BURMESE ART: ANCIENT ART, CLASSICAL PAGAN ART AND SYMBOLS

BURMESE ART

The graphic arts include temple sculpture in wood, stucco, stone, and wood; temple mural painting, usually in tempera; other forms of wood carving; ivory carving; work in bronze, iron, and other metals; jewelry; ceramics; glassware; lacquerware; textiles and costume; items made of palm and bamboo; and painting on paper or canvas.

Pre- historic and stone age finds have been discovered in the remote areas of Myanmar. Among these rare finds are stone age paintings found in the Pyadalin cave in the Taunggyi district of Shan State. There are nine cave paintings in brown colors at a height of about 10 to 11 feet on the cave walls.

As for today’s art scene, The Economist reported: “The junta that rules Myanmar is not known for its love of art. The generals do occasionally pay for the restoration of an historic temple or the painting of an edifying mural. But inevitably, the resulting work aims more to nourish their self-esteem than to reflect the life or concerns of ordinary Burmese. [Source: The Economist, August 2, 2007]

See Separate Articles on BURMESE PAINTING AND MODERN ART, BURMESE SCULPTURE AND BURMESE CRAFTS

Stone Age Myanmar Art

The pre-migration period of Burma spanned from 11,000 B.C. to 4,000 B.C. before the mass migration. This era is characterized by stone age culture which later advanced to bronze and iron age cultures. The cave ritual system, which was later used for Buddhist caves, is believed to have been rooted in the earliest civilization of this era. The effect can be seen today in many Buddhism ritual caves across Burma. Stone Age men lived in Padah-lin caves situated in Ywagan township in southern Shan States by 11,000 B.C. Neolithic paintings found inside Padah-Lin Caves. Have been radiocarbon dated up to 13,000 years ago.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “As infrequent archaeological excavations have slowly revealed pieces of Burma's past, a better but still incomplete understanding of Burma's prehistory has slowly emerged. Scant archaeological evidence suggests that cultures existed in Burma as early as 11,000 B.C., long before the more recent Burmese migrations that occurred after the A.D. 8th century. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

The Neolithic or New Stone Age, when plants and animals were first domesticated and polished stone tools appeared, is evidenced in Burma by three caves located near Taunggyi at the edge of the Shan plateau that are dated to 10000 to 6000 B.C. The most complex of these, the Padhalin cave, contains wall paintings of animals, not unlike those found in the Neolithic caves at Altimira, Spain or Lascaux, France. These paintings may be interpreted as an indication that the cave was used as a site for religious ritual. Thus, caves were among the earliest sites used for Buddhist worship in Burma. This is of importance because the use of caves for religious purposes continued into later periods and may be seen as a "bridge" between the earlier non-Burmese, Animist period and the later Buddhist period. Numerous caves around the ancient city of Pagan have been outfitted with Buddha images or have been incorporated into early temples such as Kyauk Ku Umin or Thamiwhet and Hmyatha Umin. =

Three caves located near Taunggyi at the edge of the Shan Plateau, depict the Neolithic age when farming, domestication, and polished stone tools first appeared. They are dated between 11,000 to 6,000 B.C.. The most significant of these is the Padah-Lin cave where over 1,600 of stones and cave paintings have been uncovered. These paintings lie from ten to twelve feet above the floor level depicting figures in red ochre of two human hands, a fish, bulls, bisons, a deer and probably the hind of an elephant. The paintings indicate that the cave was probably used for religious rituals. If so, these caves could be one of the earliest sites used for worshiping in Burma. The use of caves for religious purposes continued into later periods. Thus, Buddhist Burmese use of cave worshiping originates from the earlier Animist period. =

A Buddhist temple is referred to as a cave, whether it is naturally formed or, as is most often the case, architecturally constructed. The Burmese word for cave is "gu" and has been continually used to refer to Buddhist temples. It is frequently incorporated into the name of a temple, for example Shwe Gu Kyi or Penatha Gu. Also, until the twelfth century, temple interiors were intentionally dimly lit. This effect was achieved by installing permanent stone or brick lattices in all the relatively small windows. (The Burmese ethnic group has been credited with building their temples with larger, unobstructed windows and thereby creating more brightly-lit interiors - a transition that is seen in the temples of the Pagan Period). =

Pyu Art

The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu entered the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan in the 2nd century B.C., and went on to found city states throughout the Irrawaddy valley. The Pyu were the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant. During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India. Trade with India brought Buddhism from southern India. By the 4th century, many in the Irrawaddy valley had converted to Buddhism. The Pyu calendar, based on the Buddhist calendar, later became the Burmese calendar. Latest scholarship, though yet not settled, suggests that the Pyu script, based on the Indian Brahmi script, may have been the source of the Burmese script. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Pyu city-states—five major walled cities and several smaller towns have been excavated—were all located in the three main irrigated regions of Upper Burma: the Mu valley, the Kyaukse plains and Minbu region, around the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. Part of an overland trade route between China and India, the Pyu realm gradually expanded south. Halin, founded in the 1st century A.D. at the northern edge of Upper Burma, was the largest and most important city until around the 7th or 8th century when it was superseded by Sri Ksetra (near modern Pyay) at the southern edge. Twice as large as Halin, Sri Ksetra was the largest and most influential Pyu center. +

The Pyu were accomplished masons and artists. Archeological findings at the old sites of Beikthano, Hanlin and Srikshetra have unearthed high standard Myanmar masonry work. 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. ~

Burial Urns and Other Artifacts from the Pyu City States

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “A wide variety of ceramic burial urns were discovered at Beikthano. Almost all consist of a container base with a cover, though they vary considerably in shape from spherical to water pot with neck, to cylindrical with straight sides, to globularly cylindrical. Surface ornamentation also varies greatly from resolutely plain to elaborate sgrafitto and applique patterns. Most were found inside or just outside the various structures with calcinated bones and ashes inside. The burial urns found at Beikthano in some considerable abundance reveal definite cultural links between Beikthano and the later Pyu sites of Halin and Srikshetra. A great number of urns have been unearthed at Srikshetra that show a similar pattern in their contents and their manner of burial, however they are far less ornate in their decoration than many of the urns at Beikthano. Although few urns have been found at Halin, their tall, perpendicular sides are also quite similar to some of the urns found at Beikthano. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Large quantities of pottery of various types and calcified bones and skulls were found within one of the structures unearthed at the site. Limited numbers of Pyu coins - typically marked with symbols but without inscribed words - were found at Bseikthano. The coins that have come to light include types found at the later Pyu sites of Halin and Srikshetra and thus establish an important cultural link between these Pyu sites. =

Although no Buddha images or clay votive tablets were discovered, Halin has produced a rich trove of small artifacts. Objects such as decorated sherds and beads of semiprecious stones, a few gold rings, two gold pendants, two gold beads, one round and one barrel-shaped, and several tiny disc beads of gold were found at different ritual structures. Irons nails, knife blades, arrowheads and sockets for doors were recovered in abundance. Of particular interest is a weapon called a caltrop made of four, sharp, connected spikes that was used to impede the progress of cavalry and foot soldiers. Among the domestic objects recovered were three hand-mirrors made of bronze. Other finds, often by villagers, consist of gold, silver, and bronze objects or ornaments but these have frequently been melted down for the value of their metal or sold. Of particular interest are a number of Pyu coins similar to those found at Srikshetra. The only difference between them is that the symbol of the rising sun seen on the Halin coins is replaced by the throne (bhadrapitha) emblem as seen on the coins from Skrikshetra. An unusual coin type found at Halin and rarely seen at Skrikshetra has a conch within the door-like Srivatsa symbol. Also found were several stone slabs that unfortunately bear only partially legible inscriptions. Of those that can be translated, at least in part, the earliest is thought to be an epitaph marking the site of the tomb of one Honorable Ru-ba while another gives the name of a queen, Sri Jatrajiku. =

Small objects and statuettes made of gold, silver, and copper have also been found at Srikshetra. Such objects include miniature stupas of silver, gold and silver caskets, models of boats, ducks, deer, butterflies, lotus flowers, gold and silver rings, necklace of elephants made of jade, and a variety of beads made of carnelian, amethyst, crystal, quartz, agate, and glass. =

Ancient Mon Art

The first major group of immigrants to arrive in present-day Burma were the Mon who were originally from China and settled in what is now northern Burma around the third century B.C. The Mon where a highly cultured Buddhist people with a classical North Indian heritage who settled in Central Burma. Pegu (50 miles from Yangon) was established by the Mon in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region.

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]

When King Anawrahta of Pagan brought the relics of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures to Pagan from the Mon capital Suvunna Boumi, various gold and silver artifacts were included. Popular copper items include Buddha images, gongs, bells, and round cattle bells. Monasteries and pagodas are decorated with intricate patterns of stucco works. The artisans produced wood products using the turner's lathe. This craft also owed much to Mons of Suvunna Boumi.

Animist Art in Myanmar

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Art objects used in animism are typically made of perishable materials. The images are often of wood, cane, feathers, leather, and other materials such as unfired clay that easily disintegrate. Due to humidity, bacteria, and the foraging of animals and insects, these art forms do not last for long periods. Art forms made of perishable materials are suitable for animist ritual since the animist aesthetic places importance on the new and beautiful because the end goal is to please and attract the spirits. The sentiment here is that attractive gifts should be new and not secondhand. Therefore, old images that have been used previously are frequently repainted, re-dressed or made anew. At times, the "art objects" are discarded after a ritual since the objects have served their purpose of attracting the spirit and the spirit by its very nature of being a spirit can not take the objects away. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“Earthenware funerary urns of varying shapes and sizes were found while excavating mounds scattered” in Pyu cities. “Most of the urns contain calcified bones mixed with ashes and loose earth. The few copper and stone urns that have been found were probably used for the burials of royalty. This was almost certainly the case because the four large stone urns that were discovered near the Payagyi pagoda each bear a brief epitaph recording the names of royalty and their dates. The use of urns, both stone and ceramic, for secondary burial is a widespread trait in early Southeast Asia. Their use during the Pyu Period is probably the continuation of an earlier megalithic practice.

“Animist art objects are created in almost any form. The images may be anthropomorphic, or just an uncut slab of rock. The object may be adorned or unadorned. In Burma, the major Animist spirits were transformed into the Pantheon of the 37 Nats during the Pagan Period. The earliest known images of the brother and sister nats, Min Mahagiri and his Sister, who lead the pantheon, were painted on two planks hewn from a their sacred tree that had been thrown into the Irrawaddy and had floated down the Irrawaddy to Pagan. =

Bronze Drums —an Ancient Animist Art Form

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The use and manufacture of bronze drums is the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia. It began some time before the 6th century B.C. in northern Vietnam and later spread to other areas such as Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Karen adopted the use of bronze drums at some time prior to their 8th century migration from Yunnan into Burma where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border. During a long period of adoption and transfer, the drum type was progressively altered from that found in northern Vietnam (Dong Son or Heger Type I) to produce a separate Karen type (Heger Type III). In 1904, Franz Heger developed a categorization for the four types of bronze drums found in Southeast Asia that is still in use today. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The vibrating tympanum is made of bronze and is cast as a continuous piece with the cylinder. Distinguishing features of the Karen type include a less bulbous cylinder so that the cylinder profile is continuous rather than being divided into three distinct parts. Type III has a markedly protruding lip, unlike the earlier Dong Son drums. The decoration of the tympanum continues the tradition of the Dong Son drums in having a star shaped motif at its center with concentric circles of small, two-dimensional motifs extending to the outer perimeter. =

“In Burma the drums are known as frog drums (pha-si), after the images of frogs that invariably appear at four equidistant points around the circumference of the tympanum. A Karen innovation was the addition of three-dimensional figures to one side of the cylinder so that insects and animals, but never humans, are often represented descending the trunk of a stylized tree. The frogs on the tympanum vary from one to three and, when appearing in multiples, are stacked atop each other. The number of frogs in each stack on the tympanum usually corresponds to the number of figures on the cylinder such as elephants or snails. The numerous changes of motif in the two- and three-dimensional ornamentation of the drums have been used to establish a relative chronology for the development of the Karen drum type over approximately one thousand years.” =

Uses of Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-fife and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the loci or seat of the spirit. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“It appears that the oldest use of the drums by the Karen was to accompany the protracted funeral rituals performed for important individuals. The drums were played during the various funeral events and then, among some groups, small bits of the drum were cut away and placed in the hand of the deceased to accompany the spirit into the afterlife. It appears that the drums were never used as containers for secondary burial because there is no instance where Type III drums have been unearthed or found with human remains inside. The drums are considered so potent and powerful that they would disrupt the daily activities of a household so when not in use, they were placed in the forest or in caves, away from human habitation. They were also kept in rice barns where when turned upside down they became containers for seed rice; a practice that was thought to improve the fertility of the rice. Also, since the drums are made of bronze, they helped to deter predations by scavengers such as rats or mice. =

“The drums were a form of currency that could be traded for slaves, goods or services and were often used in marriage exchanges. They were also a symbol of status, and no Karen could be considered wealthy without one. By the late nineteenth century, some important families owned as many as thirty. The failure to return a borrowed drum often led to internecine disputes among the Karen. =

“Although the drums were cast primarily for use by groups of non-Buddhist hill people, they were used by the Buddhist kings of Burma and Thailand as musical instruments to be played at court and as appropriate gifts to Buddhist temples and monasteries. The first known record of the Karen drum in Burma is found in an inscription of the Mon king Manuha at Thaton, dated A.D. 1056.. The word for drum in this inscription occurs in a list of musical instruments played at court and is the compound pham klo: pham is Mon while klo is Karen. The ritual use of Karen drums in lowland royal courts and monasteries continued during the centuries that followed and is an important instance of inversion of the direction in which cultural influences usually flow from the lowlands to the hills. =

Playing and Making Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “When played, the drums were strung up by a cord to a tree limb or a house beam so that the tympanum hung at approximately a forty-five degree angle. The musician placed his big toe in the lower set of lugs to stabilize the drum while striking the tympanum with a padded mallet. Three different tones may be produced if the tympanum is struck at the center, edge, and midpoint. The cylinder was also struck but with long strips of stiff bamboo that produces a sound like a snare drum. The drums were not tuned to a single scale but had individualized sounds, hence they could be used effectively as a signal to summon a specific group to assemble. It is said that a good drum when struck could be heard for up to ten miles in the mountains. The drums were played continuously for long periods of time since the Karen believe that the tonal quality of a drum cannot be properly judged until it is played for several hours. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

For the Karen, the bronze drums perform a vital service in inducing the spirits to bring the rains. When there is a drought, the Karens take the drums into the fields where they are played to make the frogs croak because the Karens believe that if the frogs croak, it is sign that rain will surely fall. Therefore, the drums are also known as "Karen Rain Drums" =

“The town of Nwe Daung, 15 kilometers south of Loikaw, capital of Kayah (formerly Karenni) State, is the only recorded casting site in Burma. Shan craftsmen made drums there for the Karens from approximately 1820 until the town burned in 1889. Karen drums were cast by the lost wax technique; a characteritic that sets them apart from the other bronze drum types that were made with moulds. A five metal formula was used to create the alloy consisting of copper, tin, zinc, silver and gold. Most of the material in the drums is tin and copper with only traces of silver and gold. The Karen made several attempts in the first quarter of the twentieth century to revive the casting of drums but none were successful. During the late 19th century, non-Karen hill people, attracted to the area by the prospect of work with British teak loggers, bought large numbers of Karen drums and transported them to Thailand and Laos. Consequently, their owners frequently incorrectly identify their drums as being indigenous to these countries. =

Buddhist Art

There are four main types of images found in Buddhist temples, each conveying a different level of being in Buddhist cosmology: 1) images of The Buddha; 2) images of Bodhisattvas; 3) images of deities, spirits, heavenly beings, and guardian god; and sometimes 4) images of kings of wisdom and light that serve as protectors of Buddhism.

Most Buddhist art consists of depictions of Buddha, usually in statue from and to lesser extent in murals, frescoes and other paintings. The way in which Buddha is depicted often says more about the culture that created it than about Buddhism itself.

There are lots of symbols and codes in Buddhist art. Simple things like hand positions and the shape of the arms can convey symbolic meaning. Western viewers often have a hard time making sense of it all because they have little exposure to the symbols.

For about five centuries after Buddha's death, it was forbidden to produce images of the Buddha. During that time various devices such as set of large footprints or a treelike post with three Dharma wheels were used to represent the Buddha without actually showing him. The Buddha and his early Disciples opposed the personalization of the Buddha’s message and discouraged speculation about their existence after they were dead. The Buddha hoped that his followers would find salvation though meditation, not through the worship of images. That didn’t stop millions of images of The Buddha and Bodhisattvas from being created though. If he were alive today The Buddha would no doubt be appalled by the number of images of him that have been raised around the globe.

See Separate Article on Buddhist Art facts and details.com

Pagan Arts and Crafts

When King Anawrahta of Pagan brought the relics of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures to Pagan from the Mon capital Suvunna Boumi, various gold and silver artifacts were included. Popular copper items include Buddha images, gongs, bells, and round cattle bells. Monasteries and pagodas are decorated with intricate patterns of stucco works. The artisans produced wood products using the turner's lathe. This craft also owed much to Mons of Suvunna Boumi.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The broad art historical significance of the Pagan Period is that Burmese forms in art and architecture were invented and broadly articulated that were often copied in later periods. It is these forms that have continued as “classic forms” until today. Great wealth was spent during the Pagan Period not only on the construction of so many religious foundations but also in providing for their perpetual upkeep. The considerable lands as well human laborers donated to the temples and monasteries escaped in perpetuity royal taxation so as the temples prospered, the state was progressively deprived of its tax base. By the end of the 13th century, this process seriously undermined the economy so that when the Mongols threatened to invade from the North, the king could not mount an effective response and the kingdom shortly thereafter broke apart into smaller polities. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Myanmar's woodcarving emerged before the Pagan period and subsequently improved in the middle of the Pagan era. The temples and palaces of the old were magnificently decorated with carved wooden gables and eaves, and other fabulous ornamentation comprised of the most creative and intricate woodcarvings. It is a pity that many examples of the true genius of Myanmar wood carvers have suffered in the course of time but, fortunately, some of the most exquisite woodcarvings still survive in monasteries and pagodas. The Shwezigone Pagoda in Pagan, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay contain ornamentation of filigree-like woodcarving with scrolls, flowers, animals and supernatural-beings arranged in intricate patterns. Carvings of nats, or mythical traditional spirits, marionettes, and figures of animals still flourishes today. [Source: visitmyanmar.com ++]

The craft of turnery started to develop in the Pagan period around the 8th century A.D. The artisans produced wood products using the turner's lathe. This craft also owed much to Mons of Suvunna Boumi. The turner produced items of diverse shapes such as boxes, bowls, containers, beads, and kitchen utensils. Now this craft thrives mostly because of the tourism industry. ++

Precious metalwork is one of the oldest Myanmar crafts, dating back to pre-Bagan times. Artistic Pyu silver ware was discovered in the mounds of the old shrines of Srikshetra. When King Anawrahta of Pagan brought the relics of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures to Pagan from the Mon capital Suvunna Boumi, various gold and silver artifacts were included. In antiquity, royals, nobles and the wealthy used gold and silver utensils as status symbols. Silver items such as vases, trays, silver Buddha statuettes were also used for religious purposes. The art of making gold leaf is a renowned Myanmar craft. Gold leaf is popularly used by Buddhist devotees and is pasted on Buddha images as part of their offerings. The process of pounding gold nuggets between layers of leather to get paper-thin gold foils is an intricate art, which is mos prevalent in Mandalay. ++

The 11th century Pagan mural paintings have strong Indian influence and floral patterns are the main elements of the paintings. The Pagan period artists excelled in line drawing, and popular techniques included fresco, oil painting and tempera painting. Most of the paintings depict the 550 Jatakas (Buddha stories). Inwa paintings began depicting the social life of the people, and only red and green paints were mainly used in the murals. ++

Masonry attained its zenith during the Pagan dynasty, and Southern Indian culture and Mon culture contributed much to the Pagan architecture. During that era, many religious edifices were built by the kings and lay people alike. The masonry works are remarkable for their strength, grandeur, beauty of designs, ornamentation, lighting and ventilation which hold spectators in awe. Pagan became the wonder and the pride of Myanmar, and set the example for later endeavours. ++

Art After Pagan

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The decline of Pagan as a political center in the 13th century led to almost three centuries of internecine warfare and internal division. The former Pagan kingdom was repeatedly divided among rivals and only rarely was central Burma administered from a single center. Several competing kingdoms arose, ruled for relatively short periods to be eclipsed by their adversaries who typically plundered the capitol, destroyed religious buildings, burned written records, and led the population away as captives to the new center of power. Additionally, severe earthquakes damaged or destroyed the few buildings left standing, particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therefore, a great abundance of visual material has not survived from the 14th through 18th centuries. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“From the materials available, it is apparent that after the 13th century most forms in art and architecture continued those of the Pagan Period rather than expressing new approaches and concepts. Indianized forms fell from favor and continued to be replaced by those of indigenous Burmese inspiration. The arts of the Post Pagan period express nostalgia for the glory of the Pagan. The Shweizigon stupa and the Ananda temple were copied in creating new capitols as a means of validating the aspiring king’s claim to the throne. Also, kings from distant kingdoms returned to Pagan to refurbish ancient structures, to complete wall paintings or, occasionally, to build new buildings. Many new stupas were built and ancient, revered examples were enlarged and repaired. Temples, however, became a conscious anachronism. On the few temples that were constructed, a stupa-like finial or a multi-tiered, square pavilion, the Burmese payattat, replaced the shikhara tower often seen on the great temples at Pagan. =

“Burmese art history after the Pagan Period has traditionally been divided into segments that employ the name of the then dominant kingdom such as the Pinya Period (14th century), the First Ava Period (15th century), the Toungoo and second Ava Periods (16th century), the Nyaungyan Period (17th century) and the Konbaung Period (18th to 19th centuries). These divisions are not particularly useful in discussing the arts because styles often continued unchanged from one period to another, several styles were produced simultaneously, and innovations were not necessarily repeated, even during the era of their initiation. Therefore, this review of the development of Burmese arts after the Pagan Period will be divided into two long periods in which various innovations will be discussed chronologically: The Ava Period (c. 1287-1752) and the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). =

Mythical Burmese and Buddhist Creatures

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “In Buddhist cosmology, the thirty-three most powerful gods of Hinduism and Buddhism live on the highest peak of Mt. Meru. Mythical creatures inhabit the Himavanta Forest that grows on the lower slopes of Mount Meru. When these powerful beings enter the world of man, they are usually benevolent, if treated properly. These creatures include the Chinthe, a leonine creature with flaming mane and body, who is a guardian of Buddhism, and today is the national symbol of Burma. Chinthes are ubiquitous in Burmese art and often appear in pairs as guardians on either side of the entrance to a Buddhist temple or stupa. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

The Manukthiha is a uniquely Burmese creation that consists of the bodies of two lions with a single head. Often, in late examples, the torso and head is that of a human, not a lion Another composite creature type that combines human with avian characteristics is the Kinnara (male) or Kinnari (female) who appear frequently in adoring pairs and are considered the "love birds" of the Himavanta Forest. It is these creatures that are used to adorn the walls of temples as well as the pulleys that are attached to Burmese looms, which are frequently operated by unmarried girls whose thoughts, when not on weaving, often turn to thoughts of love and their future family. Excellence in weaving is considered a desirable characteristic to attract a husband. An inhabitant of the forest with a normal anatomy is the Hamsa (Hintha - Pali) or brahmani duck, which symbolizes marital fidelity, since this species has a single mate for life. Hamsas hold a branch of fructifying foliage in their beak as a symbol of prosperity and fertility. =

Manussiha—the Myanmar Man-Lion

The man-lion mythical creature best known in Myanmar is the manussiha. Its name is a blend of two Pali words: the first manussa, meaning a human being, and the second siha, a lion. This creature can be found at each of the four corners of some stupas—a human head and torso on top of the forked haunches of a lion into which the corner of a block like the plinth of a stupa. The human head of the modern manussiha can be seen wearing a crown finished with a motif of tier upon tier of upright lanceolate neem leaves tapering off to a pointed finial and ornamented earflaps. The face with regular features is composed in a benign. if somewhat wooden attitude. It is similar to a sphinx but male. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information <>]

The manussiha is said to have originated more than two thousand years ago. According to traditional belief it is associated with the coming of Buddhist monks Sona and Uttara who brought Buddhism to Suvannabhumi, not too far from modern Thaton. Some say that the name of the royal city was Suddhammavati while some other authoritative sources say that its name was Taikkala (from Golamatti in Pali. through Mon-Tuik gala). Half of the city was located on top of Mount Kelasa while the rest was on the adjoining plain. In any case it was said that the royal city was plagued by ogres who rose from the sea whenever a child was born in the palace. invaded it and carried away the infant to eat. <>

Just as the monks arrived, it was said, the chief queen gave birth and a contingent of ogresses was soon converging on the palace. However. the monks prevented the ogresses from snatching the royal infant by using their powers to create a monster with a human head and torso on top of the forked haunches of a lion that was twice the size of the ogresses which frightened them and prevented them from carrying out their macabre plan. <>

It was said that from that day likenesses of this monster were drawn on various species of palm leaf to be worn as amulets to ward off danger. A stone inscription from the 15th century mentions that a stone sculpture of that monster existed at the northeastern part of the said city on top of the Kelasa mountain right up to the time of its inscription. <>

Some translations also use the term narasimha for the same monster. Narasimha is a Sanskrit term, which is also to be found in Pali made up of nara (meaning man) and simha (denoting a lion) . The word manussiha also seems to be applied to a creature with the head of a lion on a human torso as it appears in the depiction of the fourth avatar (incarnation) of the Hindu god Vishnu. As such it is different from the manussiha man-lion in which the head is that of a man and not that of a lion. Moreover narasimha is also used as one of the epithets of the Buddha where the comparison with a lion denotes the greatest degree in courage and accomplishments among men. Some have also attempted to draw a distinction between the two terms for a man-lion by saying that narasiha has a face like one modelled from a death mask while the manussiha is a narasiha decked out in all kinds of ornaments. Still others contend that the monster that the venerable monks created to drive away the ogress was part ogre and part lion. <>

Lokanat--- Peacemaker and Benevolent Prince:

The Lokanat is for the Myanmar people a symbol of peace and prosperity and figures prominently in our art and culture. The role of the Lokanat as peacemaker is based on a legend which has come down through the generations. Once upon a time the Guardian Spirit of the universe, known as the Loka Byuha Nat or Lokanat, was making the rounds of his domain to see that all was well when he came upon the Kethayaza Chinthemin, the King Lion, and the Flying Elephant locked in mortal combat. The fight had broken out over attempts to grab the lacy tender clouds which were the favourite sustenance for both. Now the lion was pressing his foot down on the elephant with all his might and sucking at the trunk. The flying elephant was also doing his utmost to pierce the lion with his tusks. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information <>]

The Lokanat foresaw that if the tempo of the combat should intensify and become more violent then the entire earth itself would be set ablaze and left in a heap of ashes. So, to put an end to their enmity and instead plant and nurture love and amity between the two battling creatures he started to play a rhythmic beat on his small musical timing cymbals, singing in his melodious voice and dancing in tune to it. The two combatants hearing the soothing voice in song and seeing the graceful dance calmed down and stopped their fight. Thus, their resentment and rancour diminished and the fire of their wrath was extinguished. <>

The term Lokanat is in popular usage today. It is said to be derived from the name of a deity named Lokanahta, which is the combined form of two Pali root words “Loka” (meaning people in general) and Nahta (meaning refuge or haven). So the Lokanat was originally the title of the deity who is believed to keep eternal watch over the world. Later the term also came to denote a prince or a ruler whose benevolence and wisdom protected the people of the kingdom and bestowed good fortune. The Buddhist monk Shin Maharahtathara, a poet and writer of great renown in Myanmar literature, referred to King Saw Bramhadatt as Lokanat in his epic poem about Buridhatt, the future Buddha. <>

The concept of a deity as gentle peacemaker has captured the imagination of creative artists. Myanmar sculptors and painters have fantasized greatly in their portrayals of many celestial beings and deities but the figure of the Lokanat is different and special. He is always portrayed in a sitting position on a pedestal with a lotus-shaped platform. His posture is singular, sitting with one knee raised and the other laid down flat in a curved position with his feet clutching the musical timing cymbals. The hands are raised in a dance choreography with the delicacy and grace and suppleness of a bird's wing in flight; the face is a study of serenity, yet the upward tilt of the chin brings to it a touch of light and joy. It is no wonder that for Myanmar people the Lokanat figure has become synonymous with peace joy and artistry. <>

The Lokanat has become like a logo of the visual arts in Myanmar. Its graceful figure is frequently seen adorning the Myanmar traditional saing-waing (traditional orchestra), for he is regarded the patron of the performing arts as well. As a matter of fact. Because the Lokanat stands for peace and harmony, happiness and joy and all that is good and right, the figure is often placed in a prayer chamber or throne room. A Lokanat figure has been placed in the foreground of the Thihathana Throne now on display at the National Museum. <>

The lotus leaf pedestal of the Lokanat represents a leaf struggling out of the grip of the murky depths of a pond to emerge fresh and green on the water's surface, and the entwining vines are like wavelets lapping at the edges. For the Myanmar people a lotus leaf signifies peace and purity, an escape from the frailty of mundane life into the sunlight of wisdom and truth. This is in complete harmony with the celestial figure which stands for peace and serenity. It is said that Mahayana Buddhists pay homage to the Lokanat as a deity who watches over the universe. Some others believe that if one takes refuge in the Lokanat one will be free of all dangers and will be rewarded with untold wealth and happiness. <>

One of the earliest portrayals of the Lokanat is part of the ancient murals on the walls of the Apeyatana Temple in Pagan. On the wall of the ambulatory corridor of this temple can be seen a portrait of Awalokitesvara also known as the Lokanahta or Lokanat. He is depicted sitting on a huge lotus blossom with his left leg curved and upright and his right laid down on a smaller lotus blossom. The right hand is placed on the knee with the fingers hanging downwards and the left is bent at the elbow and placed on the chest. but holding by the stalks. a boquet of lotus blossoms and buds. He wears a crown and is adorned with a beaded necklace as well as bangles and bracelets. The Awalokitesvara or the Lokanat is said by some to be a prominent Boddhisatt deity of Mahayana Buddhism. <>

The sitting position of the Lokanat— the Lelathana posture—can be found in some Buddha images of the Vesali Era of the Rakhine State. In the Pagan region. figures of the Bodhisatt carved and painted in this manner can be seen in the Pawdawmu, Paungku, Ananda and Apeyatana Pagodas as well as in some pagodas in Kanthit village, Yesagyo Township and Kanbe village in Tuntay township. The Lokanat, though ancient in origin, still holds a fascination for the Myanmar people today. No artist of any talent—be he painter or sculptor—can resist an attempt to create the Lokanat as he or she sees him. <>

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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