CULTURE AND ARTS IN MYANMAR
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Three ethnic groups, the Mon, the Pyu, and the Burmese have made the greatest contribution to the development of the arts and culture of Burma and they all settled in the central plains along the middle and lower reaches of the Irrawaddy or Salween. The Mons are the earliest identifiable group to inhabit Burma and lived along the eastern coastal regions centered about the ancient city of Thaton. Although little is known about their origins or when they first settled in Burma, their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family; similar Mon speaking groups settled in Thailand and Cambodia. Since the Mons occupied areas adjacent to the coast, it is not surprising that they were the first group in Burma to be influenced by Indian ideas. The Mons were the first to adopt the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Mon myths tell of two Mon brothers who visited India and received hair relics from the Buddha. The two brothers returned to Burma bearing their precious gifts that were encased in what has become the most revered Buddhist monument in Burma today, the Shwedagon, located at the center of the present capital, Rangoon. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
According to Countries and Their Cultures: “Until the 1880s, the nobility was an important source of support for artists. After the fall of the monarchy, support came from newly rich merchants and British colonial officers. From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was relatively little support from the government or the public. State schools for the fine arts were opened in Rangoon and Mandalay in 1953, and there was a revival of interest in traditional art forms. The military regime of 1962 encouraged art forms supportive of its nationalist and socialist agenda. Since 1988, there has been little government support.[Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]
Myanmar’s military regime intermittently shuttered universities, drove artists and musicians underground, imprisoned thousands of people—including famous comedians— because of their political beliefs and activities and imposed some of the harshest censorship laws in the world.
For Burmese youth changes that are taking place in Myanmar since political reforms began in 2011 have been intoxicating for cultural, as well as political, reasons. Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times: “ Artists, film-makers, musicians, writers and journalists in Burma have long been subject to rigorous and unforgiving censorship. In the past ten months, however, the shackles have been loosened to an extent still being tested by people in the creative industries. Mr Thein Sein, a former general and Prime Minister, and loyal servant of the old junta, came to power in March 2011, overseeing a palpable relaxation of the censorship regime. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, January 30, 2012]
Pyu Life and Culture
Eighth century Tang Chinese records describe the Pyu as a humane and peaceful people to whom war was virtually unknown and who wore silk cotton instead of actually silk so that they would not have to kill silk worms. The Chinese records also report that the Pyu knew how to make astronomical calculations, and that many Pyu boys entered the monastic life at seven to the age of 20. [Source: Wikipedia +]
The culture of the Pyu city states was heavily influenced by India. Indian culture was most visible in the southern Pyu realm through which most trade with India was conducted by sea. The names of southernmost cities were in Pali or Sanskrit derived like Sri Ksetra (Thaye Khittaya) and Vishnu (Beikthano). The kings at Sri Ksetra titled themselves as Varmans and Varma. It was not just a southern phenomenon. To varying degrees, northern Pyu cities and towns also became under the sway of Indian culture.
Beikthano city and its environs reflect the culture of the Pyus. The populace cremated their dead and buried the ash in funeral urns or jars outside or even within their dwellings. They appear to have gained considerable expertise in the making of burial urns. Over 700 such urns have been uncovered together with 45 intact covers and show the influence of many decorative styles. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]
They were also accomplished masons. They constructed brick walls and edifices that have lasted to the present day. The insides of some buildings have been artistically decorated with stucco figurines. lime-wash and paintings. The craft of blacksmithing seems to have been also developed as evidenced by the iron-work on the City Gates. hinges and decorative scroll work and the production of iron weapons such as swords, spear-heads, arrow-heads and bows. The Pyus also seem to have been adept at pottery making. judging from the 2060 pots and jars uncovered comprising pots for water carrying. jars for water storage. and cooking pots. ~
The gate to the city wall at dig No.8 has also revealed a twice life-sized marble figure presumed to represent a Nat (Animistic) Spirit Guardian of the City indicating that Pyus were also accomplished sculptors in marble. A small paper-thin exquisite gold cup and two similar silver cups that have been excavated bear witness that goldsmithy and silversmithy too were well developed among the Pyus. ~
Ancient Mon Culture
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The first Indianized peoples in Burma were the Mons. An honor shared with their northern neighbors, the Pyus. The Mons, a people of Malayo-Indonesian stock, are related to the early inhabitants of Thailand and Cambodia who also spoke Mon-Khmer languages. The Mons who are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of lower Burma, established their most significant capital at Thaton, strategically located for trade near the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
Little is known of the early history of the Mon people including how long their various kingdoms flourished and the extent of their domains. For example, it is not definitely known if it was the Mon or the Pyu who controlled the lower delta region. Descriptions in Chinese and Indian texts specify their settlement area as being around the present day cities of Moulmein and Pegu in the monsoonal plains of Southeast Burma. This area was first known as Suvannabhumi ("land of gold") and later as Ramannadesa ("Land of Ramanna"); Ramanna being the word for Mon people. The area known as Suvannanbhumi was often connected with the historical Buddha in the later Mon and Burmese chronicles that credit the Mons with first establishing the Buddhist religion in Burma. =
Although little is known about actual religious practice, trade connections through the Mon port city of Thaton can be traced to the Indian kingdom of the Buddhist King Ashoka from as early as the 3rd century B.C. Legend maintains that 2,500 years ago the Mon people began the original structure of the Shwedagon Pagoda that today has become the most revered Buddhist stupa in Burma, a true national monument. This theory, though tenable, lacks objective corroboration because the many changes that have been made to the pagoda over the years have repeatedly encased its original structure and there is no contemporary record of its foundation or a description of its form. =
The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.
In Thailand the ancient Mon culture is referred to as the Dvaravati civilization. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]
Culture and Literature in Pagan
The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. By then, the Burman leadership of the kingdom was unquestioned. The Pyu had largely assumed the Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma. The Burmese language, once an alien tongue, was now the lingua franca of the kingdom. Theravada Buddhism slowly began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. Pagan's rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital zone of which over 2000 remain. The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Whatever the origin of the Burmese script may be, writing in Burmese was still a novelty in the 11th century. The Burmese script became dominant in court only in the 12th century. For much of the Pagan period, written materials needed to produce large numbers of literate monks and students in the villages simply did not exist. According to Than Tun, even in the 13th century, "the art of writing was then still in its infancy with the Burmans". Manuscripts were rare and extremely costly. As late as 1273, a complete set of the Tripit.aka cost 3000 kyats of silver, which could buy over 2000 hectares of paddy fields. Literacy in Burmese, not to mention Pali, was the effective monopoly of the aristocracy and their monastic peers. +
At Pagan and at main provincial centers, Buddhist temples supported an increasingly sophisticated Pali scholarship, which specialized in grammar and philosophical-psychological (abhidhamma) studies, and which reportedly won the admiration of Sinhalese experts. Besides religious texts, Pagan's monks read works in a variety of languages on prosody, phonology, grammar, astrology, alchemy, and medicine, and developed an independent school of legal studies. Most students, and probably the leading monks and nuns, came from aristocratic families. At any rate, local illiteracy probably prevented the sort of detailed village censuses and legal rulings that became a hallmark of post-1550 Toungoo administration. +
Modern Myanmar Youth Culture
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Now a new generation of Burmese is testing the limits of government repression, experimenting with new ways of defying the dictatorship. The pro-democracy movement has taken on many forms. Rap musicians and artists slip allusions to drugs, politics and sex past Myanmar’s censors. Last year, a subversive art network known as Generation Wave, whose 50 members are all under age 30, used street art, hip-hop music and poetry to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. Members smuggled underground-music CDs into the country and created graffiti insulting Gen. Than Shwe, the country’s 78-year-old dictator, and calling for Suu Kyi’s release. Half the Generation Wave membership was jailed as a result. Young bloggers, deep underground, are providing reportage to anti-regime publications and Web sites, such as Irrawaddy Weekly and Mizzima News, put out by Burmese exiles. The junta has banned these outlets and tries to block access to them inside the country. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, March 2011 <>]
“Young activists have also called attention to the dictatorship’s lack of response to human suffering. According to the British-based human rights group Burma Campaign, the Burmese government abandoned victims of the devastating 2008 cyclone that killed more than 138,000 people and has allowed thousands to go untreated for HIV and AIDS. (Although more than 50 international relief organizations work in Myanmar, foreign donors tend to be chary with humanitarian aid, fearing that it will end up lining the pockets of the generals.) Activists have distributed food and supplies to cyclone victims and the destitute and opened Myanmar’s only private HIV-AIDS facility, 379 Gayha (Gayha means shelter house; the street number is 379). The government has repeatedly tried to shut the clinic down but has backed off in the face of neighborhood protests and occasional international press attention. “It’s not quite a youth revolution, as some have dubbed it—more like a sustained protest carried out by a growing number of courageous individuals. “Our country has the second-worst dictatorship in the world, after North Korea,” said Thxa Soe, 30, a London-educated Burmese rapper who has gained a large following. “We can’t sit around and silently accept things as they are.” <>
Despite efforts by the regime to restrict Internet use (and shut it down completely in times of crisis), young people crowd the city’s many cybercafés, trading information over Facebook, watching YouTube and reading about their country on a host of political Web sites. Satellite dishes have sprouted like mushrooms from the rooftop of nearly every apartment building; for customers unable or unwilling to pay fees, the dishes can be bought in the markets of Yangon and Mandalay and installed with a small bribe. “As long as you watch in your own home, nobody bothers you,” I was told by my translator, a 40-year-old former student activist I’ll call Win Win, an avid watcher of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a satellite TV channel produced by Burmese exiles in Norway, as well as the BBC and Voice of America. Win Win and his friends pass around pirated DVDs of documentaries such as Burma VJ, an Academy Award-nominated account of the 2007 protests, and CDs of subversive rock music recorded in secret studios in Myanmar. <>
After a few days in Yangon, I flew to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, to see a live performance by J-Me, one of the country’s most popular rap musicians and the star attraction at a promotional event for Now, a fashion and culture magazine. Five hundred young Burmese, many wearing “I Love Now” T-shirts, packed a Mandalay hotel ballroom festooned with yellow bunting and illuminated by strobe lights. Hotel employees were handing out copies of the Myanmar Times, a largely apolitical English-language weekly filled with bland headlines: “Prominent Monk Helps Upgrade Toilets at Monasteries,” “Election Turnout Higher Than in 1990.” <>
Aung San “Suu Kyi told me that pressure for freedom of expression is growing by the day. Sitting in her office in downtown Yangon, she expressed delight at the proliferation of Web sites such as Facebook, as well as at the bloggers, mobile phone cameras, satellite TV channels and other engines of information exchange that have multiplied since she was placed back under house arrest in 2003, after a one-year release. “With all this new information, there will be more differences of opinion, and I think more and more people are expressing these differences,” she said. “This is the kind of change that cannot be turned back, cannot be stemmed, and if you try to put up a barrier, people will go around it.” <>
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014