Four years ago, Burma, now known as Myanmar, ended its decades-long isolation from much of the world. Now the Asia Society has mounted the first-ever museum show of Burmese Buddhist art in the US.

The works included are fantastically varied in appearance, and for good reason. Until British rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the region comprising present-day Myanmar was a collection of separate kingdoms whose names, borders, and populations changed over the centuries. Providing a common thread among these disparate cultures was Buddhism, still practiced by 90 percent of the population of Myanmar.

Buddhism arrived in Myanmar around 500 CE with Indian monks and traders. At the time Lower Myanmar was occupied by the Mon peoples and Upper Myanmar by the Pyu. But by the beginning of the second millennium, for reasons that are not well known, the Pyu had vanished. They were replaced by Bamar-speaking peoples, who migrated into Upper Myanmar from southern China; two-thirds of the country’s current population is descended from them. The Bamar had their capital city at Pagan, on the Irrawaddy River, and later at Ava. 

Western Myanmar was controlled by the Rakhine, and by the 14th century, the Shan had arrived in northeastern Myanmar from southern China and formed over 20 independent kingdoms. Myanmar only began to be united as a nation with the Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885), whose rulers also expanded their territory into Laos and Thailand.

Rather than trace stylistic evolution on multiple fronts, the curators have organized the show into non-chronological groupings reflecting the main precepts of Theravada Buddhism, the primary form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar since at least the Pagan era. Within these groupings are pieces that appear to have no connection to each other save for their Buddhist iconography. Yet, by the end of the show, a distinctly regional form of Theravada has emerged, one expressed through a multiplicity of styles, but with similar drama, opulence, and connectedness to ordinary life, regional politics, and local folklore. 

The exhibition opens with a section devoted to images of the Buddha in metal, clay, stone, and wood, made between the 5th and the 19th centuries. They include a corroded Pyu period copper statue of a seated Buddha with his hands raised and his forefingers touching his thumbs from the 8th or 9th century CE. Showing traces of Indian Gupta influence, this modestly scaled sculpture is one of the most beautiful objects in the exhibition: the Buddha’s slim body, his arms and hands positioned just so, and his rounded face with its full lips all radiate meditative concentration.

The Buddha severs his hair with a sword in a scene of renunciation unique to Myanmar art.

By contrast, another seated Buddha, this one from Ava between 1600 and 1700 CE, shows the full force of Bamar style. Highly stylized, with flat, paddlelike hands and feet, heavy lidded, exothalmic eyes, a short neck, and a snub nose, this Buddha wears a crown decorated with an abstract, elongated chignon and two openwork side panels that are exaggerations of the headdress ribbons worn by Indian Pala period deities. Even more richly clad is a gilded Shan Buddha from the late 1800s with a naturalistic, rather modern-looking face. He wears a crown and jeweled clothing inlaid with real glass chips—a style indebted to Thai royal costumes of the time.

A second section of the exhibition is devoted to images of the historical Buddha’s life, an important subject of study for Theravada Buddhists, who aspire to individual liberation through practicing, as the Buddha did, monasticism, the accumulation of merit, and meditation. Here, a wonderfully composed Pagan period stone sculpture from the 11th–12th century depicts a scene unique to Burmese art: the Buddha, having renounced a life of privilege, cutting his hair with a sword.

In this same section is a bronze narrative work from the 1800s showing the Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhatta, making his final departure from his father’s palace. In this delightful piece, the Buddha’s horse is raised above the ground by helpful devas so that its hoofbeats will not be heard by the palace guards. Two other devas light the way, but ahead of them is the demon Mara, representing obstacles on the spiritual journey. He floats in front of Siddhatta’s horse, his dancer’s body supported by an upright metal rod. (Mara’s assistant demons and his slinky temptress daughters haunt other works in the show, notably a 15th-century terracotta tile featuring two green ogres, weapons drawn, from a Mon temple in Pegu.)

“Mara’s Demons” on a 5th-century terracotta tile

A grouping of artworks in the next gallery depicts scenes from Jatakas—Buddhist morality stories. Over the centuries, these stories became entwined with Myanmar folk tales, just as prophecies of the Buddha were incorporated into foundational myths legitimizing dynastic lines. An illustrated book from the late 19th century tells a Jataka-inspired story of a prince and a peasant girl which, despite its use of Pali names, is set in Myanmar and espouses traditional Myanmar family values.

The exhibition’s final section consists of a selection of ritual objects. In it, pieces such as a Pagan statuette of Vishnu from the 11th–12th century and a Pegu terracotta roundel featuring a lively mob of dancers and water buffaloes, from the 5th–6th century, illustrate the easy incorporation of non-Buddhist deities and images of ordinary life into Buddhist sacred spaces. Elsewhere, a terracotta votive tablet and a manuscript binding ribbon with the donor’s name woven into it testify to the importance of making offerings in Theravada practice.

Despite their differences, two pieces suggest a through line in Myanmar Buddhist culture. Borrowed from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is an enormous, tiered, 19th-century wooden shrine. Out of its gilded, foliate carvings peers a small golden Buddha as if out of an elaborate stage set. And from the early 20th century is a seated figure of the Buddha’s disciple Sariputta, every line of his twisted body telegraphing his focus on his teacher’s words. Despite the dizzying range of works on view, the final impression is of the world as a cosmic theater, with the actors—gods, humans, demons, and animals—each with a part to play in the endless cycle of samsara and nirvana.

Photographs by Sean Dungan, courtesy Asia Society

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