Myanmar’s traditional sculpture employs wood, stone and plaster as sculpting materials. Myanmar’s traditional sculpture emerged before the Pagan period and it improved in the middle of Pagan Era. Much of Myanmar’s sculpture is based in Buddhism which arrived from Southern India in the A.D. 11th century. Other neighboring kingdoms such as that of the Mon, Thais and Khmer also influenced Burmese sculpture as did Hinduism and Indian art.
The Burmese word “Pantamault” refers to the art of sculpting with stone primarily through carving, chiseling and breaking the stone. Common images including The Buddha and various images associated with Buddhism, animals such as elephants and deer and mythical creatures, many of them with their roots in India. Most sculptures that tourists see are either inside temples, caves or religious buildings and used to decorate their exterior. Stone sculpture remains very much alive today as an art form. Sculpture studios or workshops can be found in Yangon and other towns, but the majority are concentrated in Mandalay. Very fine works of art in stone, depicting the life of the Buddha, can to be seen at Ananda. Pagan. Other fine examples of stone sculpture include the 1) flower designs in the interior of the portal at Kyawkku-U min, Naung-U Nanhpaya; 2) the Myinkapa plaques portraying the 550 Buddhist birth-stories at Puhtotawkyi, Amarapura; and 3) the great image at Kyauktawkyi at the foot of Mandalay Hill.
The Burmese word “Panbu” refers to the art of sculpting with wood, ivory or similar material primarily through carving. Common subjects are human, animal and religious figures and floral designs. As wood is perishable, most of the wood sculptures of Pagan and Ava periods have been lost. Only a few are left today. One outstanding wood sculpture belonging to the Pagan period is the one at the old portal of Shwesigone pagoda at Nyaung-U. Fine sculptures were prodcued in the 19th century Yatanapon (Mandalay) or post-Yadanapon periods.
Of the Buddha images and statues found in Myanmar, the sitting, standing and reclining styles are the three major iconographic postures. In the sitting posture we find two variations: 1) sitting crosslegged on the lotus blosom motif; and sitting on a chair-like throne with the legs straight down. All the postures are regarded as relaxing. It is said The Buddha had recommended that "sitting, standing, walking and reclining are good exercises for physical fitness". [Source: Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt]
The standing postures are of two types: standing (walking) with an alms bowl in the right hand, followed by the disciples holding their alms bowls in their hands, and standing still with a smile on the face, the right hand raised, with the index finger pointing somewhere. Usually the statue of the Buddha’s cousin Shin Ananda in the sitting and listening position is found by the side of such a standing and pointing Buddha statue. The meaning is that the Buddha is giving his divine prophecy to Shin Ananda.
In the case of the reclining style, there are four variations. If the reclining Buddha statue’s head is laid to the east, with the hand or a cushion supporting the head, it is called Paung laung Buddha. If the head is laid to the west it is called Tharaban Buddha. If the head is to the south it is called Tha lyaung Buddha . If the head is laid to the north, without support under it and the eyes are closed, it is called Maha Parinibban Buddha (the Buddha’s Demise). Most reclining Buddha images found in Myanmar are of Tha Lyaung type. Except for the Mahaparinibban type all are of the Tha Lyaung type regardless of their heads’ direction.
There are several large reclining Buddha statues in Myanmar. Those of exceptionally large size include two at ancient Pagan (made of brick and plaster), two at Mandalay (one hewn out of an alabaster monolith and the other of brick and cement), one at old Tada U town (made of brick and plaster), one at Hinthada (made of brick and plaster), one at Dawei, one at Myeik (made of brick and plaster), one in Yangon (made of brick and cement) and two in Bago (made of brick and plaster). Two more reclining Buddha statues are under construction as of the late 1990s: one near Myowa in Sagaing Division and the other in the Mon State. each claiming that it would be the largest of the type when finished. Both are being carved out of the hill range.
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Pyu Period (2nd century B.C. to A.D. 1050) Sculpture
Beikthano is the oldest urban site so far discovered in Myanmar and the oldest of the three ancient centers of Pyu civilization (the other two being Srikestra and Halin). The structures, pottery, artifacts, and human skeletons found there date from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D.
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Among the excavated structures were found the ruins of Buddhist monasteries, although no Buddhist statuary was found... The excavations produced artifacts that can be categorized as having essentially Pyu characteristics: silver coins bearing symbols of prosperity and good-luck, burial urns of both plain and elaborate designs, beads of clay and semi-precious stones, decorated domestic pottery, iron nails, and metal bosses. This assemblage of artifacts is shared with the later Pyu cities of Halin and Srikshetra. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“A distinct curiosity of this site is the lack of any evidence for Buddhist images, although they have been found at other Pyu city sites such as Halin and particularly Srikshetra. One proposal to explain this curiosity has been that it is an indication that a type of aniconic Buddhism that does not employ images was practiced here and that the practice was similar to that of the Aparaseliya and Mahisasaka sects of South India that do not use images. On the other hand, all evidence of images may have vanished if they were purposely and completely destroyed and/or transported elsewhere. =
Sri Ksetra (Sriksetra or Thaye Khittaya) was the largest and most important of all the Pyu capital cites, the last and southernmost one too. Located approximately five miles southeast of the modern city of Prome, 180 miles northwest of Rangoon, and a few miles inland from the left bank of the Irrawaddy, it was founded between the 5th and 7th centuries, and likely overtook Halin as the premier Pyu city by the 7th or 8th century.
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Srikshetra, in comparison to other Pyu sites, is unusual because of the greater number as well as complexity of the images and artifacts that have come to light. The diversity is found not only in subject matter but in iconography as well. Also, objects were created by a variety of techniques and media: for example, carved stone, cast bronze, gilded repousse silver, beaten and repousse gold, inscribed copper, engraved gems, molded and inscribed clay. Consequently, the artistic diversity of the Pyu Period is scarcely rivaled by later periods in Burmese history where the number of objects available for study is vastly larger. A number of Pyu art objects and artifacts are unique or occur only during this Period. In contrast, objects from later periods are often repetitious so that by the nineteenth century, Buddha images are almost always shown in a single iconographic mode, that of “earth touching” or “calling the earth to witness”. [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 sculpture from Srikshetra can be divided into categories according to religious affiliation although the characteristics of some objects such as Pyu coins may be equivocal. The sculpture will be discussed here according to religion: Theravada Buddhist, Mahayanna Buddhist, Hindu, Animist and Secular. A number of Mahayanist images appear in the assemblage of sculpture from Srikshetra: a beautiful Avalokiteshvara, the Maitreyas, and several bodhisattvas as well as female deities that at present have not been more precisely identified. =
Hindu and Secular Sculptures from Srikshetra
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Hindu images that have come to light are almost all associated with the god Vishnu, the second member of the supreme Hindu triad, the king of the gods, and the model for kings on earth. He is easily identified by his major attributes the club-scepter and discus. Examples of him standing on the shoulders of his winged mount, Garuda, with a female goddess have been uncovered. Several representations of Vishnu reclining on Ananta, his loyal serpent-protector have been found not only at Srikshetra but in the Mon countries as well. A truly extraordinary image, long identified as a guardian figure or devarapala has recently been identified as a standing Garuda, - perhaps with Tantric associations.” [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Several secular figures have also come to light. An exceptionally fine collection of bronze figures was discovered in an excavation near the Pyama stupa. Five bronze Buddhas along with five animated figures that together constitute a wandering troupe of entertainers: a flute player, a drummer, a cymbalist, and a dancer, along with what seem to be a dwarf clown carrying a sack. All of the figures in the troupe are beautifully cast although they are all less than four and one half inches tall. =
“A truly enigmatic two-faced stele was discovered that is thought to depict a warrior king accompanied by his two lieutenants. On the reverse, two women - the king’s wives? - hold an empty throne awaiting the king’s arrival. If the recent identification is correct, it is a representation unique within the history of Burmese art. Also of interest is an ornately molded bronze bell that measures eleven inches in height and is decorated with two emblems of srivatsa, a symbol that frequently appears on Pyu coins.
Theravada Buddhist Sculpture at Srikshetra
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Most images of the Buddha are carved in high relief with a considerable stele backing. Several sets of these monumental images have been found arranged so that two triads face one another. This practice occurs only during the Pyu Period and may hearken back to the megaliths of a much earlier time. A number of Buddha images were found within or outside the ancient city. A great number of clay votive tablets have come to light as well as several bronze molds that were used to stamp them out. These tablets were placed in the foundation and deposit boxes of stupas and temples during construction as a means to increase their sanctity as well as the spiritual merit of the donor. An example of this practice is the placement by King Anawrahta of votive tablets within the Bawbawgyi stupa; each displays fifty small images of the Buddha. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Individual images at Srikshetra represent a number of events in Gautama Buddha’s life: The Birth, The Prince contemplating the Mysteries of Life, Meditation, one of the most elaborate presentations of the First Sermon to be found in Burma, Teaching with both hands in vitarka mudra, the Enlightenment using both right and left hands for earth touching, the earliest representation of the earth goddess in Burma in which she is shown with two long tresses of hair, the Miracle of Double Appearances, Overcoming the Nalagiri Elephant and Holding the alms bowl. In later presentations these events are often assigned much less importance and appear, if at all, within a small frame in a wall painting or as a background embellishment to the Buddha’s enlightenment. =
“There are several remarkable depictions of the four Buddhas of the past on silver repousse reliquaries. There are also representations of a fifth Buddha, Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Several bronze images believed to depict Maitreya have come to light, although they may be the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara without his usual identifying marks. However, one of these curious images has the name Maitreya (incorrectly written on its base. The interest in Maitreya, the Buddha as well as the Bodhisattva of the Future (like Gautama Buddha, he is both a Theravada and Mahayanna deity), arises from a belief that he will return to save the world. This concern with Maiteya as a savior figure continues during the Pagan Period where it is an inspiration for creating votive plaques and for the creation of one of the world’s rare building types: pentagonal temples that have a shrine for each of the four Buddhas of the Past as well as one for Maitreya. =
“Most sculptures at Srikshetra are typically in high relief with a heavy stele backing, although some large single sculptures in the round have been discovered. One such sculpture from the Kan-wet-khaung-gon mound is made of stone and depicts the Buddha in a seated meditation posture with two hands placed on his lap. This is a particularly important image, not only because it is free standing but because it can be dated to the late 7th century by the bilingual inscription on its base. The inscription is fortunately not only in Pyu but Sanskrit as well, the script of which can be dated. This image is then one of the few dated benchmarks that can be used to establish a developmental chronology for Pyu sculpture. =
“Of particular interest is a cylindrical gilded silver casket found in the relic chamber of the Khin Ba mound. In a style derived from the North Indian Gupta style, it is embossed with the last four Buddhas of the present world cycle seated in the earth-touching posture with a standing disciple between each of them. The casket has a flat lid. A banyan tree rises from its center that was once adorned with metal twigs and leaves. Inscribed around the rim of the lid is a Pyu-Pali inscription in South Indian characters. The inscription identifies each Buddha by name as well as their disciples; it also records two names, probably of donors. A smaller reliquary casket shaped like a cube is without a lid or base and has a meditating Buddha seated on each face. Both reliquaries are executed in a precise and beautiful repousse technique. It is not possible to give a detailed description of the Pyu style of image because so many different styles co-existed. Indeed, images that turn up and don’t fit any of the known Burmese styles, are frequently, and often inaccurately, dubbed “Pyu”. =
Mon Period Sculpture (A.D. 825-1057)
Referring to the earliest sculpture found at the Mon city state of Thaton, Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The relatively few pieces of sculpture that can be dated to this early period vary greatly in style and in subject matter. The subjects portrayed are of Hindu, Buddhist and Animist gods. Two Hindu sculptures dating to the 9th – 10th centuries are carved from slabs of reddish sandstone and depict in high relief the figure of Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta. From his body issues a tripartite lotus stem on which are seated Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. This configuration is peculiar to Pyu art. In India, the usual presentation of this event shows a single god, Brahma, appearing within a lotus flower that grows from Vishnu’s navel. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Another Hindu sculpture is that of the four-armed Siva seated with his vehicle, Nandi, the bull below his right leg and the buffalo-demon under his left knee. From slightly later are two small images of Ganesa and a small sculpture of a seated Brahma. All of these sculptures were removed to the Phayre Museum at Rangoon and then loaned to the Rangoon University Library where they were located when the Japanese destroyed the building during World War II. Consequently, they are known today only from fragments and photographs. =
Pagan Sculpture (A.D. 1044 to 1287)
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The buildings still standing at Pagan are impressive, not only in their numbers but also in their architectural techniques, size, decoration, and creative floor plans. This leads logically to an expectation that there would also be a vast number of extant images since each temple would have had at least one major cult image and no doubt several secondary images. Surely, there would have been also an abundance of small images for personal use in household shrines during a prosperous period of more than two hundred years. Alas, that is not the case. Other than images that have remained within the temples, there are relatively few images extant from the Pagan Period numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“This situation is explained in part by the fact that the major image(s) in most temples were made of brick and stucco and, over time, all of these images were gutted by vandals while seeking the contents of the small deposit boxes that were placed behind the neck and navel. If this explanation accounts for the brick and stucco images, why then are there so few images of stone or metal? (Sandstone was primarily used for secondary images placed in temple niches for only a short period during the late11th & early 12th centuries and was then abandoned.) Why there are so few metal images remains a mystery. =
Iconography and Meaning of Pagan Sculpture: The Enlightened Buddha
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “One of the peculiarities of Buddhist sculpture is that the most important event in the Buddha’s life from the point of view of mankind is not the event most frequently represented in sculpture. Depiction of the Buddha's personal enlightenment vastly outnumber representations of all other events in his life including that of his first sermon in which he shared his recently discovered knowledge with all humankind. The multiple images of the Buddha in Burmese art are excellent examples of this peculiarity in which the Buddha is most frequently shown seated with legs folded; left hand in his lap, palm upward; right hand on his shin, palm inward with fingers pointing toward the earth (bhumisparsa mudra). This hand gesture is symbolic of his overcoming the last obstacle to enlightenment, self-doubt. After years of asceticism and many days’ meditation under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha began to doubt that his past lives had been sufficiently perfect to warrant attaining enlightenment. This was because he believed in rebirth - a belief that the soul, like energy, cannot be created or destroyed, but instead experiences changes only from one form to another. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Therefore, the Buddha, like all mankind, had innumerable past lives, all of which would have had to have been lived to perfection if the Buddha was to achieve Nirvana. His difficulty lay in the fact that, like other mortals, he could not remember all his actions in all his former lives. Therefore, he could not be absolutely sure that enlightenment was eminent. By placing his hand on his shin and pointing towards the earth, he summoned the Earth Goddess to come to his assistance. Since in his former lives, the Buddha had participated in the common practice of pouring water on the ground to witness each of his meritorious acts, the Earth Goddess was able to wring a "tidal wave" of water from her hair that had accumulated over the Buddha's many previous lifetimes which was proof of his steadfastness and perfection. The Earth Goddess (Vasundari - Pali or Wathundaye - Burmese) is presented as a woman wringing water from the tresses of her hair, which constitutes one of the rare instances where women played an important role in the Buddha's life. This role, however, was not trivial. It was of pivotal importance because without her witness and assistance the Buddha would not have gained enlightenment. =
Since the Buddha's complete enlightenment occurred immediately after "Calling the Earth Goddess to Witness" and since enlightenment takes place within the body without necessarily any outward indication, the iconographic position of "Calling the Earth to Witness" has come to be accepted as representing the enlightenment of the Buddha. To enhance this association, the cranial protuberance (usnisha = cosmic consciousness or supramundane wisdom) and the enigmatic "smile of enlightenment" were also employed. “
“Images of The Buddha seated in bhumisparsa mudra have been endlessly replicated in the art of Burma and Southeast Asia because it is a reminder to all mankind that there is a way to end human suffering. Therefore, as such, the creation of every additional image of the Buddha is a meritorious act that improves the donor's karma. The multiple images of this event stamped on clay votive plaques evidence the zeal of ancient donors who at times created forty or even one hundred images of the Buddha with a single impression of a metal mould. Because of the large number of Buddha images, these plaques were thought to be especially efficacious in assuring the ritual purity and power of a specific site and, therefore, were often placed in underground chambers below the center-most point of the sanctum in a Buddhist building.” =
Iconography and Meaning of Pagan Sculpture: Buddha’s Disciples and Monks
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “In Burma, two devotees frequently appear at either side of the Buddha's throne and are identified by the Burmese as his two chief disciples, Mogallana and Sariputta, although their presence at enlightenment is not historically (i.e., canonically) correct. At the time of enlightenment, all the Buddha's friends had abandoned him and it was not until later that disciples came to learn his newly discovered knowledge. The insistence of the Burmese to place these two figures at the feet of the Buddha, from at least the 11th century onward, may be explained in part by the Burmese belief that Buddhism was introduced into Burma during the Buddha's lifetime by two of his disciples. This serves to strengthen Burmese ties to the purest version of the Buddha's message – a particular concern of the Theravada Buddhists - which is considered to have been pure and without corruption during his lifetime - although none of the several names given to the early Buddhist missionaries to Burma is Mogallana or Sariputta.” [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
Most Burmese males are expected to join the monkhood at some time during their lives, if only for a brief time. Boys, usually between ages 8 and 13, enter a monastery as a novice after their ceremonial induction or Shinbyu. The entire community is invited to this ceremony, which re-enacts the various stages in the Buddha's life up until the "The Great Renunciation" when the Buddha adopted the restricted regimen of an ascetic (=monk). Ordained Buddhist monks are invited to perform the induction ceremony for a novice and receive gifts of the few necessities allowed them by canonical law. The rules and regulations under which the novice and the monks must live are contained in the Tripitika, excerpts from which are recorded within the Kamawasa, an especially ornate form of Burmese Buddhist manuscript that is produced for use during a Shin Byu ceremony. A new Kamawasa is presented by each novice and is then used to instruct the fledgling novice how to read aloud the Pali language of the Tripitika text, which is a required part of the induction ceremony. The manuscript is then donated to the monastery by the novitiate and his family. =
“Buddhist monks, as part of their vows, renounce the things of this world including all personal property. The monastery loans each monk their few personal belongings that often vary according to sect and country. In Burma the permitted items are an alms bowl with cover and carrier; three cotton robes (untailored, simple rectangles of cloth), a belt, sandals, a fan, a staff, a rosary, a razor, and a drinking cup. Two sheets, Towels, toothbrush, toothpaste, and simple herbal medicines are also allowed. A monk may travel and carry all these items on his person. This can be seen in sculptures such as those of the Burmese monk, Shin Thiwali, who is the Burmese patron saint of travel. His image within the home is also thought to prevent domestic fires and theft. =
“In Burma an acceptable, but non-canonical, item a monk may possess is a betel nut canister, because the chewing of betel is considered to be medicinal and health promoting and monks are allowed a few, select herbal remedies. Monks spend all of their time in religious pursuits and therefore do not work at mundane tasks. They exist entirely on the donations of the laity and leave the monastery each morning at dawn to collect donated food in their alms bowls. Since the laity views these donations as a means to make merit to improve their own karma, on ceremonial occasions monks are invited to ritually receive large amounts of food. Large, ornate alms bowls are used for this ritual presentation of food by the laity to the monks. When worn out, all items are returned to the head monk for disposal and discarded monk's robes may be used as the foundation from which to make the pages of a Kamawasa manuscript.” =
Stone and Metal Sculpture from Pagan
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “ Stone and metal images in Burma most often depict the Buddha seated with legs crossed on a stylized lotus throne with both soles of the feet visible (= padmasana). The right hand, palm inward, points downward across the middle shin and the left hand, palm upward, rests in the lap (bhumisparsa mudra). Depictions of the Buddha in this position first begin to predominate during the Pagan Period, a trend that has continued to the present day. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“There are, however, a few images that show the Buddha in other body positions - as dictated by the event being depicted - such a standing, walking or lying down. These body positions are most frequently used when depicting the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life or the events of the Seven Weeks after Enlightenment, in which there was a particular interest during the Pagan Period. The convention used at Pagan to indicate walking is of interest because it does not show the body or feet in motion (as later, in Thai art). Instead, body movement is shown by having the Buddha’s robe swing asymmetrically to one side or by placing one of the Buddha’s feet at a slightly higher elevation than the other. =
“There are at least two styles of sculpture that date to the Pagan Period. One style best evidenced by the early stone images found in Mon temples is derived from the Pala style of Bihar and Bengal of the 8th to 10thcenturies. This style juxtaposes the bold, smoothly modeled forms of the human body against precisely detailed ornamentation – often of a throne backing. The body is full and plump without any indication of the muscle groupings or bones within the body. The shoulders are broad and round while tapering to a relatively narrow waist. In standing images the thighs appear as effeminately full and round, a visual expression of the canonical dictate that the Buddha should have thighs that resemble the buds of a lotus flower. The head has sharply defined features and may be triangular to oval with a pointed chin and flat cranium. The hair is represented by small, snail shell curls. The cranial protuberance or usnisha , sits well back on the head, is relatively small and may terminate in a small flame-like finial. The eyes are half closed and look downward (rather than directly at the worshiper, as is frequently the case with Buddha images in Thailand). The long, aquiline nose is almost continuous with the broadly arched eyebrows. The mouth is small and pursed, with the upper lip often slightly protruding. The ears are long, do not touch the shoulders, and appear concave when viewed frontally. The neck is of normal length and often has three semi-circular lines or wrinkles considered to be beauty marks. The fingers are of normal length. The monastic robes, consisting of two parts, clings to the body and is almost invisible except for the hems that are lightly incised across the chest and are more boldly indicated around the wrists and shins. A third robe, folded into a rectangle and draped across the shoulder terminates, in fish tail folds. This Pala style image is generally replaced by the middle of the Pagan Period by a Burmese Style of image, and is revived in later periods only when there is a conscious desire to imitate the classic age of Pagan. =
“The second style is evidenced at Pagan by number of seated Buddha images that typically have a more corpulent body, a head that is tilted forward with a short-to-non-existent neck, long earlobes that may touch the shoulders, and fingers of uniform length. This style becomes part of the mainstream of Burmese art and examples frequently occur during later periods. =
“Among the objects unearthed among the temples at Pagan are three elegant bronze lotus buds held upright on elaborately decorative stems. The eight petals of each open outward to reveal a seated Buddha, a stupa or a shikhakra temple at its center. On the inside of each petal is depicted one of the Eight Great Events in Buddha's life. Similar lotuses have been found in Nepal and Tibet and all were probably used ritually on a temple altar. =
“The finest caving that has survived from the Pagan Period is found on a series of over forty-seven miniature stone plaques that are carved from a fine-grained steatite (andagu – Burmese). These carvings most often represent the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life with the Enlightenment being placed in the center. A particularly Burmese sub-set of these plaques includes in an inner band of small images representing the events of the Seven Weeks after Enlightenment. At times, the central Buddha image is shown wearing a crown. =
Wood Sculpture and Votive Tablets from Pagan
Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “A wooden image depicting the Buddha’s decent from Tavatimsa Heaven, where he had gone to preach the Four Noble Truths to his mother, is remarkable for a number of reasons: the subject is not often presented as an independent image, it is one of the few wooden sculptures to have survived until today, and it is well composed and sensitively modeled. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Unusually, The Buddha is shown standing in the elegant thrice-bent stance of tribhanga. Sections of the jeweled tripartite ladder can be seen above his shoulder and behind his feet. The two Hindu gods that accompany him are: Brahma with three of his four heads visible holding an umbrella over the Buddha’s head while Vishnu carries the Buddha’s alms bowl. The small figure seen kneeling at the Buddha’s feet may represent King Udayana who, according to some versions of The Descent, had a sandalwood likeness of the Buddha created when he left this world for Tavatimsa Heaven. King Udayana brought the image with him when he came to receive the Buddha at his descent, an indication that the Buddha had not been forgotten during his absence. If this account is true, King Udayana would have been responsible for creating the first image of the Buddha. (Images of the Buddha were not produced in abundance until the 1st century AD.) Unfortunately, the hands and anything they may have held is now missing from this sculpture. =
“The most numerous and, perhaps, the most intimate objects from the Pagan period are the clay votive tablets that were stamped out and signed by many kings and nobles. The creation of these tablets, each displaying at least one image of the Buddha and some including over 100 images, was thought to produce good merit for its maker. The incentive for their creation is not in doubt, like so much concerning the Pagan Period, because many donors wrote and signed their intentions on the back of the tablet. King Anawrahta’s tablets state that “This Buddha was made, with his own hands, by Sri Maharaja Aniruddhadeva, with the object of emancipation [i.e. gaining Nirvanna]”. Anawrahta’s tablets had his tablets inserted into religious foundations throughout his kingdom. =
“The face of the tablet often displays a Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra seated within a temple that is similar to the one constructed at Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Two lines of Sanskrit in North Indian characters of the 10th to 11th centuries is often imprinted below the Buddha images. This is a statement of the Buddhist creed in its most compressed and basic form: “The Buddha hath the causes told, Of all things springing from causes, And also how things cease to be, Tis this the Mighty Monk proclaims”. Although the use of votive tablets at Pagan continued a tradition that originated in India and some tablets found in the two countries are identical, it is clear that votive plaques were created at Pagan because bronze and clay molds have been discovered there. Also, the Pagan donors signed many of the plaques in script. =
Ava Period (1364-1555) Sculpture
During the Ava Period (1364-1555), Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”, “there were fewer contacts with India and consequently several particularly Burmese image styles evolved. The typical Ava image was made of marble and was carved completely in the round. The stele backing so often used at Pagan is rarely seen. The full and fleshy body is seated on a lotus throne with legs entwined in the lotus position with the right hand calling the earth to witness (bhumisparsa mudra). The squarish head has full cheeks and a fig-like finial above the low usnisha. The ears curve slightly outward and stretch down to touch the shoulder. A small, thin lipped, puckered mouth is situated just below the long, broad nose. The eyebrows arch dramatically upward approximating a semi-circle that may be incised and painted. The half-closed eyes look down instead of outward and in some images the features seem extremely child-like. This curious countenance is explained by the Burmese as a way of indicating that the Buddha manifested the purity of an infant. The fingers and toes are most often all the same length. Supporting props of marble may appear between the thumb and the index finger of the same hand or under the hand or wrist. [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 accepted Theravada Buddhist practice, images of Gautama Buddha appear clothed in unadorned monk’s robes with his hair in small curls and his body devoid of jewelry. The continuity of this visual convention is emblematic of his renunciation of this would of desire and is a reminder of his having sacrificed his material heritage as a crown prince. =
In marked contrast to this strong tradition, there is a cultist convention in Southeast Asia, which depicts the Buddha in lavish royal attire and is known as Jambupati Buddha. One possible explanation for this convention derives from the meeting of the Buddha with King Jambupati. The haughty King Jambupati lived during the time of the Buddha and with his boundless power, he terrorized the world. The Buddha requested that Jambupati forsake evil and practice kindness, but Jambupati was not moved. Realizing the king’s total reluctance, the Buddha magically appeared in resplendent royal raiment that so awed Jambupati that he accepted the Buddhist precepts. In Southeast Asian countries like Burma, where rulers have very high if not semi-divine status, tales of this type justify the need for the king to worship the Buddha, the King of Kings. =
Of the several styles of sculpture that were produced during the Konbaung Period (1752-1885), the Mandalay style became dominant and has persisted until the present day. Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “During the Konbaung Period there is a marked preference for stone and wood, although Mandalay style images were also made in metal. The most favored image in the Mandalay style is a seated Buddha in the position of calling the earth to witness, of which thousands were created. There was also a renewed interest in standing images, many of which are shown holding in their right hand a myrobalan fruit, a symbol for spiritual and physical healing. The left hand of these standing images often grasps the edge of the outer robe to hold it open. In other standing images, both hands are used to hold the outer robe open. Images of the reclining Buddha depicting the Parinirvana, also appear but in much fewer numbers than the other two body positions. Among the representations of Parinirvana, there is a new relaxed presentation where the Buddha’s feet are casually arranged rather than being stacked atop one another. Unfortunately, these images often create an impression that the Buddha is facing a television set, instead of death. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]
“Images in the Mandalay style have full, fleshy bodies with some slight difference in the length of the fingers and toes. The head is a broad oval in which the features arranged horizontally. A wide band, often inlaid with faux gems, borders the forehead and resembles a jeweled tiara. Small black curls cover a full usnisha that rarely terminates in a finial. The mark on the forehead, the urna, may have the spiral form of an "om" symbol. The eye brows are lower and more naturalistic, the mouth broader and more naturally smiling than those of Ava Period images. The ears are long, curve slightly and may touch the shoulders. The contours of the body are almost completely lost under heavy robes that are deeply undercut and have undulating hems inset with ornate bands of faux gems. =
“The Shweyattaw image of a standing Buddha pointing with his right hand is an iconic innovation of the Mandalay Period that is not found elsewhere in Burma or elsewhere in the Buddhist world. A limited number of small replicas were produced, evidently as souvenirs for pilgrims to the Shweyattaw temple since there is no known ritual use for these peculiar images. =
Marble Sculptures in Myanmar
Marble carving was introduced into Burma in the 18th century during the reign of Thalumintragyi, the builder of Kaunghmudaw pagoda at Sagaing, and the industry was developed in the Konebaung dynasty of King Alaungpaya. The most venerated of all images in Burma is a marble image carved under the orders of King Bagyidaw soon after he ascended his grandfather Bodawpaya's throne at Amarapura. It is at Taungtaman just outside Amarapura and is known as Taungtaman Kyauktawgyi.
A huge marble image of Buddha at the foot of Mandalay Hill was carved under orders from King Mindon in imitation of Bagyidaw's image at Amarapura, and was given the same name Kyauktawgyi, or great royal stone). Although much larger in size, the image is not as well proportioned as that of King Bagyidaw's. Marble of very good quality is quarried from Sagyin Hill, 21 miles north of Mandalay. The quarries have been worked for several generations and the work is difficult and dangerous. Sometimes workers have to excavate from the face of a steep cliff, or in a deep cave, or on the edge of a precipice.
Marble is usually extracted in cubes a yard square. The block is cut out by chisel and hammer, and one man can only extract two blocks a month. Once the block of marble is extracted, it laboriously rolled down the hill and often blocks are chipped during this roll. The blocks are then taken by boat, and cart or lorry to Mandalay. Sometimes purchasers buy blocks directly at Sagyin and sometimes the blocks are brought to Mandalay to be sold.
Marble now fetches high prices, depending on the size and quality of the stone. Marble of very good quality is carved into Images of Buddha. A few images of Rahantas or Arahats are still carved today. Marbles is also used for stone slabs for inscriptions, such as those in the Maha-Ioka-Marazein pagoda enclosure, and for dedicatory inscriptions at pagodas. Some of the Buddha images are carved at Sagyin, but the Mandalay carvers are much more skilful and most of the images are made just south of the Maha Myat Muni or Arakan pagoda). Majority of these skillful carvers live and work in a street called Kyauk- sic-tan or Carver Street). The same name is given to another locality in the west of Mandalay where there are also marble carvers. A great many Buddha images are made without prior order, but really good Buddha images have to be specially ordered. The demand for images has increased lately.
The wages of carvers depend entirely on their skill. Their carving tools are few and very simple. They consist of chisels and punches of various sizes made by the carvers from old files bought from saw-mills. The metal of old files is especially hard and suitable for carving. Marble carvers never use iron hammers, only wooden mallets they make from the heart wood of cutch or tamarind trees.
After carving is finished the figure has to be filed (with new files), and then rubbed with different kinds of stone in succession for several days. The first kind of stone used is a coarse stone, the next is a medium stone for another day, and finally a smooth stone. Rough and medium stones come from Katha. The smooth stone is a jeweler's touch stone. Finally the figure is rubbed with sandpaper for a day and it is then finished. Figures other than Buddha images are not so carefully finished - they are merely filed and then rubbed with a coarse stone.
Largest Gold Buddha Image
One of the musts in Mandalay is the Maha Muni, by some measures the world’s largest gold Buddha Image. It is housed in a gilt 19th-century brick temple situated in the south-west part of town. The two Pali words “Maha Muni” mean"the Great Exalted Saint". Local Mandalayans call it ' Hpaya-gyi ' (the great Buddha) because of its superlative size. Brought from Mrohaung in the Rakhine State over the mountain ranges. and by water via the Irrawaddy River in 1784 by the son and heir of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819) the sacred image was housed in a big ornate building constructed in Amarapura. In 1884 the building caught fire but the sacred Image was miraculously saved. Originally it was an alloy but now it is heavily gilded. [Source: Dr. Khin Maung Nyung]
It is estimated that the siiting Buddha statue has nearly two tons of gold is layered on it. The gold crown and the body ornaments it wears are solid gold. Precious gems studded on it— rubies, sapphires, emeralds, jades, diamonds and pearls—have been donated by pious devotees. The image rests on a masonary pedestal six feet, ten inches high. The dimensions of the image taken in 1917 are: 1) Height: 12 feet 7 inches; 2) Waist: 9 feet 6 inches; 3) Arms: 4 feet 11 inches; Width from shoulder: 6 feet 1 inch; Width at base: 9 feet. But since that date years of daily gilding with gold foil have made the above measurements bigger.
The image is reputed to be of very great antiquity. According to legend it was cast during a visit of the Lord Buddha who exhaled his breath into the Image. The Rakhine Chronicles claim that " in the year A.S. 146 a king named Chandrasuriya came to the throne of the Rakhine State… In His reign a metal image of the Buddha was cast." The solid gold canopy installed above the Image is a recent addition. In recent years Mandalayans have donated four votive pieces of solid gold -- an alms bowl, a food container, a water ewer and a stemmed salver. The temple which houses the Image has a terraced roof of gilt stucco which is of modern construction but of classical design.
The original roof was destroyed by fire in 1884. Four entrances facing the four cardinal points lead to the central shrine. The passages were once adorned with frescoes; those on the northside depicted the event of bringing the Image from the Rakhine State to Amarapura. Only a few remain. In the inner precinct are a number of inscribed stone slabs collected by order of King Bodawpaya, with copies of inscriptions recording religious endowments. Not far from the western entrance is a group of bronze figures—two men, three lions and a three headed elephant— housed in a square brick hall. They were brought from the Rakhine State at the same time as the Maha Muni Image . Originally the bronze figures were Khmer and taken to Ayuthaya by the Thais when Siam won the war with Cambodia in 1553. When Bayint Naung of Burma defeated Siam he brought the bronze figures to his capital Hamsawaddi. Pegu. In when King Razagyi of Rakhine State invaded Hamsawaddi Pegu he took them to his capital Mrauk U.
Next to the bronze figures are two of the largest bronze gongs. The trianglar one is called " Kyey - si." The circular is called " Maung. " Each is housed in a separate hall. They were cast a few decades ago . Because of their great size they were not allowed to function but are kept stationary. The history of the casting of these two gigantic votive objects may be read on the billboards inside the halls. On the southeast of the Temple is a large tank of turtles, where Buddhists let fish or turtles go free as an act of life saving charity. The Maha Amuni Image was accompanied by numerous Image attendants and familes of service men who were settled in the areas around the Temple. In the courtyard on the northeast of the precinct. there stands a stone inscription recording the manner in which the image was brought from the Rakhine State.
Largest Stone Buddha
Mandalay is also home what is said to be the largest stone Buddha Image in the world. Officially named "Mahasakyamarajina" (The Great Conqueror of Mara and who was of Sakya race) but commonly called "Kyauk Taw Gyi" (The Great Stone Royal), it is housed in a big brick temple with an iron roof of a unique design on the southern side of Mandalay Hill. The colossal stone was hewn from is alabaster called "Sagyin Kyauk" because it was quarried from the Sagyin hills 24 miles north of Mandalay. [Source: Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt]
The statue was built under the second to last Myanmar monarch, King Mindon. Before he became king Mindon and his younger brother Ka Naung— who were both princes and half-brothers of King Pagan (A.D. 1848-1853)—raised a rebellion against the king. Fleeing from the royal troops who were in hot pursuit after him Prince Mindon spent one night at Sagyin village. There he heard about an enormous alabaster stone in the Sagyin hills— and vowed that if he ascended to the throne he would make a Buddha Image of the stone. He became king in 1853 and his promise was fulfilled twelve years after his ascendancy.
The weight of the alabaster monolith (The Image and its pedestal) is 180 tons. The height of the Image alone is 27feet. The length of the face from the forehead band to the chin is 6.75 feet. Other parts of the Image body are in good proportion to the face. It is said that the Image was sculpted in the correct ratio of a Buddha Image as prescribed by Buddhist iconography. How large the Image is can be gauged from the fact that one can comfortably lie down in the palm of its folding left hand.
The Buddha statue was completed in 1865 and luckily it has escaped natural calamities, human vandalism and ravages of the Second World War.
Making the Largest Stone Buddha
The quarry from which the big stone was extracted lay on the Kama hillock of the Sagyin hills. Most Sagyin stones used for sculpting sacred images are produced from the quarries on the southern side of the Sagyin hills. But the royal monolith was discovered on the northern end of the range. Besides its superlative size the big stone has some unique qualities. It is almost flawless. There are only two negligible blemishes— very unusual for an alabaster stone of super dimension. According to stone sculptors it has five varieties of grain—three white grains and two black grains which are easily visible on the Image.
Regarding the temple which houses the Image. it was King Mindon’s intention to construct a Pagoda on the model of the Ananda Temple at old Pagan. But his intention was frustrated by the outbreak of the Myingun rebellion in 1866. The present roof of a peculiar design was dedicated by the Shan Chief of Yaunghwe. In the spacious precinct are the figures of the eighty disciples of the Buddha ranged around the central shrine. twenty on each side.
Transporting the Largest Stone Buddha
How the enormous stone was brought down from the hillock and how the nearly finished Image was taken to Mandalay was graphically described by a noted woman writer of Mandalay named Ludu Daw Amar in her essay on the Image. The great stone was raised from the pit by means of levers and sledges and runners carried it slowly to the foot of the hill range. Sculpting was carried out there for two to three years by two master sculptors U Toke Gyi and U Pike Htway, assisted by twenty to thirty apprentices.
Transportation of the stone Image to Mindon’s Capital is an interesting account of the Myanmar traditional engineering technique. The great load was floated down to the Irrawaddy River by means of a twin barge. At Sagyin Lake and Sagyin stream, which become connected with the river during the peak of the Monsoon two parallel canals were dug with a ridge between them. Before water was let into the canals two strong flat bottom barges were constructed on either side of the ridge. Then strong thick planks were laid on the barges across the ridge so as to form a raft with two barges under it.
The stone Image was carefully trolleyed to the raft. The canals were filled in with water and the loaded raft was gradually floated down to the Sayin Lake and then to the Sagyin stream which flows into the Irrawaddy River. Men with bamboo poles steered the loaded raft along its water journey to the Mway village jetty on the river bank which was reached on August 8, 1864. From there one of the king’s steamers named Mya Nan Setkya hauled the loaded raft down to Mandalay. Four ministers, one junior minister, high-ranking civil and military officers were put in charge of the transportation of the stone Image. On August 19, 1964, Mya Nan Setkya arrived and anchored at the Ei Kin jetty on the northwest of Mandalay. The arrival of the Image was announced by cannon salute and the king, his court and the public came out in boats to welcome the Image carrying party.
The loaded raft was hauled into Shwe Tachaung canal and at a point the stone Image was transferred to a sledge with runners to take it to the site at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Under the supervision of Crown Prince Ka Naung Min, 12,000 volunteers with great religious zeal. contributed their labour for 13 days in dragging the loaded sledge to the site—a distance of 4 to 5 miles. Such was the royal interest in the making of the Image that a progress report was daily telegraphed to King Mindon by a telegraphic line specially laid between Sagyin and Madaya.
Party Celebrating the Arrival of the Largest Stone Buddha at Mandalay Hill
On May 16, 1865, King Mindon made a Grand Progress from his palace to the Temple of the great alabaster Image. It was a state pageant composed of courtiers and 15000 armed men including archers, lancers, swordsmen, gunners, and artillerymen, and palanquins, sedan chairs, horses, elephants and chariots. True to the traditional composition of the Myanmar standing army, six battalions marched in the vanguard. and six battalions followed in the rearguard, with His Majesty (either on the Palanquin or on Royal Mount) and the ministers and courtiers in the middle. Between the battalions were entertainers such as dancers, singers, musicians, acrobats and wrestlers.
The purpose of the grand pageant was the painting of the face of the Image by the king himself and the consecration of the Image by monks. When the pageant arrived at the Temple, King Mindon offered robes to the invited monks. Then he went up the platform to paint the eyebrows, eyes and lips of the Image. The two Ministers Lord Mya Daung and Lord Laung Shey, who took charge of bringing the big stone from the quarry to the Capital, were honoured with the priviledge of painting the face after the king. Later, professional artists carried out the finishing touches on the Image. Senior monks performed the rite of consecrating the Image by chanting the verse of Anekajatisamsaram. A concert of music and dances followed to mark the successful occasion of the opening ceremony. King Mindon awarded titles, promotions and cash to the ministers, officials, artists, craftsmen and sculptors and engineers who participated in the making and transporting of the colossal Image. The Sagyin villagers were exempted from 12 taxes and the whole Sagyin area was declared by royal order a Birds’ Sanctuary.
Largest Reclining Buddha Image
Among the eleven large reclining Buddha statues in Myanmar the Shwe Tha Lyaung Statue in Bago (Pegu) is publicly acclaimed as the oldest and largest. The other reclining Buddha statue at Bago is named Sein Tha Lyaung which is half the size of the former. Legend has it that the Shwe Tha Lyaung Statue was made by King Miga Depa (Junior) in A.D. 994, making it over 1,000 years old. Miga Depa was the 13th ruler in the long dynasty of over thirty kings. The statue was made at a time when animism and spirit worship were rampant in the kingdom and the king wanted to convert his subjects ti Buddhism. A Mon Princess named Dalla Htaw introduced and propagated Buddhism. [Source: Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt]
In the Myanmar Era 356 (A.D. 994) King Miga Depa made a large reclining Buddha statue on the hillock called Dei Ka Lun which at that time was forested with sandalwood trees. The original Statue was 120 (Than Taung) cubits (180 feet) long. Though subsequent Buddhist kings had maintained and worshipped the sacred Statue in the dark periods of history the sacred object was neglected and exposed to the elements of nature. After being covered with earth and luxuriant vegetation "it came to assume the form of a wooded hillock"—totally lost in oblivion.
Its discovery was a chance find. When the railways were about to be extended to Bago earth and bricks were needed for landfilling and construction of supports and bridges. When an Indian contractor began digging the "wooded hillock" for the supply of earth he discovered the great reclining Statue in a dilapidated condition. Due to a storm of protests by the Buddhists, particularly those who were conversant with the history of ancient Bago, the contractor’s work was halted. The restoration of the sacred Statue was immediately taken in hand. By 1881, the Shwe Tha Lyaung reclining Buddha Statue was completely restored to its original style and splendour. In 1903 an iron pavalion was constructed to shelter it.
Dimensions of the great Shwe Tha Lyaung reclining Buddha Statue: 1 ) Length: 180 ft 54.88 meters; 2) Height: 52 ½ ft 16 meters; 3) Face: 22 ½ ft 6.86 meters; 4) Ear: 15 ft 4.57 meters; 5) Eye: 3 ¾ ft 1.14 meters; 6) Eyebrow: 7 ½ ft 2.29 meters; 7) Eyelid : 7 ½ ft 2.29 meters; 8) Nose: 7 ½ ft 2.29 meters; 9) Lips: 7 ½ ft 2.29 meters; 10) Neck: 7 ½ ft 2.29 meters; 11) Shoulder to waist: 47 ½ ft 14.48 meters; 12) Waist to knee: 47 ½ ft 14.48 meters; 13) Knee to foot: 47 ½ ft 14.48 meters; 14) Elbow to tip of finger: 45 ft 13.71 meters; 15) Little Finger: 10 ft 3.05 meters; 16) Sole of foot: 25 ½ ft 7.77 meters; 17) Great toe: 6 ft 1.83 meters; 18) Palm of Hand 22 ft 6.71 meters.
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