Wednesday, May 16, 2012

he Mahamuni Buddha : When the Spirit Moves

Donald M. Stadtner (Walnut Creek, California, USA)
1.  [slides]  Mahamuni Buddha & Map

The removal of the Mahamuni to Upper Burma has symbolized the subjugation of Arakan, from its annexation in 1784 until the present. If the seizure of the Mahamuni represented a tragedy for some, for others it came to represent the jewel in an eversparkling but tottering crown. How this image from outside Burma's traditional borders attained its immediate and lasting prominence reveals much about how Burma has incorporated religious myths and sacred objects from outside its traditional borders.
The myth surrounding the image was first introduced to English speakers at the turn of the 20th century by Forchhammer's translation of an Arakanese manuscript, the Sappadanapakarana. This text perhaps dates to the 16'h century, but the image itself was likely in worship by the early 15~ century, if not earlier. (Chamey, Leider) The well-known myth involving the replication of the Buddha and its ties to a celebrated miracle performed by the Buddha has been addressed recently in an insightful essay by Juliane Schober. By the 17th century the Mahamuni Buddha figures into Father Manrique's account of the Arakan which of course was immortalized in the twentieth century by Maurice Collis.
But little attention has been given to the fortunes of the Mahamuni Buddha after it settled in its new home. What steps were taken to ensure the efficacy of the image following its transfer? Was it enough to simply install the colossal image in a new shrine hundreds of miles away ? What role did Arakan monks and Arakan brahmins play in the ongoing worship of the image and the upkeep of the temple ? In short, what were the forces in play when the spirit moved ? These queries are at their beginning and therefore this presentation is very much a tentative exploration of this topic.
2.  Cannon. Mandalay Palace, west face
Lesser known spoils from the Arakan campaign were two cannon. The larger one is almost 30 feet in length, now outside the Mandalay palace. The original locations of the guns in Amarapura are unknown, and their exact find-spots in the Arakan are also unclear. However, the two guns were probably cast in Thailand and part of booty,according to information recently shared with me by Mike Chamey.This gun was established outside Mandalay palace by the English sometime early in the 20th century.Henry Yule noted the guns in 1855, and this large one appears in a drawing in his famous Mission to the Court of Ava (Yule, 136).Carriages for the guns were made in 1815,recorded in a royal order.(ROB,4January,1815).Less than an hundred years later the larger cannon was photographed in Amarapura, on the ground amidst weeds. (O'Connor,143)
3. Khmer bronzes
More well known spoils include a group of priceless Khmer bronzes whose celebrated history is well known to all of you. The images are today part of informal rituals at the Mahamuni shrine, but their popularity is rather recent. For example, Michael Symes notes these bronzes only in a cursory way in 1795 but fails to mention them at all on his second visit, in 1802.(Symes, 391; Hall, 212 ff)Sixty years later, during Yule's visit in1855,these bronzes were still neglected.For example,Yule reports that these "warriors, bilus and monsters brought from Aracan [sic] ...... do not appear to be much cared for, and are partially broken." (Yule, 167) These bronzes probably gained importance only after the English annexation in 1886. For the Arakanese, however, these images certainly enjoyed some significance in 1794 — otherwise why would Bodawpaya's generals bother to remove them?
4.  Exterior & Corridor
Here is the temple's exterior today and one of the corridors. Everything we see today is relatively modern, established sometime after a fire that destroyed the temple two years before the annexation of Upper Burma. The intense heat melted much of the original image, allegedly producing nearly 200 pounds of melted gold. (ROB, IX, xxxiv)
5.  Astrologers in Corridor
Astrologers of Indian descent line the southern corridor. These Hindu Indian astrologers all claim to have settled in Mandalay for generations. Most are originally from Bengal and converse in Hindi, Bengali and Burmese. Their appearance at the Mahamuni shrine is no historical accident. The role of Hindu ritualists in Burma is well documented, beginning as early as the Pagan period. Indeed, the role that Hindu priests played in Burmese society can scarcely be overestimated, especially during this period when the Mahamuni was transported to Upper Burma.
Brahmins were also important in Thailand where Hindu priests still today officiate at coronations and important matters of state. Here in Bangkok, next to Wat Suthat, an entire building has been given over to these brahmins. That Siam's state symbol is the Garuda is therefore no coincidence. In Burma, however, patronage of Hindu ritualists was abruptly ruptured with the collapse of the Konbaung court in 1886. In neighboring Thailand ties between royalty and the Hindu rites were never interrupted and therefore brahmanical influence remains strong. One can argue that if Burma had not been colonized, we would see brahmins today at the coronation of Burmese kings, as in Thailand. No Hindu ritualists today attend to the Mahamuni image, but there were many Hindu priests associated with the Mahamuni temple at the time of Bodawpaya.
6. Mahamuni Image
Bodawpaya wasted little time in preparing a home for his remarkable trophy, since the temple was nearly completed in the same year that the image reached Upper Burma (in Michael Symes).
The shrine was located far from Amarapura, two miles north and at the end of two long parallel roads. (Yule's map shows the two parallel roads leading to the shrine, in 1855 ; Yule, facing p. 166). Why the image was established so far from Amarapura is unclear but it was likely the centerpiece for many large monasteries that were likely already situated in that area (that were noted by Yule). Today, the shrine belongs to southern Mandalay, now fused with Amarapura. The Mahamuni temple was of major importance at the time of Yule's visit in 1855, prompting ,a royal appearance every six months.
Yule also records that "The image stands in a small and gloomy arched chamber of masonry, having only one entrance. Over this has been constructed a handsome wooden Pyasath [sic] or spire, richly carved and gilt." (Yule, 166) He also notes the two corridors leading to the temple, filled with "cripples, blind and diseased persons" and numerous stalls during festivals (Yule, 166). These covered hallways were created "no more than seven or eight years" before his visit, so they were not survivals from Bodawpaya's day. However, there were human survivals that tell an interesting story. Yule continues: "The pagoda slaves [at the Mahamuni Temple] are the descendants of those who were brought away captives .... from Aracan [sic] , and amount . . . . to
several hundreds." (Yule, 167) In Amarapura Yule met brahmin astrologers from Banaras, and also "descendents of some who were brought from Aracan [sic] .... These had originally been brought from Bengal to Aracan [sic] .... Those I saw spoke Hindostanee .... and were familiar with Burmese language. (Yule, 87).
7.   Brahmins from Banaras
Following the annexation of Arakan, the full range of Konbaung bureaucracy spread to the four major Rakhine cities. For example, a census of the Arakan was undertaken in order to remit taxes to Amarapura. (ROB, 22 January 1810). And the taxes imposed on the once proud Mrouk U were now applied to maintaining the king's white elephant in Amarapura. The Arakan's natural resources were also exploited, such as the silver mines on the island of Ramree. (such as ROB, 27 June, 1801) It must be said, however, that Konbaung officials were now and then reprimanded for excesses committed in the Arakan (such as ROB, 27 April 1810).
Thousands ofArakanesewere likely taken captive and used as slaves, some even in the wars against Siam. (such as ROB, 23 December, 1810; this order called up 1,016 men from Arakan to be sent to Tavoy) Konbaung society enjoyed the use of an enormous range of Arakanese slaves, ranging from royal manicurists, to stone masons and everyday boatman (such as ROB, 13, July, 1795; ROB, 28 August, 1807; ROB, 31, March, 1806). These slaves were added to those from Manipur and Assam. But the most interesting captives from the Arakan were selected for their brains and not their brawn. For example, there were medical specialists imported to Upper Burma (smallpox inoculation was introduced by Arakanese). Others specialized in reciting even the Buddhist paritta, while others were trained in writing magic squares or playing instruments. (ROB, 5 June, 1789).
The most elite brahmins from the Arakan were likely Hindu ritualists and astrologers. These were lumped together under the rubric of "ponna" [the origin of this term is debated but perhaps it derives from punya (Sanskrit), or "sacred, pure, or great merit."].
Brahmins were no strangers in Amarapura, long before the annexation of Arakan. Indeed, the Konbaung court had scores of brahmins, if not hundreds, that Bodawpaya inherited upon his accession. Even as early as 1785, one special post was created for the Primate of the Ponna community, modeled after the chief leader of the Sangha. (the title was Ponna Thathanabaing, Myant U, 95). This leader of the foreign Brahmin community was probably created to impose order from the crown, in a rather free-for-all religious environment constantly in flux. Indeed, this post may have been created in 1785, primarily to integrate and register the great number of Arakanese Brahmins brought to Upper Burma in that very year. (An informative summary of the role of the ponna at the time is in Myant U, Chapter 4).
8. Brahmins from Banaras
Perhaps as many as two or three hundred Hindu ritualists were centered in the Burmese capital during the late 18~ and early 19'h centuries at any one time, piecing the numbers together from the Royal Orders of Burma. Many brahmins had likely come from Bengal (which now includes Bangladesh), Manipur, and Assam. However, those with the foremost status were from Banaras, at least during Bodawpaya's reign. To determine the status rankings for these diverse brahmincal groups was certainly perplexing, if not a priority in such an hieratic and stratified society. Each group of brahmins likely asserted its supremacy at the expense of others. The stakes were high, since royal grants and privileges likely hinged on these rankings. That the Burmese at the time felt a need for ranking these diverse brahmins is suggested by a text from the period that was solely devoted to codifying the status distinctions among the various brahmins. (the text, Myanma Min Okchokpon Sadan, is discussed in Myant U, 96 ff). One division was based on origin (Burmese, Arakanese, Manipuri or from Banaras). The oldest were the Myanma ponna who traced their descent back to the Pyu. This elevation in the Burmese text of Pyu brahmins probably reflected wishful, theoretical thinking, since Banarasi brahmins appear to have enjoyed the top of the heap. Indeed, the royal orders compiled by Professor Than Tun provide ample evidence that the brahmins squabbled among themselves for royal favor and were frequently punished, often by surrendering their sacred threads. Foreign observers, such as Francis Buchanan (166 ff) and Father Sangermano (Tandy, 67) confirm the pervasive influence of the brahmins at the time. Buchanan was in Burma a year after the Arakan annexation and reports that: "I am inclined to think that the introduction of the Brahmens (sic) into the Burma kingdom is a very recent event. I spoke with none of them who had not himself come from Cassay or Arakan, or who was not the first in descent from such as had come from those countries"(169).
Many of the top Arakanese brahmins were treated with high regard and were integrated into the brahmanical establishment. Other brahmins from Arakan fared less well and were made pagoda slaves, presumably a result of their lesser status in the brahmanical hierarchy in the Arakan, or as punishment, as we will see. High status brahmins from the Arakan were likely assigned respectable positions at the Mahamuni temple. Even nine years after the conquest of the Arakan, Arakanese brahmins were settled at the Mahamuni because they had once lived close to the original Mahamuni shrine in Arakan. (ROB, 22 January, 1803) Perhaps this implies that the efficacy of the Buddha was enhanced if the image was "serviced" by its former attendants.
One episode occurring five years after the Arakan conquest suggests the discord among the diverse brahmins centered in Amarapura. A number of Arakanese Brahmins accused a brahmin rajaguru (from Banaras ?) of having an affaire with a woman hairdresser, (the full title of the guru : Maharajindadhammarajaguu). It was deemed a false accusation, provoking Bodawpaya to send the Arakanese brahmins to the Mahamuni as pagoda slaves. (ROB, 21 June, 1799). They were also forced to relinquish the special straps on their chest (salwe), turbans and conches. They were also instructed to offer flowers to the Mahamuni image in the same manner as it was performed in Arakan, presumably to ensure the efficacy of the sacred image. The ring leaders was consigned the humiliating punishment of gathering elephant fodder.
Arakanese pagoda slaves was a festering issue, even nearly thirty years following the annexation. For example, an Arakanese prince protested as late as 1822 that Arakanese brahmins should not be subject to pagoda-slave status, since this custom was never known in the Arakan (ROB, 3 January, 1822). This implies that a great number of brahmin pagoda slaves from the Arakan existed in Upper Burma, three decades after the conquest. This is also confirmed by Yule who visited fifty-five years after the annexation.
9. Mahamuni Image and Shwedagon
If the Mahamuni is the most sacred Buddha image in Burma, then the Shwedagon in Yangon is the most revered stupa in the country. The Mahamuni was forcefully removed from outside the traditional borders of Burma, while the Shwedagon was directly appropriated from the Mons of Lower Burma. This inclusion of a Mon monument began with Bayannaung's conquests and presumably only accelerated. It is sobering to contemplate that two of Burma's most sacred monuments are not only rather recent absorptions but were appropriated from two diverse ethnic traditions, situated to either side of the Burmese central homeland. Indeed, the spiritual success of at least the Mahamuni image was specifically tied to imperial ideology. The incorporation of the Shwedagon, a Mon monument after all, is a little more murky but it nonetheless came under Burmese control through force of arms. By the early 20th century the fame of the Mahamuni had only increased, perhaps as a reminder of Burmese expansion, now faced with the humiliation of colonial rule. In far off Moulmein, for example ..... (then to slides, no. 10)
10.Moulmein. MahaMyatMuni Temple On Hill. Ca.l904
A wealthy woman donor in established a Mahamuni temple in the opening decade of the 20th century on the high ridge overlooking Moulmein. This patron sent a delegation to the Mahamuni temple in Amarapura to make a plaster copy of the original Maha Muni.
11. Painting & Moulmein Mahamuni
Here is the Moulmein Mahamuni and the story of its casting is told in a series of paintings done in the 1930s, even recounting the myth of King Chandrasurya.
12. Mahamuni& Map
Burmese hegemony over the Arakan was brief, thirty years during Konbaung times, (1794 - 1824), added to another 57 years since independence, (1948 - 2005), totaling a mere 87 years. And Burmese influence on the Arakan remained relatively insignificant by the time Arakan was lost to the British in 1824 (Lieberman, 206-207). The annexation of Arakan carried a high, hidden price for Burma, since it provoked a decisive military response from British India that eventually led to the colonization of the entire country. In fact, one could argue that the Konbaung invasion of the Arakan may have laid the seeds for the dynasty's own destruction (this is a debatable historical point, admittedly), somewhat like the disastrous invasion of Russia by the Nazis.
But whatever the historical results, the history of the Mahamuni image in its new home provides an instructive glimpse into the religious and cultural life of Burma on the eve of the modern era.
This presentation will be revised for publication, incorporating feedback from the conference in Bangkok or subsequently (please contact me dstadtnerassoc@yahoo.com). It will also include relevant material in the Royal Orders of Burma, Vol. IV (1782 - 1788), which I was unable to consult before the conference. Volume IV covers critical years that encompass the war in Arakan and the removal of the Mahamuni Buddha.
Partial List of Sources
  1. Buchanan, Francis, "On the Religion and Literature of the Burmas, " Asiatic Researches, VI (1801), 163-308.
  2. Chamey, Michael, "Rise of a Mainland Trading State : Rahkaing Under the Early Mrauk-U Kings, c. 1430-1603, "Journal of Burma Studies, Vol. 3 (1998), I - 33
  3. Collis, Maurice The Land of the Great Image
  4. Hall, D.G.E., Michael Symes : Journal of his Second Embassy to the Court of Ave in 1807
  5. Leider, Jacques, "Arakan's Ascent During the Mrauk U Period" in Recalling Local Pasts : Autonomous History in Southeast Asia, eds. S. Chutintaranond and C. Baker
  6. O'Connor, V.C. Scott, Mandalay and Other Cities of the Past in Burma
  7. Schober, Julien, "In the Presence of the Buddha : Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahamuni Image" in Schober, J., ed. Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia
  8. Stadtner, D. "The Questions and answers of Maungdaung Sayada and the Confluence of the Ananda Temple, Bagan, and the Mingun Pagoda, " in Texts and Contexts in Southeast Asia, Pt. Ill (2001)
  9. Symes, Michael An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdon ofAve, Sent by the Governor-General of India in the year 1795
  10. Tandy, William trans. A Description of the Burmese Empire, by Father Sangermano
  11. Than Tun, ed. Royal Orders of Burma 1598 - 1885
  12. Thant, Myint U,  The Making of Modern Burma
  13. Yule, Henry, Mission to the Court ofAva in 1855
This paper was submitted at "Arakan History Conference", Bangkok 23.11 - 25.11.2005, organised by the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.
(Draft only. Please don't quote)

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