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The Lord of the Elephant: Interpreting the Islamicate Epigraphic, Numismatic, and Literary Material from the Mrauk U Period of Arakan (ca. 1430−1784)

 Category: Culture, History  Publisher: The Journal of Burma Studies  Published: 1 December 2015  Tags: ArakanArakan KingdomIslamRohingya |  Download


The kingdom of Arakan constituted a frontier region in which several literary languages were used in a variety of offi cial documents.1 The contrasting interpretations of the Perso-Arabic titles of Buddhist kings that are found in inscriptions and literary sources invite us to revisit this corpus of texts and try to provide some comprehensive account of the evolution of the signifi cance of those idioms and the rhetoric they entail.2 In the multilingual context of Arakan, languages are hardly representative of parallel, self-contained cultural domains; rather they complete one another by assuming specific functions within the framework of the complex literate environment of the kingdom’s upper social strata. On the other hand, one should not overlook the fact that each language addresses specifi c socio-textual communities that are the targets of such public utt erances. Our recently improved understanding of premodern society in Arakan—and of the rhetoric of the texts produced during the Mrauk U period (ca. 1430−1784)—allows for a recontextualization of epigraphic evidence.3

Epi graphic texts are usually considered the most solid tools with which to reconstruct the history of a polity, but they are also the most diffi cult sources to interpret because the texts are often lacking any context. Until rather recently, studies on the political and cultural history of Arakan were very partial. Historians looked at the polity from exclusive perspectives that hardly questioned the rhetoric of the dominant archive they used, whether this was constituted of European accounts in Dutch, Portuguese, French, or English; Arakanese chronicles; Persian historical and cosmographical texts; or Bengali poems.4

The multilingual aspect of the sources thus appeared to be an obstacle, rather than a potentially fruitful means to the production of comprehensive and coherent accounts of the period. However, through a close observation of the dynamics of multilingualism, one can transform this “obstacle” into a key with which to access the contents of the messages consee that the messages of texts can be purposely ambiguous and, most important, that they may not exclusively refl ect the agenda of the central authority. I therefore intend to re-contextualize those inscriptions, paying att ention to some of their formal features in order to identify a set of textual variations linked to the multicultural environment of Arakan—variations that have likely impacted the reception of the message conveyed by this textual material.

This endeavor extends beyond the chronological development of the rhetoric of the texts present on Arakanese coins ranging from the mid-fi fteenth century to 1635, for I will also att empt to show how we might fi t together the scatt ered evidence of the formation of a local Islamicate idiom in Arakan’s Mrauk U period.6 I am using a corpus of coins minted in Chitt agong, Ramu, and Mrauk U as a thread leading to the study of other writt en sources in Persian and Bengali that convey information on the Muslim cultural history of the region during this period.7

My ai m is to read those sources in a connected way that also pays att ention to the mechanisms of the idiom fashioned by Arakan’s Muslims working in the Buddhist king’s administration.

By shifting focus from a religious reading of the languages and formulas found in those texts—a reading that is often superfi cial—to a context-sensitive interpretation of the material, I will try to determine how these texts were used at diff erent moments and for sometimes unexpected purposes.8