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Buddhist or Muslim Rulers Models of Kingship in Arakan (Western Burma) in the Fourteenth to Fifteenth Centuries

 Category: Culture, History  Publisher: Michel W. Charney  Published: 1 January 2000  Tags: ArakanArakan KingdomBuddhismIslamRohingya |  Download


Southeast Asianists have, over the past half-century, discussed in great detail issues related to the emergence of the state and of kingship in Southeast Asia. J. C. van Leur sparked much of this debate with the posthumous publication in English of a collection of his works in 1955. Van Leur argued against the idea that Indians had imposed ideas of state and kingship upon Indonesia.2 This view has been extended to the rest of Southeast Asia. Research by Renee Hagesteijn and Oliver Wolters has provided models of the emergence of sophisticated polities autonomously in Southeast Asia, whose ruling elites then localized vocabularies and symbols of state and rulership from India to articulate local ideas with which these vocabularies and symbols were sonorant.3 The emergence of what appears to be Indianized states in Southeast Asia’s classical period, roughly the ninth to fourteenth centuries, then really signifies a complex process in essentially autonomous political development.

For the early modern period, however, models of rulership have generally been left unquestioned. Robert Heine-Geldern, in a seminal essay written almost a half-century ago, laid the groundwork for much of this view, focussing our attention upon the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in the symbolic structure of early (and later) Southeast Asian courts.4 Stanley Tambiah has also discussed at great length the Hindu and Buddhist ideological underpinnings of mainland Southeast Asian kingship, without questioning the essential religious component of the “Hindu” and “Buddhist” elements.5 Similarly, Anthony Reid, having taken on the immense project of laying the groundwork for analyses of the “Age of Commerce” in Southeast Asian history, was understandably less inclined to investigate the cultural identities of early modern rulers. Reid discusses the nature of Buddhist and Muslim ruler-ship, like Tambiah, without questioning the religiousity of the identity of ruler-ship.6

The prevailing literature does not adequately address the question of what happens in the cases where the division between Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim is not so clear. In this article, I use the case study of early modern Arakan. A very confusing aspect of early modern Arakan, for example, is the heterogeneous models of kingship that rulers in the Arakan Littoral adopted, depending upon the time and place and the people on whom the ruler wished to make a good impression. These models are often explained in terms of religious identity by contemporaneous observers (and even scholars of the present). Sometimes, first-hand observers identified the same king as a Buddhist king and at other times a Muslim sultan. Yet, extrapolating from models of kingship in order to arrive at conclusions regarding the religious identity of a king and a people is problematic. If one is to penetrate the veneer of self-presentation and examine the underlying religious context, a better understanding of what, at least on the surface, appear to be the royal court’s religious affiliations will first have to be established. Such a project is attempted in this article.