An archaeological travel guide to ancient Vesali (Waithali), the second capital of the Rakhine people in western Myanmar over 1000 years ago.
Name: Vesali (Waithali)
Where: Mrauk U, Rakhine, Myanmar
Location: 20.674032, 93.152182
What to do: Ride through peaceful countryside and see the last remnants of Mrauk U’s ancient predecessor.
Getting there: Ancient Vesali is close enough to Mrauk U to bike.
“Having built a city
which is more beautiful and splendid
than the city of the celestial beings
as if mocking the latter city . . .”
– Anandacandra Stone, Verse 21
To stumble unexpectedly upon tales of a Lost City, especially one that you’ve never heard of before, is an exciting prospect. This is particularly true when the storied locale is notably more ancient than the seemingly remotest of ruins you already happen to be in.
This situation presented itself when I was visiting Mrauk U, a town in western Myanmar that had become a historical backwater filled with monumental, semi-abandoned temples. Mrauk U is not a simple place to get to as roads and even entire sections through the country are routinely closed off due to ethnic conflicts. The journey instead required a 7-hour boat ride upstream from the provincial capital of Sittwe.
While in the ruined city of Mrauk U, I was told it was merely the fourth and final Rakhine capital, and therefore relatively recent. However, upon hearing of an earlier capital nearby, described by the ancient Rakhine themselves as “more splendid and beautiful than the city of the gods”, I had to see it.
The Story of Ancient Vesali (Waithali)
The Rakhine people (also commonly known by the anglicized Arakan) are a related but distinct ethnic and linguistic group in present-day western Myanmar on the border of Bangladesh. Prior to the colonization of the entire region by the British, the Rakhine had maintained their own continuous state in the region over nearly 2000 years and four capitals, the most recent of which is Mrauk U. It predecessors were, in order, Dhanyawaddy (Dhanyawadi), Vesali (Waithali), and Laymro (Le Mro).
Starting early afternoon from the Lay Myoe River Guesthouse, I rented a bicycle for $2 and was off down the rough road into the backwaters of the already exceedingly remote Rakhine State. Beyond the familiar stupas, broadly known as paya here, the monuments became sparser as I passed through the former city wall.
My map told me there was a fortress nearby before I crossed a stream. However, 20 minutes climbing hills through dense forest brought me to yet another hidden stupa and a number of exceptionally large spiders in their webs, which I almost ran into. No sign of the fortress loomed over the upward horizon. When the grass nearby began to rustle more and more, I figured it was time to make haste back on my way to Vesali.
Through the countryside were vast tracts of farmland, a new rail route being built, and the occasional roadside drink stand. The route wasn’t overly difficult, and most of it was very flat. The only complications were the trucks and motorcycles which all competed for space on the single-lane road. And, as per Murphy’s Law, many always seemed to show up at the same time.
After a little over an hour, I arrived at the northern gate of the ancient city, marked with 2 signs claiming the Northern Gates and “The Great Vesali Image”. The little information I had on it was what I had seen at the Mrauk U Museum and what a few locals had told me. One thing the guidebook had said was that the walls were well-preserved. Nothing stood excepted the outline of the gate’s foundation with some of the topsoil brushed away.
If that is what they consider “well-preserved”, what spectacular state must they say the fully-standing ruins of Mrauk U to be in?
The pavement gave way to a dirt road leading inside what would have been the city wall. Very little dotted the road other than a few working locals who gladly smiled and waved as I passed by. As had become a curiosity here, the people often called out, “Bye bye!” rather than “Hello!”
A pagoda-style towered temple had been growing on the horizon for some time, and now I was finally there. A sign in the front said, once again, it was the Great Vesali Image. However, up close the temple was not how it had looked on the horizon. While it looked as if a wall from the ancient city still surrounded the building, its walls and roof were made of the kind of rusty, bent metal sheets I’m used to seeing as common construction of slums in Bangkok.
Inside were white tiled floors and ceilings, faux-golden pillars, and a man eager to show me to the Buddha image. Telling me the ancient date already posted outside and then himself marvelling at its height, he left to return to the tiled hall.
I’ve seen a good number of Buddha statues in Asia, seeing as they are everywhere, but stylistically I often can’t tell the differences between them. That said, legend has it that this image was cut from a single piece of stone by the Rakhine king to appease his Indian wife after an identical Buddha image being shipped from her home in India was lost to the river near Mrauk U.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it had been carved from a single piece of stone. Honestly, I wouldn’t be all that impressed if it were. But, it was impossible to tell under the centuries of upkeep and gold paint covering it. More than that casting doubt on the story was that, to my knowledge, the Buddha in the river had never been recovered. If the Burmese could recover the 23-ton Maha Gandha bronze bell lost to the ocean by the British, a statue in shallow water shouldn’t be too hard.
A good number of interesting items have been dug up at Vesali. Most were now on display at the Mrauk U Museum or at the museum in Sittwe. However, there was nothing on this site indicating where any of these items might have been found.
I continued down the ever-diminishing dirt road until it came to what I supposed was a bridge. The foundation of either a collapsed or unfinished bridge stood up from the small creek and was crossed by a series of rotting boards and 2 beams of broad metal. I wasn’t taking the bike across there.
Walking over, I entered the modern village of Vesali, and I honestly don’t think much had changed there in 1500 years. With the exception of power lines running to some of the homes, they looked like they could have been straight out of Vesali’s golden age.
Passing numerous homes, a couple small reservoirs, and several people making bamboo walls or fences, I reached the end of the main road, but there was no indication of anything archaeological.
On the way back toward the northern gate, a number of signs in Burmese pointing down a small road stopped me. The sun was going down and I still had a long ride back, but as long as I was here I might as well check it out. The road gave way to a flight of stairs up the slope of a hill. Unfortunately, these most certainly weren’t ancient, not even as old as those found in Mrauk U. At the summit were a handful of wooden buildings and a blue building serving as another temple. No ancient citadel or palace monuments stood atop this mound.
On the way back down to my bike, I did manage to notice the unmistakable angles and colors of bricks sticking out from the side of the hill. I highly doubt that the hill was constructed entirely with bricks, but perhaps a retaining wall once adorned the side of the natural mound. It was a fair assumption that it would have been the central palace mound in antiquity.
With that last observation, I was riding into the rapidly-setting sun back to Mrauk U, stopping once again at the north gate to gaze and chuckle at perhaps the only structural remnant of Vesali, a city which its own king claimed to mock the city of the gods: that “well-preserved” city wall buried in the dirt.
How to Get to Vesali
GPS Coordinates: 20.674178, 93.152462
Ancient Vesali is located about 10 kilometers north of Mrauk U, the only town of any significance in the region, and where any visitors are likely to be staying. Several guest houses and hotels in Mrauk U will sell a combination day trip tour package to Vesali and the Mahamuni Temple in Dhanyawadi.
A more enjoyable way is to simply get there yourself. Bicycles and the occasional motorbike can be rented in Mrauk U. The road from Mrauk U to Vesali is an exceptionally pleasant ride through the Rakhine countryside. The entrance to Vesali is marked by a large red and gold sign in English marking the north gate of the ancient city.
Only the very foundations of the gate remain. Following the dirt road through the ancient gate will bring you into modern Vesali, where you can see the descendants of its ancient inhabitants and their religious icons, including their revered “Great Vesali Image” Buddha statue.