Early Arakan and Buddhism
By Aman Ullah
(This is an extraction of ‘Influence of Indian Esoterism on Sculptures of Arākān’ written by Vinay Kumar Rao, Assistant Professor Assam University, Silchar, Assam, India)
Arākān region is situated in its western mountainous region and stretches for about 560 Kilometres along the eastern shoreline of the Bay of Bengal. It is separated from Myanmar mainland by a long, deep range of mountains, the Arākān Yomā and by the River Naaf from Bangladesh. Arākān is a region comprised mainly with hilly tract and edged with number of small islands. The Arākān was easily accessible to eastern and north eastern part of India through centuries.
Geographically Arākān appears moreover a part of India then of Myanmar. It is believed that the existing Mongoloid race residing in the region is mainly related with Indo-Aryan, who migrated to the region through its western borders and ruled the native population. The majority of people in Arākān now follow the Buddhism which is believed to reach this region not much antedate 5th century CE. Presently Arākān is a large rice growing area which has still easy communication with Bangladesh and India. In early times it provided a natural hub for trade on the easterly shore of the Bay of Bengal.
Arākān received Indian culture by land and sea route from eastern and north east India. It was in direct touch with India and received cultural influence from the west, not only from Bengal but also from the Buddhist centres like Bodha Gayā and Nālandā. From the beginning of first millennium CE Arākān adapted and reinterpreted Indian beliefs and art forms in a new environment shaped by its trade and for religious interchange.
Vesālī, in Arākān from where large numbers of Buddhist images are found has clear evidence of Pyu influence who had well established cultural relations with monastic establishments of Bengal. The number of Hindu deity images like Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Śiva, Sūrya and goddesses are equal in number in Arākān and Śrikśetra. The Arākān region was always a secure region to practice vāmāc̣āra practises. This is confirmed by the writings of Tibetan scholar Taranath who mentions that in early times the Mahāyāna Buddhism spread over the Kokī land which was extended to Pagān, Arākān and Haṁsvatī.
The sculptures in Arākān have evident reflection of both Hindu and Buddhist esoteric elements which flourished in its western neighbourhood of eastern and north eastern India after 5th century CE onwards. Moreover the both Hindu and Buddhist sculptures found in central and western Myanmar has great resemblance with the sculptures found at Ānanda Vihāra, Rupaban Murā (Maināmatī, Commilla), Pahārpur, Halud Vihāra, Mahāsthangarh (Nagaon, Bangladesh), Pilāk (Tripura) in eastern and north-eastern India.
The dominance of Hindu elements can be noticed significantly at Vesālī, where Hindu remains outnumber Buddhists. The large number of images of Hindu deities indicates that the early kingdoms of Arākān have great influence of Hinduism. The royal line, however, claimed descent from the lineage of Śiva, which may explain the Bull, Śiva’s mount. As in the case of Bengal, the worship of Viṣṇu in his form of Vasudeva, heredity of the Bhagavata cult espoused by the Gupta emperors, gained ready acceptance by the C̣andras of Arākān anxious to emulate the glorious imperial tradition.
The Arākān region was a well strengthen fort of Mahāyāna school of Buddhism which due to geographical and cultural reasons always looks eagerly towards its Indian neighbourhood in west which is very evidently present in existing sculptural art of region. The Hindu and Buddhist secret and mystic practices ended into Indian esoterism and are well reflected in sculptural art of Arākān. Before going into the details of sculptural findings of Arākān it is important to discuss the origin and rise of esoteric practices in eastern and north-eastern India.
In addition to present Hindu deities and reflecting their indirect association with esoteric practices the artist in Arākān shows special inclination towards presenting various elements of Mahāyān. The Bodhisattva introduced in Hīnyāna but gained popularity in Mahāyāna, was a being having the wisdom and power sufficient to become a Buddha, but refrained from doing so in order to help others to achieve salvation suddenly received a wide attention of people. The artist in Arākān from very early phases carved large number of Bodhisattva images which are still intact in surroundings of Mahāmuni temple in Dhāñyawadī. Sitting in līlāsana the figure is dressed with hard stiffened uṣṇīṣa and a crown over it. He has big kuṇḍalas in ear and a short but broad kaṇtḥahāra in neck. It has ornaments like keyura and hasta-valaya. It has a wing like projections behind their shoulders which is decorated with a coiled motif and illustrates the glowing aureole, emanating from his body.
Similar to Bodhisattva the lokapālas are conceptualised in both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna as guardian deities appointed to protect the dignity of dhaṁṁa. The lokapālas known for having their dwelling on mount Meru are carved at gates of a Buddhist monument at its four cardinal points. In sculptural depictions a lokapāla is carved with a sword grabbed by its guard and resting its blade over left shoulder attentively. At Mahāmuni temple a lokapāla is depicted having his right hand in abhaya mudrā, in manner to give protective assurance to followers. The lokapāla figures are dressed with harden uṣṇīṣa stiffened under coils and are shown with very elegant jewellery.
The Arākān region likewise its western counterpart in Bangladesh has plenty of images representing a female figure with multi snake hoods. The carving of nāgini is a well known artistic motif in Buddhist sculptural art, where it is taken as depiction of cohorts of nāgārāja Muc̣alinda protecting Buddha from climatic hazards. But the presentation of nāgini in such a role is restricted with single hood. It is known that the religion of Arī with an admixture of nāga worship held sway in the western part of Myanmar and the matter of snake worship in central Myanmar was influenced by Manipur which under the name nāgasyanta and nāgapura was a reputed centre of nāga worship.5 The deity was also considered important because of her capability to befit fertility and prosperity. The fertility and prosperity in form of achievement of a goal was in accordance to objective of Indian esoterism which was prevalent in eastern, north-eastern India and western Myanmar. A such image placed in modern Mahāmuni temple in Dhāñyawadī, shows a female deity with eleven hood; five each on both sides of central hood. The image carved from side angle is sited in relaxed posture and has rested left hand to ground raising the other in abhaya-mudrā. The deity with long face, sharp body details and slender form is dressed with impressive jewellery.
The advent of Mahāyāna cult encouraged the sculptors to carve images of newly introduced deities in art. Dhāñyawadī and Veśāli representing earlier period in history of Arākān has few number of sculptural representation of Vausundharī. But the female deity attains a wide attention in monuments made at Mrauk U. Vasundharā or Vasundharī is Buddhist goddess symbolically representing prosperity and wealth. Simultaneously she is also considered as an earth goddess who assures the productiveness of crops. Identified with six arms she is usually shown in sited posture winging her hairs. The gesture and mudrā reminds about the witness given by earth goddess to affirm the dāna pāramitā of Buddha. Besides above posture the goddess is also shown in varada and abhyarthanā mudrā and in association with symbols like book, bunch of grain, water pot and jewels.
A square plaque discovered from Veśalī illustrates an indentation in the centre to fit bottom of a vessel. The notch in the middle is surrounded by a circular periphery of lotus petals. The space between lotus petal ring and outer periphery has carving of twelve auspicious symbols viz. śrīvatsa (winged), śankha (conch), matsya-yugma (double fish), a pātra (vase), cḥatra (umbrella), pair of c̣āmara (whisk), an ankuśa (goad), a bull, an staṁbha (pillar), a gander, a mayura (peacock) and a mṛiga (dear). The plaque is considered importantly to illustrate the symbolism derived from Hindu ritual and practices in connection to the royal coronation (rājyābhiṣekha) or lustrous ceremonies performed to consecrate Buddhist kings. But the carving of above plaque could be more conveniently considered in connection to representation of maṇḍalas which gained popularity after advent of northern Buddhism around 6th century CE onward. The maṇḍalas are drawn as concentric diagrams having spiritual and ritualistic significance in both Hindu and Buddhist esoterism.
The sculptural art of Arākān, especially after Lemero period presents number of mithuna depictions where a male and female figure is shown involved in close physical association. The interior gallery of Shittaung temple illustrates a vibrant presence of Kinnaya couple as joyful mithuna. Both the Kinnaya and Kinnayī are shown from side angle exposing their body outwards. They have extended their feathers to glorify their beauty as celestial beings and gives cheerful facial expression. The same kinnaya couple is shown at the other half of the gallery in maithuna posture. Though the involvement of mithunas in coitus is fully absent in Arākān still good number of depictions are discovered which shows aggressive love making scenes. A scene on exterior wall of Shittaung temple shows a male figure in bāhya puruṣopspritaka with a lady standing to his right. The male figure is attempting to grab his companion in eagerness by her shoulder to get her in close embrace. The male figure is carved doing hard effort to touch the breast of lady with his extended left hand. The lower portion of the carving is badly mutilated but gives a good glimpse of ornaments and delighted facial expressions of female. The same temple depicts a mithuna involved in same manner. Likewise earlier the male figure once again seems to dominate in love act. The close posture reminds us about tilaṭaṇḍula, an āsana mentioned in Kāmasūtra where a woman and man lie side by side and take other’s thigh between own thighs and arms below arm pits. The size of the lady is comparatively small to her male counterpart but has clear notion of sexual enjoyment on their face. The male figure is giving smooch to his partner in excitement and is gently pressing her breasts. Similar kind of close embrace is found on an image pedestal of Mahā Bodhi Śwegu. The illustration is very similar to previous one except the more impatient participation of male figure who is shown engaged in caressing the both breasts of his beloved in eager.
The Htukkant Thein temple situated at a short distance from Shittaung shows a mithuna involved in uddhruṣṭ̣̣aka. Here both the male and female lovers are standing close together while clasping the other’s body with arms. Enjoying the extreme joy of love and experiencing a very gentle feeling the female is clasping her lower portion with one hand while the male is giving a mild touch to her breasts. The exterior of Shittaung temple presents a very vibrant carving of ithyphallic male figure enjoying the joy of sex. The male figure with erect male organ is squeezing both breasts of his companion. He has touched her one breast from right hand and grabbed other from behind. The lady sited on her knees is experiencing the ecstasy of love and is presented caressing the erected male organ and enjoying the passion of close love.
Arākāna performed its best to preserve Mahāyān in western part of Myanmar. Arākān always looked to its western frontiers for inspiration and such wise adopted both Hindu and Buddhist esoteric elements. The Mahāyāna in its vajrayāna attracted them more and its conceptualization of Bodhisattva and combine efforts prajñā and upāya to attain vajra gained wide support in Arākān. As a result number of images of Hindu deities like, Viṣṇu, Śiva and Śakti and Bodhisattvas and Lokapāla from Mahāyāna pantheon were made. Besides repeating the artist forms of its western frontiers the region could be given credit to introduce new artistic form of Vasundharā and Nāgini (Manasā) in Arākān.
 Collis, M. S. Journal of Burma Research Society, Vol. XIII, 1923, The City of Golden Mrauk-U, Rangoon, P.244.
 Pamela, Gutman. 2001. Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arākān- Bangkok, P.26.
 Durioselle, Chas. Archaeological Report 1915-16, The Ari of Burma and Tantric Buddhism, ASI, New Delhi, P.80.
 Desai, D. 1985, Erotic Sculptures of India, New Delhi, P.114.
 Desai, D. 1985, Erotic Sculptures of India, New Delhi, P.98.
 Durioselle, Chas. Archaeological Report 1915-16, The Ari of Burma and Tantric Buddhism, ASI, New Delhi, P. 86.
 Gutman, Pamela. 2001. Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arākān- Bangkok, P.98