Mrauk U Kingdom First Phase

Mrauk U Kingdom First Phase

This post covers the Mrauk U Kingdom First Phase, as described by Pamela Gutman, lasting from 1430 to 1531 [p. 85, Burma’s Lost Kingoms]. Le-Myet-Hna, Nyi-Daw, Mahabodhi Shwe-Gu, Htupayon, and Nibuzza are included here. Pizi Phara is also considered part of the First Phase, already covered in an earlier post.

These monuments tend to be smaller than the later ones, and there were earlier temples ascribed to this period that are no longer standing. Santikan or Sinkhi Khan mosque is said to be the earliest, most likely built by Muslim followers of Min Saw Mun after his exile in Bengal. Others include the Mukseitaw or Holy Beard Relic pagoda and the East and West Myatanzaung or Emerald Appendage pagodas, all overseen by Min Saw Mun. They displayed similar characteristics following the Burmese tradition of the bell shaped, circular stupas grounded to the earth with solid brick cores.

Le-Myet-Hna or Lay-myut-nha

Four sided pagoda built in 1430 by King Min Saw Mun. This stupa is square in plan, but with an “inverted bowl,” as described in “Famous Monuments of Mrauk U” by Myar Aung (2007). It was built with heavy sandstone blocks. This central stupa is surrounded by four vaulted entrances projecting out from it, one to each cardinal point and the main entrance on the east side. On the interior of the outside center stupa are twenty-eight niches, originally housing the 28 successive Buddhas who have come to guide mankind over successive cycles of time. Around the octagonal center column are eight seated Buddhas back to back.


Lay-myut-nha, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar

This shrine calls attention to Laymyethna Monastery near Minnanthu Village in Bagan. It’s got a similar cruciform architecture with four seated Buddha images sitting back to back around the central pillar facing the four cardinal points. This monastery is also referred to as the Laymyethna Guphaya (phaya is defined as ’lord,’ and ‘gu’ as cave, so cave of the lord Buddha), which is where the Buddha images reside.

The next temple listed in Mrauk U Kingdom First Phase is Nyi-Daw temple.

Lay-myut-nha, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar


Sometimes called the “Younger Brother” pagoda, this shrine was built by Min Saw Mun’s brother, Min Khari. It was restored in about 2001. I’m pretty sure that the Buddha image in front of the red brick was taken in side the fairly newly renovated (2001) Nyi-Daw temple. Notice the gold leaf and flower adornments. The temple itself has a solid, balanced floor plan, with a small and circular stone temple with a brick core. It would have been built from stone like its neighbor, Le-Myet-Hna, before time had its way with it. Again the 28 niches are present, although, not as I recall at the time, occupied.

Buddha figure in Nyi-daw restored shrine, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar

Mahabodhi Shwe-Gu

We were driven here in the back of a very bumpy jeep driven by a young man. It was stout and squat with a nave welcoming visitors, sitting on a hill. Unfortunately, at the time I did not walk to the nave. Our driver seemed to rush us past this one? I was out and about taking photos. Who knows what was on my mind that bright sunny dusty day, but it wasn’t looking at the guidebook which I should have been.

Ba Saw Pru donated the octagonal temple, on a full moon in 1448 (Rakhine calendar) [Aung, p. 99] The bell shaped dome style on top is said to be from the Le-mro period, or when the capital was located in five different cities situated in the Le-Mro Valley (12th-15th centuries). It was a politically uncertain time. Pagan was acendent, which meant that Burma was sovereign over Mrauk U. The Le-Mro buddhas were gentle and flowing with a slight upturned smile. These possibly came from Indian craftsmen who made their way to Pagan and Mrauk U in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. [Gutman, p. 61-72].

Mahabodhi Shwe Gu, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar

Here is what I missed inside, from Famous Monuments of Mrauk U: Useful Reference for Tourists and Travelers by Myar Aung (which is not available anywhere that I can find it here, I purchased it at the Archaeological Museum in Mrauk U):

“On the wall of the passage are the figures in relief numbering more than two hundred and eighty which were sculpted on six layers of the stone walls. Most important figures are that of Buddha images, figures playing musical instruments, turning somersault, natural habitat of animals, paying homage to buddha, figures suffering in hell, waging battles, donating of off-springs by King Vesandra, shooting arrrow by Souvanna Sama, Jataka story of King of “hamsa” and so on.

“Above the figures are the small Buddha images. On the sandstone pedestal of the special chamber are the floral designs, the reliefs of Jataka stories, fitures of playing the conch shell, among others, as the artefacts of Mrauk-U period.”

Don’t miss it like I did!


Also spelled as Htu-pa-ron, this temple was built in 1494, ascribed to Min Ran Aung who only reigned for six months. In 1631, Min Khamoung had it renovated and gilded with lilies. This shrine was thought to be very auspicious, as the kings of Mrauk U period worshipped the Buddha image after their coronation ceremony to ensure victory or success in their reigns.

According to the map, this is across from Sanda Muni Temple, but I did not see it. A temple complex that looks similar to Htupayon is Ratana-Hmankeen and Ratana-San-Wray. They are situated across the dirt road from Laung-Praun-Prauk. The Famous Monuments of Mrauk U book places Htupayon inside the northern inner and outer walls of Laung-Praun-Prauk. Looking at Pamela Gutman’s map [Burma’s Lost Kingdoms, p. 76-77], Htupayon is across the way from Sandarama (or Sanda Muni) Temple, although depending on where one is standing and which direction you look in, it appears one would be able to see both of the larger structures as it’s sort of right in between them.

Nibbuza or Ni-buza

Referred to as “Offering to the Nats,” Nibbuza was built in 1527 by King Saw Oh, it seems that we’re getting later on in the Mrauk U Kingdom First Phase. In fact, excavations in 1997 found a shrine that existed there during the late Vesali period, which goes much farther back to circa 6th to 8th centuries AD. They found Hindu and Buddhist remains there.

I have a hazy memory of lots of debris and construction material all around, so for some reason I never went beyond the roofed Buddha figure. There was a worker there putting stones together as he worked on something. I ended up taking pictures of what he was doing. The only glimpse I have of the stupa is what can be seen behind the large Buddha figure in the “Nat House” (my name for it) in front of the stupa.


Nibbuza, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar - the solid brick stupa is behind this structure

Nibbuza, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar - renovation in progress

Nibbuza, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar - cracked stone inscriptions

Mrauk U Kingdom First Phase – Summary

The architectural style of Mrauk U Kingdom’s First Phase veered towards the Burmese tradition of a circular stupa with bell shaped dome. With such solidity and downward gravity, these monuments feel grounded and settled on the land in which they were built. During the next phase, or the Middle Phase, we’ll look at what are considered the great monuments of the Mrauk U Kingdom.



Mrauk U Kingdom Momuments and Temples

Mrauk U Kingdom Momuments and Temples

I am organizing my posts about the Buddhist shrines and temples in the same way that Dr. Gutman did in her book, by the three major phases of the Mrauk U kingdom, which lasted from 1430 until 1784, when Bodawpaya captured the Mahamuni image and brought it (if it actually made it) to his new capital in Mandalay.

The oldest monuments that I took photos of and that is well covered in books about Mrauk U is the Pizi-Phara (or Pisie Buddha). Also called the Testes Relic Pagoda because it enshrines the pisie relic of the Buddha, Pizi Phara was installed by King Kawlia in the mid-12th century during the Pyinsa dynasty. It is located on the road between Pyinsa and Mrauk U. There is a view of Koe-taung Temple.


Pizi Phara Buddha, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar


The Pizi Buddha displays a serene Theravada style face, which looks more human and so is accessible to pilgrims. The head is larger in proportion to the body. This is an example of the later Pagan style also being squat with an elongated usnisa (top knot). Again the head is large in proportion to the body, with a wide chest narrowing toward hips. Buddha’s facial expression is more benign here, though, than early (ethereal) Pagan style.

The hill below this image was excavated in the 16th century during the Mrauk U kingdom, by King Min Phalaung. He installed four Buddha images in a round shrine. During this period, also, images were beginning to get crowned and ornamented as royalty. This first appeared in Pala art in Bengal. It was introduced to Pagan in the 11th century and other parts of Southeast Asia.


Andaw Temple, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar

Royal Ornamentation

The royal ornamentation was mostly done by laypeople looking to acquire merit, which is still alive and well in Myanmar today. It worked back in the 16th century for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. Concepts of royalty initially resulted from the Mahayana concept of combining in one image both the earthly form of the Buddha Sakayamuni and his heavenly form of Buddha Maitreya adorned by royal ornaments. In Theravada Buddhism, Sakyamuni takes on attributes of cakravartin, or the ideal world ruler.


Phara Oux with local kids, Mrauk U, Rakhine State, Myanmar

Mrauk U Kingdom – The Three Phases

Firstly, we have the appropriately named First Phase, beginning in 1430, lasting until 1531, when Min Bin came to power. The temples and shrines included in this first phase include Le-Myet-Hna, Nyi-Daw, Mahabodhi Shwe-Gu, Htupayon, and Nibbuza, After this is the Middle Phase, beginning in 1531 and ending around 1600, only 70 years later. The temples built during this great and prolific period include Shit-taung, Koe-taung, Andaw-thein, Htu-kan-thein, Phara Ouk Pagoda, Pitaka Taik (library).

And, finally, the Late Phase begins where the Middle Phase left off and lasts until 1784 when the Mrauk U Kingdom was conquered. The Late Phase temples, monasteries and shrines include here Laung Pan-Prauk, Ratana-Pon, Mingala Manaung, Sakya Manaung and Mon-Kong Shwetu Pagoda were installed during this phase. These are all temples, shrines and monuments we visited during our week in Mrauk U in November, 2011. [Pamela Gutman, Burma’s Lost Kingdoms, 2001]

An Introduction to Arakan

An Introduction to Arakan

Arakan background history and styles

First, I’d like to voice my deep gratitude to the late Dr. Pamela Gutman, a Southeast Asia – Burma scholar who worked with and was a student of GH Luce. This book is currently the leading scholarship of this area. I also have a small paperback book I bought at the Mrauk U Archaeological Museum, one of 1000 copies printed in November 2007. It has been a great help in identifying some of the monuments and temples I took photos of. Between these two books and others, I am gaining a wonderful education and I hope I can share some of that with you.

Dr. Gutman’s credentials include being the first Australian to complete a Ph.D in Asian Art, specializing in Burma. Her scholarship promoted good relations between the Australian and Burmese governments from the 1970s onwards, “painting a picture of the art and cultural life of a hidden land.” She was born in Adelaide in 1944, later studying German, Philosophy, and Art History at the University of Vienna. After that she went to the Australian National University and studied Bahasa Indonesia, Old Javanese and Sanskrit. G.H. Luce, the foremost historian of Burma, sent Gutman to Arakan in 1972. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Arakan and received a Ph.D from Australian National University on the cultural history before the 11th century. Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan was published in 2001.

Rakhine State, formerly Arakan

According to Ven. Ashon Nyanuttara in A Study of Buddhism in Arakan, 2014, “The exact origin of the word Rakhaing is unknown, though it is believed to be derived from the Pali “Rakkha,” meaning protector.” Then again, it could have come from an aboriginal people named “Rakhsha,” who were cannibalistic ogres “which used to live in the land times immemorial” (Nyanuttara, loc 1194). However, the modern Rakhaing people are a mix of the Indo-Arayans from the northeast and the Tibeto-Burmese from the Himalayas. Just a little bit later while describing the work of local Arakanese scholars,he states that the area described as Arakan is Rakkha, not Yakkha. Yakkha means uncivilized, cannibalistic ogres, who I wonder if they are the same as Rakhsha mentioned above. Additionally, the local historians and researchers, including U Oo Thar Tun, U Aung Tha Oo, U San Tha Aung and others, have looked for a linguistic background to the word “Arakan.” Etymologically, it is derived from a Pali word, “Arakkha.” The prefix “A” means adjacent and surrounding and “rakkha” means preserving, maintaining and protecting.

Arakan (or Rakhaing or Rakhine State) is located along the Bay of Bengal from the Naat River with Bangladesh on the other side, and Cape Negrais in southern Myanmar and then covering a narrow strip of land west of the Arakan Yoma, or range and bordered by Bengal on the east and Myanmar proper on the west. This geography created protected landscape suited to wet and dry rice farming, therefore encouraging the settlements of ancient peoples here.

Dr. Emil Forchhammer, a Swiss Pali scholar, surveyed Arakan in 1885 for the Indian government. His book was published 2 years after his early death in 1890. There is an original copy in the British Museum according to an article I read in the Kaladan Press Network, written by Aman Ullah, entitled, “Dr. Emil Forchhammer and Early History of Arakan,” published on 20 Feb 2016 in the Kaladan Press in Rakhine State. There are also 1970 reprint copies circulating in a few locations but in very poor condition, missing prints and all. I’d love to see the copy in the British Museum one of these days. For now, in this so far still open internet, you can find a digitized version here on

Dr. Pamela Gutman’s book is a good read and an excellent introduction to the area, especially more so with Zaw Min Yu’s beautiful photos of the monuments. We never ventured outside of Mrauk U for the 5 days we were there, there was so much to see during that time. I’m looking forward to posting about temples, shrines and structures in Mrauk U. Here, I am giving a kind of an intro, mostly based on what I read in Burma’s Lost Kingdoms in Part I and the first three chapters of Part II.

Mrauk U

Mrauk U was declared a heritage area in 1996 by U Nyunt Han, the director general of the Dept of Archaeology in Myanmar. This was mostly due to tourist potential. My spouse and I were excited to visit in 2011 and having the opportunity to be inside of these somewhat ancient monuments. Because the area has a very long and rich history, and being located where it is on the banks of two rivers on the sea route between India, Sri Lanka(Ceylon) and Europe, quoting Ven. Nyanuttara, “…the natural boundaries of the mountains Rakhaing Roma and sea Bay of Bengal protecting a compact area suited to dry and wet rice cultivation factors…” which in turn led to the evolution of urban settlements by ancient peoples.

Trade was inevitable in this auspicious location as part of an archipelago on the convergence of the Kaladan and LeMro Rivers. At the temple of Shit-taung there is a stele or pillar inscribed by kings from 6th century and carried from capital to capital until it ended up in Mrauk U in the 16th century. In the beginning there was trading with China, sending gold to India and exotic other worldly items to Rome and the Middle East and back again.

Dhanyawadi and Indianization

The urbanization of Dhanyawadi, about six hours drive outside of Mrauk U, took place during the 4th to 6th centuries AD. According to Dr. Gutman, Indianization was a process taking place already for a millenium in India. It eventually made its way to Southeast Asia, including Burma, Thailand, southern Vietnam, Cambodia and western areas of Indonesia. I wondered if there was more recent scholarship on the subject and found Kenneth R. Hall’s book, A History of Early Southeast Asia published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in 2011. In his preface he says of John K. Whitmore, University of Michigan, in about 1971, “Whitmore challenged me to approach early Southeast Asia civilizations not as extensions of India (“Indianized States”) and China (Vietnam as a “Lesser China”), but as the products of indigenous cultures rather than displaced by them.” And then his study with Dr. Whitmore focused on maritime history rather than any specific civilizations, although he was fluent in Indonesia and Old Javanese studies (Hall, ix).

Maritime Trade

In the 3rd century AD, growing importance of maritime routes and trading spurred on a trip to Funan. In the 240s, the first China (Wu Dynasty) envoys made their way to Southeast Asia via sea passage, sailing to Funan along the southern Vietnam coast. Funan was prosperous at the time. The Chinese owned the waterways and the Southeast Asian (Malayo-Austronesian) seamen retained their loyalty by policing rather than pirating the coast. This brought trading and prosperity to their shores. The ships were large, able to carry 600 to 700 people and “ten thousand bushels, or nine hundred tons of cargo.” It used to be believed that Indian ships with Indian seamen developed the trading routes, but new evidence has come to be known. Malays built ships that made it all the way east to Africa, and so they could surely make it to India. Not only did the Southeast Asians secure their coasts, they also insured that European trade would not need to go beyond Southeast Asia (Hall, 45-46).

And so, by 1433 AD, when Mrauk U was founded, much has taken place in Arakan, Kings and Queens and Dynasties have come and gone, Buddhism flourished, amazing stone temples, shrines and monuments were donated and built for the next 255 years during the time of the Kingdom of Mrauk U. The next articles will be about Mrauk U, some of its history and archaeology and its Buddhist influenced architecture and sculpture.

The Mahamuni Story

The Mahamuni Story

Mahamuni or “Great Sage” image is described as being one of the 5 Buddha images in existence to be cast in Gotama Buddha’s time, stated by legend to be his exact likeness down to his size. It was and still is a very important Buddha image, in fact one of the triumverate Buddha images in Myanmar including Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and The Golden Rock perched on a cliff above Yangon.

The Mahamuni Temple in Amarapura, Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)The story surrounding how he got there is full of supernatural and adventurous surprises. King Candrasuria (or Chantra-Suriya) had a wish to hear the teachings of the great teacher. On the 26th anniversity of the king’s reign in 554 BCE, Buddha Gotama, living at the time in Sravasti, India, learned of the king’s wishes. Knowing the king could not make the journey to Sravasti, the Buddha along with his disciple and cousin, Ananda, and 500 arahants flew through the air and landed on the hill opposite Kyauktaw. After the king received his teachings, a sacred image of the Buddha, in his absolute likeness, was constructed by Sakra (Indra), the King of the Gods and Visrakarman, the celestial architect and placed on Sirigutta Hill, northeast of the palace. The earth shook. Festivals took place. Seven days later, the Buddha and his disciples flew back to Savrasti (or Sandoway). I think festivals continued to take place after they all left (see “The Sappadanakaranam” below).

From this story is where the flashing lights around Buddha images in Burma comes about. This is seen throughout Burma now. During the seven days of festivities, the Mahamuni Buddha image flashed 6 rays of light as the faithful approached and they dimmed otherwise. One account I read says the birds stayed away from the emanating lightning bolts, another says the birds created a protective circle above Buddha’s little brother. I vote for the birds getting the heck away. Today the Mahamuni is covered by a very deep layer of gold leaf applied daily by devotees of the Buddha. However, only men can apply the gold leaf, women need to ask a male to apply it for them.

The Sappadanakaranam

Most modern histories of the Mahamuni are based on an English translation of a palm leaf manuscript called the Sappadanakaranam, perhaps dating to the 16th century but reflecting earlier material. Emil Forchhammer was a Swiss Pali scholar hired by the  Government of India where he surveyed the sites of the old cities and the major monuments of Arakan in 1885. In 1890, he wrote his Report on the Antiquities of Arakan, which was published after his death in 1892.  (Gutman, Pamela – 2001, Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan, Orchid Press, Bangkok, p.4)

One can read the “Sarvasthanaprakarana” in full in his report right at the beginning of it. Forchhammer’s account of the Sappandanakaranam is purported to be about the same as it is in San Tha Aung’s The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan (Rangoon, 1979). In other words, they are both based on the palm leaf mentioned above (Schober, Juliane (ed.) 1997, Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, “In the Presence of the Buddha: Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahamuni Image, 259-288). An interesting twist is that King Candrasuriya would be the inheritor of kharma created by Gotama Buddha in a previous life as a king where he lived on the island of Cheduba. His actions were breaking the bone of a gardener and cutting the skin off a prince.

Mahamuni’s Unfortunate Voyage

In 1784 it was carried off to Amarapura near Mandalay after Arakan’s conquest. The conquest was completely about capturing the Mahamuni image. King Bodawpaya professed the intention of restoring Buddhism in his new kingdom, desiring the Mahamuni image with all his being. The Pagans tried to capture it centuries earlier unsuccessfully, among others. King Bodawpaya, however, was successful in 1784. It arrived in 3 pieces due to its enormous size. More on this later.

During the next hundred years (in 1879 and 1884) it was damaged by fire and repaired. In 1896, the temple currently in Amarapura on the city limits of Mandalay, was built around the original shrine built by King Bodawpaya in 1791 when he moved the capital there.

Many stories have prevailed over the centuries since the Mahamuni image was moved from Arakan to Amarapura. Some say that the original sank in the river when King Bodawpaya’s army of 10,000 men couldn’t move it. Another legend or tradition says that King Bodawpaya sent wizards to Rakhine (Rakhaing, Arakan) to extract its potency. Sentiments of disrespect placed on the Burmese army for cutting the image into three pieces for transport (now cast in three horizontal sections). And others exist, all calling out the enduring and still unresolved ethnic and regional conflicts in the area.

And so, after this six and a half ton bronze image was floated first by boat down the Kaladan River to the coast, then up the mountains and finally floated upriver on two barges on the Irrawaddy River, reached Amarapura after 30 days. Hence the Mahamuni image was installed in Amarapura on 7 May 1785, and has not been moved since.

The Mahamuni Pagoda Gets Rebuilt

After the fire on 8 April 1884, the wooden temple was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. Gold plastered to the Mahamuni was melted and was reborn as a large mantle (resempling a monk’s robe) to place over the Buddha image. King Thibaw offered funds to help the restoration. Some wanted the old plan to be built in timber or brick and to employ iron and glass. Brick masonry understandably won out over timber. Hoyne Fox, the Executive Engineer from Yangon won the design which was a hybrid plan, traditional on the top, more European in design at floor level, finished sometime after 1895 when the design was chosen. (Sacred Sites of Burma: Myth and Folklore in an Evolving Spiritual Realm)

Mahamuni  and the Generals

The Mahamuni image was believed by the Arakanese, Mon and Burmans to contain a precious stone in its naval that would give anyone who possessed it supernatural powers. In 1996, after Mandalay authorities insisted upon a renovation of the image, a hole appeared mysteriously in the belly of the Buddha. Senior monks investigated and found rumors of two monks with keys being forced by military police to open the building at night.

During a day long meeting to try and get to the bottom of what was going on with the Mahamuni image, a man came into the room and announced that a Buddhist girl had just been raped by a Muslim man. The meeting dispursed, Buddhists ran out to attack the Muslim man at his home. Days of rioting and ransacking of mosques followed in Mandalay and other cities. It was widely believed at the time that military men were posing as monks with their newly shaved shiny heads and their walkie talkies under their robes.

In the meantime, during all of the terrible distraction created by the announcement, the Mahamuni image was patched up and, from what I know, no one became the wiser. As for the rape of the Buddhist girl? It never happened (Christina Fink, Living Silence, p.219).

I'm part of the Amazon Associates program, which means I earn a small amount of money every time you purchase from a link I provide as link to a source.