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A brief history of the Rakhine, an ethnic group from western Myanmar who established a series of ancient kingdoms in the Lemro-Kaladan River Valley.

Tucked into the low-lying river valleys at the western edge of Myanmar the historical territory of the Rakhine Kingdom. For nearly 2000 years, the Rakhine people have existed along this cultural borderland, much of the time

The Rakhine Kingdom, historically known as Arakan, lies in modern-day Myanmar. The Rakhine were among the earliest to adopt Buddhism from India, a trait that defined much of their ethnic and political identity as they built monumental temples, trade relations, and grew into a powerful kingdom in the 1700s CE.

Although the Rakhine influence began to wane in their face of growing power from their eastern neighbors, and the subsequent Colonial British, the people of Rakhine maintain a unique ethnic identity to this day.

The landscape of Mrauk U, the final capital of the Rakhine Kingdom
The landscape of Mrauk U, the final capital of the Rakhine Kingdom

Who Are the Rakhine Kingdom?

The Rakhine Kingdom (later Rakhine State) began as a modest city of Dhanyawaddy along the Kaladan River in the far west of Myanmar. From this that grew to be a powerful kingdom in the 17th century. The Arakanese were known for their religious tolerance, which set them apart from other cultures at that time. 

Rakhine’s final capital and most prosperous city was Mrauk U, which became a highly successful trading port, along with hosting magnificent temples and a useful waterway system. In 1785, after centuries of independence, the Rakhine Kingdom was taken over by its Central Burmese neighbors.

Street in Sittwe, the modern capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar
Street in Sittwe, the modern capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar

Today, the Rakhine people and state are a part of modern-day Myanmar (Burma). Historically, the region was called Arakan, and its people were called Arakanese. During the 1990s, the region and its people were officially renamed Rakhine. 

Origins of the Rakhine Kingdom

The earliest settlers in the historical region of Rakhine are thought to have been Indians related to the people of Bengal. Ethnic Burmese later settled in the Lemro River Valley, possibly in the tenth century CE. As Rakhine eventually fell to the Burmese, an influx of Burmese migrants began to replace the established demographics and resulted in the mainly Burmese population seen today.

The people in Rakhine are mainly Burmese, with some Indian influence. They speak Burmese, but they maintain a unique Rakhine dialect, which still makes use of otherwise outdated pronunciations and vocabulary. However, proud of their long history, the Rakhine people prefer to maintain a distinct identity from the rest of the Burmese nation.

Temple in Velsali housing the Great Vesali Buddha Image
Temple in Velsali housing the Great Vesali Buddha Image

Rakhine Kingdom Name Origins

The ancient name of Arakan stems from an Arabic or Persian origin. However, the region of Arakan has had hundreds of different names throughout its existence. 

Some of these names closely resemble Arakan, such as Argyre, Arakades’s, and Arakan, while others more closely resemble Rakhine, including Rahan, Raham, Rocon’, Roshanga, and more. 

Thus, both of these names – Arakan and Rakhine – were derived from a long history of name development among Rakhine residents and visitors. During the period when Rakhine was under British colonial rule, they designated Arakan as their official name for the region. 

The locals today prefer the demonym Rakhine, as it does away with the colonial baggage associated with Arakan. This is much in the way that Myanmar is preferred to Burma, the former British colonial designation of the country.

Culture and Beliefs of the Rakhine Kingdom

Although the Rakhine people are ethnically and culturally related to the Bamar of central Myanmar, Rakhine culture expressed a higher degree of Indianized influence. While consistently in contact with Indian power, Rakhine was also influenced by or subject to these Indian powers at various times throughout their history.

Young Buddhist monk in Mrauk U
Young Buddhist monk in Mrauk U

Religion in the Rakhine Kingdom

The population of Rakhine State today is largely Buddhist, but there is also a significant Muslim population. From its beginning, the people of Rakhine are said to have been religiously diverse. The Arakanese allowed different religions to exist in harmony throughout their long history. 

Inside the Shitthaung Paya temple of Mrauk U
Inside the Shitthaung Paya temple of Mrauk U

Arakan was one of the first areas in Southeast Asia to practice Dharmic religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Local tradition holds that the Gautama Buddha visited Rakhine, however, there is no evidence to support this. 

There is, however, evidence that the Rakhine people were one of the earliest states to adopt Theravada Buddhism, a fact they hold great pride to this day. Since its early introduction, Buddhism has remained the most prominent religion in ancient and modern Rakhine. 

Small statue inside a Mrauk U temple
Small statue inside a Mrauk U temple

In the 8th century, some Arakanese citizens were converted to Islam after Arab merchants arrived in Arakan and shared their religion. During the 15th century, Muslims ruled Arakan during Arakan’s golden age of wealth and prosperity, furthering the spread of Islam.

Many remnants of historic shrines, temples, mosques, and seminaries can still be found at ancient Rakhine sites today, evidencing their long tradition. However, modern-day Rakhine sees many conflicts based on religion in the borderland between the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and the Muslim-majority Bangladesh. This is most frequently exemplified in the conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, who have engaged in frequent violent conflicts caused by their religious and social differences. Today, Rohingya Muslims are persecuted in Myanmar, many having to flee the country in fear for their lives. 

Art and Architecture in the Rakhine Kingdom

The Shitthaung Paya in Mrauk U
The Shitthaung Paya in Mrauk U

Rakhine art is highly reflective of the importance they place on religion. Most of the Arakanese art that remains today depicts the Buddha.

Today, hundreds of ancient pagodas, temples, shrines, and Buddha statues still remain, especially in Mrauk U. These are stylistically very different from those found in Central Myanmar in contemporary cities such as Bagan, as Rakhine adopted many more Indian influences in their designs.

The depiction of Buddha is commonly seen in Rakhine art. In Rakhine images, his face is typically angled down, and he is sitting in a cross-legged position. 

The renowned Great Vesali Buddha Image
The renowned Great Vesali Buddha Image

Often, the Buddha’s hands are posed in the Bhumisparsha mudra, which means his right hand is touching the earth while his left hand rests in his lap, palm facing upwards. This pose is believed to represent the moment in which the Buddha reached enlightenment. 

History of the Rakhine Kingdom

Local tradition among the Rakhine people tells of their history dating back to the legendary founding of Dhanyawaddy almost 5000 years ago. There is no archaeological evidence to support this, and most archaeologists place the founding of the first Rakhine state around 300 CE.

Ruined wall in Mrauk U
Ruined wall in Mrauk U

Dhanyawaddy Dynasty

The fabled first Rakhine Kingdom is said to have arisen in Dhanyawaddy. During the Dhanyawaddy Dynasty, three different cities were formed in the same region. The first city is believed to have been established around 3400 BC by King Mara Yu.

During the later Dhanyawaddy Dynasty, it is said that the Buddha himself visited this ancient city and converted its inhabitants to Buddhism.

In honor of the Buddha’s visit, they created the Mahamuni Buddha Image, which is said to have captured his likeness. This became the symbol of Rakhine for generations to come and was believed to have kept the Arakanese safe from invaders for many centuries. 

However, the Mahamuni Buddha was taken as a prize by the Burmese upon their conquest of Rakhine. The Mahamuni Buddha now sits in the Mahamuni Temple in central Mandalay, the final historical capital of the Burmese Kingdom.

Vesali (Waithali) Dynasty

Remnants of the northern city gate of Vesali
Remnants of the northern city gate of Vesali

The Rakhine capital later moved to Vesali, otherwise known as Waithali, around 327 CE. Vesali is believed to have been founded by a king named Dvan Chandra, who ruled for 22 years. 

Inscriptions found in the city indicate that there were at least 22 different kings who ruled Vesali while it was Arakan’s capital from the 6th to the 10th century CE. The inscriptions also say that these kings had peaceful and prosperous reigns.

Their large trading network became the driving reason that the Vesali Dynasty prospered. During the Vesali Period, Arakanese are believed to have traded with China, Persia, India, and Bengal, with some records stating up to 1000 ships per year entered Rakhine territory.

Lemro Period 

The Lemro Era took place from the 11th to 15th Centuries CE. This period was marked by reasserted outside influence from India as well as 4 successive capitals, known collectively as Lem Ro (“four cities”). During this time, the Arakanese people established these different capital cities all along the Lemro River.

Mrauk U Period

Only the foundations of the Mrauk U Palace remain
Only the foundations of the Mrauk U Palace remain

Rakhine reasserted itself with the founding of its new capital city, Mrauk U in 1430 CE as overseen by King Min Saw Mon. The Mrauk U era lasted from the 15th to the 18th century CE. During this era, the kingdom was prosperous and remained Rakhine’s capital for 355 years, a period that is commonly considered the Golen Age of the Rakhine civilization.

During this time, trade and influence increased. Arakanese rule expanded to encompass modern-day Rakhine state, Myanmar, along with Chittagong Division, Bangladesh. The people of the Mrauk U Kingdom made contact with new nations and participated in trade with various peoples, including the Portuguese, Dutch, Armenians, Arabs, and Persians.

The Shitthaung Paya in Mrauk U
The Shitthaung Paya in Mrauk U

This also meant new ideas were coming into Rakhine through Mrauk U, as well. For its time, Mrauk U was very diverse and exceptionally sophisticated. Although carrying on the long-entrenched tradition of Theravada Buddhism, Mrauk U (and Rakhine as a whole) became home to a wide variety of people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Throughout the city, there were mosques, temples, shrines, seminaries, and libraries where inhabitants were provided the space to practice their faith and learn as they pleased. 

Geography of Rakhine Kingdom

The Rakhine Kingdom was based in the vast river valleys formed by the Lemro and Kaladan Rivers. Although they are low-lying and almost at sea level near the coast, the land soon becomes hilly with lush jungle farther north. 

It was in these fertile northern jungles where the Rakhine people based their capital cities. Many of the forests were cleared, making way for agriculture.

The landscape surround Mrauk U

The Rakhine in Dhanyawaddy

Dhanyawaddy was the first capital of Arakan. Remnants of the historical city show that there was an inner and outer city. The inner city housed the palace, where only royalty lived. The outer city is where the commoners resided. 

The outer city was protected by a wall, which safeguarded the common people and their food supply since their crop fields lay within the walls. Early Arakanese people were often under attack from surrounding hill tribes, so the wall protected their food and prevented them from going hungry when they were being besieged. 

Old city wall in Mrauk U
Old city wall in Mrauk U

The Rakhine in Mrauk U 

Mrauk U was a sophisticated city made up of various canals that gave it a striking resemblance to Venice. However, these canals were not just for looks. 

Some believe the Arakanese developed these waterways so they could drown invaders during times of war. However, it is more likely they made these canals for agricultural purposes. However, this doesn’t mean they were not also serving as a defensive structure during times of war. 

The city is most famous for its magnificent temples, including the Ratanabon. The Ratanabon temple was constructed somewhere around 1535 by thousands of laborers who had to cut large sandstone blocks to construct its huge walls. 

The Rakhine in Greater Myanmar

Village near Sittwe on the Kaladan River
Village near Sittwe on the Kaladan River

Like the rest of Myanmar, Rakhine was among the earliest regions to adopt an Indianized culture by way of trade and missionaries, a fact which the modern Rakhine people take great pride in to this day. This included not only religion, but also social organization, writing, and trade.

It was their position along the trade routes that allowed the Rakhine cities to grow and prosper. With their command of the inland waterways and access to the coast along the Bay of Bengal. Eventually, this position brought them into contact with other outside powers, including the Portuguese and British.

The relationship between Rakhine and the central Burmese kingdoms changed throughout their long history. At times, Rakhine was entirely independent, while at others, they paid tribute to the Burmese kingdoms. This eventually culminated in a battle near modern Sittwe, in which the Burmese defeated the Rakhine and annexed their territory.

What Happened to the Rakhine Kingdom?

The main street through modern Mrauk U
The main street through modern Mrauk U

During the 17th Century, the Rakhine empire grew to the point that the Arakanese started to lose control. They began to have problems with their border neighbors, the Mughals of India. Tensions between the two resulted in the Mughals and the Arakanese fighting. Several years later, Arakan was also invaded by the Portuguese. 

Finally, in 1785 the Burmese took over Rakhine and annexed it into their territory. As a spoil of war, the Burmese kings took away their prized statue, the Mahamuni Buddha Image, and brought it to their capital of Mandalay, where it remains to this day. 

Years later, in 1826, the region the Arakanese once ruled was ceded (along with the entirety of Burma) to the British through the Treaty of Yandabo.

Cities of the Rakhine Kingdom

Mrauk U
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.58971, 93.19255

Dhanyawaddy (Dhanyawadi) 
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.8741, 93.06506

Vesali (Waithali)
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.65988, 93.15349

Sittwe
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.13848, 92.89917

Monuments of the Rakhine Kingdom

Great Vesali Buddha Image
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.67415, 93.15248

Koe Thaung Pagoda
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.59817, 93.21099

Sakya Man Aung Pagoda
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.59473, 93.20065

Shitthaung Paya
Rakhine, Myanmar
GPS: 20.59764, 93.19297

Fast Facts


Fast Facts

Name: Rakhine (Arakan) Kingdom
Origin: Early settlement by east Indians followed by migrations of Bamar-related ethnicities.
Language: Rakhine (Arakanese), closely related to Burmese
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Period: ~300 – 1785 CE
Location: Western Myanmar
Capital: Sittwe (modern state capital), Mrauk U (final independent capital)
Decline: Defeated by and integrated into the Burmese Empire in 1785 CE.

Glossary

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Hinduism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.

Mrauk U
Final capital of the independent Rakhine kingdom from 1430-1785 CE.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Theravada Buddhism
“The “Doctrine of the Elders” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Vesali
Second capital of the Rakhine kingdom from 327-818 CE.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

5 Comments

  • Interesting post, fabulous temples

    • Benjamin says:

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, the temples in Mrauk U are very scenic and, even though they don’t boast the same scale, evoke quite a different atmosphere than their cousins in Bagan. I see from your site that you were in Southeast Asia recently — did you happen to make it to Mruak U or Myanmar? Pandemic aside, I’m not even certain if the area has been open for tourism in recent years with the political situations.

      • Hi there, no we didn’t. We managed 1 month in Thailand, 2 weeks in Laos and just 1 week in Vietnam before things started getting difficult and we had to make a quick escape before borders closed due to the Pandemic, we started to experience hostility against us Brits. Its a shame we had to cut our trip short, missing out most of our Vietnam journey, the month in Cambodia finishing off in Singapore. We had hoped to carry on where we left off this year but we think realistically we won’t get to that part of the world till next year.

      • Benjamin says:

        I’m sorry to hear that. What sort of hostility do you mean – attitudes and suspicion of foreign travellers bringing in the virus?

      • Yes, they seemed to think that Europeans were bringing Covid into Vietnam. We were ushered out of some shops in Hanoi, it made us feel uncomfortable. We were then denied transport until we proved we had been in Asia for 6 weeks. Our hotel in Halong bay gave us less than half an hour to pack and leave before the police came to close them down, this was scary as there was the threat of quarantine hospital had we not got out. But saying this, there were some very kind people who helped us. 2 Families in particular. The only tour operator open in Halong bay arranged for our onward transport to Tam Coc, however we had to wait several hours, they let us wait in their place, gave us bottles of water,charged our devices, kept us informed, We dont know what we would have done without them as there were no taxis or hotels! Then our hosts in Tam Coc were wonderful, we managed to get a last minute flight home via Bangkok, our hosts drove us the 2 hours to the airport giving us water and snacks to go with. We found such kindness, we shall definitely go back

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