Mrauk U shares in the country’s upcoming economic development, then it has the chance to become a prosperous little town.
Mrauk U old print: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Vista_de_Mrauk-U,_ou_Arrakan_%28cidade_de_Arrac%C3%A3o%29_no_primeiro_plano_o_bairro_portugu%C3%AAs.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vista_de_Mrauk-U,_ou_Arrakan_%28cidade_de_Arrac%C3%A3o%29_no_primeiro_plano_o_bairro_portugu%C3%AAs.jpg)
War elephants fighting: http://ic2.pbase.com/o6/93/329493/1/131322898.yAQdtZvd.BKKAug10128.jpg (in http://www.alternatehistory.com/discussion/showthread.php?t=240558)
Stavkirke: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/Borgund_stavkirke.JPG (in http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borgund_stavkirke)
Koe Thaung Temple: http://www.vietnamjettravel.com/images/products/20147141754135.jpg (in http://www.vietnamjettravel.com/voyage-birmanie/a-travers-la-birmanie-de-yangon-a-mrauk-u.79.html)
Koe Thaung temple stupas: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/04/ab/0c/d1/koe-thaung-temple.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g1390118-d2557685-i78318801-Koe_Thaung_Temple-Mrauk_U_Rakhine_State.html)
Claude Lorrain view of the Roman Forum: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Claude_-_The_Campo_Vaccino,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_-_The_Campo_Vaccino,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg)
All other photos by my wife