BURMA, AS A COUNTRY, has a cultural tradition extending back at least fifteen centuries. The chief factor responsible for this tradition was the introduction of Buddhism from India over 2000 years ago. Buddhism has not only deeply permeated Burmese life, ideas, manners and aspirations, it has also provided the subjects and outlets of expression in Burmese art and architecture. Pagodas, temples and monasteries have been fruitful soil for the most lavish works of sculpture and carving. Over the ages, the Burmese have been indefatigable builders of religious edifices, and statues were needed to fill their halls and relic chambers. The making of a religious object was an act of faith, and also constituted a meritorious deed, hence statues were made in vast numbers.
The earliest evidence of civilization in Burma can be traced to the Pyu kingdom, founded along the middle reaches of the Irrawaddy River, which flourished between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D. Most of the earliest Pyu stone Buddha images discovered in Burma are made of sandstone and come from Srikshetra, a site five miles south of present-day Prome. All derive their style from the Gupta period (A.D. 320-510) of North India, an epoch of art noted for its monumental simplicity, the refined realism of the human figure and an expression of a mood of inner calm and tranquility. Single statues are comparatively rare in Pyu art for it was popular at that time for Buddhist believers to adore groups of the Exalted One, his attendants and devotees. The majority are in the form of large stone sculptures in relief, often beautiful in design and workmanship. Some bear lines of Pyu inscriptions on the lower portion. Unfortunately, because of their age and the vandalism perpetrated by treasure seekers, the ones uncovered are not in a very good state of preservation.
On most stone reliefs Lord Buddha, as the central figure, is usually shown seated either in the lotus position with upraised soles on thighs, or in virasana with the right leg over the left. The hands show a greater variety of mudras (gestures) compared with later images, ranging from dhyana mudra, with both hands resting palm upwards in the lap, to dharmacakra, the preaching position with the fingers of both hands touching across the chest, and abhaya, or freedom from fear, with the palm of the right hand held outwards. The earth touching position of bhumisparsa is also popular, but in many cases the right (or occasionally the left) arm is spread out well to the side over the thigh before it touches the ground, instead of plunging straight from the shoulder in front of the knee over the shin as it does in later images.
The head is usually surrounded by a halo. Unfortunately, in many cases the face has been broken off, so it is not always possible to make out the features. Wear and tear on the surface of the sculpture has also made lines of clothing difficult to distinguish. The remainder of the slab is usually filled with disciples and bodhisattvas. It may sometimes be decorated with a very popular Indian motif, a makara (a crocodile type of mythical beast) supported by a standing lion on an elephant. This motif is a popular backdrop to Buddha figures in both Pyu and Pagan times.
In addition to general scenes of Lord Buddha and followers, famous episodes of his life were often depicted such as The Eight Great Scenes: the Birth from his mother's side at Lumbini; the Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree; the First Sermon at the deer park in Sarnath; the Taming of the wild Nalagiri Elephant that his enemies sent to kill him; the Twin Miracles in which Buddha causes flames and water to pour forth from his body and images of himself to appear across the sky; the Sojourn in the Parileyyaka forest where he accepts the gift of a honeycomb from a monkey; the Descent from the Tavatimsa heaven where he went to preach the Abhidhamma to his mother; and his death or Parinirvana. These are rendered strictly following Indian conventions and are instantly recognizable by believers. Some particularly fine examples of the preaching of the First Sermon have been recovered from Srikshetra. The scene can be identified by the placing of a wheel between two couchant deer below a Buddha in the preaching position.
Other early stone images from Burma prior to the Pagan period (A.D. 1044-1287) have been known to come from Arakan on the western coast of Burma, which, until its conquest by the Burmese King Bodawpaya in 1785, had a long and distinct history of its own. Statues have been recovered from Dinnyawaddy (A.D. 146-788) and Vesali (A.D. 788-957), two of the earliest kingdoms of northern Arakan. Like Burma, Arakan received Buddhism from India and over the centuries developed a slightly differing art style of its own. The earliest known example of Buddhist sculpture uncovered in Burma is a sandstone image originally from Kyauk-taw, the site of the famous Mahamuni Pagoda. It is now in the Mrauk-U Museum. Stylistically it could be as old as A.D. 400. It depicts Lord Buddha seated with his right knee slightly raised on a square undecorated throne with his hands in the dharmacakra preaching position. A richly ornamented man sits at his feet. The head of the Buddha image is clearer than those of the Pyu remains and, like them, shows a strong Gupta influence in the long nose, the full lips, peppercorn curls and the elongated ears stopping just short of the shoulders.
In coastal Ramannadesa (Thaton), the home of the early Mons of Burma who spread over much of Thailand and Cambodia from the seventh to ninth century A.D., some fine standing stone slab images have been found pre-dating the Pagan period. Unfortunately many are damaged or have been repaired. The images are almost life-size and show some very skilled modeling. In addition to Gupta influence, traces of a South Indian style are discernible in some sculpture. The main figure is in high relief, almost in the round, while the background scenes are flat or sunk in lower relief. The themes depicted in stone, like those from Srikshetra, are taken from the Eight Great Scenes. At Tadagale, just outside Rangoon, an excavation in 1937 revealed traces of five weathered laterite Buddhas, each approximately two feet high, seated cross-legged in either the dhyana or bhumisparsa mudra on high thrones against a back slab. They are thought to date from some time between the fifth and eleventh centuries A.D.
Buddha is shown seated with smoothly chiseled feet locked in the lotus position. The right hand, with fingers of differing length, plunges from the shoulder and falls straight over the upper shin to touch the throne in front of the knee. The left hand lies relaxed, palm upwards in the lap.
During the Ava period (1364-1752), a century or so after the upheavals which followed the fall of Pagan, this style further developed. The best examples are in marble, which became a most popular medium from the seventeenth century onwards, although images continued to be made in sandstone. In marble images the face is somewhat squarish in shape and a narrow painted band marks the division between the forehead and the hair. The usnisha is in the form of a low truncated cone sometimes surmounted by a lotus finial. The head may be plain or set with the remains of small raised lacquer curls. The eyebrows, set high on the forehead, have become quite sweeping and bow-like. The distance between the half-closed downcast eyes and eyebrows is greater than in the earlier images. The nose is quite long with clearly defined nostrils. The mouth, close to the nose, is thin-lipped and set in a half-moon smile. There is a large chin area. Since the face tends to be flattish with little attempt to show the facial structure underneath, features such as eyebrows, eye-lids and mouth have been emphasized by incising and painting. The neck is short and thin, while the ears curve inwards level with the chin and turn outwards to touch the shoulders. As with later Pagan images, the most popular pose shows Buddha seated in the lotus position with right hand in the earth touching mudra. The left hand is usually slightly raised above the lap, sup-ported by a small plug of stone which the sculptor left uncut beneath the wrist. Occasionally there is also a small prop between the thumb and the fingers of the same hand. A double row of incising is generally used to indicate hem-lines and turns of cloth. Images continued to be made in this style until well into the nineteenth century.
Approximately at the same time as the Ava period, Arakan was experiencing the last and most glorious epoch in its history as an independent state. Its capital Mrauk-U, founded in A.D. 1430, was embellished with some remarkable fortress-type temples built by King Minbin (1531-1553) and his successors. These temples were filled with some distinctive sandstone Buddha images.
The main images in the temples are about five feet high, excluding their pedestal thrones. The face is rather round with a tendency to squareness around the jaw. The forehead is more broad than high, the face being widest over the eyes. The eyebrows form semicircular arches over the lowered eyelids, protecting the eyes which stare straight ahead. The large triangular nose has a straight bridge and terminates in wide flaring nostrils. Nostril lines continue down to the well-defined mouth which is set in a benign smile above a well-rounded, slightly protruding chin. The ears are large, especially in the upper portion. They do not usually touch the shoulders supporting a thickly set neck. The head is generally covered with small curls topped by a large bun-like usnisha.
The image sits with the right hand in the earth touching position, with fingers usually of the same length touching the shin. The left arm in the lap, as with the Ava images, is often supported by a small prop of stone. Unlike the Ava images, the legs are right over left in the virasana position. The feet are generally roughly hewn, the left one often scarcely sculptured at all. Clothing alternates between a tight-fitting upper garment which leaves the right shoulder and arm uncovered, to one which, apart from a line at the neck and the waist, is scarcely visible at all. Many images are mounted on high-stepped stone pedestals, finely carved with floral decoration, relieved by protruding flanges bearing lively human and animal figures.
Towards the end of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, a new style of Buddha image called the "Mandalay" style developed. In this style the oval face is separated from the hair by a wide fillet band which is sometimes lacquered and inlaid with glass. The head is marked by even rows of small, slightly raised, curls. A thick, round, fleshy usnisha sits at the crown of the head. There is no finial. The arch of the eyebrows is very natural and the eyes have a slightly Mongoloid slant. There is sometimes an urna between the eyebrows. The nose is quite prominent and the mouth, set in a "Mona Lisa" smile, is larger and the lips thicker than in the earlier images. The ears are narrower than in the Ava style, but they still curve outwards when viewed face on. Fingers and toes are occasionally not of equal length. The robes are rendered in thick loose folds suggestive of Chinese Buddhist drapery. There is a prominent decorated flap over the left shoulder and the ends of the robe often appear in a fish-tail pattern. In this style Lord Buddha appears in either a sitting, standing, or reclining pose. From the mid nineteenth century onwards, more novelty has crept into the style of marble images. Elaborately crowned images with five to seven tiered crowns and side flanges have become popular, as have Buddha statues resting in the folds of a snake.
Marble continues to be a most popular medium today, while the art of sandstone sculpture seems to have disappeared. One can still see sculptors hard at work in the outer suburbs of Mandalay on the road to Amarapura, skillfully fashioning images for the faithful from marble which comes from the Sagyin area, twenty-two miles north of Mandalay. Some are occasionally inscribed by the donors, just as they were by their ancestors throughout the ages, with words such as:
"I, (name), have caused this image of the Blessed One to be made so that I might attain Deliverance. May the Gods, Devas and men, share my merit."
For further reading on this subject, please go to our on-line article entitled
Buddha Images from Burma, Part II: Bronze and Related Materials, and
Buddha Images form Burma, Part III: Wood and Lacquer,
by Sylvia Fraser-Lu
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