The Ancient Capital of Rakhine State, an essay written by U Thaw Kaung
A new tourist site which is becoming increasingly more popular in recent years is the old capital of Rakhine called Mrauk-U. Some of the local people refer to it as Myo (or Mro) Haung, the old city. It was first constructed by the Rakhine King Min Saw Mon in 1430 AD. and remained its capital for 355 years until 1784 when the Rakhine Kingdom ceased to exist as a separate entity and became an integral part of Myanmar Kingdom.
The Golden City of Mrauk-U became known in Europe as a city of oriental splendor after Friar Sebastien Manrique visited the area for about eight years between 1629 to 1637 AD. and though he was a Portuguese Augustinian missionary wrote his fascinating “Travels” in Spanish and published it as a book in 1649 and 1653. Father Manrique’s vivid account of the coronation of king Thiri Thudhamma in 1635 and about the Rakhine Court and intrigues of the Portuguese adventurers fired the imagination of later authors, especially after an English translation was published by Hakluyt Society in 1927 in two volumes.
In volume one of this English translation, we can read the intriguing account of Rakhine in the mid 17th century. Manrique wrote of his astonishment when he was shown a pair of pendant earrings, set with priceless rubies as large as a small hen’s egg. He said when he beheld these Kyauk-nagats he could scarcely fix his eyes on them due to the radiant splendor they cast, he just stood amazed. In the markets also he saw “being sold in abundance, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, gold and silver in plates and bars, tin and zinc, “which were very difficult to get in his home country.
It was the English author Maurice Collis who made Mrauk-U and Rakhine famous after his book The Land of the Great Image based on Friar Manrique’s travels in Arakan was published in 1942. The Great Image is, of course, the Maha Muni Buddha Image which is now in Mandalay, though originally it was made and venerated in this area about 15 miles from Mrauk-U where another Maha Muni Buddha Image flanked by two other Buddha images is now worshipped. You can visit this place also on the hillock called Sirigutta, about six miles east of Kyauktaw town.
How to get there
About ten years ago it was difficult to travel to this area but you can easily visit Mrauk-U now. From Yangon, there are daily flights to Sittway the Capital of Rakhine State. There are travel and tour companies in Yangon and Sittway which operate tours to Mrauk-U and the surrounding area.
In Sittway, you should visit the newly built Rakhine State Cultural Museum and Library and the Buddhist Museum where many interesting antiquities of Rakhine’s colorful past are on display.
From Sittway to Mrauk-U you can take a boat on Kaladan River and then go into some of its tributary streams. Mrauk-U, on Thinghanadi creek, is only 45 miles from Sittway and the sea coast. It is a very pleasant river journey. If you are visiting in the winter months you can see flocks of wild geese, ducks and other migrating waterfowl. To the east of the old city is the famous Kiccapanadi stream and far away is the Lemro River. The city area used to have a network of canals.
In Mrauk-U itself you can visit the Archeological Museum which is near the Palace Site. This site is right in the center of Mrauk-U which was built in a strategic location by leveling three small hills. Recently the Archeology Department has been excavating the Palace Site which was occupied by Rakhine Kings for over 200 years.
Even the pagodas are strategically located on hilltops and look like fortresses as indeed they were used as such in times of enemy intrusion. There are moats, artificial lakes and canals and the whole area could be flooded to deter or repulse attackers.
There are innumerable pagodas and Buddha images all over the old city and the surrounding hills. Some are still being used as places of worship today; many in ruins are now being restored to their original splendor. You should at least visit some; the most famous and well-worth seeing are the Shitthaung, the Andaw, the Dukkhan Thein (Sima or Ordination Hall), the Koethaung, the Laymyetnha, and the Shwe Daung pagodas.
The Shitthaung or “temple of the 80,000 Buddhas” is a fascinating place full of small images, scenes in a sculpture of Buddhist stories with the kings and queens, courtiers and common people portrayed in their medieval costumes and head-dresses, all frozen in stone throughout the ages. You should take a good torch-light to examine these myriads of interesting scenes and figures lining the dark corridors of this temple. You can see some Rakhine men boxing and wrestling, some girls dancing and playing, and then there are also the mythical birds, beasts and half-human celestials and demons. Try and find the figures of both male and female Vasundhra/ Vasundhari symbolizing the God/ Goddess of the Earth.
The Shitthaung Pagoda, located about half a mile to the north of the Palace Site, was built by one of the most powerful kings of the Mrauk-U Dynasty, called by the people Minbragyi, but according to records on inscriptions as King Minbin after repulsing a Portuguese attack. The Portuguese mercenaries later served under Rakhine kings. There was also surprisingly an elite corp of Japanese bodyguards protecting the kings of Rakhine.
The Andaw (meaning the tooth relic of Buddha) is a pagoda only 86 feet to the northeast of the Shitthaung Pagoda. Built by King Min Hla Raza in 1521 it is said to enshrine the tooth relic received from a Sri Lankan king by King Minbin.
This temple is a hollow octagonal building made of pure sandstone blocks; there are two internal concentric passages, with a prayer hall on the east. Like other temples, it is on a small hillock.
Visitors should see the frescoes giving detailed pictorial portrayals of life in Mrauk-U court; these frescoes are found in Laymyetnha and the Shwe Daung Pagoda. Laymyetnha Pagoda was built by King Min Saw Mon in 1430 AD. as one of the original pagodas at the time of the founding of Mrauk-U. The name of the pagoda means “Four-Faced” as there are four entrances to this square sandstone structure with a central solid stupa 80 feet high. There are 28 Buddha images as mentioned in the Sambuddha scripture.
The Shwe Daung pagoda or the “Golden Hill Pagoda” is also believed to have been built by King Minbin between the years 1531-1553. It is a landmark pagoda as it is the tallest in this area and can be seen as far away as 20 miles from the main Kaladan River. The hill itself is 250 feet high and is about half a mile to the southeast of the Palace Site. It is a solid stupa with a circular base. During the First Anglo-Burmese War, 1824-26, the Myanmar forces built earthen fortifications on this hill and mounted guns which inflicted heavy losses on the British forces. Some of these fortifications can still be seen today.
Standing on a plain of rice fields is the Koethaung Pagoda; the name means 90,000 and probably signified the number of Buddha images it is supposed to contain. It was built by King Min Taikkha, the son of King Minbin who built the Shitthaung or temple of 80,000 images, so the son exceeded the father by 10,000! It is the biggest pagoda in the Mrauk-U area. Like the Shitthaung this pagoda is also a massive fortress-like structure built with stone walls and terraces. There are 108 smaller pagodas surrounding it, all made of sandstone. With a winding corridor, it is like a cave tunnel which you have to traverse until you reach the central chamber. The inner gallery has collapsed and is no longer accessible. There is an octagonal pagoda in the middle surrounded by the over one hundred smaller pagodas. Unlike some of the other temples, not only sandstone, but bricks were also used in this pagoda.
Apart from the pagodas, visitors should not miss seeing the Ordination Hall, Htukkan Thein, and the exquisite little library the Pitaka Taik. Htukkan (or Dukkhan) Thein is located about 300 feet to the northwest of Shitthaung Pagoda. Built-in 1571 by King Min Phalaung it is on a hillock 30 feet high, with two stone stairways eight feet broad on the east and south.
No longer used as an Ordination Hall, it is now one of the well-known pagodas of Mrauk-U. There is a long vaulted passageway which leads to the central shrine room which is 15 feet in height. This room is said to be the place where the Buddhist Archbishop used to sit to discuss religious affairs with Senior Monks. See the seated stone ladies preserving in sculpture the ancient hair-styles, among the many other interesting figures. There are also 140 niches with Buddha images.
The little library or Pitaka Taik, the Repository for the Buddhist scriptures, was built in 1591 also by King Min Phalaung. It measures only 14 feet from east to west, 10 feet from north to south and is only 9 feet in height. Built entirely of stone there are lovely designs on the outer walls making it look like a tiny jeweled casket shaped like a blooming lotus. There were 48 libraries in Mrauk-U but only this one is preserved, though it is sometimes obscured by thickets of bushes and partly covered by moss and weeds which flourish in the 200 inches of annual rainfall in the region.
This library is reputed to have housed 30 sets of the Buddhist Tipitaka which King Narapatigyi (1638-1645) received from Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, it acquired an unpleasant appellation due to its dark windowless interior. It is now known as Chin-kite library, Chin-kite meaning mosquito-bite. The Rakhine people say that Chin-kite is a Myanmar mispronunciation of the Rakhine word Khraung kaik, the name of the city wall which is close to the north of the library. If you have difficulty in finding this library ask for the Htupayon Pagoda as it is just north of this pagoda.
The man-made lakes named Anomakan and Letsekan on the southern part of Mrauk-U were once part of the defense system. They are now peaceful havens for the visitors as well as for the local people, the animals, birds, and fish. Letsekan is three miles in length and half a mile wide. Some of the old city walls can also be seen.
The Portuguese and other Europeans were given a separate quarter at Mrauk-U, only about half a mile west of the Palace Site. The place is called Daingripet and this place for European settlement is on the other bank of Aungdat creek. The old church built by Father Manrique, now in ruins, can still be seen in this place. It is near the Daingri tank built by King Ba Saw Phyu (1459-1482).
Rakhine has other historical sites which are earlier than Mrauk-U, at Vesali, only six miles to the north, and at Launggret a little further away, but easily reached by car in about half an hour.
If you are interested in new, spectacular places of historical interest and natural beauty Mrauk-U is the place. There are now comfortable hotels and guesthouses where you can stay while exploring this ancient land which was once a seat of oriental splendor.