Michael W. Charney, in his article on Mrauk-U (Journal of Burma Studies, Illinois 1998) speaks of the “rulers of the Early Mrauk-U Dynasty (c.1430-1603)” in their capacity of developers of several trade routes. It must have been these rulers who developed the several Buddhist sites, possibly by building on ancient edifices and vihara that have disappeared under the brickwork of later ages.

Since there is hardly any English language information on the ancient Buddhist site of Mrauk-U in the Myanmarese Arakan state the relevant pages of U Aung Thaw’s book are repeated here, together with the pictures that illustrate the chapter on Mrauk-U in his “Historical sites in Burma”, written and published in 1972.

The pictures of artifacts and monuments  were taken before serious restauration activities began. Some smaller items may have disappeared, some monuments may have collapsed.

Some English language information on the ancient site of Bagan (Pagan) can be found on the site Scroll for the history of the Pyu to page 4 of this blog.



HISTORICAL SITES IN BURMA is written by Aung Thaw, Director of Archeaeology. The Mrauk-U chapter: pp. 117-125

  • Mrohaung = Mrauk-U
  • Arakan, also Rakhine
  • Dinnyawadi, also Arakan / Rakhine
  • Mahāyānism: one of two main strands of Buddhism
  • Hinayana, also Theravāda; the other main strand of Buddhism
  • Bengal = the undivided West-Bengal (India) and (Bangladesh) before the separation of India and Pakistan
  • Pagan, also Bagan
  • naga = mythical snake or dragon
  • kinnara = mythical bird
  • Játaka = Birth story; legends about Buddhas former existences
  • stūpa, see





According to local chronicles Arakan (Dinnyawadi) has a long history as an independent state from very early times before the Christian era. But we learn form an number of inscriptions and antuarian remains that a Hindu of Hinduised dynasty was ruling ar Vaisali (Wethali) [north of Mrohaung/Mrauk-U] about the 2nd century B.C. It was succeeded by the Candra dynasty in the middle of the 4th century. There were 16 kings in this line and the total regnal years was given as 230. Dven Candra ([Birmese:] Taing Sandra) was the first king and the 16th and last was Dhrti Candra. After some years of interregnum there succeeded a third dynasty which lasted from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 8th century. Anánda-candra, the last king of that dynasty, recorded the genealogical list of his predecessors in his Sanskrit inscription on a four-faced stone pillar originally set up in Vaisali. Centuries later it was removed to the Shitthaung pagoda at Mrohaung where it is now preserved. The chroniclas give a much later date for the Candra dynasty but the inscriptions are corroborated by the coins of those kings. These early kings professed Mahāyānism.


The Arakanese established themselves about the middle of the 10th century and soon after moved successively to the new capitals of Pyinsa, Parin, Hkrit and Launggyet. Their religion became more Hinayanist and by the 11th century Arakan became feudatory to Pagan. The Kings of Ava tried to reassert their suzerainty and invaded Arakan in 1404. Minsawmun left Launggyet and took refuge in Bengal which was already under Moslem rule. When Nazi-ud-din became Sultan of Bengal in 1426 Minsawmun prevailed upon him to restore him to the throne of Arakan as his tributary, and after many years of exile he was ultimately re-installed in 1430. It remained the seat of the Arakanese rulers until 1785 when Arakan was invaded by Bodawpaya. The Arakanese kings of Mrohaung, though Buddhists, saw it fit to use Mohammedan names in addition to their own names and even struck medallions bearing the Mohammedan confession of faith in Persian script.


Mrohaung lies on the rocky plain or watershed between the Lemro and Kaladan rivers intersected by ranges of hills and numerous canals. The hills provided natural defense and rendered the city the most secure spot of the capital of Arakan. The openings in the hills surrounding the town also contain remains of defense. The ruins of the fort are still [1972] in existence: they consist of three square enclosures, one within the other, surrounded by masonry walls of very considerable thickness, built of hewn stone and brick set in mortar. As each successive enclosure is higher than the preceding one the topmost is about 50 feet above the level of the lowest platform. Of the old palace itself only traces of the walls remain.

As in old Burmese capitals the architectural activity was the outcome of strong religious fervour. The monuments which dotted the plain and capped the ranges of hills mostly date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Their interest lies in the fact that some of them are unlike in style to anything met with in the rest of Burma: they were temples as well as forts ate the same time. Most of them are of stone and brick, but those entirely built of stone are generally the best preserved monuments at Mrohaung.


Shitthaung temple, lying on a hillock to the north of the palace site is more a fortress than a pagoda. The main edifice faces the steep, almost inaccessible hill on the east. The first terrace is reached by a flight of steps on the south. A covered path leads to the upper terrace which rises thrity feet above the lower court. On the west and south sides of the principal platform are stone walls 9 feet thick and originally 12 feet high. On the north and south walls are small brick pagodas, the gaps between them being filled with stone slabs sculptured in bold relief on both sides. Some of these slabs are still intact [in 1972], while other have fallen down and are buried in the debris. The side of the slab facing the inner temple usually represents a Buddha, the outer side an ogre, a naga or mythical birds or beasts. The inner temple court east of the main shrine is occupied by a wooden prayer hall which houses innumerable Buddha images. The shrine itself has a gallery all round the structure and a dark passage which leads to the inner chambers. The sanctum enshrining the main image is accessible through a passage opening from the east. Along the outer wall of the gallery are deposited hundreds of Buddha images of varying sizes.


The interior wall of the vaulted gallery is composed of three horizontal rows of ridges between alternating fillets cut into the stone surface. The ridges as well as the fillets running right round the central structure are decorated with sculptures in high relief. The figures represent kinnaras, birds and animals in the lower rows and seated men holding flowers in the top row. At the corners are large sculptures depicting scenes from the Játakas. The temple is virtually a store house of sculptures exhibiting not only Buddhist, but also, to a lesser degree, Brahmanic influence. The superstructure of the temple is of brick. It is a cylindrical stupa with a square relic chamber between the dome and the finial [which is in accordance with the traditional Indian/Srilankan architecture]. The temple was built by Minbin, also known as Minbagyi (1531-53).


Another fortress-like temple the Htukkhan-thein, built by King Minphalaung (1571-93) lies about 300 feet to the west of the Shitthaung. The structure stands on a hill, 30 feet high. It is reached by stone stairways on the east and south. Built of massive stone walls the basement pierced with small square holes has straight sides on the north, east and south, measuring 106 feet. The west side which is slightly convex is connected to an oblon chamber. The entrance on the east side, close to the south-east corner, leads to a long vaulted passage which spirals round in two tiers till it reaches the central chamber. The superstructure, a bell-shaped dome [i.e. a stupa-like dome] on receding terraces, is similar to that on the Shitthaung, but here a tall opening with square arch is provided on the east face to admit light into the central chamber. At each corner of the basement stands a small stupa. This temple is noted for the stone sculptures in the vaulted passages, especially the figures of seated ladies, with different styles of coiffure, in the attitude of offering lotus buds.


Close to the north of the Shitthaung is the Andaw temple built by King Rajagyi (1593-1612). It is a small structure of stone lying on a hillock. The platform is accessible by flights of stairs on all sides except the west. The main shrine is octogonal in plan and faces east. There are two corridors round the central block which supports the octogonal stupa above. There are scores of seated stone Buddhas within niches cut into the interior walls which are decorated with arch-pediments and jambs finely carved in low relief. On the platform are small ruined stupas ranged along the enclosure walls and the walls of a rectangular prayer hall attached to the east side of the main shrine.

Mrohaung abounds with numerous solid stupas also, largely built of hewn stone. The Ratanabon, built by king Minphalaung (1571-93) lies on a hillock to the north-east of the Shitthaung temple. The plan of its high plinth is octogonal [illustrating the Noble Eightfold Path] with four long sides [illustrating the Four Noble Truths] facing the cardinal points and four smaller sides at the corners. From the east side there projects a long quadrangle. There are no terraces and the bell-shaped body [built after the stupa dome] with three prominent mouldings round it [illustrating Buddha’s bowl, a compilation of four stacked bowls] rises directly from the plinth. The cylindrical dome is also low. It is topped by a short conical spire [illustrating ultimate enlightenment].

Examples of tall attenuated stupas in stone are to be found in the Sakyaman-aung, Ratna-man-aung and Zina-man-aung pagodas. The Sakyaman-aung [Sakyamuni-…] built in 1629 by Thirithu-dhamma-yaza has a unique plan in the form of a sixteen petalled lotus flower, the petals being of three sizes: the largest four face the cardinal points [east, west etc.] while four medium sized petals and eight smaller ones are interspersed betwee them. This design is carried to the fourth terrace from the top of which rises the intermediate base, octogonal on plan [the Noble Eightfold Path]. The bell is also eight-sided. The total height of the pagoda is 117 feet.


The Ratna-man-aung built by Sandathu-dhamma-yaza in 1652 is 180 feet high. The base of this pagoda is also octogonal. The Zina-man-aung, 135 feet high, has a similar plan but the terraces have angular corners and there is a circular shrine within it, to which access is made by a long narrow passage opening to the east.

On the hills surrounding the town are countless square temples enshrining fairly large images of Buddha in stone. No proper excavation has yet [in 1972] been done at Mrohaung nor at the earlier site of Wesali just a few miles north of it. But a large collection of ancient sculptures and inscriptions has already been made. Among the exhibits in the site museum may be seen a stone relief of [the Hindu god] Súrya riding a chariot drawn by seven horses. This rare sculpture belonging to the 8th century was discovered on the hill of Shin nge-det-taung at Mrohaung. Other Brahmanical images are that of Vishnu and goddess Ganga with two dwarfs [both belonging to the the Hindu lore]. From Teja-rama monastery was found a square stone pillar three sides of which are ornately carved with standing figures of gods and goddesses in low relief. Several inscriptions in Sanskrit and Burmese and a few in Persian or Arabic are also preserved in the museum, the most important among them being the epigraphs in mixed Sanskrit and Pali in North-eastern Nágari script of the 6th century dedicated by Niti Candra and Vira Candra.

9-headed naga

Leaving aside the off-the-cuf remarks by early Indologists, in the Vishnu Purána, a rather early Hindu manuscript it is said that “nine Nagas” — here to be considered as kings of a certain Indian tribe — “will reign in Padma-vati, Kanti-pura, and Máthara.” India knows several ethnic groups called Nagas.


“L’Art Indo-Chinois”, written by (Matgioï) Albert Puyou, comte de Pouvourville (1861 – 1939, first published in 1894,) has for a long time been the must read, must study book for those who specialised in the art of Indo-China. Why and when it disappeared out of sight is unknown, but in 1996 Nabu Public Domain Reprints, aware of the expiration date of the copyright decided to republish this book in a photocopied form.

Albert Puyou, comte de Pouvourville, a Nancy-born Swiss who took the penname of Matgioï when writing on Taoïsm, was a Swiss national who initially at least served in the French foreign legion in Indo-China, and later as an inspector or inspector-general in France’s standing army (See “l’Affaire de Siam”). De Pouvourville was born Swiss in Nancy that in his early childhood used to be a Swiss city. Once an army-officier he must have applied for, or had been given the French nationality.
De Pouvourville spent most of his adult life in what is now called Vietnam, upper Laos and a part of Cambodia. The qualification of “adventurer” that we encounter in several internet-entries is unwarranted.

Matgioï, “on the other side of the fence”, is the title of one of De Pouvourville’s books. Matgioï therefore is not to be translated with “other side of the fence”, but, unless a knowing Vietnamese comes up with a better translation, with “œil du jour”, i.e. day-to-day observations.

Being an inspector De Pouvourville visited the French military settlements, their legacies, and Asian counterparts of the then French empire. He seems to have had ample opportunity to specialise in the art of the region, especially the art of building and construction. As such he had the opportunity to visit the new palace of the Siamese King Rama-V in Bangkok(1), that of the Cambodian king in Phnom Penh, and he travelled as far as Yünnan and Nanjing in China to report on the revolution that was brewing over there.
He furthermore describes the politico-military situation in the region and writes how Vientiane, the capital of Laos in the year 1827, well before the formal occupation by the French in 1893, despite it being reduced to ruins remained a centre of Buddhist studies with several monk-schools.
Later on he writes how “Mr. Résident supérieur Brière” in 1895 “re-establishes the religious and political capital of the Mekong-basin on the ruins of Vientiane.” (“L’Affaire …”) In neither of his works however De Pouvourville shows the slightest knowledge of Buddhism, nor an inclination to studying the subject.

As De Pouvourville must have been the first, or maybe one of the first Europeans to become a Taoïst, he is mostly remembered in that capacity. His skilfull observations into the art of South-East Asia seem to have slipped out of the memory of archaeologists and art connoisseurs.
A few researchers into politics and religion mention De Pouvourville.(2) Since Mark Sedgwick’s publication De Pouvourville is dubbed a cultural pessimist. However, when we read his lines, both on art in “L’Art Indo-Chinois” and on Franco-Asian politics in “La Révolution …” and in “L’ Affaire …”, we cannot but conclude that here was merely a conservative man who preferred the quality of old-fashioned plain wood over modern veneer, and whose qualities as a diplomat were what could be expected from a colonist in the 19th Century. However, his views on the Asians whom he met in Indo-China and China proper did not entirely reflect the European prejudices. De Pouvourville abhorred the Siamese who in his days made an effort to establish or re-establish their kingdom by taking Laos, part of Cambodia, Vietnam and Yünnan, and thereby greatly annoyed the French “Protectorat” in Indo-China, but his name-calling was politically motivated, not racially. He abhorred the English, the other colonial power on the other side of Siam. He abhorred the northern branch of the Chinese White Lotus Society and the Boxers and came up with the “yellow race”, a qualification that the entire continent of Europe would adopt, but he had the utmost respect for those Yünnanese who came to the aid of French military settlements when times were tough. He called the hill-tribes in todays northern Vietnam “ces sauvages” (the wild, uncultivated ones) but when he pleaded that France would maintain its strongholds in Indo-China it was out of love for the population.(L’ Affaire …)

Despite the fact that nearly all high-quality furniture that the French 19th century produced was made of Indo-Chinese hardwood, and despite the fact that the Indo-Chinese hills produced tea — which the French did not drink until late 20th century — one has the impression that The Protectorate in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam subsisted on the income of taxes, whatever taxes they were: taxes that allowed the Indo-Chinese to continue living on their lands, taxes on every pork slaughtered, etc. It’s not before a commercial treaty with Siam, in 1893, that we read of the expected exportation from the Siamese port of Paknam of hides, cotton, dried vegetables, silk and wax. (L’ Affaire …)

One of the things we may laud in De Pouvourville is that he in his “L’Art Indo-Chinois” dared to call the Angkor Thom complex in Cambodia “les palais des rois” (palaces of kings), and rightly so. This epithet of “palais des rois” came to be neglected somewhere during the 20th century when archaeological expeditions, and Cambodian officials who furthered the printing of books on the subject, choose the term “temple complex”. We may assume that this shift in outlook took place under the influence of an “our temples” uttered by senior Buddhist monks. However, it’s my guess; there’s no proof. Neither is there any proof of the contrary. All written sources in the days of the ancient Khmer kings must have been kept by their Hindu or Brahmanical purohita, house-priests. Either these purohita fled with the entire corpus of manuscripts, or they hid the lot, never to be found again, or their collection of texts came to be destroyed when disgruntled Siamese and Birmese troops in the first years of the 15th century finally and forever destroyed most of the palatial buildings and their contents. There is proof of repeated attacks and counter-attacks. The modern assumption that the Angkor civilisation was abandoned under the pressure of an untenable system of barais (huge ponds) and canals may be correct, but the buildings of Angkor could have survived this abandonment if not for the prior wanton destruction by neighbouring armies. Calamity upon calamity.

The following two pages deal with the philosophical aspects of Indo-Chinese art and the nine-headed naga, seen by De Pouvourville at Angkor Thom(4), and still in place. He just mentions it in passing. But as it is one of those instances where we might get a glimpse of the Khmer life not just influenced by the Indian religious tradition but by the Chinese as well, it might be of interest.


(1): Before March 27, 1889 when diplomatic contact between Siam and “the Protectorate”, i.e. the French occupation of Vietnam ceased — “L’ Affaire de Siam”, p.18 reprint
(2): Mark Sedgwick [ Abd al-Azim] “Against the Modern World : Traditionalism and the Secret Societies of China”. When Mark thinks he cites De Pouvourville’s “le péril jaune” (the yellow peril) correctly, he misreads the author’s last page of “L’ Affaire …”. “Le péril jaune” in that case, seen in the light of the 19th Century Sino-Japanese war, is a warring Japan, not China.
(3): See “La Révolution et les société secrètes en Chine”; La Revue de Paris, 3 avril 1912
(4): l’Art Indo-Chinois, p. 92.

In July 1893 the Siamese king demands restitution of the provinces Siem Reap (Angkor) and Battambang, then under the sway of the French. Since the 15th Cent. these provinces were under the rule of the kingdom of Ayutthaya (Siam). From those days onward there was a back and forth between Siamese and Cambodian kingdoms until the days of the French Protectorate. It would take until 1907 before Angkor again became part of Siam. After the independence of Cambodia in 1953 Angkor (Siem Reap) and the other province were declared territory belonging to the newly formed state of Cambodia.
As the British occupied Burma and the French the states east of the Mekong, and as both colonisers sought to establish a bufferzone between their respective territories, the outcome of diplomatic and military efforts was in the end that in 1896 Siam (Thailand) more or less within its present borders became this “État tampon”, the bufferstate between the two. (L’ Affaire …)
The result of this state of affairs has been that Siam/Thailand has never been colonised by either of the two, or by any other state for that matter.

Cont’d tomorrow

9-headed naga



Before proceeding to descriptions of the nine-headed naga (naaga; definition 1), it seems useful to highlight the difference between Western and Asian sculpting. Page 119 of de Pouvourville’s “L’ Art Indo-Chinois” shows how much we in the West are enslaved to our way of judging what “art” is or should be and what the purpose of it is. We think that this insight of ours is universally shared and that our art, and ours alone, is at the apex of artfulness. Take a particular rendering of for instance the human body, and the question to what purpose we sculpt — “we” between brackets. On the subject of Indo-Chinese rendering of sculptures, and in particular that of the Vietnamese, De Pouvourville says: “… monumental statues never existed among them. The buildings that have statues are very clearly constructed as houses for these same statues. Never do we find images (statues) in-between pillars, nor a (mere) filling of empty spaces, nor a masquerading of shoddy renderings. It seems that for the artists of this country the human figure has always been too noble to be treated as an accessory item. And where there is one (such a rendering of an ordinary human) it’s rendered in stone, and everything is made and combined in a way to make it stand out in a handsome way (that is, in a way that shows how far he or she advanced on The Way).”

Too noble?

Until the export of Western art to Asia and other continents took place, and until there were stipends that allowed full-time and full-fledged Asian artists to work and study abroad, the human figure in Indo-China was not too noble to be sculpted. This has never been a consideration. It’s as if we were having a discussion on the feathers of an earthworm, as worms do not have feathers such a thing cannot be discussed.


In his travels throughout Vietnam De Pouvourville didn’t come accross any statue that in style could be compared to the Greek or Latin examples with their skilfull display of musculature and facial expressions referring to some or other all too human emotion and/or the strength or frailty of the human body itself. Indo-Chinese religious cultures were designed to go beyond the all too human towards an enlightened state of whatever kind, and only this state needs to be displayed in an idealised way, as a goal, as a model to be followed, or even as a model that the sufferer merely observes with a tinge of envy: will I ever be as content or happy? Can it be done? Therefore Indo-Chinese statues are not made for mere decoration; they represent eternal values and as such are not human in the ordinary sense of the word. They are not displayed as mere decorative items, although the house-owner displays them on lower chests in a designated corner of the house, and although restaurant-owners display them somewhere, as guardian angels, or as an indication of their religious inclination.

Same Taoïsm, and yet

As such the Indo-Chinese insight into the representative value of sculptural art differs greatly from at least the Chinese tradition of painting. This is not the place to go deep into this difference although it is of interest to note that both the Indo-Chinese and the Chinese art-forms greatly rely on Taoïsm, and could have developed into a similar form of expression, but they didn’t, not always at least. In the artistic and cultural sense of the word Indo-China is not a mere copy of China.

cont’d tomorrow

9-headed naga


As a general introduction to the naga (pronounce: naaga) one might repeat Suhas Chatterjee’s “Indian Civilization and Culture” (Delhi 1998):

“The Naga or serpent cult had been a dominant cult all over India. The two seals of Indus valley demonstrate the serpent worship prevalent among the Mohenjodaro people. In (the vedic scriptures) Yayur Veda and Atharva Veda we get the reference of serpent worship. During the reign of Kushana king Hubiska (ruled between 111 and 180 [and must have ascended the throne as an infant]) a naga statue was installed in a tank (a water reservoir). The naga was considered the guardian of the treasures and the guiding spirit of the departed soul of the ancestors. … (Hindu god) Vishnu rests on the S(h)esa naaga, (hindu god) S(h)iva wears snake (phanibhusan). Parsvanath, the Jaïn saint has the snake symbol.”

Mr. Chatterjee’s entry says nothing about a nine-headed naga, but India Profile states that in Hindu philosophy the snake with “nine heads represents finality, unity with the forces of nature and the ideal state of spiritual liberation.”

There are some more references to nine-headed nagas in Hindu literature, but they all seem to amount to the same concepts of finality, auspiciousness, and even are seen as an avatar of god Vishnu.

angkor thom

One might think that the nine-headed naga is a Khmer-adaptation of the Indian Hindu lore, but Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy in the late 13th century, relates a legend regarding the Phimeanakas, one of the Cambodian Angkor-monuments. He says:
“Inside the palace there is a gold tower [the Phimeanakas], at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine-headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die. If for a single night he stays away, he is bound to suffer a disaster.” (
It is of interest to note that the Mekong river was of old called the river of nine dragons. Naga, dragon, nine, all these have been powerful symbols in Indo-China, in India, and in China.

Indo-China developed its own mythology concerning the snake that in a deïfied form appeared as naga, even a naga with multiple heads, upto nine heads.
Did the Khmer kings, or rather, did their purohita (Hindu or Brahmanical house priest) adjust the indigenous legends around the snake/naga to fit or co-embrace the Indian symbol, and was the Indian lore their only reference, or the reference that building masters-cum-artists relied on?
As we see above Chinese envoys were sent to the Angkor court, and Angkorians most certainly have travelled to China. And China too had its mythological theories about snakes and a nine-headed snake monster by the name of Xiangliu. And Chinese mythology knows Kung Kung, the serpent god with nine heads, a god of wisdom.
Furthermore, says another source, “The number nine is special in China as it is the largest possible single digit. … Nine was considered the number of the emperor.”

Hence we might conclude that the Khmer kings and their courtiers did not only amalgamate Hinduïsm, Buddhism (that knows a naga in its one-, respectively five-headed form) and the indigenous belief system, but at least it tried to please the Chinese envoys as well. By positioning nine-headed nagas at the entrance of their palatial complexes they sent the message abroad: the Chinese emperor, might he wish to visit us will be welcomed by the number nine that he alone is allowed to employ, either in artefacts or in embroideries on his costumes. And at the same time the Khmer king issued an implicit statement: me too, I’m an emperor in my own right.


  • In the Chinese-Tibetan southeastern region, near the town of Nyingchi, one observes a natural phenomeon where the wind causes the clouds between the slopes of the forests of Bomi, Zayu and Loyu to form fumes now called “ancient dragon spruces”. They can reach heights of over 80 metres and diameters of 2.5 metres. One must surmise that in olden days these fumes were given names like “dragon” or “naga” or anything similar in Tibetan language.