Rakhine State of Myanmar

Bijenti Irengbam *

Myanmar is a country with ethnic diversity. The majority of the population are devout Buddhist, and there are pagodas and meditation centre all over the country. Every ethnic group has their own customs, traditions with different beliefs. There are eight 'major National ethnic Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Arkanese and Shan.

By far the largest group(68%) are the Bamar people who speak the Burmese language (a Sino-Tibetan language). Rakhine people are also one of the eight ethnic groups in Myanmar. Rakhine State is one of the least developed areas of Myanmar, with a diverse ethnic and religious population.

It was ranked as the country's second poorest region in 2009-2010. Rakhine has 11 State-based parties, of which four represent the aspirations of the ethnic Rakhine and seven stand for minority groups in the State, like Mro, Khami and Daingnet.

Rakhine State is bordered to the west by the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh and to the North by India. To the east the imposing Yoma Mountains partially divide Myanmar's most western State from the central lowlands. The first unified Arakan kingdom was established in the first half of the fifteenth century as a protectorate of the Bengal Sultanate.

The Kingdom whose capital was in Mrauk-U gained independence in 1531 and defended itself against Burmese and Portuguese invasions. Arakan is part of a long Indian ocean coastline, separated from the Irrawady valley by a range of low mountains, an incredible fertile place that's also one of the least hospitable on the planet, prone to earthquakes and devastating cyclones and deluged by up to three feet a month of torrential rain.

Arakan today - the State of Rakhine - is the southern two–thirds of this coastline. The northern third, across the Naf River, is today part of Bangladesh. Yangon although no longer the official capital of Myanmar, it remains the country's largest city and maintains the role of the most commercially important city of the Nation.

Formerly known as Rangoon, the city's infrastructure is considerably underdeveloped in comparison to other major cities in Southeast Asia. Yangon can also be considered the most exotic of all Southeast Asian cities – street signs are written in the local alphabet, monks wander the streets in burgundy robes, and everyone seem comfortable walking around barefoot.

History & Culture : The city's roots stretch back to the early 11th Century when a small fishing village called Dagon was founded by the Mon and centred around the Shwedagon Paya. Rakhine is also known as "Arakan Rakhine" meaning Demons. The earliest people who lived here were most probably Negritos who are mentioned in the Rakhine chronicles as Bilu.

Later the people of Indo-Aryan stock came from the Northern parts of India and Nepal. They had long historical backgrounds with high civilization. Mrauk-U was the cosmopolitan city of Arakan with diversity and pluralism. Buddhist traditions play the most important role in formation of Arakan's culture. Arakan history asserts that Buddha reached the city of Dhanyawadi along with five hundred disciples, and converted King Candasuriya.

The Buddha consented to have his image carved for the future generation to revere and pay homage along with the royal family in commemoration of any event. This was the famous Mahamuni image,well known throughout the country.

Now Arkanese do religious activities according to old Mahamuni tradition. The Mahamuni tradition is the oldest and most popular in Arakan. Arakan has undergone grievous times of conflict and instability, 'Buddhist Rakhine' versus 'Muslim Rohingya' struggle for political rights and ethnic identity. Since independence in 1948, the economy has notably declined.

In the early 1990, more than 2 lakhs of Rohingya Muslim refugees took shelter in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. A huge number of Rohingya refugees are wondering about in Chittagong where they have already mingled with local population. The Rohingya who are residents of the Northern Arkanese townships of Rathedaw, left their home and herd, crossed the river Naaf only to reach yet another country, ie Bangladesh.

Among many problems, certainly the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya, remains the most pressing one. Throughout the period from late 1980s upto 2008, the Rohingyas extended support to Dau Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

All communities in Rakhine State suffer from poverty, poor social services and a scarcity of livelihood opportunities. The bulk of the Rakhine economy is made up of farmers, fishermen and family-run business, and wages in the agriculture sector are low. Landlessness is more common in Rakhine State than other parts of Myanmar-especially in the northern part of the State, where 60% of households are landless.

Lack of access to public services, poor infrastructure, joblessness, meager living condition and unavailability of legal mechanism affect all communities in Rakhine, creating mutual fear and distrust. Jun wrestling is one of the traditional sports in Rakhine State.

The meaning of Jun is spinning. The word 'Jun' is a spinning top in Rakhine language. The young people do Jun wrestling either in the competition or before they take a bath in the village. Two athletes are needed for competing i Jun wrestling.

One is called Aphan and another is called Akhan. Jun wrestling tournaments are held in the religious festivals, especially, in the holiday times. Rakhine people are proud of this as a National sport and they maintain Jun wrestling as an intangible culture. So, the past Rakhine history, the wrestlers participated in boat race and they served the kingdom as brave soldiers.

Rakhine traditional Thingyan Festival : The word 'Thingyan' is derived from Thinkanta in Pali and Thinkanta in Sanskrit. It is transferring to the new year from the old year. Thingyan days which are the transitional period, are held in the first month of Myanmar and Rakhine calendar.

Rakhine Thingyan is celebrated in 3 stages; the ceremony of grinding sandalwood, the ceremony of pouring Buddha image with water and the ceremony of splashing water. As a ceremony based on Buddhism, the respective monasteries and ordination halls of the respective wards, are cleared with water in advance ahead of pre-Thingyan.

The girls grind pieces of sandalwood together on the flate round stones called kyaukpyine having taken pieces of fragrant wood such as the white sandalwood and the red sandalwood. While the girls are grinding pieces of sandalwood, the young men applaud them dancing and playing the musical instruments outside the booth.

All sandalwood water is kept in the pots. That is called the ceremony of grinding sandalwood. On Thingyan day, the girls and the young men under the leadership of the old men come together and walked to the monastery in queue holding the offertories and the pots of sandalwood water.

Firstly,the young men pour the water to the Buddha images in the monastery after they receive five precepts and hand over their offertories to the monks. They welcome Thingyan by pouring the Buddha images with sandalwood water the girls took. Playing water at the booths for four days (from Thingyan day to post Thingyan), the booths are made up of wood and bamboos.

The booths are decorated with the coconut leaves and padauk flowers. The banners stated the names of the respective associations are hanged at the booths called Manddat. The time of playing the water is regarded between 10 am to 4 pm roughly. This is called the ceremony of splashing water.

The girls behind the big canoe sit in row facing outside Thingyan booth. Either the single young man or a group of young men splash and pour the water by dancing and going around the Thingyan booths.

And then, girl fills the young man's bucket with water from the canoe and only if the young man begins to splash the water, the girl has splash the water in return. Splashing water with the canoe in the new year is the unique Rakhine own tradition in the whole Myanmar.

Vesali is one of the ancient capitals of Rakhine dynasties with 6 miles distance far from Mrauk U. Having founded Vesali city in AD 327, Vesali is earlier than Mrauk U.

The second open-oil lamp can be found in the ancient city of Vesali. It is made of brass. It measures 9 inches high from the plinth to the edge of the statue. It is female figure stretching her hands in parallel. She holds the brass open-oil lamp in the form of hemisphere of the ground with her fingers.

Nowadays, light offering to Buddha becomes a custome in Rakhine state because Rakhine people made light offering to Buddha from time immemorial as they believed that light offering dedicating to the three gems called Buddha, Dhamma and Samgha

* Bijenti Irengbam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 02 January 2023

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