BURMESE BUDDHA IMAGES 

Burmese
John Falconer
Design & Architecture
PeriPlus
Hong Kong 2000

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+ Mon 
+ Pagan 
+ Arakan 
+ Shan
+ Mandalay


Mon Buddha Images
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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 Kyaik

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 (Mawlamyine).

With the crushing of the Mon Kingdom in the mid 18th century, Mon influence is southern Myanmar waned.
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Bagan Buddha Images
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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 onion-shaped finial.

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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Rakhine Buddha Images
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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 India.

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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Shan Buddha Images
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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 more intricate.

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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Mandalay Buddha Images
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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).


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