A Short Historical Background of Arakan

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A SHORT HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF ARAKAN
BY MOHAMMED ASHRAF ALAM is Director of Research, The Bangladesh Institute of Arakan Studies, Chittagong, Bangladesh ( BIAS) and Research and Publication Secretary  of Arakan Historical Society (AHS), in 1999.

ARAKAN, once a sovereign and independent State, is now one of the states of the Union of Burma. The Arakan State comprises a strip of land along the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal from the Naf River to Cape Negaris and stretches north and south touching Bangladesh on the Northwest. The river Naf separates it from Chittagong region of Bangladesh. It is cut off from Burma by a range of near impassable mountains known as Arakan Yomas running north to south, which was an obstacle against permanent Muslim conquest. The northern part of Arakan, today called the “North Arakan,” was point of contact with East Bengal. These geographical facts explain the separate historical development of that area – both generally and in terms of its Muslim population until the Burmese king Bodaw Paya conquered it on 28th December 1784 AD. Under different periods of history Arakan had been an independent sovereign monarchy ruled by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

The word Arakan is definitely of Arabic or Persian origin having the same meaning in both these languages. It is the corruption of the word Arkan plural of the word Al-Rukun. There exists some controversy about the origin of the name of ‘Arakan’ on which traditional and legendary sources differ. In fact, the name of Arakan is of much antiquity. In Ptolemy’s Geografia (150 AD) it was named ‘Argyre’. Early Buddhist missionaries called Arakan as ‘Rekkha Pura’. In the Ananda Chandra stone pillar of Chandra dynasty (8th Century) at Shitthaung Pagoda in Mrauk-U the name of Arakan was engraved as “Arakades’s”. In a Latin Geography (1597 AD) by Peta Vino, the country was referred to as ‘Aracan’. Friar Manrique (1628-43 AD) mentions the country as ‘Aracan’.

In the work of Arab geographer Rashiduddin (1310 AD) it appears as ‘Rahan or Raham’. The British travellers Relph Fitch (1586 AD) referred the name of Arakan as ‘Rocon’. In the Rennell’s map (1771 AD), it is ‘Rassawn’. Tripura Chronicle Rajmala mentions the name of Arakan as ‘Roshang’. In the medieval works of the poets of Arakan and Chittagong, like Quazi Daulat, Mardan, Shamser Ali, Quraishi Magan, Alaol, Ainuddin, Abdul Ghani and others, they frequently referred to Arakan as ‘Roshang’, ‘Roshanga’, ‘Roshango Shar’, and ‘Roshango Des’. Famous European traveller Francis Buchanam (1762-1829 AD) in his accounts mentioned Arakan as “Reng, Roung, Rossawn, Russawn, Rung”. In one of his accounts, “A Comparative Vocabulary of some of the languages spoken in the Burman Empire” it was stated that, “ the native Mugs of Arakan called themselves ‘Yakin’, which name is also commonly given to them by the Burmese. The people of Pegu are named ‘Taling’. By the Bengal Hindus, at least by such of them as have been settled in Arakan, the country is called Rossawn. The Mahammedans who have long settled at Arakan call the country ‘Rovingaw’ and called themselves ‘Rohinga’ or native of Arakan. The Persians called it ‘Rkon’.” The Chakmas and Saks of 18th century called it ‘Roang’. Today the Muslims of Arakan call the country ‘Rohang’ or ‘Arakan’ and call themselves ‘Rohingya’ or native of Rohang. The Maghs call themselves ‘Rakhine’ and call the country ‘Rakhine Pye’ or country of Rakhine.

The total area of Arakan is about 20,000 square miles. But Arakan Hill-tracts District (5235 square miles) and southernmost part of Arakan were partitioned from Arakan. So, it has now been reduced to 14,200 square miles. The earliest inhabitants of Arakan belong to the Negrito group. They are mentioned in the Arakanese Chronicle as Rakkhasas or bilus (cannibals). They appear to be Neolithic descendants of the people of Arakan but no trace of them has yet been discovered in Arakan. At present two major ethnic races, the Rohingyas and the Rakhines (Maghs) inhabit in Arakan. The Rohingyas are Muslims and the Rakhines are Buddhists. Its unofficial total population now is more than 5 million, both inside and outside the country. At present, the Rohingyas and the Rakhines stand almost in equal proportion inside Arakan. In addition there are about 2 lakhs tribal people [Saks, Dinets (Chakmas) and Mros (Kamais)] and 2 lakhs Burman people in Arakan. Polygamy and early marriage enhance the population growth of Rohingyas. The growth rate is much lower among the Buddhist population because of monogamy, late marriage and celibacy. The Rohingyas are mostly concentrated in the riparian plains of Naf, Mayu and Kaladan. Arakan is the only Muslim majority province among the 14 provinces of Burma. Out of the 7 million Muslim population of Burma half of them are in Arakan.

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