Rock Art and Artisans in the Lemro Valley, Arakan, Myanmar

Article excerpt

This is a story that will appeal to all scholars involved with the interpretation of rock art. Figures depicted on rock surfaces in jungle terrain patrolled by soldier ants were thought in the nineteenth century to record an otherwise unknown early episode of invasion and resistance--and were widely published as such. A recent survey by a Myanmar-Australian team has made more correct records of the earlier forms and now offers fresh interpretations: the carvings are due to fifteenth-nineteenth century artisans working at quarries producing objects for the town of Mrauk-U, and they evoke local creatures and architectural echoes of the town and temples on which they worked.


Arakan (Figure 1) is the English name for the state of Rakhine, on the Bay of Bengal coast of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Arakanese is a dialect of Burmese, and uses Burmese script. The early polities were located in the valleys and floodplains of the Kaladan and Lemro Rivers, an area that today is under rice agriculture (Hudson 2005).

King Anacandra's inscription of c. AD 729 describes how the founding king of the First Candra Dynasty, Dvancandra (c. AD 370-425), built 'a city adorned by surrounding walls and a moat" (Johnston 1944). This has become identified as Dhanyawadi, a 5.6km2 brick-walled site which is the home of the fifth-century Mahamuni shrine. Dhanyawadi was a pilgrimage centre in the fifteenth-eighteenth century Mrauk-U period. Arakanese Buddhists believe that an image of Gautama Buddha previously housed in this building was cast during his lifetime when he had visited Arakan, made certain prophecies and indicated hundreds of sites where relics of his various lives would be found. This renowned and powerful image was removed to Mandalay following the Burmese conquest of Arakan in the late eighteenth century (Forchhammer 1892; Tun Shwe Khine 1994; Gutman 2001: 33; Leider 2005).

Art history and numismatic studies place another walled city of 6.2km2, Vesali, between about the sixth and tenth centuries AD (Gutman 1976; Nyunt Han 1984; Gutman 2001: 41), although a fourteenth-century radiocarbon date from a city gatepost suggests intermittent reoccupation (Hudson 2005).


The walled cities were not the only focus of cultural activity. Selagiri hill, a few kilometres west of Dhanyawadi on the Kaladan river, has yielded stone sculptures and inscriptions dating from the sixth to sixteenth centuries (Forchhammer 1892: 14; Gutman 1998). A Sanskrit inscription of the ye dharmma, the 'Buddhist creed', which we identify palaeographically as belonging to the sixth-seventh century AD, was found in 2001 on the top of Padaw hill and is now in the custody of a local monastery. This find suggests that the region from Selagiri to Padaw (Figure 2) was occupied from the first millennium AD by people producing Indic artefacts.

Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, smaller walled settlements were built along the Lemro River at Sambawak/Pyinsa, Parein, Hkrit, Toungoo Neyinzara and Launggret (Figure 2), though erosion has since destroyed much of the evidence. These were polities with political and cultural links to Bagan, the dominant power up until the fourteenth century in Burma, and religious links to the Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka (Harvey 1925: 137-49, 370-71; Thin Kyi 1970; Gutman 2001: 14; the Lemro sites were recently re-surveyed by Berliet 2004: 234-39).

Mrauk-U (Figure 2), which appears on early maps as Myohaung, literally 'old city', was home to dynasties that ruled from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Described by a seventeenth-century visitor as 'a second Venice', the Arakanese capital sat amid streams, canals, reservoirs, earthworks, stone walls and low hills. Historians broadly ascribe three phases to the Mrauk-U era.

The 'early period' begins with the foundation of Mrauk-U around 1430. The city was recorded as having been tributary to the sultanate of Bengal until the 1530s when the expansionist King Man Pa conquered Chittagong. …