Buddha Images from Burma - Part I - Sculptured in Stone

Arts of Asia January/February 1981 issue

by Sylvia Fraser-Lu

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.

Sandstone Buddha in preaching mudra, with richly dressed man
at his feet. From Kyauk-taw, Arakan, this group shows Gupta
influence and may date from as early as 400 A.D. 231 ins high,
15 ins wide. Photo, courtesy U San Tha Aung

Not only did the Burmese receive their religion from India, they became heirs to one of the most glorious art traditions of stone sculpture that the world has ever known. All the great styles of Indian Buddhist sculpture between the fifth and twelfth centuries A.D. are echoed in Burmese art. It was not until the late twelfth century that a local style became more prevalent.

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.

Pyu sandstone sculpture from East Zegu Pagoda,
Srikshetra, showing haloed Buddha in virasana
between two bodhisattvas. 2 ft 
8 ins high, 1 ft 6-1/2 ins wide.
6th-7th century A.D.
Photo, courtesy of Archaeological Dept, Rangoon (A.D.R.)

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.


Fine standing figure of Buddha, in Gupta style,
realistically carved in sandstone, is from Thaton
and can be dated to circa 9th century. Photo, A.D.R.

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.

Part of a stele from Pyu site of Halingyi, showing a group of people in attitude of devotion. Top half, probably a Buddha image, has broken off. 8th./9th century A.D. Photo, A.D.R.

Pagan, the most glorious period artistically in Burma's history, was also a high point of stone sculpture. A grey sandstone was quarried from the nearby hills and turned into four feet high stelae with the Buddha image carved in high relief against a back slab, sometimes plain but often decorated with architectural, animal and vegetal motifs. The statues, which show strong affinities with eighth to twelfth century Pala-Sena art of Bihar and Bengal, generally depict scenes from Lord Buddha's life with the Enlightenment scene taking precedence over all others.

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.

Pyu relief depicting Preaching of the First Sermon
in the Deer Park at Sarnath. Buddha, on lotus throne
in dharmacakra mudra, is surrounded by devotees,
while in panel below are two deer with the wheel
between them. Circa 10th century. Photo, A.D.R

Dharmacakra and dhyana mudras, although still seen, are less popular than in Pyu images. The Pagan face is oval to triangular with a slightly pointed chin. Arched eyebrows nearly join at the bridge of a long aquiline nose. Half-closed eyes gaze modestly downwards. The mouth, set in a half smile, is small but well-defined, the lower lip being slightly thicker than the upper. In some cases the forehead is marked by an urna (one of the marks of Buddha hood). Elongated ear lobes do not quite touch the shoulders. The head is covered with rows of small spiral curls, sometimes coming to a slight peak in front and terminating in a small flame finial above the usnisha (a fleshy lump on the head) which is placed a little back from the centre of the skull. The neck, with three distinct lines, is mounted on a body which is plump at the shoulders but tapers to a narrow waist. The robe, in most cases, is lightly defined below the right nipple culminating in a flap over the left breast. A line is visible at the waist below the navel, and double wavy hemlines can be seen around the ankles. In some statues the only signs of clothing are lines around the neck and wrists. Supporting these sculptures is a double lotus throne with petals well-defined and deeply carved.

During the Pagan period, the Buddha may be a single image or it may be one in a series of stories depicting the many significant events of his life. When depicted in a scene, the Master is by far the largest figure. He may be seated, standing or reclining as the story demands. Other key figures are either portrayed around him, much smaller in size and in lower relief, or in a predella below the Buddha image. These statues were usually presented as a series of stations, being placed in niches in the hallways of main temples. The most famous are those of the Ananda Temple which has a series of eighty, giving a detailed pictorial account of Buddha's life from his Conception until his Enlightenment. Other temples such as the Kyaukku Ohnmin, the Nagayon, Minkaba Kubyaukgyi and the Minpyagu also have a less extensive, but alas, less well-preserved series of sculptures of Buddha's life.

Delicately carved dolomite tablet found near Upali Thein, Pagan, showing Eight Great Scenes of Buddha's life. Buddha figure in Enlightenment pose is surrounded by seven smaller scenes.
5 ins high, 3-1/2 ins wide. 11th century.
(Pagan Archaeological Museum). Photo, A.D.R.

Another legacy of Pala art can be seen in delicately carved dolomite tablets (Burmese: andagu) which portray the Eight Great Scenes of Buddha's life on a single slab. Some, in addition to the Eight Scenes, will also include the Seven Sites around the Bodhi tree for good measure. They vary in size from three to eight inches high. They are usually so finely carved that the interplay of light and shade is suggestive of filigree work. The Eight Scenes represented, beginning at the top in a clockwise direction, are: The Parinirvana; the Descent from the Tavatimsa; the Twin Miracles; the Sojourn in the Parileyyaka Forest; the Nativity; the First Sermon; and the Taming of the Nalagiri Elephant. Sometimes the order of the scenes may vary a little. These seven are arranged around a larger central Buddha figure, usually in monk's garb, but occasionally crowned. Seated in the earth touching position, the figure is flanked on either side by a bodhisattva enclosed within an arch of the hosts of the devil Mara: Buddha's throne is supported on either side by two graceful nagas (snake kings). Most andagu sculptures have been found in the Pagan district, while some have been found in Upper Burma and as far afield as Arakan.


Pagan sandstone Buddha, carved in high relief against a back slab, shown in preaching mudra seated on a lotus throne.
4 ft high, it dates from the 11th century.
(Pagan Archaeological Museum)

Buddha image in dhyana mudra. Bowl he was holding is missing. Haloed head is backed by architectural motifs; predella shows eight devotees.
Pagan, 11th century

Sandstone figure of Buddha, sitting cross­legged on a lotus throne in bhumisparsa (earth touching) mudra. Pagan, 11th century. One of several examples in the Pagan Archaeological Museum.

This sandstone relief carving from Pagan shows Buddha in the act of severing his hair for the Great Renunciation, when he left the palace. 11th century

Ananda Temple stele, closely following Indian conventions, shows Birth of Buddha from his
mother's side at Lumbini. Queen Maya is seen with one arm round her sister,
the other touching the Sal tree.
4ft high, 11th century. Photo A.D.R.

Steatite plaque from Arakan, depicting the Eight Great Scenes. It shows the Lord Buddha in the
earth touching mudra under the pipul tree, with the other scenes around on the outside.
Circa 11th century.

During the late Pagan period, with the wane of Buddhism in India resulting in less contact between the two countries, a more distinctly local style began to develop, which was to become the norm for subsequent images. In this style the head has become larger in relation to the body. The face is broader and rounder. The curls are less prominent and in some cases the hair is only indicated by a line framing the face. On the larger face, the eyes look slightly more than half-closed. The nose too is less aquiline, while the mouth has become bow-shaped. The head drops slightly forward on a short neck. The ears have become thicker and touch the heavier set torso. The feet in the lotus position have become slab-like and the fingers are of uniform length. Clothing continues to be light and is indicated by a plain flap across the left shoulder and lines at the wrists and feet. Many images are now fully in the round without the back slab. The earth touching position has become the most popular pose.


Buddha taming the Nalagiri Elephant (below his right hand), watched by two attendants. 12th-13th century. (Pagan Archaeological Museum)

Buddha with gift from monkey (seen on left and lower right) in Parileyyaka forest. Circa 13th century. (Pagan Archaeological Museum)

Sandstone statue in the round, of Buddha in the earth touching pose.
Circa 14th century. (Pagan Archaeological Museum)

Stone Buddha image in late Pagan style, shown sitting cross-legged in dhyana mudra.
Height 5 ft. Circa 13th century

Preaching of the First Sermon, with two deer on either side of wheel in predella below.
Circa 13th century. (Pagan Archaeological Museum)

Sandstone figure of Buddha from the Shittaung Pagoda.
It is 4 ft high and can be dated approximately to the 16th century


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.


Remains of Buddha image, made of speckled sandstone, found near ruins of Dipayon Pagoda at Mrauk-U. Height 31 ft. 16th­17th century

Marble Buddha image in earth touching pose, with remains of lacquer decoration. 3 ft high,
17th-18th century. (Pagan Archaeological Museum)

Jambhupati image, probably a Mon relic, unearthed at Wakhe-ma. 12 ins high, 81 ins wide, 18th-19th 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.


Sandstone image from near the Zinanaraung Pagoda, Mrauk-U. It can be dated to the 16th or 17th century.

Marble Buddha image from the Kyanthonpaya Pagoda in the Sagaing district, 25 ins high, probably 18th century

Nineteenth century marble Buddha image from Mandalay. 21 ins high, 13 ins. wide at base


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.


Marble Buddha image from Shwemawdaw Pagoda, Pegu. Mandalay style,
20th century

Two modern (20th century) marble images from small shrines at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon. They are both in the Mandalay style which developed in late 18th or early 19th century

Buddha prostrate before Dipamkara, who tells him he is destined for Buddhahood. Marble, 19th century. Found in a pagoda at Sagaing

Limestone reclining Buddha, under a naga. 22 ins long, 11 ins high. 20th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

A 19th century reclining Buddha, marble. 20 ins long, 10 ins high. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)


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.


Brand new marble Buddha image made in 1979 near Mandalay. It is decorated ready for Jambbupati style royal ornaments, and is destined for a monastery in the Shan States

Jambhupati image of marble and wood, from Yinmarpin township. It is 2 ft high and 14 ins wide at base. 20th century.

This standing Buddha image in Ava style is from Thaton area and is dated to 19th century. Height 40 ins. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)


Another marble Buddha image from the Kyanthonpaya Pagoda, 31 ft high, dated to the 19th century

The famous marble image commissioned by King Mindon and completed in 1865. 20 ft high, it is housed in Mandalay Kyauktawgyi

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."

Marble image from the Botataung Pagoda, Rangoon. Mandalay style, 20th century

Marble Jambhupati image, 
20th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Reclining image of Buddha in marble, 4 ft long and 11 ins high. From a small shrine at the Shwedagon Pagoda, it is of 20th 
century date

Standing Buddha, marble, from Kyanthon-paya Pagoda in Sagaing. 
41 ft high, 20th century

For further reading on this subject, please go to our on-line article entitled 
Buddha Images from Burma, Part II: Bronze and Related Materialsand
Buddha Images form Burma, Part III: Wood and Lacquer
by Sylvia Fraser-Lu

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