The remains of the former Arakan capital, Mrauk U, straddle the Lemro River – a tributary of the broader Kaladan – amid an area of low, scrub-covered hills. Connected by sandy tracks, the principal monuments lie close enough together to be explored on foot or by horse cart, although the heat tends to limit serious sightseeing to the mornings and early evenings. Entry tickets can be paid for in US dollars or kyat, either on arrival at the boat jetty or at the Sittaung Temple.
Royal Palace and Museum
The royal palace at the center of Mrauk U was constructed by the founder of the Mrauk U Dynasty, Men Saw Mon (1380–1433), also known as Naramithla. Built in 1430, it was once the city’s most spectacular edifice – a huge, ornately dec orated wooden structure set on three receding levels and sur rounded by three inter lock ing walls. Only parts of the outer most rampart remain, along with fragments of a gate- way and central platform, but several contemporary descrip- tions survive, including one by Augustinian monk Sebastian Manrique, who lived in the capital for eight years from 1629. Manrique wrote of the vast gilded pillars inside, and rooms “made of odiferous woods … which thus gratify the sense of smell by their own natural fragrance. There was one room known as the ‘House of Gold’ for being entirely orna- mented from top to bottom in that metal.”
On display at the palace museum inside the western walls is a collection of Buddha statues, inscriptions, and coins – many of them reproductions – found during archeological excavations across the site.
Some of Mrauk U’s most impressive monuments are concentrated in the area immediately north of the palace ruins, at the foot of the ridge of hills running north from the site. Connected by broad dirt tracks, they are all easily reachable on foot.
The standout building in this northern group is the Sittaung Temple, built in 1535 by King Minbin (1493–1554) to mark his victorious Bengal campaign. Its suitably triumphant center- piece is a grand, bellshaped stupa surrounded by scores of subsidiary zedis. Inside, the central ambulatory passage around the main shrine is lined with thousands of carved stone Buddhas and basreliefs of the Jatakas, showing scenes from the Buddha’s life, which have been heavily restored and are now floodlit. The latter draw much of their inspiration from contemporary life in the Arakan capital, and are a priceless window on this lost medieval world. The profusion of sculp- ture has earned the building the nickname “Temple of 80,000 Buddhas.” At the main entrance, a 10-ft- (3-m-) tall inscribed pillar, originally from the settlementat Wethali , recounts in Pali the dynastic history of the rulers of Arakan between the 5th and 8th centuries AD.
A short distance northeast of Sittaung, the slightly older, smaller Andaw Thein (literally “Tooth Shrine”) has a very similar layout to its neighbor, with a central stupa encircled by 16 smaller ones rising from an octagonal base. This gem of a temple dates from the 1520s and was originally built as a monastic ordination hall; it was later enlarged by King Min Razagyi to house a tooth relic of the Buddha brought back from a pilgrimage to Ceylon.
The third structure in this sequence, the Ratanabon Pagoda, a short way farther north, dates from 1612 and is the most pictur esque of the trio. Its elegantly curved central stupa was destroyed by a Japanese bomb in World War but has since been restored. depictions of the Arakanese donors and their wives who sponsored the construction of the temple, each with a different hairstyle. The main Buddha figure in the central shrine is illuminated at dawn by light filtering through a square window in the dome above. depictions of the Arakanese donors and their wives who sponsored the construction of the temple, each with a different hairstyle. The main Buddha figure in the central shrine is illuminated at dawn by light filtering through a square window in the dome above.
The final monument of note in this northern group is the Lemyethna Temple, in which eight Buddhas are seated on thrones around the base of an octagonal column. Facing them are empty niches where another 20 figures formerly sat. Square in plan, with four projecting vaulted porches in the style of classical Bagan, the temple dates from the reign of Men Saw Mon and is one of the oldest on the site.
The cluster of monuments scattered across the low hills, rice paddies, and marshes at the eastern end of Mrauk U are dominated by the iconic Koethaung Temple, the largest on the site. Given the dearth of shade along the lanes leading to this group, it makes sense to start sightseeing early in the morning, or hire a horse cart, tuktuk, or Jeep for the trip. Oriented toward the east, Koethaung is square in plan with an exterior composed of five receding terraces, each holding rows of small stupas. It was built by Minbin’s son, Mintikka (r. 1554–6), who attempted to outdo his father by build ing a larger temple with an even greater number of Buddhas – there are allegedly 10,000 more here than at the Sittaung Temple, hence its name, which means “90,000.”
Peisi Daung Pagoda
One of the best views of the eastern group of monuments, and Koethaung in particular, is to be had from the unexcavated pagoda crowning the hilltop immediately to the south. Five Buddhas are enshrined at the dusty Peisi Daung Pagoda (four facing the cardinal points and one on top), each depicted with large white eyes. Some effort is required to push through the undergrowth shrouding the hill to reach the monument, but the views over the surrounding banana groves and rice fields are well worth the effort. Traces of the third, outermost belt of city walls are also visible from this splendid vantage point.
Located around half a mile (0.8 km) northeast of the palace site, Ratanamanaung was built by King Sandathudam Raza in 1652. The pagoda is a solid stone structure – plain and octagonal in shape from the base to the tip of its spire. Brightly painted planetary figures astride elephants and mythical creatures are installed at intervals on the ambula tory path surrounding the monu- ment. On the northwest side of the stupa stand the remains of a hall known as the Gupru, or “White Cave,” where in 1696 a resident monk, Marone Pyi Ya, was ritually crowned as the sym bolic ruler of Mrauk U, a title he retained for a full year.
Thanks to its lofty spire and finial, which peak at 280 ft (82 m), the other prom inent landmark in this eastern area is the Sakyamanaung Pagoda, which stands roughly midway between the palace and the Koethaung Temple. Attributed to King Thiri Thudhamma (r. 1622– 38), Sakyamanaung was one of the last major projects under taken at Mrauk U and is unusual for being made up of a mixture of circular and octa gonal tiers. The overall effect is one of elegant symmetry, although its graceful appearance is somewhat at odds with the grinning, swordwielding ogres guarding the entrance.