Buddha Images from Burma - Part III - Wood and Lacquer


Arts of Asia May/June 1981 issue

by Sylvia Fraser-Lu


TWO TRADITIONAL CRAFTS at which the Burmese excel are wood carving and lacquer work. It is natural that with this expertise, coupled with their devotion to the Theravada Buddhist creed which considered the making and donation of an image to be a particularly meritorious act, many Buddha images came to be made in these two materials. The use of wood for various purposes had been known in Burma at least since Pyu times (circa A.D. 200-900) and lacquer has been mentioned in the inscriptions of Pagan. Unfortunately, due to the ravages of time, insects and weather, not many early images in wood or lacquer, that can be dated with any certainty, have survived.

Colossal standing Buddha from Ananda Temple, Pagan, in northern
recess of central shrine. Hands are in dharmacakra mudra.
Height 32 ft. II th century.
Photo, courtesy of Archaeological Department, Rangoon

The few wooden images that we have from the Pagan period (1044-1287) show the Burmese to be consummate craftsmen of the art of wood carving. The most famous wooden statues are those in the Ananda Temple in the north and south recesses of the central shrine. They stand just over 32  feet high excluding the lotus throne. The face with its well-formed forehead and high cheek-bones, downcast eyes, aquiline nose, small mouth and pointed chin is in typical Pagan style. In keeping with the Pagan schema, the ears do not touch the shoulder and the usnisha (cranial protuberance) is topped by a flame finial. The clothing on the body has a wet appearance and the outer garment looks as if it is part of the arms. There are three folds across the stomach and a line dividing the garment between the legs. The knee caps are visible through the clothing. As in the bronze images, the pleating around the periphery of the robe is stiff and stylised. The hands are raised before the breast in the dharmacakra or preaching position.

Life-sized wooden statues also in the standing position have been recovered from various temples in Pagan. Carved from a single tree trunk, they all wear pointed leaf and bud kirita (crowns) enclosing high coiled chignons, and are adorned with elaborate ear plugs and flame-edged torques. The body is covered in an open robe down to the ankles. All the images in this series hold the right hand stiffly downwards in the varada mudra (boon granting gesture) while the left hand is turned inwards against the breast. It is not known whether these statues portray ordinary bodhisattvas or are crowned Buddha images. It has even been suggested that they could be portrait statues of deceased Pagan royalty.


Wooden crowned bodhisattva king image from Pagan.
Right hand is in varada mudra while left is placed across chest.
Height 4 ft 9 ins. Circa 12th-13th century

At least two wooden stelae have survived from the Pagan era, and are now housed in the new Pagan Archaeological Museum. One exquisite example in black teak wood depicts Lord Buddha's Descent from the Tavatimsa heaven. On a round double lotus he stands in the graceful tribhanga (three body-bends) pose with his left leg slightly bent. The left hand, unfortunately broken, touches the robe at the shoulder. A three-faced Brahma sheltering Lord Buddha with an umbrella, stands on Buddha's left, while the god Indra, resplendent in a high crown and ornaments, stands on his right holding an alms bowl. Sariputta, Lord Buddha's disciple, kneels reverently at his feet. The other stele depicts the Buddha flanked by Mogallana and Sariputta, his two chief disciples, who are standing on lotus flowers coming from the mouth of a kirtimukha (lion mask). Lord Buddha's throne is borne on the backs of three lion figures.

With the fall of Pagan in 1287, Burma was plunged into a century of chaos and disorder, and during the Ava period (1364-1752) could not free itself from warfare between the petty kingdoms which had sprung up with the destruction of Pagan. As a result very little in the way of wooden statuary has survived. The few images found naturally followed the tenets applied to bronze and stone sculpture for the period. Unfortunately most have been so extensively repaired that the original style is practically unrecognisable. In Burma it is not regarded as proper to have a damaged or incomplete object of worship, whether it is a pagoda or an image; indeed, it is regarded as a meritorious act to renovate a Buddha image. Even today there are some monks who devote a lot of their time to such tasks. The tendency has been to refurbish the images in the prevailing style without any thought of preserving the original in its entirety. As a consequence much art of the past has been lost.

Most wooden and lacquer images seen today date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, having been made during the Konbaung period (1752-1885), the last dynasty of the Burmese kings. This was a proud era in Burmese history. Its kings through conquest had united all of Burma, Manipur in the east had been subdued and the rival Thai kingdom, centred on Ayudhya, had been razed to the ground in 1767, with the court and much booty being removed to Burma. This newly found strength, unity and self-confidence brought about a flowering of the arts. In this the Burmese were aided by captive Thai artisans who introduced many of the refinements of their culturally more advanced civilisation. The Burmese court, first alternating between the cities of Ava and Amarapura and finally settling in Mandalay, led the way by building sumptuous monasteries and pagodas and commissioning Buddha images of colossal size to fill them. Ministers and other eminent citizens followed suit, building edifices on a smaller scale and stocking them with numerous statues. The demand was not confined to temples, for people liked to perform their daily devotions before an image at home. Because of the availability of raw materials, wooden and lacquer images were made in large quantities. The demand was so great that not all images were made by professional craftsmen. Some people in remote villages were known to make their own.

These life-sized wooden statues were recovered from various Pagan temples. 
This one is 5 ft 5 ins high. 
Circa 12th-13th century

Carved black teak wood stele showing Lord Buddha's descent from Tavatimsa heaven. He is flanked on right by three-faced Brahma with umbrella while on left Indra, crowned and ornamented, holds alms bowl. Buddha's disciple Sariputta is kneeling at left. Height 27-3/4 ins. Circa 13th century, Pagan

Another bodhisattva king image from Pagan, of same date, with right hand typically in varada mudra. Height 4 ft 7 ins

Whether the craftsman was an amateur or professional, he followed the traditional schema for carving prescribed in the ancient Pali texts. One such book found in Burma laid down the following instructions for carving a Buddha image: "The chin of the image must be like that of the king lion, which is round and not pointed. The cheeks must be thick and round like the full moon; they should be extended from the chin to the ears. The neck must have three sections. The chest must be thick like a lion. In carving a Buddha image, it should have a well-filled appearance when one looks at it from every corner."

Wood carving of Lord Buddha standing between Sariputta and Mogallana, his two chiefdisciples. Note elaborate base with lotus flowers coming from lion mask. Circa 13th century, Pagan

Burmese images made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries depict Buddha in only three positions. The most popular naturally is that of Lord Buddha seated cross-legged in the lotus position with the right hand in the earth touching mudra, followed by the standing pose where he is portrayed with the right hand raised palm outwards in abhaya (freedom from fear) attitude. The left hand is held downwards often touching the garment in the varada mudra. In later nineteenth century wood and lacquer images it is not uncommon for both hands to be placed in varada mudra, with the right hand often holding a fruit between the thumb and the index finger signifying food that Lord Buddha received from various devotees before and after his Enlightenment. The third position depicts Lord Buddha in the act of dying or passing into nirvanathe ultimate goal of devout Buddhists. He is shown lying on his right side with his cheek resting on his right hand which may be either propped on its elbow, or lie flat against the body.

In later images Buddha is usually shown in lotus position with right hand in earth touching mudra. Height of this lacquer image is 4 ft 6 ins and it is probably circa 19th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Another typical 19th century Buddha in the earth touching pmition. Borders of the robe are embossed with moulded lacquer decoration. There is a wooden finial above the usnisha. 
Height 4 ft

A newly gilded lacquer image of Lord Buddha in the lotus position, with his right hand in the earth touching mudra. Height 4- ft. 19th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Robe on this lacquer Buddha in earth touching position is shown by pleating across chest and spirals over knees. Height 33 ins, width at base 23 ins, height of throne 9 ins. 
19th century

Lacquer Buddha image with right hand extended palm outwards. Robe is folded in pleats across chest, and throne is high and waisted. Height 3 ft, height of base 12 ins. 19th century

Gilt lacquer Buddha in typical earth touching mudra. Lappet of robe over left shoulder and fillet band above forehead have been inlaid with glass. Height 3 ft. 19th century

Burmese Buddha statues are generally meant to be viewed from the front rather than from the side or back, so all the sculptor's effort is concentrated on the front. The side view lacks depth, largely because the back of the statue rarely portrays the natural body contours of the spine or buttocks, and the back of most Buddhas is usually flat, the only decoration shown being the flap of the robe over the left shoulder. This lack of attention to the back view probably came about because many of the earliest images were in the form of stelae in high relief so that back modelling was unnecessary. Most Buddhas were commissioned to be placed on an altar, or back to back against a pillar where the rear view was never seen. Burmese Buddha statues are also meant to be viewed from below rather than at eye level. If one looks up at a statue, some of the fullness of face and the general heaviness of the figure is diminished by perspective. The carver generally tried to emphasize Lord Buddha's spiritual rather than his physical nature. He attempted to show him as a blandly attractive person unaffected by his asceticism, exuding a mood of inner calm and tranquillity.

Mandalay style wooden Buddha with right hand in earth touching
position. There is an inscription on base of throne.
Height 3ft. 19th century

Before discussing the different types of eighteenth and nineteenth century images found in wood and lacquer, it might be useful to explain in detail the process of making lacquer images, which is much less well known than the wood carving process. The making of lacquer images centred on a group of villages just outside Ye-U township in the Monywa district. The craftsmen were not professional, but were farmers who made images in their spare time.

The villagers first made a rough image from well-kneaded clay. Then a wooden or iron tool called a than-let was used to shape in the basic details. Before the clay image was completely dry, it was smeared with a mixture of water and straw ash. Over this core was laid a plaster of thit-se (lacquer) mixed with finely sifted teak sawdust. Delicate areas such as the eyes, nose and mouth were shaped in detail using the than-let. Once the plaster was hardened, the inner clay core was removed. The plaster had to be cut open to remove the clay from the less accessible areas such as the head and arms. The openings were resealed by a further application of the same plaster, and the image was then covered with another coat of filtered thit-se, this time mixed with the ashes of straw or bran. It was again smoothed with the than-let, then polished with a stone smeared with sesame, and left to dry. Once the lacquer was hardened, the image was washed and again polished with a stone before being varnished with the purest red-brown or black lacquer. It was then ready for the donors to gild.

These images were usually made during the cool season from November to February, which provided the best conditions for drying both the lacquer and the clay core. A man could make thirty to thirty-five images per season. Most were reported as being sold to the Shan States.

Black standing lacquer Buddha with traces of gilding. Hands are 
in varada mudra, and each holds small round object. Note unusual treatment of folds and usnisha. Height 5 ft 4 ins. 19th century

In lacquer images the face tends to be triangular to squarish and at first glance somewhat resembles the sixteenth century Ava marble images. The forehead is small but wide and the broad sweeping brows sit well above a long straight nose which terminates in flaring nostrils. The eyes, widely separated from the eyebrows, resemble grains of rice paddy. The nostril lines are prominent and end in a small smiling bow-shaped mouth which looks slightly simpering at times. The large ears touch the shoulders and the boundaries of the ear hole and lobe are marked by embossing or a double line of incising. There is usually a small fillet band separating the hair line from the face. The head and usnisha are generally covered with either small blunt beaded curls which resemble the skin of the jack fruit, or by a cap of sharp spikes often referred to as "Shwebo thorns" or "durian spines" (a comparison with the appearance of a characteristic tropical fruit). There is a hole in the usnisha to accommodate a tall bulb-shaped "wooden finial which is added when the image is complete. 

Most images are seated in the earth touching position with fingers all of the same length. The left hand in the lap is sometimes supported underneath by a small prop of lacquer. Clothing ranges from the barest outlines indicated either by incising or embossing, to quite an extensive series of shallow pleats and folds across the chest and raised spirals over the knees. Sometimes the lappet over the left shoulder is embossed with a raised lacquer design which may even be inlaid with glass. There is often a small flap over the right shoulder. Thrones vary greatly from plain rounded pedestals to splendid high waisted stands embossed with lotus petals and other floral decoration. Many are edged with small square or triangular protuberances. Lacquer images, because they are hollow and light, can be made in a wide range of sizes. The smallest images are about 18 inches high while the largest are over six feet. Some of the thrones of the larger images are equipped with rings to aid in handling. 
Lacquer has also been widely used on wooden images for decorative purposes. Most wooden images have been given a coat of lacquer, partly to preserve them and also to provide a base for gilding with gold leaf Lacquer mixed with bone ash has provided much of the moulded decoration such as hair, jewelry, borders on clothing and floral motives seen on wooden images. It has also provided the base for the inlay of colored glass and mirror popular on later images. 

The "Mandalay" style, which has developed since the end of the eighteenth century and was so prevalent in bronze and marble, is often followed in wooden sculpture and occasionally in lacquer. In wood a little more licence has been taken than was the case with stone and bronze sculpture.

Mandalay style standing wooden Buddha, the left hand holdling robe while right is across chest. Face and arms have been painted white. Height 5 ft. 2Oth century

Mandalay style standing Buddha on a lotus throne, with the left hand in a form or verada mudra. The right hand is in abhaya. Height 33 ins. 20th century

Another standing Buddha, Mandalay style, on lotus throne. Hands are in form of varada mudra and right hand holds fruit-like object. Height 5 ft. 20th century

Wooden Mandalay style Buddha, standing on lotus throne. Both hands are in varada mudra, and right holds small fruit-like object. The robe is rather like a cape. Height 30 ins. 19th-20th century

Craftsmen have obviously revelled in chiselling out the deep folds of the garments, particularly in standing and reclining images. Some carvers have not been averse to making some variations on the general clothing schema themselves, and the complex system of folds has been highlighted by borders of glass inlay. The fillet band separating the face from the hair on many images has also been set with inlaid decoration. The hair and fleshy usnisha, which has no finial, is usually covered in small lacquer curls wrought either in a circular or linear fashion. Sometimes the face is painted white rather than gilded. The hands on many images have been made separately and added later. The thrones are usually plain or in the form of a double lotus. Images in this style vary from 12 inches high seated statues to standing and reclining images of life-sized dimen-sions.There are a number of wooden images that are outstanding for their simplicity, indeed they resemble somewhat the bronzes of the post-Pagan period in style. The face is round and finely arched eyebrows frame small downcast eyes. The nose is long and pointed, and below it is a small smiling mouth. The The ears placed well back curve outwards as they touch the shoulders. The head is covered by a cap of beaded lacquer curls while the usnisha is topped by a small bulbous finial. All are portrayed in the earth touching mudra with fingers of equal length. Simple clothing lines are lightly etched in on the red or black lacquer coating which covers the whole image. Some Buddha images sit on high waisted thrones while others sit on a platform supported by three to five elephants. The images vary in size from about 20 inches for a Buddha on a plain pedestal to 40 inches high for one mounted on elephants.

Reclining wooden Buddha image in Mandalay style, portraying Lord Buddha passing into nirvana,
resting on right elbow. Exposed parts of body are painted white, and hair is shown by lines 
of raised lacquer. Length 24 ins, height at head 17 ins. Late 19th or early 20th century


Thrones supported by elephants are very often found and bring to mind some of the incarnations in which Lord Buddha was an elephant. This form of decoration is also suggestive of the Buddha as a universal monarch who, as a symbol of kingship, was expected to have many elephants. Some elephants supporting crowned images are shown elaborately harnessed in all their regalia.

Standing Buddha from Southern Burma with right hand in abhaya mudra and left pendant. The robes are shown by vertical lines. Height 4 ft. 19th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Unusual Buddha from Thanwutti village, Khin-U township. Right hand is in vitarka (disputation) mudra, ldt in varada. Height 2 ft 6 ins. 18th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Occasionally one may be seen with trunk upraised. Other fanciful thrones may depict animals of the zodiac, monkeys, tigers, peacocks and manushias (double-bodied lions) depending on the whim of the donor. A wide variety of geometric and floral decorations, often inlaid with glass, can be seen on many thrones. Horizontal levels on waisted thrones are often emphasised by sawtooth and scalloped protuberances. Inscriptions in Pali or Burmese giving the name of the donor, his reasons for having the statue made and the date of completion, may occasionally be seen, usually at the base of the throne. Some representations of Lord Buddha show him seated in the folds of the Mucalinda Naga (the snake which sheltered him from a storm during his Enlightenment) framed by a large hood.

Black lacquered wooden Buddha seated in lotus position, with right hand in earth touching mudra, on backs of three elephants. Height 23 ins, height of elephant throne 8 ins. 18th-19th century

Thrones supported by elephants are often found: crowned Buddha image is seen here on throne of five elephants. Circa l8th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Wooden earth touching Buddha on throne of five elephants, from Mayn-aung township. Height 40 ins, height of throne 12-1/2 ins. 17th-18th century. (Religious Affairs Department Museum, Rangoon)

Crowned wooden image, with high crown and tall flanges surrounding a long spire, decorated with moulded lacquer. Height 25 ins. 19th century

Crowned images, of the type so popular in Ava bronzes, are also made in wood and lacquer. In this ornate example two manushias support the throne. Height 38 ins. 19th century

Gilt wooden crowned Buddha image depicted in the earth touching position. Height 25 ins. 18th-19th century

This crowned gilt lacquer Buddha image, in earth touching position, is seated on a fanciful throne flanked by tigers and with a peacock in front. Height 28 ins. 19th century

Gilt wooden Dakkhina Sakkha Buddha, type of image that became popular in 19th century. Note scalloped hairline, representing lotus leaves. Height 14 ins. 19th century

One special type of Buddha image made either in lacquer or wood, that grew in popularity during the nineteenth century, is a quaint rotund figure called Dakkhina Sakkha. It represents a Buddha statue supposedly made of the wood of the sacred Bo Tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. This figure seated in the earth touching position is very squat and heavy set, particularly when sculptured in wood. The pudding-shaped face with downcast eyes seems to merge into the shoulders as the neck is barely discernible. The hairline is scalloped to represent a lotus leaf covering. The head is crowned with a round usnisha and there is no flame finial, not even on the lacquer image. Occasionally nine auspicious circular marks may be seen; one on the forehead, and one on each shoulder, elbow, knee and side of the posterior. This type of image is often found in a Burmese home for it is thought to be effective in bringing wealth and warding off fire.

The Burmese love of flamboyant ornamentation is given full rein in crowned Buddha images in the jambhupati style where Lord Buddha is portrayed as a king. The crowned Buddha image with the high leaf-like kirita crown and tall trailing flanges surrounding a long spire, which was so popular in Ava bronzes, is also duplicated in wood and lacquer. A new crowned style that displays vestiges of Thai influence became popular in later images and continues today. In this style the image wears a tall three-, five- or seven-tiered cap, not unlike that of a Thai dancer, which often culminates in a spire. Smaller flanges spring from the headband of the cap and twine outwards over the ears. In addition to the usual complement of jewelry, some are dressed in Thai-Burmese royal costume with upturned epaulettes and leaf-like flanges springing from the elbows and knees. In some images the torso is covered with a net-like bodice. There may also be a lappet of clothing between the legs. The chest is covered with a salwethe insignia of the Burmese kings. It consists of a series of crossed bands over each shoulder joined across the breast by medallions. Jambhupati images are usually gilded and sit upon elaborate thrones. Some also hold a kalasa pot in the left hand.

Earth touching Buddha seated on a naga throne. 
The Mucalinda Naga was the snake that protected him from a 
storm during his Enlightenment. Height 39 ins. 20th century

Art historians, while revelling in the glories of Pagan) have generally been rather critical of later Burmese images. There is a tendency to dismiss them as clumsy and monotonous. While this might be true of some images, happily there are others which rise above the general level. At this point it should be reiterated that the demand for images was constant and widespread. Not all could afford, or had the opportunity, to employ professional craftsmen, so many people in remote villages made their own images or had others make them on a part-time basis. As a result, while many are not perhaps in the realm of great art, they do have a delightful homespun quality about them. \What they lack in artistic refinement is compensated for by a primitive simplicity, not always in the pristine sense of cleanliness and soberness of outline, for the Burmese love flamboyant decoration, but rather in the gaiety of spirit leading to some idiosyncrasies which are purely Burmese. Where else in the Buddhist world would one find the donor's birthday animal peeking out mischievously from the side of a pedestal, or a throne with two carved monkeys playfully scratching themselves while an unperturbed Buddha gazes downward with hand extended as if to pat them?



The sheer number and variety of Buddha images that have been produced in Burma bear ample testimony to the deep abiding devotion that the Burmese feel towards the Theravada Buddhist faith.

Reclining gilt wooden image of Buddha, resting his head on his right hand, in the art 
of dying or passing into nirvana. Length 24 ins, height 11 ins. 19th century

For further reading on this subject, please go to our on-line article entitled 
Buddha Images from Burma, Part I: Sculptured in Stone, and
Buddha Images from Burma, Part II: Bronze and Related Materials by Sylvia Fraser-Lu
Please visit our Burma page for current inventory of similar items