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Vaishali and the Indianization of Arakan By Noel F. Singer

 Category: History  Publisher: Noel F. Singer  Published: 1 January 2008  Tags: ArakanIndiaMuslimRohingya |  Download


This account originally appeared as an article “Sculptures from Vaishali, Arakan”, in Arts of Asia, July-August 2007, vol. 38, no. 4. The project initially began in 1999 and by 2006, reams of information had been gathered, threatening to turn the article into a book. As space in any magazine is at a premium, this meant that much of the data had to be grudgingly jettisoned and the text ruthlessly edited. Nevertheless, I was determined to retrieve the valuable data and reweave the scattered strands into a book as I felt it was too significant to waste. Many of the photographs not included in the article were also too valuable to be consigned to oblivion.

Obviously, since the article was published, I have received more pertinent information which necessitated several changes in the present text. My interest in ancient Arakan had been simmering since the late 1950s, when I lived in Myanmar, but was unable to visit the ‘legendary’ sites of Mahamuni and Vaishali.

In those days, it involved an unpleasant sea voyage, and once there, transport was practically non existent. Many of the locations, too, were also in the hands of rebel groups and extremely dangerous. A virulent form of malaria was rampant — and still is — so intending travelers beware. Medication, insect repellent and a mosquito net are a must. One cannot be too careful about the food either, even in the best hotels.

Over forty years later, and now living in the United Kingdom, I finally achieved my wish. Disappointingly, during each of my two visits, I came away with almost all my long-held illusions shattered, saddened at the terrible neglect, and the vandalism being perpetrated on ancient religious arte-facts by ignorant and misguided men, in particular the Buddhist clergy. There was also extreme poverty in the outlying areas. The total lack of interest from the locals was depressing. Then again, one cannot blame these simple rural folk, as finding the means to fill hungry bellies is far more important than expending energy on the preservation of mouldy old ruins and ancient arte-facts. During my travels in the countryside, it was most distressing to see such abject poverty.

This account of Vaishali does not pretend to be a scholarly work, and despite my lack of academic qualifications, I have tried to tell what is to me a fascinating story which was probably replicated in various parts of ancient Southeast Asia which came under the influence of the Hindu colonists.

The early history of Arakan from 200 to the 900 CE is far from complete and still shrouded in what appears to be an impenetrable haze. Not only have insufficient archaeological investigations been undertaken, it has also been weighed down and sabotaged by inaccurate information by native chroniclers of a later age.

Some foreign writers, too, have either slavishly repeated these fantasies, presented their own interpretations, refuted the findings of others, or else, ignored this early period altogether. For example, ancient Arakan of the Chandras was omitted by George Coedes in his celebrated The Indianized States of Southeast Asia.

A number of readers may find it surprising that I have not given due weight to indigenous accounts of a later date quoted in this work. This is a deliberate omission on my part owing to their unreliability, permeated as they are with borrowed historical episodes and myths from Buddhist and Hindu India. Although these native sources are claimed to be ‘ancient’, they probably date from a time after the 14th century.

Above all, they had a tendency to fabricate, obsessed with a need to present a realm infused with Buddhist piety of the Theravada School when in fact it was a Mahayana version, together with Brahmanism, which predominated. As things stand, an immense amount of research and scientific excavation, unhampered by religious bigotry and political propaganda urgently needs to be accomplished.

One occasionally hears of this or that foreign institution planning excavations and conservation, but nothing construc- tive appears to have materialized in Arakan. Judging by the articles in the Burma Historical Commission Journal, attention seems to be focused on Myanmar proper. This present work is based on the unique lithic inscription of circa 729 commissioned by Ananda Chandra, ruler of Vaishali, together with other epigraphic evidence and iconographic. At this point in time, these are the only contemporary historical materials available for this early period. One can but hope that before long a fuller picture will emerge when other relevant inscriptions have been excavated.