The Early Art of Burma

Surviving Traditions from Pagan and Mandalay

Tradition records that some of his followers once asked the Lord Buddha what they might do to express their devotion to him. In reply, the Teacher spread out his square cloak upon the ground, placed his alms bowl upside down upon it, and held his staff like an axis above the spherical bowl. Today, after nearly 2,500 years, the Buddha’s symbolic gesture is still repeated in the essential form—a square base, a rounded monument, and a thin spire—of the myriad pagodas which the faithful have built, and are still building, in Burma. And the Buddhist shrine, with its attendant sculpture, wood carving or painted decoration, is still the principal artistic expression and aesthetic experience of the Burmese people. To be sure, folk art and handicrafts have flourished in the villages, while tapestries, textiles, richly embroidered garments, and carved and gilded furniture were produced for the royal court at Mandalay, and, in this century, a very small school of secular painting has developed, but religious art and architecture remain dominant.

The pagoda is as much a part of the Burmese landscape as the rice paddy. In every village and along the river banks, wherever elevated ground near a settlement provides the opportunity for visible praise, the traveler will see pagodas, ranging from huge structures like the Shwedagon of Rangoon and the Shwemawdaw of Pegu, whose gilded htis, shining in the sunlight, can be seen from miles away, to little whitewashed shrines a few feet high which a peasant built himself near his home.

The Shwedagon (Plate 26), set on the highest hill in Rangoon, is the largest Buddhist temple of its kind in the world and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from many lands. First built soon after the Buddha’s death to enshrine relics of his hair which Mon merchants had brought from India, it has been enlarged over the centuries until it now towers to a height of 326 feet. Worshipers take off their footwear and ascend to the pagoda by four covered stairways which face the cardinal points of the compass. In the arcades of these stairways, sellers of flower offerings and candles, of religious books and souvenirs, have their booths, and often, behind them, their living quarters. The entrances are guarded by pairs of symbolic figures, giant chinthe lions, fanciful and heraldic (as in Plate 12), with statues of fearful ogres and mythical alchemists behind them. Halfway up the slope a path runs all the way around the hill, where circumambulation can be a form of prayer.

The top of the hill has been leveled to form a great, paved terrace, where thousands may congregate. The main pagoda rises from the center of this platform and its outer edges are crowded with smaller shrines (Plate 17) housing figures of the Buddha, many of them set with jewels, and open-sided, richly carved zayats for rest or prayer. Here saffron-robed monks sit in meditation, give instruction, or lead prayer, while, before the different images, the faithful kneel to make obeisance, touching the forehead to the ground, presenting their offerings of flowers or food, and buy tins of water from the water-carriers to pour over the patient Buddha figures. Or they may purchase little packages of gold leaf and, climbing the sides of the pediment, reverently refurbish the gleaming surface.

Each detail of pagoda architecture, every molding and ornament, has its symbolic meaning. Around the great platform, five hundred small golden stupas represent the five hundred chief disciples who followed the Lord Buddha during his lifetime. The seven angular projections at the base of each stupa are the seven folds in the skirt of the Buddha’s robe. The double band of lotus flowers on the bell-shaped cone signify the Teacher’s Dhamma, the “way” of his doctrine. The soaring hti is both the Buddha’s staff and the umbrella, which, in sun-baked lands, is always a perquisite of honor. Moreover, the hti, with its jewels and tiny golden bells, suggests the ascent of the Savior from the thirty-one planes of existence into the highest realm of heaven, the longed-for parinirvana, the abode of immortal peace. As the wind stirs the golden bells of the hti each sound is a prayer.

The foreigner who witnesses the impressive scene of devotion on the Shwedagon platform should not make the mistake of thinking the spectacle idolatrous. The people may “bow down unto a graven image,” but the action is purely symbolical. To the best of his power, a Burmese seeks to model his life on that of the Buddha, in deed and aspiration. The very form of the pagoda helps him to keep ever in mind the ideals he desires to follow: square base, the Teacher’s cloak; round central mass, the bowl for begging food; tapering hti, the pilgrim’s staff—all symbolizing the life of ascetic renunciation. And many a Burmese will see in his temple’s over-all form the person of the Buddha seated in meditation; compare, for example, the shape of the figure in Plate 25 with that of the Shwedagon in Plate 26.

While legend tells us that Buddhism first came to Burma from northern India, and the Tantric element in the religion of Pagan before King Anawrahta’s reforms implies an overland link with Nepal and Tibet, there is much epigraphic and archaeological evidence to show that the sea traffic between Lower Burma and South India and Ceylon was responsible for a great share of the cultural importation. Thus while the excavated sculpture of the Pyus, a people who held sway around Prome in the seventh century, resembles that of the Gupta school of North India, Pyu inscriptions are like a Telugu-Kanarese script of South India.

And the Mon (or Talaing) people, who flourished south of the Pyus, with their capital at Thaton, near modern Moulmein, who had strong ties with the Khmer empire of Cambodia, built temples very like the typical Singhalese stupa and obtained a text of the Tripitaka, the orthodox scripture of Theravada Buddhism, written in Pali, from Ceylon.

Neither the Pyus nor the Mons were fated to become the unifiers of Burma—this destiny was reserved for the Burmans, who had migrated down from Tibet and China to the central plains around the Irrawaddy River near modern Mandalay—but, as it was with Greece and Rome, much of the culture of the conquered peoples was taken over and developed by the conquerors. And this explains the Indian and Singhalese architectural styles of the great temples of Pagan, capital of the proud and powerful Burmese civilization of the medieval period.

Time and neglect have dealt cruelly with Pagan over the centuries. The monsoon rains, treasure seekers, and foreign vandals posing as archaeologists have defaced frescoes and pilfered sculpture. But fortunately the Burma Archaeological Department is now protecting and restoring the finest monuments. No visitor to Burma should fail to make time for the five-day excursion by plane and river steamer to Pagan. At a deep bend of the Irrawaddy River, its five thousand surviving temples (Plate 7) spread over an area of sixteen square miles, a challenge to the imagination which rivals the lost glories of Luxor, Persepolis, or Angkor.

What driving energy could have produced this vast, richly adorned city? And why did the ancient kings build pagodas and monasteries rather than stone palaces? As Professor Kyaw Thet suggests, the economic basis of this high civilization was an extensive irrigation system. But its deeper stimulus, as we learn from the temple inscriptions, was the Buddhist faith. Not content with worldly success and victories in battle, each of the kings tried to outdo his forebears in raising shrines which would glorify the Lord Buddha and in so doing insure his own spiritual progress in later rebirths. Thus, in an inscription in the Shwegu Temple, we find this beautiful prayer, written in Pali verse, by King Alaungsithu (1112-1167):

By this my gift, whatever boon I seek,
It is the best of boons to profit all;
By this abundant merit I desire
Here or hereafter no angelic pomp
Of Brahmas, Suras, Maras; nor the state
And splendors of a monarch; nay, not even
To be the pupil of a conqueror.
But I would build a causeway sheer athwart
The river of Samsara, and all folk
Would speed across thereby until they reach
The Blessed City. I myself would cross,
And drag the drowning over. Aye, myself
Tamed, I would tame the willful; comforted,
Comfort the timid; wakened, wake the asleep;
Cool, cool the burning; freed, set free the bound.

And Alaungsithu’s predecessor, the conqueror and builder Kyanzittha (1084-1112), inscribed his edicts on massive pillars in this vein:

O King of Devas, hear thou! . . . The sage Bisnu shall become the king Kyanzittha, and he shall uphold the religion of the Lord Buddha . . . . All vice, which is as a stench, shall the king utterly blot out with true morality, which is as a perfume. . . . The tears of those who have lost their friends shall the king wipe away with the hand of loving-kindness. . . With his right hand shall the king give boiled rice and bread to all the people, and with his left hand ornaments and wearing apparel to all men. . . .He shall soften the hearts of those who intend evil, and exhort those who speak evil to speak good. . . .

The spirit, of these utterances is all the more remarkable when we consider that only a hundred years before the religion of Pagan had been in the hands of the debased Ari priests who had corrupted the Buddhism brought from Tibet with magical tricks, snake worship, and lewd Tantric rites. Two men accomplished this striking reformation: Kyamizittha’s father, Anawrahta, and the evangelical monk Shin Arahan, who attracted the king by his holiness and became his chief adviser.

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