Boats of Arakan
Boats mean one more very important thing to the Rohingya. They mean freedom.
The land of Arakan, presently known as Rakhine State, is a coastal strip of territory cut off from most of Myanmar by the Arakan Mountain Range. Because of this, much of its cultural heritage come from the Indic civilization to its west, with which it shares a coastal contiguity. The dominant cultures of Arakan - Rohingya and Rakhine alike – are regarded as the most Indianised of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, and belong to a maritime legacy which stretches deep into the past.
ANCIENT KINGDOMS, ANCIENT SAILORS
Trading settlements of Indian origin developed along the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean more than two millennia ago, reaching as far south as the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. In Myanmar, several of them were on the Arakan coast and settlers, mainly from Orissa and the Deccan, brought their cultures and religions with them, forming a foundational layer in the complex Arakanese identity. These settlements developed in relative isolation from the Tibeto-Burman migrations which occurred further east.
The first kingdom in Arakan, centred on Dhanyawadi in the north, grew out of these Indic settlements and became prosperous through a trading network which relied almost exclusively on the sea. Like many subsequent Arakanese kingdoms, Dhanyawadi flourished as a hub between the Pyu, the Mons, and China in the east, and Bengal, India and Persia in the west. The Rohingya word Samman for a type of boat, is an echo of the Cantonese word Sampan which also means ‘boat’ and may have arrived in Arakan on the winds of ancient trade routes.
The second Arakanese kingdom in Waithali, often described as the most Indianised of the Arakanese kingdoms, also had strong trade links with China, India and Persia. It was based in northern Arakan as well, and the traders, seamen and shipbuilders who serviced its maritime culture would have come from surrounding neighbourhoods, and may have been the ancestors of today’s Rohingyas. The city of Waithali developed into a wealthy port, from where vessels built by Arakanese craftsmen set sail for faraway places on the Arabian Sea.
From the 8th and 9th centuries, Arab traders began establishing outposts across Southeast Asia, following maritime routes not unlike the ones their Indian predecessors had used several centuries earlier. An Arab and Muslim influence took root in places along the coastline, from Bangladesh to Indonesia, to which an Iranian and Indian Muslim presence was later added.
ORIGINS OF THE ROHINGYA
These sailors and traders also came to Arakan, which they called Rohang, and according to some accounts intermarried with the local population to form permanent settlements. The Rohingyas’ own origin myth features a story about shipwrecked Arab sailors who washed up on to the shores of Arakan to form the nucleus of an ethnically and culturally syncretic community that has Arab, Indic as well as Tibeto-Burman ancestry. The word ‘Rohingya’ is derived from the word ‘Rohang-ya’, where ‘ya’ is a common regional convention that establishes a connection between a people and a place.
In the Middle Ages, the northern Arakan kingdom of Mrauk U developed a strong navy with which it controlled the coastline from Chittagong (originally a part of Arakan) to the Irrawaddy delta. It also controlled vital inland waterways which increased its international trading prowess. The kingdom's ports were frequented by Mon, Arab and Indian traders, as well as by newly emergent seafaring nations, the Portuguese and the Dutch. Mrauk U had an impressive fleet of merchant vessels, with which it conducted trade in a range of goods, including elephants! So sturdy where these Arakanese ships that they could carry up to 14 elephants at a time, a feat noted with awe by Dutch chroniclers of the Age, whose records tell us a great deal about Arakan’s shipping heritage.
Mrauk U was a hybrid Muslim and Buddhist kingdom where Buddhist kings adopted Muslim titles and modelled both their coinage and their court on the Muslims Sultans of Persia and Bengal. They also patronised Muslim scholars and the court of Mrauk U used Arabo-Farsi as one its official languages. Much of the Islamic influence would have been a natural consequence of its location in the Rohingya heartland, but Mrauk U also welcomed settlers from Bengal and Persia.
COMPLEX LEGACIES OF TRADE
In a darker chapter of Mrauk U’s history, and in collaboration with Portuguese slave traders, Arakan’s boats were used to raid Mughal Bengal’s southern regions for human cargo, tens of thousands of whom ended up in Arakan, swelling the Muslim population of the kingdom. Boats make the people of Arakan, in more ways than one.
As a British colony, Arakan’s ports were used to service the lucrative trade in rice, timber and precious stones, with Akyab becoming among the most prominent of Britain’s Burmese ports. Vessels of a more contemporary design were introduced to Arakan during the colonial period, the legacy of which is preserved in the design of a Borjaans or Khargu, a corruption of the word ‘cargo’.
Today, this heritage of shipbuilding lives on among the Rohingya. Arakanese craftsmen are sought after in Bengal for their superior skills, and several fishing and cargo vessels plying the coast off Cox’s Bazar have been built by Rohingya hands.
FOOD, LIVELIHOODS, TRANSPORT & FREEDOM
The importance of boats in Rohingya culture is not confined to maritime trade. Livelihoods and transportation are also reliant of the tradition of boatbuilding. Much of Arakan is prone to flooding and tidal swells, and inland waters were the original carriageways of the region. This is reflected in the fact that several of the boats still used by the Rohingya are both private and mass-transit passenger crafts like the Fashindari and the Kubeta. It is also preserved in the genre of Rohingya music known as Baittalyi, or ‘songs of the low tide’, river songs that eulogise the relationship between the Rohingya and their aquatic environment.
This relationship is at its most personal when it comes to food. Fish constitutes a large part of the Rohingya diet, with the vast majority of their recipes being about the range of ways a broad selection of both saltwater and freshwater fish can be cooked. Fishing, both in the rivers of Arakan and in the Bay of Bengal, provides a livelihood for a significant percentage of the Rohingya population, however, recent restrictions by the government of Myanmar as well as the prohibitive costs of owning a fishing boat, have put this somewhat beyond their reach. In that past, it was common practice for Rohingya fishermen to hop across the border into Bangladesh and find work on fishing boats. They were rarely turned away, because it is common knowledge among the fishing community that a Rohingya fisherman makes a valuable addition to any deep-sea fishing expedition!
Boats mean one more very important thing to the Rohingya. They mean freedom. When the troubles between the Rakhine and the Rohingya communities boiled over, Rohingya families living in Rakhine-majority areas of southern Arakan, bartered their houses and lands for boats so that they could escape to the relative safety of the Rohingya-majority north. When the north too became unsafe, hundreds of them took to boats, and to the sea, to try and escape persecution. Their boats became their universe, the only bit of space that is their own.
Even today, they Rohingya take to the seas, sometimes willingly, sometimes as victims of human traffickers, to try and find a place in the world where they may be valued and welcome. But too often the horrors of their displacement follow them, and their boats become a source not of hope but of despair, as they end up stranded, sold, imprisoned or worse. This community of people, made by the tides of time and the boats of their ancestors, have found themselves relying at peril on an original orientation which connects their fate to the currents of the sea and to the vicissitudes of chance.
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Akhtaruzzaman, M. (2000). Political Relations Between Medieval Bengal and Arakan. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 61, 1081-1092. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/44144423
Galen, S.E.A. van (2008). Arakan and Bengal : the rise and decline of the Mrauk U kingdom (Burma) from the fifteenth to the seventeeth century AD (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands.
Leitich, Keith A. (2014, April 22-23). Decoding the Past: The Rohingya Origin Enigma (Paper presentation). Third Annual Southeast Asian Studies Symposium, Keble College, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
Singer, N. F. (2008). Vaishali and the Indianization of Arakan. New Delhi: APH Publishing.
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Written by Zeeshan Khan, journalist and historian.