Mrauk Oo is an ancient royal capital of the Rakhine race, the last seat of their kings who had ruled this narrow strip of western coastline since the 2nd century. It was built in 1430 by king Min Saw Mon and its glory lasted 355 years over the reign of 4 kings. Only in 1785 when the kingdom fell to the Myanmar kingdid Mrauk Oo cease to be a capital.
Once the glories of Mrauk Oo, had been known far and wide as an important port of call, on the route between the Middle East and the rest of Asia. A traveller named Schouten from Holland saw the port in the 16th century and noted its wealth and the fact that it would compare well with cities such as Amsterdam and London.
A Portuguese missionary of the Augustinian Order named Father Sebastian Manrique came to live in Mrauk Oo in the mid-17th century. He estimated the population to be about 160,000 excluding the foreign merchants “who are very numerous.” Apart from merchants there are other foreigners serving the king as soldiers and bodyguards, including a number of Japanese.
Of the palace he wrote that in 1635 he saw the sun rising on the palace, making the roofs flash as if made of solid gold, The Great Hall of Audience, he said had so many pillars of gold and red that it looked like a forest. He also witnessed the coronation festivities of King Thiri Thuddhamma Raza in 1635 although as a non-member of the Royal family he was not allowed to be present at the sacred ceremony. In the palace, he saw many rooms of gold or fragrant woods and life-sized statues in gold of past kings, adorned with jewels in the manner they would have been worn in real life. The number of utensils of solid gold and the large pieces of gemstones he saw such as rubies the size of a hen’s egg were all noted carefully by the good father.
The golden pillars are gone, but its past glory is reflected in the many temples we see today. Bult out of stone and as formidable as fortresses, the temples have remained undamaged for all these years. The most important is the Shitthaung or Ran Aung Zeya Pagoda, a temple of stone built by King Mong Ba Gree in 1535, with the advice of his mentor the hermit U Mra Waa. Construction first started one Saturday morning in November, with a workforce of a thousand men.
The interior corridors wind mazelike with walls 6ft to 15ft thick. The temple, which is in the form of a cave, is 86ft high, 160ft ling, and 124 ft. wide. It was built as strongly as a fortress. The innermost chamber contains a 9ft high Buddha image of stone in the Bhumispasa Mudra or Earth Touching position.
On the Western side there is a separate hall used for private meditation by the kings and for coronation ceremonies. It was the tradition for Rakhine kings-to-be to have a Buddha image to be cast before the occasion, in royal raiment duplicating what he himself would wear for the ceremony. An important ritual of the coronation was the king placing this image on his head to swear to fulfill his duties, and afterwards these Maha Kyiain or Royal Oath images would be enshrined at pagodas for the people to worship.
The inner corridors of stone are lined with six tiers within which are carved scenes and figures in high relief. Originally, the figures had been painted with coloured glazes and traces can still be seen. The upper level depict the lives of Buddha in various incarnations before his enlightenment while the lowest show details of Rakhine society of the time, such as men wrestling in a sport still popular today, soldiers training in camp, elephants being tamed, and women dancing and musicians playing.
Four carved pillars at each of the four corners inside the temple seem to mark it as an ordination hall rather than merely a place of worship. Ordinatino Halls are always marked with four pillars at the corners although most are just short stumps buried in the ground and not tall nor carved like this. The four pillars are carved with ogres, believed to be the flower eating guaridian ogres of the temples, and celestials who are guardians of the earth.
This last is unique and seen only in this temple. The carving depicts not one but two figures of the earth guarding celestials, Wathondri for male and Wathondra for female. Sometimes they are called Wathondray, perhaps in a non-gender specific way. In all other places, they are depicted alone either as male or female and only here do we see both together.
The guardian spirit of the earth had testified to Buddha Gautama’s charitable deeds when just before enlightenment the Evil One was trying to destroy the great teacher. The celestial that appeared when the Buddha-to-be touched the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, to wring out of the hair all the water that in previous lives the Buddha-to-be had poured as testament to his charity. The position of the Buddha touching the earth with the fingertips of his right hand is the Bhumispasa Mudra mentioned above, seen in most of the images. The tide of water squeezed out from the hair crushed like an ocean view and swept away the Evil One and his armies. Modern scholars have been unable to agree on whether the earth guardian is a male or female deity, and the artisans of Mrauk Oo had already, five centuries ago, foreseen the argument.
The corridors are dark and cool. One could imagine the king, his queens, and their retinue solemnly walking along these passages lit with torches. Along the bottom edge there are 1104 shallow indentions carved into the stone ledge, to be used as oil lamps that in all probability King Mong Ba Gree himself once lit with his own hands.
In the four corners of the inner chamber are figures symbolizing the commitment to uphold the religion and the kingdom? On the northeast is the deity who had donated a set of robes he plucked out of a lotus blossom to Prince Siddhatta as he was about to discard his royal costume to become an ascetic. In the southeast corner is Sakra, the king of the celestials who helps those good people in need. He is attended by his four queens. The Cetupala Lawka Deva who first appeared when the earth was newly created stands guard at the northwest.
On the fourth corner on the southwest is the figure of the donor King Mong Ba Gree with six arms, to symbolize his power. Unlike other kings of the time who had many queens, King Mon Ba Gree was faithful to his chef queen Pwa Mong Saw and another, Queen Thandwe with whom he had a daughter the Princes Po Wa “Yellow Silk”. This princess was a talented poet and one of her poems described in detail the costume of court ladies.
The whole of Shitthaung Pagoda is a database for scholars seeking to know the society of RAkhine of five centuries ago. The carved figures on its walls show us the choreography of the dances that continue to be performed to this day, such as the spider dance, drum dance, martial arts dance, groupdance, the dragon dance, spirit dance, young girls’ dance etc. The main musical instruments of the time were flutes and drums.
Built in stone, the Shitthaung Pagoda stands as an eternal monument to the glory of Buddha and the glory of Mrauk oo, at the same time as a symbol of Rakhine’s glorious culture.