Kayah is the smallest state in Myanmar. It is situated between Inle Lake and Thailand. It is primarily inhabited by a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group referred to as the Karenni or Red Karen. However, according to social demographers, there are roughly 7 other ethnic groups native to the region and at least 10 linguistic groups. Hence, it is known for being home to a substantial number of the country’s minorities.
As a landlocked state, it had long been closed off to foreigners and tourism continues to be largely restricted to the capital and Deemawsoe Township. This isolation and the mineral richness of the region has encouraged the preservation and flourishing of the local arts. A wealth of bronze, pure silver, antimony, tin, tungsten and wolfram can be found throughout the state.
In particular, the Kayah state is well known for bronze instruments and sculptures. This metal is a key component of the Karen’s cultural and religious heritage. Bronze drums and horns are believed to confer prestige, wealth and security as well as foster a connection with one’s past. This ethnic group is famous internationally for the custom of wearing bronze rings around their neck.
This traditional use of metallurgy has extended into the visual representation of Buddhist religiosity.
The Gaja a term derived from the Sanskrit meaning elephant is the most prominent animal in South East Asian mythology. It is the symbol of royalty, fertility, strength and wisdom. For instance, the Three crowned headed elephant with an intricate lotus designed saddle (212) depicts the elephant who upholds Indra. Indra is revered for encouraging Buddha to spread his knowledge to the world after finding enlightenment. According to religious scriptures, this guardian deity rides the elephant to defeat the serpent, Vritra. In Buddhism, this elephant is presented as having three heads, differing in form from both Hinduism and Jainism.
The number three is a fundamental number. Buddhism finds its expression in the Triple Jewel or Triratna ( Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).
At the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay people come and touch the Three Headed Elephant for good health.
Each head is crowned by three flower buds. The saddle is beautifully carved with a lotus design.
Another sculpture, the Bronze elephant with lotus designed saddle carrying two royal passengers accompanied by five warriors (207) also depicts Buddhist iconography and its connection to war. The elephant carries high ranking nobles, flanked by guards in combat position along its sides. Finely sculpted, this piece displays an array of weapons and battle gear.
The Mandalay Period
Mandalay was the capital of Burma (Myanmar) for 25 years (1860-1885). In 1886, Upper Burma fell to the British at the end of the third Anglo-Burmese war. It was during this period and under the rule of King Mindon that the art and architecture flourished the most in Mandalay – the city named for the perfect geometric form of a Buddhist Mandala at the center including twelve gates and a 25-foot wall.
A favored image found in thousands of examples of Mandalay style sculpture especially during the Konbaung Period is that of a seated Buddha in the position of calling the earth to witness. Standing images were also popular, many of which are shown holding a myrobalan fruit in the right hand, as a symbol of spiritual and physical healing, while the left hand holds the robe open. For example, wooden standing image of the Buddha in healing position wearing ornate robe decorated with jewels (208)
Mandalay style can also be characterized by extensive use of gold leaf and inlaid glass and mirrors. These attributes are also found on the popular Mandalay Buddha. They are often seen lacquered and gilded.
From 1634, the images of the Buddha that were mostly made of Alabaster started to surface in Ava (Inwa). The ushnisha are generally shaped like a cone, contain a lotus-bird finial, a thin band between the forehead and hair, pronounced thin and arched bow shaped eyebrows, gapping nostrils, a small upper lip, wide chin and short neck. Almost all of the alabaster Buddhist sculptures comes from Mandalay.
These cream colored stones represent religious purity. The smooth surface of the marble makes it easy for artists to paint and gild the images. Reclining image of the Buddha carved and etched in alabaster (211)
This beautiful Buddha has been sold. It now resides in a Buddhist garden in Western Canada.
The Mon people are credited with the spread of Theravada Buddhism. This ethnic group migrated from India to the Mon state in 3000 BC. This administrative district lies between the Kayin State and Adaman Sea. According to oral history, they adopted Buddhism by the 2nd century BCE as they came into contact with seafarers. They would eventually settle throughout southern Myanmar although their distinctive cultural and artistic influence began to wane by the 8th century.
They have played a pivotal role in the creation of Buddhist art. As their dominance in the southern regions waned, Mon images of the Buddha have become increasingly localized and concentrated in the state. These solid, heavy sculptures come in a vast array of postures and styles. The faces are known to be round and plump with downcast eyes, thick lips, low ushnishas and extended ears. Until the 12th century, Mon images of the Buddha had particularly distinctive features including eyebrows that stretch across the face with high arches and eyes that resemble lotus petals. From the late 12th to the early 13th century, many figures also featured a subtle smile and central fold. Black bronze seated image of the Buddha (hands touching the earth position) (203)
While the sculpture above contains straight, flat hair, most Mon images of the Buddha have large, tight curls that converge at the center. Two bronze monks in seated prayer position (213)
The ancient city of Pagan, today called Bagan, is situated in the Mandalay region of Myanmar. Founded in the early 2nd century, the city was once the political, economic and cultural capital of the Pagan Empire. Its dry climate has allowed for the preservation of over 10, 000 religious monuments, including temples, stupas and monasteries. Since the imperial period (14th to 19th centuries), these sites have been regularly restored and maintained, making it a revered pilgrimage destination for people throughout Southeast Asia.
Within the walls of its architectural wonders lay hundreds of mural paintings and carvings exhibiting popular motifs such as the Footprint of Buddha. A reminder of the Buddha’s presence on earth and spiritual path, this footprint is an early symbol that has come to be worshipped on its own. Its depiction has persisted for centuries despite a flourishment of styles and forms of presentation. One form of representation is the Kalaga wall hangings, art tapestry that translates into ‘Indian curtains.’ The highly detailed embroidery has led to its popularity among collectors and art enthusiasts.
The footprint has 108 symbols related to Buddhist-Hindu beliefs about mythology, cosmology and royalty. It features imagery depicting the world with Mount Meru at its core, sixteen Brahma-loka, six Deva-loka heavens and seven mountain chains illustrated by rocks, lakes, fish and lotus. It also showcases real and mythical creatures such as the lion, elephant, horse, bull, naga king, the garuda, hamsa and others. The royal scene includes a spear, elephant God, conch, peacock feather fan and ship. Rare hand made beaded textile of Buddha’s foot print that features lotus whorls along the border. A two-headed snake encircles the print which contains various symbols based on Burmese Buddhist cosmology. Toes are beaded gold with flowers (214).
The Rakhine State is located along the Western coast of Myanmar, separated from the central region by the Arakan Mountains. Based on oral traditions and temple inscriptions, the history of the region dates back almost five thousand years. With more than six million shrines and pagodas, the region is renowned for its artistic richness. However, it has also been the site of many battles including World War II, a rebellion, and more recently ethnic violence that has challenged preservation efforts. Nevertheless, Buddhist art in the Rakhine State continues to flourish.
According to art historians, the Rakhine may have been conduits for styles and representations of the Buddha from eastern India. Their Buddha images frequently feature square faces, downcast eyes, low brows, round or wide ushnishas and closed robes. In the 15th and 16th centuries, these Buddhas often placed their right hand in the bhumisparsa mudra position. Mudras are non-verbal forms of communication and expression that typically involve hand gestures. The exact positioning expresses a divine power or idea. The bhumisparsa mudra translates into ‘touching the earth’ and symbolizes enlightenment and the calling on the earth goddess.
From the 15th to the 17th century, Buddha images were dominated by the dhyana mudra. As the mudra of meditation, these images consist of two hands placed in the lap that symbolize the principle of wisdom. The Buddha is said to evoke a concentration on good law and the pursuit of spiritual awakening.
From the 17th century onwards, a novel type of Buddha image appeared that features a crown with a tall ushnisha and dramatic nagin (ornamental flanges) on each side. This style has spread throughout Myanmar, becoming predominant in the Shan state. Many of these sculptures also contain the Dharmachakra Mudra with the right hand placed over the heart to represent its authenticity and direct connection to the teachings of the Buddha. Black bronze standing crown image of the Buddha (touching heart position) (204).
The Shan State
The history of the Shan migration into Myanmar dates back to a very remote period. They came from all of these regions and occupied every plain and hill to produce rice for their family and trade. A feudal approach was used to manage their goods and property. They had many internal disputes and were subordinates to the kings of Myanmar. The final blow came during the “Three Anglo-Burmese Wars”, in which Myanmar had to defend itself against British invasion. Many Shans were killed during the Three Wars, including Shan women, who fought as much as their men did. Britain prevailed and Myanmar was conquered.
Eventually they launched a series of rebellions, which led to the Government of Burma Act in 1935. They became independent in 1937 from British India. This lasted until the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. After the war, independence was granted and legislative efforts were made in spite of various revolts and difficulties. However, the socialist government eventually fell and was replaced with military rule. Recent elections have brought in a civilian government however, the military retains significant power.
Most Shans practice Buddhism, and are mainly engaged in agriculture. Shan Buddha images typically feature triangular faces with a wide forehead, high arched eyebrows, a pointed nose, thin lips, large ears, short necks and some may have opened eyes.
The Elephant is a sacred animal in Buddhist culture. Many elephants are a sign of a prosperous monarch especially a rare white one. The elephants guards Buddha and the temples. The Buddha sitting on seven elephants reminds us that in Buddhism it is said that Buddha has walked this number of steps at his birth.
Gold lacquered wooden image of the Buddha with the right hand in ‘bhumisparsa mudra’ (‘Calling earth to witness enlightenment’) position seated upon three elephants decorated with inset glass and mirrors (209)