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King Maṅḥ Co Mvan’s Exile in Bengal Legend, History, and Context

 Category: History  Publisher: Jacques P. Leider; Kyaw Minn Htin  Published: 1 January 2015  Tags: ArakanArakan Kingdom |  Download

An outline of the rule of King Maṅḥ Co Mvan can be sketched as follows. He became king in 1404, ruled for two years, when a Burmese invasion forced him to abandon the throne and flee into exile to the “West.” This term would imply a place somewhere in Bengal or India. The exile lasted for about twenty years, much less according to some sources. The king regained his throne thanks to military backing from a Western, supposedly Indian ruler and came back to Launggrak (Loṅḥ krak) around 1428 and founded Mrauk U in sakkarāj 792 (1430 CE), a year all the sources agree upon.

In an article published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1844, Arthur P. Phayre, a British governor of the province of Arakan and the first Western historian of the old kingdom, retold the story of King Maṅḥ Co Mvan following a chronicle written at Phayre’s initiative by Ṅa Mañ, “one of the most learned among the literati of his country.”

Mañ’s version, the story contains many details that would suggest the legendary character of the narrative. Unfortu- nately, the Ṅa Mañ chronicle has been neither edited nor even printed, making its textual contents still largely unknown.

By omitting many details and selecting only those parts of the story that made historical sense to him, Phayre provided a more rational account. It could be summarized as follows.

The dethroned king fled to the west, to the land of the “Thu-ra-tan king” where he was received “with distinction.” But the “Thu-ra-tan” ruler “being engaged in wars, could not afford him any assistance.” The story goes on to tell us that the king in exile helped the ruler to defeat an attack by the king of Delhi, thanks to several cunning devices and taught the king’s subjects the art of entrapping wild elephants. Within this sub-narrative, Phayre left out an episode that explains how the “Thu-ra-tan king” conquered Delhi: “Out of gratitude for these services, the king determined to assist the exiled prince in the recovery of his kingdom.”

In the next paragraph, Phayre follows up with a description of the tributary relationship between Bengal and Arakan that followed, presumably, the return of the king on the throne: The restored king, however, was forced to submit to the degradation of being tributary to the king of Thu-ra-tan, and from his time the coins of the Arakan kings bore on the reverse, their names and titles in the Persian character; this custom was probably made obligatory upon them as vassals, but they afterwards continued it when they had recovered their independence, and ruled the country as far as the Brahmaputra river.

This statement on the political relations between Arakan and Bengal, presumed to be true for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was not an interpretation of Phayre. It can be traced in several Arakanese sources that deal explicitly with the reign of the founder of Mrauk U. The truth of this description has never been seriously put into doubt, because anyone familiar with Arakanese history knows about the existence of coins that emulate the model of the Bengal sultans and later seventeenth-century trilingual coins with royal titles. There is thus little doubt about the influence of Bengal minting on Arakanese coins. Still, the connection between a tributary relationship and the minting of coins is merely an interpreta- tion and not the causal link it pretends to be. There is actually no historical evidence for a political dependence of Arakan on Bengal in the early fifteenth century, there are no extant early fifteenth-century Arakanese coins, and there is no proof of a “custom” for Arakanese kings to symbolically express their subjugation to Bengal. Moreover, no date or event is assigned to the recovery of “independence.” In conclusion, the embed- ding of the exile story in a supposedly historical context gives authority to the exile story. But once this context is debunked as possibly later information or a device of the chronicler to construct a particular reading of history, the king’s exile story loses at least some, if not all, of its credibility.

Not surprisingly, the story of King Maṅḥ Co Mvan’s exile in Bengal and its assumed political consequences are one of the best-known and most quoted episodes of Arakanese history. It has also provided a foundational setting to explain the arrival and settlement of Muslims in Arakan at the time of the re-conquest of the kingdom. Certain authors date the arrival of Islam in Arakan even earlier to the eighth century of the Common Era, but the exile story is unrivalled in its colourful details and associated episodes of mosque building and Muslim settlements. There is in fact neither hard archae- ological or epigraphic evidence nor any compelling literary evidence for Muslim settlements in Arakan in the early fif- teenth century. On the other hand, trade connections along the coast make a Muslim presence more likely. Chittagong figures prominently as a cosmopolitan, Muslim-dominated trade port in the northeast Bay of Bengal since that time. Nonetheless, Arakan’s location at the periphery of the flourishing sultanate of Bengal may have stimulated the historical imagination, but the idea of a cultural impact or political links gains little weight from the dubious exile story.

This article argues that the exile story itself has no his- torical foundation and offers a comparative analysis of several Arakanese narratives dealing with the reign of the king, in particular with the episode of the “Bengal” exile. For most Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan familiar with Arakanese history, this story is considered as a historical fact, because they know the story through the retellings by the two most important British colonial historians of Burma, A.P. Phayre and G.E. Harvey, whose writings have enjoyed eminent authority for decades until today. This article will also point to notable differences that exist between the narratives, alto- gether weakening the historicity of the exile account.

On the other hand, this article does not seek to discredit the idea that the founder of Mrauk U may have gone into exile for a certain number of years after being dethroned. It leaves the question open, as this is rather a matter of specula- tion due to a number of contradictions in the historiography. A tentative argument will be put forward to a hitherto unex- plored path of enquiry that relates to the role of the Mon kingdom of Pegu in the political affairs of early fifteenth- century Arakanese kingdom.

One focus of the investigation lies in recurrent themes and literary devices that permeate the various narratives and multi-layered connections. We will also briefly look at the writing process through which the basic narrative was ampli- fied and embellished. The aim is a critical approach of the exile story in particular and the king’s biography in general, by reviewing both within the context of the politically unsta- ble kingdom before 1430.