Myanmar, Buddhist Art in

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Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, is the largest mainland country in Southeast Asia. Burma has a continuous tradition of Buddhist art from the early centuries of the common era to the present. The principal forms of this art involve the construction of monuments, either stūpas or temples, which embody the main artistic media: architecture, painting, and sculpture, in addition to the decorative arts. Despite the large number of monuments and other vestiges of this tradition, Burmese art history has remained a neglected area of study.

Early history, 600–800 c.e.

Between the fifth and eight centuries c.e. the Irrawaddy valley was settled by a people known as the Pyu, sometimes described as the Proto-Burmese, who migrated from southwest China. Living in walled city-states, their civilization was documented by imperial Chinese chroniclers who marveled at the Pyu's sophistication in matters of music, dance, jewelery making, textile production, and religious life. Archaeological finds at Śrī Kṣetra, the largest Pyu city near the modern town of Prome (Pyay), and Beik-than-myo, which literally translates as "Viṣnu City," indicate a mixed religious life derived from the Indian subcontinent. This had elements of Sanskritic and Pāli Buddhism. In addition, various Hindu images have been found indicating that Pyu religious life incorporated a number of cults and movements. The workmanship of these images, particularly the gold work on the reliquary casket found at the Khin Ba mound, is exquisite and bears testimony to the accounts of the Chinese chroniclers. The principal Buddhist monuments found at Śrī Kṣetra, large stūpas like the Be-be-gyi, are said to derive from colossal Sri Lankan prototypes; cave temples, such as the Lei-myet-hna, were made of brick and are precursory to the monuments found at Pagan. They share similar structural systems, incorporating the pointed arch and voussoir brick patterns.

Along the southern Burma coastline the Mon civilization enjoyed good maritime contacts with India and acted as a conduit for the ingress of Buddhism into the Irrawaddy valley. Iconographic finds at Thaton and the other Mon sites indicate a mixed religious life derived from the subcontinent. Portable votive plaques made of terra-cotta illustrate principal scenes from the life of the Buddha; relief stone sculptures are in the Mon-Dvārāvat style, which is also found in southern Thailand. Bronzes and other portable images brought from the subcontinent also have been found. There are no surviving temples or original stūpas from this period. The Mon possessed their own script, and their knowledge of Pāli texts was significant to the development of art at Pagan.

Pagan, 1000–1300 c.e.

The Pyu city of Śrī Kṣetra fell to a Chinese raid in 832 c.e., after which a new state emerged to dominate the middle part of the Irrawaddy valley at Pagan. Early Pagan stŪpas, such as the Nga-kywe-na-daung, or temples, such as the Alo-pyi, are of Pyu origin. By the eleventh century c.e., Pagan under King Anawartha came to dominate much of the valley and annexed the Mon kingdom of Thaton. As a consequence, both Mon and Pāli texts appeared for the first time at Pagan. These provided the basis for cycles of religious paintings and sculpture. Inside temples, TheravĀda texts, tales of the life of the Buddha, and jĀtaka stories were depicted. Along the terraces of stūpas, terra-cotta plaques, usually glazed, illustrated jātaka stories. As with the Pyu cities, religious life at Pagan appears to have been mixed, even eclectic, with Theravāda, MahĀyĀna, and Brahmanic elements coexisiting. It is significant that Pagan's rise coincided with the decline of Buddhism in India and elsewhere. The wealth and patronage of Pagan kings attracted both scholars and artists to court, whether from the MahĀyĀna world of Pāla Bengal or the Theravāda heartland of Sri Lanka. By the beginning of the twelfth century the Pagan kings had firmly embraced Theravāda, and epigraphy describes the "purification" of the country's religious life. Theravāda notions of kingship styled the Pagan kings as dhammarāja and khammarāja—protectors of Buddhism granting them legitimacy in their imperial mission to unite all Burma. Pagan kings in turn promoted the faith through the lavish and profuse construction of monuments.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) survey completed in 2000 there are 2,217 standing monuments at Pagan; in addition there are numerous mounds indicating collapsed monuments. An earlier survey by an eighteenth-century king had listed over 4,000 monuments. The palace-city was walled and moated and covered a relatively small corner of the twenty-five-square-mile site. The principal architectural forms are the stūpa and the temple, with a number of hybrid forms integrating both these types. Monastery complexes, library structures, and ordination halls are to be found, either as part of, or independent of, larger temple complexes. Nearly all of these monuments were constructed with brick. Monuments were endowed, whether by the king and royal family or by courtier families, with considerable grants of glebe land and "pagoda slaves" for the maintenance of these foundations into posterity. The greater dedications were collegiate centers of study and scholarship. Most of the wooden monasteries, which, along with the palaces and domestic buildings, were made from perishable materials, have been lost. It may be that the decline of Pagan in the late thirteenth century was the result of the strain of having much of the national economy dedicated to the service of these monuments and their incumbents. Considerable information on the extent and costs of such dedications is contained in contemporary epigraphy.

Burmese Buddhism, from Pagan times to the present, has been described as kammatic, the main pre-occupation, from the king to humblest subject, being the earning of merit to ensure a favorable rebirth in the next existence. Coupled to this, the royal dedication of colossal monuments was seen as an act of communal merit-earning that would benefit the entire nation. (This thinking has remained current with successive postindependence military regimes, who, like the kings of Pagan, dedicate a large part of the national product to Buddhist building activities.) Linked to this was the belief that enlightenment is too difficult for most people to attain and therefore the objective in merit-making is to be reborn when the future Buddha Metteya (Maitreya) appears on earth, for an encounter with Metteya brings instant and easy enlightenment. This messianic belief, whose origins can be found in Pyu sculptures, gave rise to a pentagonal plan for monuments that reached its zenith in the construction of the virtuoso Dhamma-yazika stūpa at Pagan.

During the three centuries of artistic activity at Pagan there were three principal phases in which art and architecture evolved. During the early period, Pyu temple types, such as the Abe-yadana or Naga-yon, housed paintings and sculpture clearly derived from Pāla Bengal that illustrate textual sources originating from Sri Lanka but captioned in the Old Mon language. Coupled with imperial expansion was a proselytizing movement of conversion to the Theravāda way, and this art was essentially educational. By 1150, with the construction of the That-byin-nyu and Dhamma-yan-gyi temples under Sithu I, a transitional period becomes evident in the Pagan temple, whereby a clear Burmese idiom emerges in architecture, painting, and sculpture. At the same time, the Old Burmese language is written for the first time as captions beneath wall paintings. Bronze work, perhaps derived from the Arakan, achieves a succinct beauty rarely paralleled in Buddhist art. Temples grow taller, lighter, and more spacious compared with the darker, more mystical early types. By 1200, late period temples, such as Sula-mani or Hti-lo-min-lo, with the main shrine on the upper level, display a virtuoso technical sophistication and quality of craftsmanship. Likewise, painting and sculpture pass from an early period style that is, in spiritual terms, highly charged to a late period style that is supremely confident, yet in execution delicate and in effect delightful.

Iconography from this period betrays the mixed origins of Pagan Buddhism and by the mid-eleventh century the dominance of the Theravāda tradition. Bodhisattva, dvārapāla, garuḍa, nāga, and other "sacred beasts" of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon abound mainly as decorative elements in great cycles of narrative paintings depicting the life of the Buddha, the jātaka, and other Theravāda tales. During the early period, Buddhist "purifications" of ancient animist cults were absorbed into the new state religion, as were Hindu deities, as supporters of the faith. These spirit or nat cults survive to this day, and such "folk art" combined with ritual, costume, and dance is a rich potential area of anthropological study.

Post-Pagan, 1300–1752

Following the Mongol incursion of 1278, Pagan fell into economic decline and into the power vacuum stepped Shan-Tai tribes who were responsible for much of the desecration of the temples at Pagan. Later converted to Buddhism, the art and architecture of the Shan states is a rich potential source of study with distinct styles of architecture, sculpture, and decoration more akin to Thailand than Burma. Likewise for the Arakan, a kingdom on the Bay of Bengal that remained independent until the late eighteenth century with its capital at Mrauk-U and its own highly original styles betraying the proximity of India. By the sixteenth century the Burmese under the First Ava dynasty had reasserted itself at Toungoo. They established capitals at Pegu, which they captured from the Mons, who had regained lost territories following the decline of Pagan, and then at Ava in 1637. During this period the country was reunified and Thailand invaded several times. Little of architectural interest survives from this period, with the exception of various royal stūpas that have since been remodeled. Sculpture from this period can be heavy and crude in execution. The first mural paintings since the end of Pagan may be seen at the Thi-loka-guru (1672) caves at Sagaing and at the Hpo-win-daung caves in the Chindwin valley. These paintings, like the sculpture of this period, are naïve yet vividly entertaining. Early carved wood monasteries at Mingkin show an excellence of decorative work, and Ava period temples, though technically less ambitious than Pagan temples, reveal fine stucco work in the Pagan tradition.

The Konbaung dynasty, 1752–1885

It was not until the rise of the Konbaung dynasty in 1752 that a true revival of the arts in Burma is evident. The Konbaung kings were conscious of their own Pagan heritage; indeed, they set about the first restorations of monuments there and dedicated a number of new monuments at Pagan. Compared with the more restrained classical idiom of Pagan, the art of the Konbaung has a distinctly rococo tendency. Decoration can be highly florid; stucco carvings adorning temple pediments tend to be flamboyant. The principal Konbaung monuments are found in the area around present-day Mandalay, in the vicinities of the sites of the three former Konbaung capitals at Ava, Amarapura, and Mandalay itself, established in 1855. Under the Konbaung,

woodcarving flourished, as seen in a number of splendid carved wood monasteries, including Shwe Kyaung in Mandalay and Bagaya Kyaung in Ava. The unfinished Mingun Pagoda, built by the megalomaniacal King Bodawhpaya in 1790, is said to be the largest brick structure in the world, and its bell is the largest working bell in the world. Across the Irrawaddy from Mandalay, the pilgrimage center of Sagaing contains a number of Ava, Konbaung, and colonial-period dedications revealing the high levels of craftsmanship achieved in the decorative arts during these periods. Illustrated manuscripts (secular and religious), glass mosaic work, textiles, lacquer ware, and silversmithing are but a few of the crafts that flourished.

The sixth conquest of Ayutthaya in Thailand in 1767 resulted in the relocation of a number of Thai artists in Burma whose work includes the redecoration of the UPāli Thein at Pagan. Chinese influences appeared in the works of Bagyidaw. The hand of Italian engineers employed by King Mindon can be seen in a number of Italianate pavilions at the new Mandalay palace and in a number of religious dedications, notably the Atu-ma-shi Monastery, destroyed by fire in an 1890 war and since reconstructed. Following the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1886, the Buddhist arts underwent something of a renaissance as a result of increased prosperity coupled with the liberation of a devout mercantile class from sumptuary controls. Splendid monastery complexes, such as the Ma-so-shin and Myin-wun-taik monasteries, were constructed in the 1890s with traditional ground plans and pseudo-Palladian facades. The classical arcades of the Yakhine Maha-myat-muni Hpaya-gyi, the principal pagoda of modern Mandalay, dedicated in 1784 but largely rebuilt in the colonial period, again reveal this European influence. In the mural paintings found within the Hpaya-gyi, early portrayals of Europeans, railway trains, and steamboats are depicted in classical Konbaung style.

See also:Cave Sanctuaries; Merit and Merit-Making; Monastic Architecture; Myanmar; Shwedagon


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Paul Strachan