The Mons, scattered over southern Myanmar, have played an important role in Buddhist
art since the mid first millennium. Plaques, plus statues of lions decorating
the Kyontu pagoda near Waw, Bago District, attest to Mon veneration of the Buddha
in about the 5th century and the influence of Gupta art. By the 7th-8th centuries,
however, Mon images of the Buddha had become localized. They have plump faces
with downcast eyes shaped like lotus petals, full lips large hair curls, low ushnishas
and long ears. Their robes were worn so that the bottom of the uttarasanga (the
upper garment of a monk) formed the curve at the front and back, and the antaravasaka
(undergarment) flowed below, as exemplified by tow bronze3 images found at Thaton
and Twante. In the 9th century the ushnisha became a high round knob, and in the
following century it had the appearance of flowing upward seemingly from the hair
to form a dome, as on Pyu Buddha images at Thayekhittaya (srikshetra). Late 11th
century Pala influence is shown in two Buddha images on a votive tablet from the
De-ap pagoda (an old Mon pagoda in Yangon, destroyed during World War II).
A fragment and a Buddha image in the Shweizayan pagoda, Thaton, both with a hintha
on each shoulder, have eyes downcast, a sweet smile, a narrow band on the forehead,
and tight curls in a grid pattern terminating in a layered ushnisha; the antaravasaka
has a belt and central fold. All the above are characteristics of Khmer Bayon
art (late 12th early 13th century), and probably result from the proximity of
the great Bayon period Muang Singh complex.
Among large 15th century ceramic plaques brought into Thailand from Bago is the
glazed ceramic head of a youthful crowed Buddha image with high eyebrows over
wide-open staring eyes. This style may have been the prototype for 17th century
crowned Buddha images imported into Thailand from the Kaw Gun Cave north of Moulmein
With the crushing of the Mon Kingdom in the mid 18th century, Mon influence is
southern Myanmar waned.
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Bagan (Pagan) was at its height during the 11th-13th centuries, but continued
to receive last monarch, Thibaw. The Glass Palace Chronicle places much emphasis
on the fact that Bagan was initially a Pyu kingdom, and thus closely related to
Thayekhittaya, Beikthano, Halin and other Pyu kingdoms in Central Myanmar in the
first millennium, circa 1113, attests to their continued presence in Bagan.
The Pyu were great artisans. During the 5th century they were creating Gupta-style
images of the Buddha in silver. By the 7th century, they were casting bronzes:
examples include figures of musicians and dancers in the Pallava and Pandya styles
of southern India, and a four-armed image of Avalokiteshvara with early Bihar
influences from eastern India. Pyu bronzes, based later on Pala Dynasty models,
continued to be cast well into the 11th century. While they were in the round,
they were mainly to be viewed frontally, and often bore local features. Initially,
the many stone images were sculpted in low relief, and later, under Pala influence,
in increasingly high relief against a back-slab.
The first great king of Bagan, King Anawratha or Aniruddha (r. 1044-1077)k, created
and inscribed with his name numerous votive tablets which he placed throughout
his kingdom. These are of various designs, but all have at the centre a representation
of the Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra within the Mahabodhi temple, Bodhgaya. The
Buddha figures are stocky with broad shoulders, the faces large in proportion
to the bodies, and-at-times-with heads tilted forward suggesting a short neck.
Shortly before 1093, King Kyanzittha (r. 1084-1113) sent a mission to restore
and endow the Mahabodhi temple. This resulted, for a brief period in the late
11th and early 12th centuries, in images influenced by Pala styles from southern
Magadha (particularly in the Bodhgaya area). These often have attenuated bodies,
as is the case with the tow still extant standing Buddha images of the period
at the centre of the Ananda temple: aquiline noses, broad shoulders, and in particular,
thick thighs predominate. Heads continue to tilt forward and are large in proportion
to the bodies. This, plus a puffiness in the waist, an unusually large urna (a
whorl of hair between the brows emitting rays of light that illuminate the world)
and very elongated earlobes differentiate them from Pala images. The are mostly
in stela format, carved in high relief against a back-slab to be viewed frontally.
In the mid 12th century, a Burmanization of art began to take place. In murals,
glosses in Burmese script were introduced and began to replace those in Mon. Buddha
images became stouter and shorter, the faces broader and less aquiline, and the
necks short. The faces still tilted forward, reminiscent of, but not the same
as, those of Anawratha’s reign.
Although the Bagan kingdom fell in the Mongol invasion of 1287, the creation of
Buddha images continued and kept abreast stylistically with those in other parts
of the country. By circa the 15th century, when Ava was the capital (First Ava
Period, 1364-1555), the ushnisha (top-knot or fleshy protuberance, a mark of a
superior being) had become centered on the head and was broader, with a small
In the Bagan Museum, there are some 15th and 16th century crowned bronze images
of Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Life, attesting to veneration there as in
Rakhine (Arakan) State. There is also, a 17th century crowned image of Bhaisajyagura,
the Buddha of Healing, stylistically similar to those of Rakhine and Shan States.
In the 17th century, alabaster images of the Buddha Gotama became popular. These
had a sweet smile and an onion-shaped finial larger and taller that those of the
15th-century;these are related stylistically to Shan State Buddha images.
Numerous crowned wooden images have been found in Bagan and Sa-le to the south.
Both they and uncrowned wooden images have the right hand in the varada mudra
(gesture of bestowing gifts) and the left hand held high, palm-facing inward.
This type of crowned image has been called Jambupati after what is considered
to be an apocryphal Buddhist text of Southeast Asian origin (possibly Mon, as
it does not appear in Sri Lanka of the northern countries of Buddhism). It thought
to have been invented by Theravadins to rationalize the crowned Buddha images,
which were appearing with great frequency. The text tells the story of how the
Buddha turned himself into a rajadhiraja (king of kings) to humble King Jambupati.
Further study is necessary to resolve fully the identification of these wooden
images. The pointed crowns and tall staff-like ushnishas relate them stylistically
to the said 17th early 18th century is suggested, during the Second Ava Period
(1636-1752). In the following Konbaung period, the style of Bagan Buddha images
mirrored those of the various capitals of the period.
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An ancient Rakhine (Arakan) manuscript, the Sappadanapakarana, relates that the
Buddha Gotama came to Selagiri Hill; at the request of the Rakhine king, he had
Thagyamin (Indra) and the divine architect Visvakarman, create an image in his
likeness. This image, Mahamuni, was installed in a pagoda by that name at the
city of Dhanyawadi, and Rakhine became known as “The land of the Great Image”.
Large pink sandstone plaques of circa the 5th century, found recently at Selagiri
Hill and depicting in relief scenes from the Life of the Buddha, bear Gupta and
Ajanta influence. Stelas of the same material and period at the Muhamuni pagoda,
with bodhisattvas and other figures in relief, give evidence of Mahayana Buddhism
in the area. A 10th century terracotta votive tablet, now in the Mrauk-U Museum,
shows the Buddha seated on a throne with rampant lions at each side. The Buddha’s
hair flows smoothly upward into the rounded uhnisha. The design is based on that
of a 10th century stone stela in eastern India and is like that on votive tablets
in the Pyu and Mon areas. Thus Rakhine may have been a conduit for styles from
In the 15th to the late 16th century, Buddha images were corpulent with square
faces, eyebrows meeting over downcast eyes, a wide, rounded ushnisha, no lotus
finial, robes worn in the closed mode, and seated in paryankasana (one leg folded
over the other) with the right hand in the bhumisparsa mudra. A bronze Buddha
now in the same museum and dated to 1588 introduces a tiny flame at the top of
the ushnisha. In the following century, the ushnisha and finial became lager the
throne waisted and filigreed.
The period from the 15th through the 17th century saw the development of the cult
of Amitayus, Vajrayana Buddhism’s esoteric Buddha of Infinite Life. His attribute
is a vase of the elixir of immortality placed on his hands positioned in the dhyana
mudra (meditation gesture). Early bronze images of the crowned Amitayus follow
closely the Sino-Tibetan style of the Yong-leperiod (1403-1424). Later the facial
features became more localized in appearance and the royal jewelry more elaborate.
Around the 17th century, a new type of crowned Buddha image, which had a tall
staff-like ushnisha and flamboyant nagin (ornamental flanges) at the crown’s side,
became popular. This style seems to have spread across the central area to the
Shan State. Late in the century, images of Amitayus were created showing him with
a tall crown of pointed leaves and seated on a throne flanked by what may be his
two main bodhisattvas, and sometimes with the Earth Goddess on the base.
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The Shan, who call themselves Tai, form one section of the large Tai ethnic group
which is now believed to have spread from Southeast China through Vietnam, Laos,
Thailand, Myanmar and Assam. Shan legends indicate that they were already in the
part of Myanmar which they still inhabit as early as the mid 16th century. The
word “Shan” comes from the same root as Syam (Siam); in Bagan they were known
as the Syam.
Although there is evidence of occupation by kings of Bagan in and north of the
Nyaungshwe Valley in the southern part of the Shan Stated, extant Shan Buddha
images appear to date only from the 17th century. They have triangular faces with
a broad forehead, eyebrows arched high over narrowly opened eyes, a pointed nose
with triangular nostrils, pursed thin lips, large and elongated ears, and short
necks. They are often seated in vajrasana with hands in the bhumisparsa mudra.
Seventeenth century images may be placed on high, waisted lotus thrones and wear
immensely tall crowns with flamboyant nagin (ear flanges).
Bhaisajyaguru, a Medicine Buddha of Esoteric Buddhism, was venerated in the 17th
century, and according to Dr Than Tun’s 1951 study of images in the Pindaya Caves,
remained so until the end of the 19th century, with one image of Bhaisajyaguru
bearing an inscription of King Bodawpaya (r. 1782-1819). Also popular was the
image of the Buddha Gotama seated on a waisted lotus throne with a disciple perched
on a lotus stem at each side. With the passing of the centuries the Buddha’s lotus-bud
finial became taller, his robes more highly decorated, and the ornaments of royalty
Sylvia Fraser-Lu in Burmese Lacquerware (1995) indicates that Shan dry lacquer
images may have been made in Monywa. First a clay image was shaped, coated with
an ash paste, dried, and covered with a lacquer-impregnated cloth which in turn
was coated with thayo. When the image was hard, the clay core was removed and
the image was refined, polished and further decorated.
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A youthful, sweet-faced image of the Buddha wearing a robe elaborately folded,
edged and decorated, often with inset mirror glass, has attained great popularity
and has become known as the “Mandalay Buddha”. For many people, it came to epitomize
the Burmese representation of the Buddha.
When Ava became the capital for the second time in 1634, Buddha images were often
made of alabaster. These had an ushnisha shaped like a low truncated cone; a lotus-bud
finial of onion shape; a narrow band between the forehead and hair; incised bow-shaped
eyebrows, thin and raised; the nose with flaring nostrils; and a short upper lip,
large chin and short neck. Images made of Kyaukse sandstone had faces similar
to those of alabaster, but had diadems of an abbreviated from, related to those
worn by crowned wooden Buddha images found in Bagan.
In 1753, King Alaungpaya had cast and placed in the Shwechettho pagoda, in his
capital at Shwebo, a Buddha image with a tiered crown of jeweled lotus petals
and large ornamental earflaps. Undoubtedly, it would have served as the prototype
of the crowns of the Konbaung kings. The splendid torque of the image appears
to derive from that of late 17th to early 18th century wooden Buddha images in
Bago and Sa-le.
Late 18th century-- early 19th century Buddha images in Central Myanmar had in
many cases shed their onion-type lotus finial for one shaped like a pointed lotus
bud. This is the case for example, in the great alabaster Buddha image of the
Kyauktawgyi pagoda, Amarapura, created by King Pagan Min in 1847. Yet in 1855,
Linnaeus Tripe photographed in Amarapura a huge Buddha image of unprecedented
Ava-Amarapura style. It had a broad ushnisha, no lotus finial and a more elaborate
draping of the uttarasanga (outer robe) than usual. This may be based on the design
of Rakhine Buddha images.
Mandalay images often have a broad band across the forehead. The hair hugs the
head in tight curls and covers a broad prominent ushinsha. There is no lotus finial
above. The images are frequently seated in vajrasana with the right hand in the
bhumisparsa mudra and the left lying in the lap. The uttarasanga is worn in the
open mode and the sanghati is folded decoratively on the left shoulder. Wood,
alabaster and bronze have been the favoured materials. Many Buddha images are
lacquered and gilded, including the face and body, the latter in accordance with
the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) which relate that his complexion was like
bronze, the colour of gold.
Most standing Buddha images wear the uttarasanga in the closed mode, covering
the arms and chest and held at each side of the lower body by downward stretched
hands. Below, at its lower centre, appears the antaravasaka. The sanghati flows
in multitudinous folds from the left shoulder. In this right hand the Buddha holds
the medicinal myrobalan fruit. This suggests that the image is Bhaisajyaguru,
a form of the Buddha of Healing, one of whose attributes is the myrobalan.
Although the above represents the prevalent style for standing Mandalay Buddha
images, a notable image shown herein is attired differently, in royal costume
similar to that worn by King Thibaw, the last reigning monarch (1878-1885).