By Aman Ullah
[Maurice Stewart Collis (1889 –1973) was an administrator in Burma(Myanmar) when it was part of the British Empire, and afterwards a writer on Southeast Asia, China and other historical subjects. MS Collis was born in 1889, the son of an Irish solicitor, and went to Rugby School in 1903 and then in 1907 to the University of Oxford, where he studied history. He entered the Indian Civil Service in 1911 and was posted to Burma in 1912. He had postings at Sagaing and elsewhere. In 1917, the British army raised a Burmese brigade with which Collis went to Palestine, but he saw no action. In 1919, he went on leave and travelled in Europe. In the 1920s he was district commissioner in Arakan. He returned to England in 1934. He wrote over twenty books, including The Land of the Great Image, Last and First in Burma and other volumes of autobiography, travel writing, novels, histories and three plays. He died in 1973.]
When the life went out of the Roman Empire, clan vital drove the followers of Mahomet to create a polity in its stead. Moslem civilization extended from Cordova to Dacca. An average observer of the period would have seen nothing in the world but Islam. From all points of view, military, political and cultural, the Moslem Sultanates were in the van of civilization. For every other state they represented modernity, as industrial Europe now represent what is modern for Asia and Africa. Bengal was absorbed into this great polity in 1293 A. D.
Since 1450, India was again playing its part in the making of Arakan and Arakan turned towards India. The circumstances which made Arakan turn from the East and look West to the Moslem States were political. In 1404 A. D., Min Saw Mwan was King of Arakan, ruling from Launggret, one of the Lemro Cities. As the kings of Pagan had regarded Arakan as their feudatory, the Kings of Ava, who succeeded them, saw no reason why they should not reassert that view. Moreover the Arakanese had annoyed them by raiding Yaw and Laungshe. Accordingly the heir apparent to the throne of Ava invaded Arakan in 1406. Min Saw Mwan fled the country, taking refuge at Gaur, the capital of the Sultan of Bengal. That kingdom had been independent of the Sultanate of Delhi for eighty six years. It was one of the many sovereign states of the world wide Moslem polity. The Arakanese king remained there for twenty four years, leaving his country in the hands of the Burmese.
Force of circumstances made him prefer to call himself a feudatory of the Sultans of Bengal than of the kings of Ava. He turned away from what was Buddhist and familiar to what was Mohamedan and foreign. In so doing he loomed from the mediaeval to the modern, from the fragile fairyland of the Glass Palace Chronicle to the robust extravaganza of the Thousand Nights and one Night. Nasir-ud-din restored him in 1430 A.D. and Mrauk-U was built.
When the Moslems entered Bengal in 1203, they introduced the inscriptional type of coinage and Nasir-ud-din’s coin is in that tradition. By following that the coinage Mrauk-U also subsequently modeled its own coin. In this way Arakan became definitely oriented towards the Moslem State. Contact with a modem civilization resulted in a renaissance. The country’s great age began.
Shin Arahan would have found himself as much out of place at the court of Gaur as St.Bernard in the University of Cordova. To avoid such a sensation and snatch advantage from change, the Arakanese had to forsake a fashion in ideas, which had fallen behind in the march of the world’s thought, and bring themselves up to date.
They had to learn the history of recent events, the meaning of the triumph of Islam and how it arrived that the chief Moslem protagonists were Mongolian. For it was a curious fact that while the government of further India was Mongolian-Buddhist, that of India and westwards beyond was Mongolian-Mohamedan. Situated as they were between the two, the Arakanese had opportunity of detecting their fundamental difference. That basic distinction centred in the matter of war and aggrandisement. While for Further India war was wrong and only happened by the way, for the Moslem block it was the first preoccupation of government. It took the Arakanese a hundred years to learn that doctrine from the Moslem Mongolians. When it was well understood, they founded what was known as the Arakanese Empire. For the hundred years, 1430 to 1530, Arakan remained feudatory to Bengal, paid tribute and learnt history and politics. Eleven kings followed one another at Mrauk-U in undistinguished succession. If they struck coins, none have been found. In 1531 Minbin ascended the throne and struck coins also. With him the Arakanese graduated in their Moslem studies and the empire was founded.
The Minbin’s coins presents a succinct commentary on the sudden rise of Arakan to importance in the Bay. On one side of it is inscribed the word “Minbin” in the Burmese character. On the reverse in Nagari is his Moslem title, Zabauk Shah.
So Arakan had turned into a Sultanate. The Court was shaped in Gaur and Delhi; there were the eunuchs and the seraglio, the slaves and the executioner. But it remained Hinayana Buddhist. Mahamunni was still there, still fervently worshipped. Moreover Minbin embellished Mrauk-U with its greatest temples and pagodas. But the architecture of the former is neither Mohamedan nor Buddhist it’s Hindu, but of so unique a design as almost to constitute a particular style. This architecture was the work of Indian builders employed by Minbin and working to his general specifications. It illustrates the cosmopolitan origins of the state of Mrauk-U, which derived from the Hindu and the Buddhist as well as from the Prortuguese and the Moslem. But it also indicates how Minbin was able to fuse diverse elements into a particular and separate style.
If Minbin founded the prosperity of Mrauk-U, Razagri, his successor of forty years later, may be said to have consolidated it. Maruk-U, having turned the tables on Bengal proceeded to do the same on Burma; this was the first and only Period in its history when Arakan was able not only to repulse the Burmese but even to annex part of their country. Razagiri, in alliance with Ava, took Pegu. On the division of the spoils the strip up to and including Syriam and Moulmein was added to his long coastline. This campaign was rendered possible by his excellent navy and Razagri in appointing the Portuguese de Brito, as Governor of Syriam was repeating the policy of the North West frontier. He depended on those mariners, in conjunction, presumably, with his own seamen, to keep his borders for him.
For a short period during the reign of Razagri Arakan extended from Dacca and the Sundabans to Moulmein, a coast strip of a thousand miles in length and varying from 150 to 20 miles in depth. This considerable dominion was built up by means of the strong cosmopolitan army and navy organized by Minbin and by inducing the Portuguese outside his army of fight for him in return for trade concessions. It is difficult to conceive of a state with less reliable foundations. But during the short years of its greatness, the century from 1540 to 1640, it was brilliant and imposing. Copying the imperial Court of Delhi, its kings adopted the title of Padshah.
The causes that make men rich are often the same as ruin them. What a gambler has won he may lose by an identical throw. Mrauk-U was glorious because wise kings took advantage of a strong alliance against distracted Border States. It fell into poverty and contempt because weak kings were falsely served by their allies against united Border States.
In my sketches of Mrauk-U at its heyday I have indicated the weakening of the central government that followed the murder of King Thiri-thu-dhamma. The usurper Narapati was never fully accepted by the Arakanese. He depended upon his foreign mercenaries. These were ready to unmake him. The sanctity of authority was gone. Moreover, the victories of previous reigns had flooded the country with Moghul, Burmese and Portuguese prisoners of war. These were centres of discontent on which any adventurer could count. On such men counted Shuja, Aurangzebe’s elder brother, rightful Emperor of Hindustan, when he fled to Arakan after being worsted in the struggle for the imperial crown which followed the death of Shah Jahan. Only a strong national king can control an army of foreign paid soldiers.
After the loss of Chittagong in 1666, the territory of the kingdom of Mrauk-U was reduced to the present districts of Akyab, Kyaukpyu and Sandoway. Those areas in Lower Burma which had been won by Razagri and resumed in part by Thiri-thu-dhamma had all lapsed back to the Burmese. Arakan was now confined to its natural boundaries and was no larger than it had been two hundred and fifty years previously at the time when it was feudatory to Bengal. That phase in the country’s history which began with Minbin was now over. But it was to last as an independent kingdom for another hundred and nineteen year.
There were twenty five kings of Mrauk-U during those hundred and nineteen years. That is a sufficient commentary on the period. With the old legitimate line extinct and with a large mercenary army of miscellaneous races which cared neither for the person of the king nor for the aspirations of the people, adventurers appeared every few years, sometimes every few months and the throne constantly changed hands, Between the fall of Chittagong (1666) and Sanda Wizaya (1710) there were ten kings averaging two and a half years each. Three reigned only one year and two did not reign one month. Between Sanda Wizaya and Nara Abaya (1742) the average was under two years, and the last seven kings to 1784 averaged just three years each. The three kings named, Sanda Thu-dhamma, Sanda Wizaya and Nara Abaya, each were a notable man and each tried to stop the downward tendency, but without success. So insecure a polity is little removed from anarchy, the coins we possess reflect this desperate internal condition. While we have several stamped with the titles of Sanda Thu-dhamma and Sanda Wizaya there are none extant of the ten kings between. Of the following set of six, two are represented and of the last seven all have coins except number 42 and 46 who both ruled but a few weeks. The coins themselves exhibit little variation. Their design is neither more not less in serving. It remains in the Mohamedan tradition of 1450 A. D.
Such a kingdom as was Arakan from 1666 to 1784 could only stand alone and independent as long as it had no aggressive neighbour. The Moghuls had ceased to an expanding power; Burma was merely as distracted as Arakan; the English were new comers. In other circumstances it could not have endured a century and a quarter. But when in 1760 the Alaungpaya dynasty had united.
Burma, Mrauk-U’s fate was certain. The sole question was when the blow would fall. In 1782 Thaniada became king of Maruk-U. So reduced had become the once great kingdom, that his role did not extend more than a few miles beyond the walls.
There were six other pretenders in the country, each with his following and each anxious to enter the capital city. One of these, Ngathande, asked Bodawpaya, king of Burma, to invade the realm. After so long a period of looking west, Arakan turned east ward again. Ngathande’s idea was that Bodawpaya would place him on the throne as a feudatory monarch. It was a familiar point of view in Arakanese foreign relations. Bodawpaya, however had no intention of anything of the kind. He used Ngathande, invaded the country and reduced it to the position of an administered province, the first time in its long history that it had lost a home government of its own.
It is noteworthy that when Bodawpaya decided to annex Arakan, he bowed to the old idea that the Mahamuni was the defence of that kingdom. For so many centures it had been the common belief of Further India that as long as Mahamuni was in Arakan, the country would remain independent, that Bodawpaya thought it safer to tamper with those calculations in Yadaya which were reputed to protect both the image and the realm. He therefore sent masters of that Art before his troops crossed the mountains and the formula were detected.
After his victory and to clinch the affair and prove to the world that Arakan was realy down, he removed Mahamuni to Amarapura, where it now sits. This event, long prophesied and long guarded against, crushed the Arakanese more than defeat in the field.
The rhythm of the history of Arakan is that of a dancer who sways now to the East and now to the West. Rarely has she stood upright. For a hundred years now she had been leaning westwards. But there are indications that her rhythm is beginning to re-establish itself and that she will again sway to the East.
[This article is based on MS Collis ‘ Arakan’s place in the civilization of the Bay’, which was published in Journal of Burma Research Society (JBRS) ‘ Fiftieth Anniversary Publication]