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Buddhist arts in Myanmar

By Devik Balami at
burma myanmar

In the previous post, it has already been mentioned that how Buddhism was spread in the south Asian countries and also how they slowly localized the Buddhist arts. The spread of Buddhism to other nation is mainly due to the efforts of Ashoka, the Great and also ancient silk trade route. With the help of trade route, Indian influences dominated most of the south Asian countries. They accepted the religion and almost all converted into Buddhism in the earlier period. They even started to build antique Buddha statues along with the antique Buddhist arts in the temples, caves built alongside the trade route. We also reviewed the development of Buddhist arts in one of the south Asian countries - Sri Lanka and in the present post, we will be reviewing the development of Buddhist arts in Myanmar.

bhumisparsha mudra of buddha statue

Buddhist arts in Myanmar

It is recorded that the Mon Empire of southern Myanmar were converted to Buddhism at around 200 BCE under the supervision of the Indian king Ashoka, the Great. The conversion was before the division of Mahayana and Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism. With the conversion to Buddhism, the royal persons supported the construction of Buddha statues and as well as Buddhist arts at different places. These arts were highly influenced by the style of the Indian art of Gupta and post-Gupta periods. One of the earliest examples of Buddhist temple is Beikthano which was built between the periods of 1st and 5th centuries. Later with the expansion of Mon Empire between 5th and 8th centuries, they localized the Buddhist arts and then included local characteristics in Buddha Statue and arts. Slowly, at the 11th to 13th century, thousands of Buddhist temples were constructed at Bagan, the capital and also to the surrounding areas of Bagan. Out of which only around 2,000 temples are still standing in the current period. This was due to the different invasion that occurred in the past.

One of the notable points that was mesmerizing is even though there was an invasion by the Mongols in 1287 CE, the construction of the Buddha Statues and other forms of arts were constructed.

In between 14th to 16th centuries, the Ava (Innwa) style of the Buddha image was popular. This type of antique Buddhist art can be distinguished from others noticing few of the appearance of the Buddha. First, the Buddha has large protruding ears, exaggerated eyebrows that are curved upward with half closed eyes, thin lips and a hair bun which is pointed at the top. The image is usually portrayed in the bhumisparsa mudra.

At the end of the 18th century, during the Konbaung dynasty, another style of art, Mandalay emerged. This style of arts in different than that of Innwa style. To be precise, this style of art has, more natural, fleshy face with naturally slanted eyebrows, slightly slanted eyes. The lips are thicker and have a round hair bun at the top. The Antique Buddha Statues constructed in this form of art are usually portrayed in reclining, standing or sitting posture. This form of art, Mandalay can be distinguished with Buddha statues having draped or flowing robes.

Another form of Buddhist art is Shan style evolved through Shan people of Myanmar. These people inhabit in the highlands of Myanmar. This style can be distinguished with the Buddha represented with an angular feature. The Buddha has a large and prominently pointed nose, hair bun tied similar to Thai styles and a small, thin mouth.

Therefore, Myanmar has seen a historical development of Buddhist art from the period of Mon Empire to present day. To be honest, each and every style-early Indian arts, Innwa style, Mandalay style, Shan style- that developed has unique features. At present time, Mandalay style of art remains popular than other forms of arts.