mahamuni

SAN SHWE BU (J.B.R.S Vol. 6, Part3. 1916)

The great outstanding feature in the history of Arakan is the account of Buddha’s sojourn in this country and of his supervision over the casting of his image. The story of his seven-day’s visit with five hundred Rahandas— his lengthy discourse pregnant with prophesy delivered on the top of the hill opposite the town of Kyauktaw– His Journey into the city of Dannyawaddy at the request of King Sanda Thurya— the casting of the image , have been very clearly set forth by the able researches of the late Dr. Forchammer. The Mahamuni tradition is the oldest of the kind we have. It permeates the whole religious history of Arakan and the images that at present sanctify a thousand temples and pagodas in Burma are replicas of the first Mahamuni image.

 Interesting as all these facts may appear there is however one great flaw which defies any attempt at reasonable explanation. King Sanda Thurya ascended the throne of Arakan in 146 A.D all available records are clear on this point. If we take 483 B.C as the date of Buddha’s death there is a very large gap of over six hundred years between the two events, viz: his sojourn in Arakan and his death at Kusinara. This is a very big thing to explain away and judging from the extreme paucity of documents that treat of those far-away days. This issue is one likely to be added to the long list of unsolved riddles of the universe. It is true books belonging to Burma have a fatal defect, that they represent facts and beliefs at the time they were written, or acquire the from in which we now find them, without much reference to facts at the time at which they are supposed to have happened. Besides this Burmese books especially bear unmistakable signs of  revisionism.

 Despite these adverse peculiarities  the Mahamuni Tradition is not an after-thought. It is genuinely old and was implicitly believed in by successive generations that came after it. Kings of Arakan, even after they had shifted their capitals to various other places, always recognised it as a sacred duty to visit it from time to time and generally made it the occasion for great religious feasts of charity. In such cases, they invariably left some votive offering, may be a small shrine or an image, as a memento of their distinguished visit. On the other hand, reconciliation of this great discrepancy in time is futile. The very fact that neither Buddha nor any of his five hundred Rahandas who accompanied him into Arakan ever made mention of this unique event in the many subsequent discourses delivered in India, is sufficient to stop pursuing this argument.

The following describes the history of this famous image from the time of its installation on a small hill close to the ancient city of Dannyawaddy until it was finally carried away to Mandalay by Bodawpaya of Burma. After the  image was finished and suitably installed it remained undisturbed for a period of over nine centuries. During that time, it became the religious centre of the kingdom and all its neighbouring states. Its fame spread far and wide and it so worked on the envy of the Burmans that much of the early wars between these two people were actuated by the sole desire on the part of Burmese kings to remove the image into their country.

 In 1078 A.D. Min Bhi-lu of Arakan was killed by a noble who usurped the throne. Min Re-baya the heir apparent fled with his family and took shelter at the court of Kyan-sittha of Pagan. The fugitive prince remained in exile for twenty-five years during which time a son was born to Min Re-baya and is known in history as Let-yar-min-nan. It is true that Kyan-sittha promised to restore the royal fugitive to the Arakanese throne but the lack of suitable opportunity prevented that monarch from redeeming his promise. On the death of Min-Re-baya, Alaung-si-thu who had already succeeded his grandfather determined to place Let-yar-min-nan on the throne of Arakan. To carry out this object he sent 100,000 Pyus and an equal number of Talaings both by land and sea into Arakan.

 There was some show of stubborn resistance at first which the more disciplined troops of Burma gradually but surely overcame. Thus Let-ya-min-Nan came unto his own in 1103 A.D. and as the Pyus were instrumental in bringing this about he is also known to the Arakanese as ??????; (the king created by the 100,000 Pyus). When these soldiers had accomplished their task and just on the eve of their departure for Burma they visited the shrine of Mahamuni. There they found it so richly stored with gems and gold that overcoming all religious scruples they began to despoil the temple of all its vast wealth. From the image itself the Pyus scooped out the greater portion of the back, the Talaings cut off the whole right leg and carried away these treasures into their country - a distinct fulfillment of Gautama’s dicta.

 When Let-yar-min-nan came to Arakan the capital was Ping-tsa. On his astrologers advising him that the city was no longer fit for occupation because all its good fortune had departed, he found the new city of Parin. Fifty years after this Da-tha-raza ascended the throne. The new king was powerful and just and the country enjoyed general peace and prosperity. Following the example of all pious kings who went before him he decided to visit Mahamuni. His Ministers were sent in advance to make the necessary preparations for his stay there. But they return with the information that the temple could not be found. He then entrusted these men with his personal jewel instructed them to give away as reward to any person or persons who could direct them to sacred spot. After much trouble and by the assistance of two Mros they found the place__ the men being rewarded as ordered by the king. When news of the discovery reached the royal ears he immediately set out for the place with his entire court. The image was found in the ground buried up to the neck. The right leg and the greater part of the back were missing. The shrine was destroyed by fire. The king at once saw the exposed nature of the place. He knew that its general isolation among the hills was the too frequent cause of the shrine being desecrated by the wild tribes who made periodic visits of plunder into these parts. He therefore conveyed the image by water into the ancient city of Dannyawaddy.

 The chronicles tell us that invitations were then issued to all the neighbouring kings and princes to visit Arakan and share with him the supreme merit to be acquired by undertaking the entire repairs of the most sacred image and shrine. The gathering of ruling princes was a representative one. First, they repaired the image itself by supplying the missing parts. Then they erected the shrine on which were lavished all the skill, energy and resources they could command. In the building of the surrounding walls the work was proportionately divided between the different races that were present. Thus, some were asked to carry out the work on the east of the shrine, some to the south and so on. The temple and the walls were decorated with exquisite carving. The latter contained human figures representing all the races of the earth. There is no doubt about it that this second building of Mahamuni was a great historic event. What little is left of it at the present day amply proves it. The spot selected was a small hill at the north-east corner of the city. The nine kutis of treasure left buried by king Sanda Thurya was also unearthed, removed and buried again at the northern end of this hill. The stone slab placed on the mouth of the pit was so immense that a thousand men, say the chronicles, would not even be sufficient to shift it from the place. The whole thing was finished in seventy-one days.

 Several races undertook to visit the temple once in every three months for carrying out such minor repairs as were considered necessary from time to time. But some of the tributary tribes were given definite work to perform and were required to always leave behind certain persons to guard the place. The details of the allotment of such specific duties were also recorded in stone tablets at the four cardinal points. These records no longer exist in their usual places though I am told they were there until quite recently by an authority of no mean repute.

 In the closing scene of its variegated history Bodawpaya of Burma comes in; a fit character for a fit occasion. After his final conquest and so- called pacification “solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant ” he directed the famous image to be conveyed into Burma. This was accomplished in the year 1785 A.D. The excess of patriotic fervor led some people a few years ago, to declare that the real image was lost in the creek close to the site during its removal and that the soldiers fearing the king’s wrath took away a substitute. The image  now in the Arakan pagoda at Mandalay is probably the genuine one.

 The present account deals with the principal events only. But it must not be supposed that during the long interval between these epochs the image and the shrine was allowed to remain in peace. The frontier tribes such as the Chins, the Mros and the Saks periodically descended from their mountain homes and harassed the kingdom whenever it was known the ruler of the country was weak or incapable. On such occasions, they always made it a point to visit the shrine and after taking away all the riches it contained they invariably set fire to it. Whenever this happened the then reigning king would forthwith rebuild it. In the chronicles this occurs with painful regularity.

 What is curious is the fact is that even at the time of Da-tha-raza, towards the middle of the 12th century, this well-known temple and image could not be easily found. At this time (1916), no-one knows the location of the original site though the chronicles describe the place clearly. I think there are two reasons to account for this. The difference in place and feature names from then to now and secondly the rapid growth of vegetation after a  few years of neglect is sufficient to disguise any structure with dense jungle. But whatever the true reason maybe it would be tremendously worth our while to discover this spot as there is no knowing what interesting archaeological finds may be found.