Wednesday, 04 August 2021

By Mohamed Ashraf Alam


ARAKAN is the modern name, in the ancient times the country was known as Rohang or Rakhapura or Rakhaingpryi. The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan played a glorious role in the establishment and consolidation of the great Arakanese Empire known as Mrauk-U Empire. Unfortunately for us this part of history has been subjected to utter negligence. As a result, the glorious chapter of the history of the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan has up till now remained unexplored. In the previous chapter we have discussed the geographical features of Arakan. In this chapter, we are going to discuss first the population and people of Arakan and then the etymology of Arakan, Rohang, Rohingya, Rakhine and the Magh. Then we will discuss the historical background of Rohingya Muslims of Arakan.


Its unofficial total population now is more than 5 million, both inside and outside the country, comprising the two major communities of Muslims and Buddhists, historically known as Rohingya and Rakhine (Magh), including about 1.5 million of Rohingyas who have been expelled from homeland since 1942. The Rohingyas are Muslims and profess Islam. The Rakhines are Buddhists and practice Therawada Buddism. At present, the Rohingyas and the Rakhines stand almost in equal proportion inside Arakan. In addition there are about 2 lakhs tribal people [Saks, Mros, Kamais, Dinets (Chakmas), Baruwas and Chins] and 2 lakhs Burman people in Arakan.1 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.2

                                                                     THE ETYMOLOGY OF ARAKAN

 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. 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. But Ibn Batuta wrote the name of Arakan as Arkan, derived from the Arabic word Al-Rukum. 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’.Sir H.Yule want to identify with Arakan the name being supposed to be derived from silver mines existing there. 3  Sir H. Yule assumption is supported by Mc Cridle and D.G.E. Hall.4 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”. 5  In the Map of Magni Mogolis Imperium ( The great Mughal Empire), drawn in 1650, which is the earliest maps of the Indian region, it was being shown as Aracam.6  In the Ain-I-Akbari of Abul Fazal (1551-1602) mentioned Arakan as Arkhang. In the Baharistan-I-Ghaib, Mirza Nathan mentioned the people of Arakan as Rakangi while the name of the country as Arkhang. 7  In a Latin Geography (1597 AD) by Peta Vino, the country was referred to as ‘Aracan’. In English version of Van Linschtoen’s Map of 1598 A.D., it is Aracan. Friar Manrique (1628-43 AD) mentions the country as ‘Aracan’.8  Hindus in his map (1612 A.D.), has been induced to make the country name Aracam. 9  To the Medieval Portuguese and other European travellers and chronicalers, it is Arracam, Aracao, Orrakam.10  The Portuguese traveller Barros in 1516 A.D. is said to be first man who referred Aracan which is  the nearest to the modern name, in his Decadar.11 But according to Professor S.H. Hodivala, the modern form Arakan is said to be drived from the Arabic word Al-Rakhang.12 According to eminent numismatists like Lanepole, Rodgers and Wright, Bengal king Sultan Muhammad Khan Sur struk coins bearing the date 962 A.H.(1554-55 A.D.) styling himself Sultan Shamshuddin Muhammad Shah Ghazi, the name of mint is read as Arakan.13 A few of these coins are preserved in the London British Museum.The coins are similar to those published by Marsden, Lane Pole and Wright.14  


The name Rohang/Roshang/Raham is the old name of Arakan. It is of much antiquity. It is probably the corruption of Arabic term Raham/ Raham Bori meaning God Blessed Land. In the work of Arab geographer Rashiduddin (1310 AD) it appears as Rahan or Raham.15 The Trukish navigator belonging to the middle of 16th century wrote the name of Arakan as Rakanj. 16 The British travellers Relph Fitch (1586 AD) referred the name of Arakan as ‘Rocon’.17 In the Rennell’s map (1771 AD), it is ‘Rassawn’.18 Tripura Chronicle Rajmala mentions the name of Arakan as ‘Roshang’. 19 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’.20 Famous European traveller Francis Buchanam (1762-1829 AD) in his accounts mentioned Arakan as  “Reng, Roung, Rossawn, Russawn, Rung”. 21 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.22  The Persians called it Rkon.” 23 The Chakmas and Saks of 18th century called it ‘Roang’. 24  The  term Rohingya is derived from the word Rohai or Rohshangee, a terminology perverted to Rohingya. Rohai and Roshangee are terms denoting the Muslim people inhabiting in the old Arakan or Rohang or Roshang. The ancient capital of Arakan was Mrauk-U. The Rakhine Buddhists called it Maruk-Oo and the Rohingya Muslims and Euopeans called it Maruk-U. After the annexation of Arakan by the British 1826 A.D., the capital was shifted to Akyab, since that time Mrauk-U was being known by the people of Arakan as Mrohang (old city). 25 Some Bengali writers of present days think that Rohang was derived from the word Mrohang. That is Mrohang > Roang > Rohang > Roshang. 26 But the Rohingyas of Arakan do not accept it because the name Mrohang was known in Arakan after British annexation of Arakan. Where as the great poets of Arakan such as Dulat Kazi, Mardan, Shah Alowal, and other writers of Arakan wrote it as Rohang or Roshang in 1622-30 A.D., 1631-38 A.D., and 1651-1673 A.D. respectively. The Rohai of Chittagong region are those Muslim people who fled Arakan or Rohang as a result of Burman atrocities after the country was occupied in 1784 A.D. by Burman king Bodaw Paya. During 40 years of Burmese rule (1784-1824 A.D.) two third or two hundred thousands ( 2,00,000 ) of the inhabitants (Rohingyas and Rakhines) of Arakan fled to Bengal (India).27 As many as 50% of the total population of Chittagong region are Rohai who trace their ancestral origin to Arakan.28   Today the Muslims of Arakan call the country ‘Rohang’ or ‘Arakan’ and call themselves ‘Rohingya’ or native of Rohang. 29


According to the Rakhine Rajawan, the ancient name of Arakan is Rakhine Pray. It origin goes back to remote past. According to Sir Arthur Phayre, the word Rakhine is a corruption of the Pali word Rakkhasa (Sanskrit word Rakshasa) meaning Ogre (in Burmese Bilue) and signifying monster or demon.30 Before the spread of Buddhism in Arakan, most of the people were the worshiper of nature. Hence the term Rakhine was applied to them by the people the Indo-Aryan stock.  Subsequently, the Arakanese adopted the word as their identity designation, and instead of hesitation, they rather with pride, introduced themselves as Rakhine and their father-land as Rakhine Pray. Pray is an Arakanese word meaning the country. Early Buddhist missionaries called Arakan as ‘Rekkha Pura’. 31

 The word Magh is undoubtedly of Bengali origin, but the exact significance of the word and the ultimate deivation are not clear. As to the generic nomenclature Magh, which is of uncertain origin, it is to be noted that it applied to the Buddhists of Arakan and those residing in the eastern parts of Bangladesh. According to A. Phayre, the name Magh originated from the ruling race of Magadha (Bihar) and relying on a Burmese oral tradition, he says that they were originally a Kshartiya tribe of the north India and migrated from Magadha to Burma through eastern Bengal. Subsequently they spread over Arakan from Burma.32 The derivation would probably be Magadhi, the adjective form of the proper name,  Maghi-Magai-Magi-Mog or Magh. The New English Dictionary states that the word Mag, Mogen, Mogue appear as names of Arakan and the people in 15-16th centuries.33  Among the old testimonies regarding Arakan association with Magadha is that of Daulat Kazi (1622-38), a well-known poet of Arakan, according to him, the rulers of Rosango (Arakan) belong to the Magadha dynasty and were Buddhists by faith. The poet in his Sati Mayna frequently uses the term Magadher pati and Magadha Raja to signify the kings and the Kingdom of Arakan respectively.34 The Ralph Fitch the 16th centry English traveller, identified Arakan as the country of Mogen. Today both the Maghs of Arakan and Bangladesh disowned this name and claim that this is the coinage of the Englishmen just as they have coined words of similar type. The Maghs call themselves ‘Rakhine’ and the country ‘Rakhine Pye’ or country of Rakhine.35



  1. Dr. Ganganath Jaha (Jawaharal Nehru University), Rohingya Imbroglio: The Implication for Bangladesh in S.R.Chakaravaty (Edited) Foreign Policy of Bangladesh, New Delhi, 1994, P.293; Nurul Islam, The Rohingya Problem, Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), Arakan (Burma), 1999, PP.2-3
  2. Martin Smith, The Muslim Rohingyas of Burma, Rohingya Reader II, Burma Centrum Nederland, Amsterdam, October 1995, P.13;
  3. San Tha Aung, The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan, Daw Saw Saw Sapay, Rangoon, 1979, P.2; Sir H. Yule, In Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, November 1882; Sir Arthur Phayre, History of Burma, London, 1884, P.42. Amanullah, The Etymology of Arakan, THE ARAKAN, Vol.10, Issue 2, July 1997, P.4.
  4. D.G.E. Hall, A History of South East Asia, London, 1968, P.141; Mc Crindle, The Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian, P.162;  Ibid. P.4 – 5.
  5. The Rakhine: Culture and Civilization of National Races, Burma Socialist Programme Party Headquarters., Rangoon,    1976, P.36.
  6. J.A.S.B. Vol. V (1836), P.iv.
  7. Nalinikania Bhattasali Commomoration Volume, Dacca Museum, 1966, P.356.
  8. A.B.M Habibullah, A Note on  ‘Could Muhammad Shah Sur Conquer Arakan’, JBSB (19510, PP.13-14.
  9. Dr. S.B. Qanungo,  A History of Chittagong, Vol.1, Chittagong (1988), P.352.
  10. Ibid., P.232.
  11. Pamla Gutman, Ancient Arakan, Australian national University (1976), P.3.
  12. Dr. S.H. Hodivala, Studies in History of Indian Muslim, New Delhi (1992), P.59.
  13. J.A.S.,  LXVII  (1951), P.11. 
  14. Journal of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of West Bengal, Culcutta (1995), P.285.
  15. Chowdhury Mohahd. A.F. Hazary, Burma: An Arab Land of the East, Dacca Review, 1978, P.35; H.M. Ellot and J. Dowson, History of India as told by its own historian, P.73.
  16. Habibullah, op. cit, PP.13-14; J.S.B, Vol.V (1836), P.466.
  17. Fosted  , Ralph Fitch, P.26.
  18. Asiatic Researches (AR), Vol.V, New Dhelhi (1979) P.233.
  19. Dr. S.B. Qanungo, op. cit. PP.159-160. 
  20. Nalinikania Bhattasali Commomoration Volume, Dacca Museum, 1966, P.356; Qazi Daulat: Sati Moyna O Lor Chandrani, edited by N. Ghasal, P.45; Alawal: Saiful Mulk Badiuzzamal, edited by Ahmed Sharif, P.63; Alawal: Tohfa, ed. Ibid., P.78; Puthi Parichili, Ibid., PP.242,349 & 600.
  21. Willem Van Schendel Froncis Buchanam, In the South Bengal, Dhaka (1992), PP.104,108 
  22. Buchanam, Ibid.
  23. Asiatic Researches (AR), Vol.V, New Dhelhi (1979) P.233.
  24. R.B. Smart, Burma Gazetteer – Akyab District, Vol.A, Rangoon, 1957, PP.228-229;
  25. Abdul Hoque Chowdhury, Prachin Arakan Rowainga Hindo Barua Buodda Adhibashi, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1994, P.30.
  26. Buchanam, Ibid. PP.104, 108.
  27. M.S. Collis, JBRS, 50th Anniversary No.2, P.499; Muhammad Ishaque (Edited), Bangladesh District Gazetteers: Chittagong Hill Tracts, Dacca, 1971, P.33.
  28. Mohamed Ali Chowdhury, The Advent of Islam in Arakan and Rohingyas,   Annual Magazine of A.H.S. 1995-96, P.6; Dr. Mohamed Yunus, A History of Arakan ; Past and Present, 1994,P.13
  29. Amanullah, The Etymology of Arakan,THE ARAKAN,Vol.10,Issue 2, July 1997, PP.4-5.
  30. D.G.E Hall, A History of South-East Asia, Third Edition, 1977, London, P.388.
  31. Abdul Mabud Khan, The Maghs, the University Press, Dhaka, 1999, PP.3-4. 
  32. The Magh, Ibid.P.40.
  33. Fotenotes in the Article: King Bering, JBRS, 50th Anniversary Publication No.2, P.443; Dr. Mohamed Yunus, A History of Arakan ; Past and Present, 1994, P.15.
  34. The Maghs, Ibid.P.40.
  35. Amanullah, The Etymology of Arakan,THE ARAKAN,Vol.10,Issue 2, July 1997, PP.4-5.


 This paper was submitted at the Bangladesh Institute of Arakan studies, Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2000.