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Buddhist Visual Cultures, Rhetoric, and Narrative in Late Burmese Wall Paintings$

Alexandra Green

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9789888390885

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888390885.001.0001

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A Formula to Honor the Buddha

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

(p.25) 1 A Formula to Honor the Buddha1
Buddhist Visual Cultures, Rhetoric, and Narrative in Late Burmese Wall Paintings

Alexandra Green

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter establishes the standardization of the wall paintings in terms of painting style, subject matter, and detail, and determine the major social, political, and religious ideas that contributed to the production of the wall paintings and provided a rationale for the standardized format. The murals evince exceptional consistency in choice of subject matter, representation of imagery, and arrangement within an architectural space across the central zone from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. Each temple contains variations in style, modes of representation, and design, yet all sites draw upon an established group of structures and material so that the differences reveal continuities in subject matter and organization diachronically and synchronically. Although the subject matter of the wall paintings appears to comprise an extensive body of material, the focus upon a specific repertoire for more than a century and the fact that it falls within narrow thematic parameters – the centrality of Gotama, how to worship him, and the power that emanates from spiritual awakening – demonstrates the religious and social constraints placed upon it.

Keywords:   Standardization, Wall paintings, Repertoire theory, Art history, Style

Mural paintings adorn hundreds of buildings dating to the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries at Pagan, Salay, Pakhangyi, and other early sites. Only a handful of structures built between the fourteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries house murals, however, probably due to over-painting and possibly a lack of resources resulting from the endemic warfare and shifting capital cities of the time. The tradition of embellishing the interiors of temples with murals revived in the mid- to late seventeenth century and flourished during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This can be connected to an increasing administrative consolidation of the country, expanding trade and religious networks, an emphasis on Buddhist orthodoxy, increasing wealth in the hinterlands, and changes to the way that merit was generated. Wall painting production declined again after the first quarter of the nineteenth century.2

The murals evince exceptional consistency in subject matter, representation of imagery, and arrangement within an architectural space across the central zone from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. The extensiveness of painting production during this time period throws the similarities of the murals into sharp relief. The wall paintings of each temple contain variations in style, modes of representation, and design, yet all sites draw upon established organizational structures and subject matter so that the differences merely reveal continuities diachronically and synchronically. In (p.26) looking at this body of material, I draw upon Ann Swidler’s approach to repertoire theory, which assesses patterns of action rather than beliefs or values.3 A select group of images and stories, a repertoire, or cultural tool-kit as described by Swidler, was used in “varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems.”4 This in turn meshes with David Morgan’s analysis of religious material culture as demonstrating human activity, as well as the approach of Elizabeth Arweck and William Keenan in their edited volume, in which they seek to understand how religious material culture functions socially.5 The Burmese wall paintings created a formula that became accepted as the appropriate way in which to decorate a temple during the course of the eighteenth century.6 The formula comprises three main themes: merit and its acquisition, protection and sources of power, and enlightenment. In these themes can be seen recommendations for specific actions, as well as the ways in which specific forms of action are made to seem an obvious response to contemporary conditions, particularly in the areas of communal identity formation, appropriate relationships with the supramundane, and personal and familial protection, both current and future.7 The wall paintings provided a repertoire of appropriate actions within the Burmese sphere, including psychological assistance through the representation of protective motifs, ensuring an appropriate relationship with the Buddhas through the narration of Buddhist biography, and developing and supporting community through the common ritual activity of generating merit. The importance of these actions in Burmese society is evinced by the fact that the subject matter and organization of the murals became sufficiently authoritative to persist for more than a century.8

The use of a formulaic manner of presentation and the development of a repertoire for representation made the paintings and the narratives recognizable and established a body and typology of imagery that was used for approximately 150 years, authenticating the subject matter by conforming to a particular type. The murals both established traditions and reinforced them through the standardization of subject matter and arrangement, and the fact that they were used across a wide area in the Burmese central region and were maintained over time indicates that the concepts used in their production had a level of authority that encouraged the preservation of their structure and subject matter. In other words, the imagery became a religious weight to be maintained (p.27) and reproduced, and hence, resilient over time.9 As a repetitive function in a religious context, the program of the wall paintings can be viewed as a form of ritual with its authority deriving from its formality and standardization.10 Just as dedicatory inscriptions followed prescribed formats, the visual material in the temples established an effective and appropriate repertoire of material and arrangements to honor the Buddha, protect and demarcate the interior space of temples, and enfold the Buddha image at the heart of the structure within its own life story.

The Burmese mural repertoire comprised a tight body of material from which the individual elements of the wall paintings were taken. For instance, within the biographical material, all or some of the ten great jātakas might be chosen. The Buddhas of the Past may or may not be shown with devotees or the future Gotama. Will the entrance ceiling display a Buddhapada or a lotus pool? And so forth. Each of these elements relates in a particular way to other parts of the murals, physically, narratively, and conceptually. The repertoire comprises a number of different pictorial formats, including cause-and-effect narration, icons, abstract devices, and patterns, which are not necessarily discrete areas of representation; many overlap. These formats advanced the concepts of merit, protection, and enlightenment in part through placement in the temple, the internal arrangement within a given narrative, or by their very presence. The wall paintings thereby perpetuated a distinct body of ideas, maintained an authoritative tradition, and presented strategies for action that devotees could use.

In this chapter, I explore the ways in which the wall paintings were standardized and thereby developed into a repertoire, particularly focusing on the main narrative features. By standardization, I do not mean that each temple is identical to the next, but rather that each site draws upon a stock body of material, a repertoire, and arranges it in strongly similar ways; in other words, patterns repeat, even if exact details do not.11 I also define the four main painting styles, look at the factors that may have contributed to the development and maintenance of a visual repertoire, and examine contextual elements that led to an efflorescence of paintings from the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries.12

(p.28) The Wall Painting Sites

The sites of extant seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century wall paintings are concentrated in the central zone along the Irrawaddy, the lower Chindwin, and the lower Mu river valleys (fig. 1.1). While not located in the capital itself, these regions can be viewed as the inner periphery of the areas surrounding the exemplary center. Extant wall paintings are primarily, though not exclusively, located in the following towns and regions:

  • The towns of Salin, Lekaing, Sinbyugyun, Nyaung Hla, Kyahto, and Myitche on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River and Pagan on the east bank in the mid-Irrawaddy region.

    A Formula to Honor the Buddha

    Figure 1.1 Map of wall painting sites along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers.

  • (p.29) The villages of Ma U and Yasagyo around the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers.

  • Pakokku, Pakhangyi, and Ywagyigone on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River north of the Pagan region.

  • The cave site of Powindaung and the town of Salingyi west of the Chindwin River.

  • The villages of Amyint, Anein, and Khinmon on or near the Chindwin River.

  • The towns of Monywe between Monywa and Chaung U, and Ywathitgyi along the Irrawaddy River east of the Mu River.

  • Shweminwun village and Sagaing Hill west of the Irrawaddy River.

  • The villages of Mekkhaya and Montain south of the capital area of Ava, Amarapura, and Mandalay.

  • Amarapura in the capital area.

The murals at these sites are housed in small-scale structures that functioned primarily as shrines for Buddha images, contributing to the merit of the donors and all living beings, as indicated by the few remaining donative inscriptions. The most common architectural layout for these buildings is a square central room entered by one or more short passageways (fig. 0.8). A few temples have a central pillar creating a small circumambulatory corridor, and others have enlarged entryways or a central shrine room surrounded by a separate circumambulatory passage. Some are rectangular structures with several doorways along one side. The interiors range in size from tiny central rooms less than two square meters to a few large-scale edifices,13 but most are approximately three square meters. The small size of the shrines indicates that the buildings were utilized to house Buddha images and for personal devotions, rituals, and meditation, and were not congregational spaces.

Externally, temples are either rectangular or square in form with one, three, or four entrances. Occasionally, the temple is in the shape of a stupa that has a shrine room, but more commonly the stupa and temple forms are combined with the temple displaying a stupa superstructure consisting of terraces, a squat anda (bell), and an extended series of chattravalis (umbrellas marked by grooves or discs) that culminate in a hti (metal umbrella placed at the top of the stupa or temple) or in a lotus bud shape (fig. 1.2). In the late eighteenth century when imitating wooden architecture in brick and stucco became popular, rectangular halls with a stupa shrine room at the far end were constructed (fig. 1.3).14 Murals were also painted in excavated caves, such as those at the Powindaung site near Monywa (fig. 1.4). (p.30)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.2 Exterior view, Yokson temple, Myitche, late eighteenth century.

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.3 Temples with extended entranceways, Anein, eighteenth century.


A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.4 Powindaung site, c. eighteenth century.

Economic, political, and social developments in Burmese society during the Nyaungyan and Konbaung periods led to the construction of numerous temples across the central area of the country, of which more than 160 still have extant wall paintings. Because most temples lack inscriptions and painting styles were conservative and lasted over a long period of time, many sites can only be dated through stylistic analysis. Using this method, most murals date to the eighteenth century, particularly the second half. Temples with specific seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century dates are limited in number with fewer than ten that can be so ascribed. There are approximately five mural sites with inscribed dates of the mid-eighteenth century, and nine from the late eighteenth century. Five have recorded nineteenth-century dates. The stylistic clustering of the murals around these dates indicates that painting projects multiplied as the eighteenth century progressed.

The reemergence of wall painting production and its efflorescence from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries can be attributed to a number of factors, some general and others regional. The reestablishment of the Burmese capital at Ava in the central zone in 1635 was a major factor in the development of the region politically, agriculturally, and demographically. The late seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries in Burma were periods of important economic growth, administrative (p.32) integration, and centrally determined orthodox acculturation.15 The impact of these can be seen in the development of Burmese art: the first produced the funds necessary to produce the paintings, the second focused significant political control on the central zone where the paintings were located, and the third ensured the murals’ stereotyped depictions. The many sites dating from the late eighteenth century were a consequence of increased stability, and hence wealth, within the kingdom; people seized the opportunity to build temples, which brought immediate social prestige, in order to generate merit for future lives, living beings and deceased relatives, and to support the sāsana.

The central area of Burma is a semiarid zone because of the mountainous regions, which create a “rain shadow,” to the east and west of the Irrawaddy River valley. Minbu, the Mu River valley north of Ava, the Kyaukse area southeast of Ava, and the lower Chindwin River valley were prominent centers of regional political authority, because these were the areas of the greatest agricultural productivity in the center of the country. Crops included wet and dry season rice, indigo, cotton, tobacco, and toddy palm, as well as millet and sesamum.16 Unsurprisingly then, the sites of extant wall paintings of this period are concentrated in this region. Many of the towns and villages with temples and murals are located in proximity to rivers and water networks that increased their trade potential, contributing to the wealth of the area and thereby the ability of the inhabitants to make religious donations in the form of temples and wall paintings.

The period under consideration saw significant economic growth in Burma.17 Increasing international trade, overland from Yunnan and over sea in the Indian Ocean region, spurred the expansion of Burma’s domestic economy and internal trade networks.18 The requirements of these two external contacts pressured Burma into enlarging its markets and monetizing its exchange system, in part by stimulating the development of specialized industries (such as ship-building, metal-working, cotton cultivation, and the production of ceramics, lac, musk, and textiles).19 A network of provincial and village markets began to supply larger markets and provide a variety of services, generating further urban growth and the emergence of specialized occupational groups and industry. The provision by foreign merchants of cash advances and desirable commodities, such as Indian textiles, encouraged this developmental process. In particular, Indian textiles and other Indian Ocean goods drew people to market towns, enhancing the commercial networks that joined cities and ports to rural areas.20 That the economy was expanding is shown by the increase in the number of (p.33) market towns from 145 to over 200 during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.21 Export-import routes, domestic trade routes, and riverine networks developed, and goods in general became easier to move between regions, further increasing the wealth of the country. People, including peddlers, migrant workers, monks, and pilgrims, among others, travelled more extensively than before, which had the effect of diffusing lowland culture, language, religion, and customs to peripheral areas.22 Beyond facilitating movement of people, goods, and ideas, the expanding economy enriched people in the countryside, as well as the cities, as is evidenced by the fact that rural headmen and cultivators living outside the capital were the main purchasers of land at this time, with many establishing large estates.23 The accessibility of cash would not necessarily have affected the construction and embellishment of temples in the hinterlands, as traditionally gifts to the Sangha comprised land and slaves. However, in the seventeenth century, kings restricted the donation of land to the Sangha. Lay donors other than the king were limited in the acquisition of merit to giving cash and goods or making monastic constructions.24 Building a temple or monastery became a significant way of acquiring and attesting to social status and prestige, with the donor named a paya-daga or kyaung-daga, respectively; during the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century, monasteries received significant financial support from wealthy patrons and royalty.25 Together these provided an impetus for the establishment of the numerous small-scale temples scattered across the central zone of Burma.

The seventeenth century saw the rise of villages as centers of Buddhism and the emergence of regional monastic networks, with the central portion of Burma becoming a major center of monasticism.26 Additionally, there was a late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reformation of Theravada Buddhist thought, some of which stemmed from the lower Chindwin River valley’s monastic complexes.27 The expansion of regional religious centers encouraged temple construction, as the centers sought patronage, and indicates the increasing prestige and importance of these monastic complexes. (p.34) For instance, sites, such as Pakhangyi, Pagan, and Amyint, where many temples with murals are found, were significant secondary Buddhist centers.28 The reduction in mural painting production after the early nineteenth century probably resulted from a decline in these regional monastic networks. As provincial centers became less significant, donations were made to other sources of merit. Alexey Kirichenko writes that the “[t]ransformation of underlying social system [sic] throughout the nineteenth century due to commercialization of economy, integration into global market [sic], foreign expansion, etc. made Upper Burmese villages individually and Upper Myanmar in general much less relevant for Burmese polity.”29 Peripheral monasteries and secondary religious centers thus played a significant role in the efflorescence and standardization of Burmese wall paintings between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Another reason that a tradition of mural painting arose in the central zone during the Nyaungyan and early Konbaung dynasties probably related to increases in the core population. In the seventeenth century, in connection with the relocation of the capital from the southern regions to Ava in 1635, people were concentrated in the core region. The most rapid expansion of population numbers seems to have occurred between 1710 and 1825,30 overlapping with the efflorescence of mural production in the region. This in part connected to the royal support of rural settlement and irrigation, and the attendant population surge, which enabled the diversification of industry beyond agricultural production.31 Warfare and deportation were other methods of population augmentation used by the Burmese kings. After military campaigns in Manipur, Yunnan, Laos, and Thailand in the seventeenth century, inhabitants of those places were deported to Burma and settled in the central area. A further demographic resurgence of the region occurred in the 1760s with deportees arriving from Manipur and the Shan, Lao, and Thai regions. This enhanced the political strength of the nuclear zone as the people were forcibly relocated into the Burmese heartland, particularly around Kyaukse, the Mu River, and the lower Chindwin River valley, the area where many wall painting sites are found. This new population was formed into hereditary military service units and allocated vacant land in the central dry zone, swelling local labor.32 These new arrivals brought ideas and narratives that were incorporated into the Burmese murals.

In deliberately encouraging demographic growth in the central core zone, the kings of Burma further consolidated administrative systems within the country. Lieberman has discussed in detail the political centralization process that occurred in Burma during this time. He argues that administrative reforms, particularly the institution of appointing short-term governors of the lowland regions, made during the sixteenth and early (p.35) seventeenth centuries lasted into the second decade of the nineteenth century.33 Some policies, such as appanage holders being required to reside in palaces at the capital of Ava, rather than in their assigned area, had a direct impact on mural production. Because the prestige of provincial rulers declined, regional governors and village headmen established greater power over rural populations and gathered increasing amounts of local resources.34 They were enriched as their control of the regions around the capital grew, and they sometimes managed to develop substantial family estates from purchases and royal gifts, giving them sufficient capital to commission temples.35 The increasing wealth of regions outside the capital was an important factor in wall painting production. As I have discussed elsewhere, the small scale of the edifices and their locations indicate that they were primarily, though not exclusively, provincial productions, and donors were mostly provincial individuals and families who were wealthy but did not have the monetary resources of royalty or court members.36 However, not all donors of these sites were from the immediate locale or were wealthy provincials. For instance, a religious building in Minbu was donated by Maung Po Ywe from Magwe in 1851.37 Some donors were connected directly with the court, and in these instances the small scale of the temples reflected the fact that provincial constructions were not major donative efforts. The Shinbin Chanthagyi in the village of Sinbyugyun was built in 1784 by a son of King Bodawpaya when he passed through on his way to Arakan, and Minye Kyaw Gaung, a commander of the king’s forces, was required to construct the Sudaungpye stupa to house relics near Sinbyugyun when he was discovered to have stolen the items from a structure at Pagan.38

Another facet of the murals is the fact that they were produced during the “robe-wrapping” dispute that divided the Sangha from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century and the dynastic change of the mid-eighteenth century without making overt reference to either. This suggests that the focus of the murals was on the Dhamma and the fundamental Buddhist tenets of kamma, saṁsāra, and lay religious practice, as well as the perpetuation of the sāsana, rather than worldly political and religious realities. The flurry of temple construction and embellishment during the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries indicates efforts to generate good merit, and possibly thereby prevent the recurrence of periods of travail detrimental to the normal operation of society, and suggests an anxiety regarding the continuation of the sāsana in the face of religious schism and dynastic change.39

(p.36) Standardization

The efflorescence of mural production enabled the emergence of a specific format and subject matter, replicated across the central zone, which came to define an appropriate temple donation and an effective religious space in which to house a Buddha image. The formula emerged from a number of sources, including communications and networks between monastic centers, religious practices and rituals, and literary emphases, which I will discuss over the course of this volume. Here, I explore the nature of the imagery’s standardization.

Most temples and caves with wall paintings from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries contain both narrative and non-narrative imagery. While no temple is identical to another, artists and donors drew upon a stock body of material for representation, depicted it in formulaic manners, and organized it hierarchically. The narrative material, usually comprising the ten great jātaka stories, the life of Gotama Buddha, and the twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, is found on the walls; the non-narrative material—floral and geometric motifs, magical signs, scenes of hell, and protective figures—can be seen in entrances, on ceilings, beneath the narrative imagery, and on the wall with the Bodhi tree. Specific imagery was usually placed in the same part of the temple at most sites; the stories, except for a few exceptions, were drawn from a narrow body of material and were laid out similarly. While there were a number of painting styles used in Burma during this period, most were not confined to one area but spanned the region where murals are found; nor did styles develop sequentially. However, they all utilized the standardized material.

Enlightenment and Buddhist Biography

The earliest remaining sites from the seventeenth and the very early eighteenth centuries focus on narrative representations. The largest illustration is of the Bodhi tree surrounding the main sculpted image that often occupied an entire wall, usually the western one. The Buddhas of the Past are found at all of these early sites except for Ko Nan Pyatthat Paya in Anein village, although this may be a result of the temple’s poor condition. The life of Gotama Buddha is also present at all of these sites, as are jātaka stories, particularly the ten great jātakas, the Mahānipāta. At the Hmansi Paya and Taungbi Ok-kyaung at Pagan and Tilawkaguru Cave-temple in Sagaing, there are alternative narratives and some unidentified stories, including the Manohari Jātaka (one of the Paññasa jātakas) at the first, the Mora Jātaka (no. 159) and the Manohari Jātaka at the second, and jātaka stories numbered 496 to 533 (and probably more, but the murals are in poor condition) at Tilawkaguru. These are early variations after which the emphasis upon the twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, the life of Gotama Buddha, and the Mahānipāta became a trend, with only a few exceptions, that strengthened over time. Over the course of the eighteenth century, new imagery was introduced, including the eighty exceptional individuals, protective diagrams like the magic circle, and pilgrimage sites. This material was incorporated into the overall organizational and representational framework of the murals, becoming standardized in its own right.

(p.37) The Twenty-Eight Previous Buddhas

The Buddhas of the Past are the most recent beings, including Gotama, the historical Buddha, to attain enlightenment.40 At more than one hundred temple sites, the twenty-eight previous Buddhas were painted in a linear sequence or sequences along the top of temple or cave walls next to the ceilings with their floral and geometric decorations (figs. 1.5 and 1.6). Not differentiated visually except for occasional minor variation in the styles of the trees, the images are seated in bhumisparsa mudra, the earth-touching gesture associated with enlightenment, under their respective trees of awakening. Sometimes kneeling disciples and devotees holding flowers, pennants, or umbrellas flank them. Captions under the figures name each Buddha and state that he is reaching enlightenment. Sometimes the tree of enlightenment and the main disciples are also identified. A few sites also present truncated scenes of the lives of the Buddhas, usually palace life, the departure, the hair-cutting scene, the enlightenment, and life in a monastery. These episodes are illustrated as generic palace scenes, the future Buddha leaving the palace in the textually designated vehicle, seated cross-legged holding his long hair above his head while brandishing a sword, seated in bhumisparsa mudra (under a tree), and seated in a wooden building. Occasionally, the imagery of the previous Buddhas is combined with the future Gotama receiving a prophecy from them after making a donation and a vow to attain Buddhahood in the future.

The Life of Gotama Buddha

There are extant scenes of Gotama’s life at approximately one hundred temple sites. Located below the monoscenic portraits of the Buddhas of the Past and portrayed in long strips that wind around the temple walls, these scenes are usually composed of events that occurred prior to and immediately after the Buddha’s enlightenment, though occasionally one finds the parinibbāna (the Buddha’s final nibbāna) and the distribution of relics depicted. These illustrations coalesce around a few particular sections of the narrative, primarily the birth, departure and renunciation, Sujātā’s gift, and the seven stations that the Buddha occupied after enlightenment.41 Sections are sometimes expanded through the addition of scenes with less action, such as people or gods paying homage to the Buddha, palace scenes, and the Buddha walking. There are a number of reasons for the inclusion of such a limited range of incidents, including (p.38)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.5 The twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, Payanet temple, Pakhangyi, eighteenth century.

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.6 The twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, Shinbin Pwinlan temple, Hsinkyo, 1797.


A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.7 Prince Siddhattha’s last look at his wife and child before his departure, temple in the Monywe complex, Salingyi, eighteenth century.

a connection with the Paṭhamasambodhi text that focuses on events leading up to the Buddha’s enlightenment, which I discuss in chapter 2.

The manner in which events were illustrated is quite uniform across the region, in that there is a code of gestures and positions. For example, as Prince Siddhattha is about to depart his life of luxury, he takes a last look at his sleeping wife and son. This incident is represented as the prince standing to one side of the palace building that houses the bed on which his wife, Yasodharā, and son, Rahula, are reclining. Siddhattha lifts the curtain at the foot of the bed to view his family, while Channa the charioteer kneels and Kanthaka the horse stands behind him (figs. 1.7 and 1.8). Another highly standardized image found at multiple locations is Kanthaka’s death from grief when the Buddha-to-be orders him to return to the palace. In the wall paintings, the horse lies curled up on the ground on the far side of the Anomā River with Channa kneeling behind the body with his hand over his eyes, a general gesture indicating grief. With almost no exceptions, the scene has been placed on the far bank of the river, across from the depiction of Prince Siddhattha cutting his hair. This might be considered to be out of temporal order, except that it is the correct side of the river for Channa and Kanthaka’s return to Kapilavatthu. The placement of the scene not only indicates that the companions of the bodhisatta were obeying his wishes and had embarked on their return journey, but also that spatial organization trumped the temporal in the murals. Furthermore, the Anomā River provided a physical separation between two scenes, emphasizing Siddhattha’s renunciation of his princely lifestyle. As these examples demonstrate, the codification of the life of the Buddha is apparent in scene selection, as well as the manner in which events were depicted.

The Jātaka Stories

The jātaka stories, tales recounting the Buddha’s previous lives, remain at nearly ninety sites, and the greatest amount of wall space is devoted to these narratives. Primarily located below the scenes of the life of Gotama Buddha, the stories are usually organized, like the story of Gotama’s life, in extended strips that wrap around the temple (p.40)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.8 Scenes of the great departure, temple in the Minyegyi complex, Amyint, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

walls, and they consist almost exclusively of some or all of the ten great jātakas.42 A few other jātakas, such as the Kusa (no. 531) and the Manohari (one of the extra-canonical Paññasa jātakas, stories about the Buddha’s previous lives that appear to have originated in Southeast Asia), can be found, but rarely. The ten great jātaka stories describe particularly the perfection of the ten virtues (pāramīs) necessary for spiritual awakening, and therefore represent stages of the path to enlightenment that were completed by Gotama in the extended depiction of his final life. Closest to the floor is the Mūgapakkha (Temiya) Jātaka above which are the Mahājanaka, Sāma, Nemi, Mahā-Ummagga (Mahosadha), Bhūridatta, Khaṇḍahāla, Mahānāradakassapa, and Vidhurapaṇḍita Jātakas; the series culminates with Vessantara’s story directly beneath or at the same level as the first events in the life of Gotama Buddha. This order is the modern Burmese version that emerged during the seventeenth century, and in reducing the representation of the jātakas from 550 to 10 between the Pagan period and the seventeenth century, the wall paintings focus on what came to be considered the core of the jātaka material—the virtues—in Burma and much of Buddhist Southeast Asia.

In the wall paintings, each story is depicted by representative episodes, and the use of specific gestures for particular scenes or certain events of a story made the (p.41) identification of the visual tale easy among the repetitive illustrations. For example, in the Bhūridatta Jātaka (no. 543), still extant at thirty sites, the Buddha-to-be is a nāga who is very devout, often meditating, observing the sīlas, and retreating from the mundane world. The paintings display meditation scenes as occurring in a natsin, a wooden structure built for that purpose, with the bodhisatta accompanied by women playing musical instruments, or on a tall, thin ant hill. It is while the nāga meditates on the latter that an evil brahmin points him out to a snake charmer. Bhūridatta is then hacked off the hill with a machete, stuffed into a basket with the charmer’s foot, and carried away on one side of a yoke. The snake charmer displays Bhūridatta at court draped across his shoulders like a shawl (figs. 1.9, 1.10, and 1.11). The other jātaka tales are illustrated in a similarly formulaic manner.

Themes Related to Merit

The murals contain other standardized material as well. There are repetitive scenes of hell with people being boiled in cauldrons, forced to climb spiky trees, or speared by demons (figs. 1.12 and 1.13). Scenes of homage include humans, gods, and monks kneeling and offering pennants or flowers,43 or large-scale representations of people bringing food offerings in lacquer containers. Even textile patterns and layouts, evidence of the luxury status of such materials and therefore appropriate offerings to (p.42)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.9 Bhūridatta meditating, being attacked and kidnapped, and being rescued by his brother and half-sister, Bhūridatta Jātaka, Kyanzittha temple, Zedi Daw Daik complex, Anein, eighteenth century.

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.10 Bhūridatta being attacked, kidnapped, and rescued, Bhūridatta Jātaka, temple in the Ywagyigone complex, c. late eighteenth century.


A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.11 The attack of the nāga king and Bhūridatta being shown at court by the brahmin and rescued by his brother and half-sister, Bhūridatta Jātaka, temple in the Minyegyi complex, Amyint, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.


A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.12 A cauldron for boiling evil-doers in hell, Chinthe temple, Anein, eighteenth century.

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.13 A cauldron for boiling evil-doers in hell, temple in the Monywe complex, Salingyi, eighteenth century.

(p.45) the Buddha, are presented in repetitive formats of floral-geometric motifs in bands edging the narratives, patterned ceilings with borders and a central motif, and narrative material arranged in registers.44

Protection and Demarcation

There are a number of supernatural and protective forms of imagery. These include the depiction of the fruit maidens favored by alchemists (see fig. 3.19),45 the use of twisted nāga forms as a central panel on ceilings and as a surround for footprints and other motifs (see fig. 3.14), and apotropaic diagrams (see figs. 3.17 and 3.18). These elements occupy little space in the mural paintings and are usually in doorways, window alcoves, or ceilings, or formed into thin bands around the edges of the narratives. As with the biographical material, this imagery is conventional at all sites. For example, there are footprints surrounded by two intertwined nāgas at more than thirty-five sites. These serpents were represented with scaly bodies and a forward-reaching ruff composed of hood-like protuberances. At almost all these sites, the two nāgas face each other by the toes of the foot or feet, and their tails intertwine at the heel.46 The magic diagrams and the representations of the fruit maidens, shown hanging from a tree by the tops of their heads with zawgyis flying towards them or quarrelling in mid-air, are also depicted in a consistent fashion.

Painting Styles

Not only were the stories and scenes selected standardized in Burma during the Nyaungyan and early Konbaung dynasty period, but painting styles were as well. Although there are local variations in the colors used and in the level of care with which the temple paintings were produced, the standardized patterns and stylistic usage reveals an artistic network that extended across the central zone of Burma and further afield. Four main mural painting formats were utilized, sometimes simultaneously, and the first and second are strongly related. Among these styles can be seen comingling and overlapping elements. The first two are found in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings and relate to the sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Assamese school of manuscript painting,47 while a third style that connects with paintings found in (p.46) central Thailand emerged in the late eighteenth century and persisted into the nineteenth. The fourth style also originated in the late eighteenth century, and was used into the nineteenth century.48 All of these painting styles incorporated patterning found on Indian trade textiles from Gujarat, Coromandel Coast, and Bengal. Additional representational styles entered the repertoire during the early to mid-nineteenth century, but because they are found at only one or two sites each, they are not discussed here.

In the first painting format, the narrative portions are laid out in multiple narrow registers with the stories winding around the walls in an upward progression (fig. 1.14). The colorful ornamental ceilings and borders are covered in repetitive, interlocking floral and geometric designs, which are copies of textile and manuscript patterns.49 Wavy lines and decorated panels, as well as vegetal forms, landscape features, and architectural structures divide scenes. Space in the registers is flat with the action occurring along a single ground line formed by the base of the register. Scenes usually fill the entire height of the register, although occasionally small-scale scenes are inset along its top.50 Most stories progress from left to right. If two separate actions occur in the same location, they are often shown together to conserve space, and since many of these conflations transpire in palace complexes, there is an emphasis on the wealth and status of the king and his court.51 This contraction of spatiotemporal relationships is also seen in illustrated Burmese manuscripts.52 Buildings, which occupy the full height of the registers, are shown frontally and in a stereotypical fashion. Proportions are not realistic, with people and animals disproportionately large compared to the landscape and buildings they inhabit. Except for images of Buddhas, which are portrayed frontally, people are mostly illustrated in three-quarter profile with broad faces, large eyes, wide noses, thick lips, large ears with plug earrings, and three lines on their necks. They are clothed in textiles elegantly decorated with geometric patterns that can be seen on Indian trade (p.47)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.14 Representations of jātaka stories, painting style one, Taungbi Ok-kyaung, Pagan, c. 1706.

textiles in Southeast Asia. Men are portrayed with a large lump in their cheeks, possibly representing a betel quid, and the women have their hair pulled up and bound by a ring on top of their heads. Colors are bright. There is usually a red background and deep green was used extensively; less bold colors consist of yellow, white, and light brown. Register widths vary between 15 and approximately 50 centimeters. These basic elements, produced with greater or lesser skill, are widely distributed around the dry zone.

The second painting format has many elements similar to the first style, but with a few significant alterations, which suggests that the two were related styles produced by different workshops following similar templates, or that they were temporal variations (fig. 1.15). In this style, ceilings are also elaborately decorated with geometric and floral designs extracted from Indian manuscripts and textiles, which sometimes assume a naturalistic appearance. The narrative registers are still narrow and numerous, and scenes are divided by double green and white wavy lines,53 solid black lines, or changes in the hue of the background, as well as the standard landscape and architectural features.54 (p.48)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.15 Scenes from the lives of the Buddhas of the Past, painting style two, Cave-temple 478, Powindaung, eighteenth century.

Scenes do not necessarily fill the entire height of a register, and insets within the register or a horizontal line above a scene to create an additional space for narrative action are commonly used. People are shown in groups, rather than in straight lines; depth and space are indicated by figures standing in front of each other or stacked above and behind one another, resulting in a highly populated feel to the murals. The representation of people and architecture remains formulaic, however. Men have largely lost the bulge in the cheek, though a broadness of face, especially around the cheek area silhouetted against the background, is sometimes evident. The color palette varies from the first style in that a buff-pink color has been added to the repertoire, and the green, while still present, becomes less common. Beige, white, and varying shades of blue are also used. At a few sites, the palette is significantly reduced to reds, black, and white, with almost no use of greens or blues. Register widths are similar to paintings (p.49)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.16 The wealth of Sumedha, painting style three, temple in the Minyegyi complex, Amyint, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

in the first style. This style is found in a variety of towns, most of which cluster around the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers. The strong similarities of the two styles described suggest that they are variations on a theme, but the more specific location of many of the second style’s sites around the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River and the lower Chindwin River, rather than following the broad distribution of the first mural painting mode, indicates that this one was a regional style, corroborating Michael Charney’s descriptions of the religious developments in the lower Chindwin River valley, particularly the four regions that were connected by monastic, social, and cultural links.55 At a few sites, including Pakhangyi, Pagan, and Minbu, elements of both styles can be seen.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, there were radical stylistic changes, particularly noticeable in the coloration of the murals and in the extensive use of multiple perspectives allowing the viewer to see different areas in a compound simultaneously (fig. 1.16). This was due in part to the resettlement of Thai artists into the central zone after the Burmese military campaign against neighboring Ayutthaya in the 1760s.56 Ceilings, borders, and panel dividers are highly ornamental with complex, repetitive, and interlocking floral and geometric designs, which, as with earlier paintings, (p.50) are based upon, but not necessarily copies of, trade textile patterns.57 Registers are still used for the depiction of the narratives, but they have been made more ample, now ranging from 50 to 100 centimeters wide. The stories are still arranged in a hierarchical fashion, but a few sites, such as at the Kyaung U temple at Pagan and a temple in the Minyegyi complex at Amyint, display single panels of narrative. At some sites registers and panels are both used. Greater emphasis upon external landscapes makes the pictures appear more naturalistic. The base of the register is no longer necessarily the only ground line used, as a bird’s-eye view into palace compounds and landscape scenes is common, differing greatly from the first and second styles where frontal views of buildings are the norm. The use of multiple perspectives enables more than one row of people to be represented without having to place one person above the other or to separate the levels of people with line dividers. Figures are more to scale with the environment than seen in the other two styles, and in general, figures are integrated into the landscape more naturally. Insets are less frequently employed, as the use of differing ground lines reduces the need for them, but the scene located along the base of the register is the largest in size and is still usually the main one in a narrative episode. Scene divisions are now indicated by a change of background color and large landscape features, which produces a more subtle and continuous effect than the use of buildings, trees, lines, and rocks. Considerable contextual material is included in the depictions, as the imagery is painted in a highly detailed fashion. Although this has tempted some to consider the paintings increasingly secular, the details elaborate and embellish the setting of religious narratives.58 The people have oval faces, now lacking the lump in the cheek. Men wear lengthy garments with long sleeves, a paso, the traditional tube-skirt, and a turban. Women dress in jackets over a htamein, a traditional skirt. Their hair is tied up in buns or semi-elaborate coifs.59

In this third style, a bright red and turquoise coloration characterizes the murals. The turquoise color is a copper-based pigment, and chemical analyses of Burmese murals indicate the presence of copper-based green colors from as early as the thirteenth century.60 Most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings do not use it,61 incorporating a dark green instead. Turquoise-green became particularly popular during the last quarter of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. A turquoise-hued, copper-green color was also utilized in Thai murals and manuscripts, where it is a malachite compound (copper sulfate and sodium carbonate [lime]), like the Burmese (p.51)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.17 Sakka persuading the Buddha-to-be to abandon austerities, painting style four, Loka Aung Mye temple, Khinmon, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

version.62 The rekindled interest in the turquoise color in Burma starting in the last quarter of the eighteenth century suggests a connection with the arrival of Thai artists in the central region in the late 1760s. Besides the use of turquoise green, many features of this third style connect with the forms of Thai murals. Such features include gold leaf patterning, wider registers, and changing clothing styles, among other influences. The wider registers that emerged in the late eighteenth century follow the Thai panel format that utilizes a large section of wall. This in turn promoted the use of a bird’s-eye perspective, which also was common in Thailand. Elements of Thai clothing and royal accoutrements began to be represented in Burma, and gold leaf, a popular feature in Thailand, began to be used in the murals to highlight specific elements in the murals and to recreate patterns and the Bodhi tree on the wall behind the main image.63

Another style of painting emerged in Burma during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (fig. 1.17). It is similar to the third format in terms of perspective, but has a much duller palette of colors, usually a dark red and a deep green, as well as black, now used for more than outlining images. Clothing, architecture, and landscape are similar to those found in style three, though sometimes are not articulated as finely. There is greater stylistic differentiation in this grouping, suggesting that local variations started to become more prominent with the advent of this format, as visible at mural sites in the town of Pakokku.

(p.52) Factors in the Development of Mural Standardization

Many factors—social, political, religious, and literary—affected the consistent production of wall paintings during the Nyaungyan and Konbaung dynasties. The emphasis on religious orthodoxy was one. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the monarchy enhanced religious standardization in its core region significantly, in part by increasing the centralization of the kingdom but also through proselytizing. The king encouraged orthodox practices within the Sangha by emphasizing Sri Lanka as a source of authoritative texts. The court managed the interpretation of texts and religious communication within its realm by controlling local access to spiritual authorities who were authorized to teach the Buddhist canon and perform its rituals. In the Nyaungyan and Konbaung dynasties, the kings restricted the registration of monks and expanded Pali examinations. Monks had to prove that they were textually knowledgeable and morally fit by passing mandated tests.64 As a result, textually based religious norms increasingly spread from the elite and the capital region out towards peripheral areas and the lower echelons of society. The fact that monks were sent to provincial areas to work for a period of time after passing their exams contributed to this diffusion.65

By the late seventeenth century, secondary Buddhist centers also had a sufficient material and social infrastructure to enable extensive networking throughout the peripheral region.66 The movement of religious personnel around the region contributed to the dissemination of painting and story forms, and the standardization of the murals from this time period presents additional physical evidence of these local networks and the movement of texts. The wider use of kanit-yei palm-leaf manuscripts, which were inexpensive, easier to produce, and less bulky than the min-ye peza that had been preferred for merit-making by the elite, were also important in the spread of Buddhist ideas around the region. The eighteenth-century adoption of kanit-yei manuscripts revolutionized their circulation, making texts and textual expertise more common in villages.67 Literacy increased as more village males learned to read and write and vernacular literature became more readily available,68 and hawsa (religious lectures), plays, and other forms of religiously based entertainment emerging around this time further contributed to the development of a mainstream understanding of religious material that came to focus on monastery-based merit making.69 These developments received the support of the elites who sponsored the construction of monasteries and temples across the region.

(p.53) The consistency of mural representations and painting styles suggests that copybooks were employed to guide the artists.70 The earliest surviving, illustrated Burmese manuscripts (parabaik), which are produced on white paper, date from the end of the eighteenth century. Their compositional similarities with murals, including the organization and demarcation of space within stories, the strip format, and the use and placement of captions, indicates that the two—murals and manuscripts—were drawn from similar templates.71 However, it was not the white-papered parabaik that served as models for artists and painters; instead, black-papered manuscripts, which could be erased and reused, and which included drawings of architectural models, magical diagrams and auspicious imagery, cosmology, animals, plants, and humans, provided exemplars. Although these manuscripts are less durable than the white ones, and most remaining examples date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they would have been the sketch and copybooks utilized in the reproduction of the mural imagery.72

Regularity in the representation of the narrative wall paintings was also achieved when monks supervised the production of paintings.73 Many wall painting sites are associated with monasteries and so are situated in or near monastery compounds or temple complexes, the proximity enabling close supervision of the mural production process by monks and other religious leaders. A royal order issued on the seventh of April 1633, for instance, stated that seven monks were to supervise a group of five hundred artists assigned to paint the enclosure walls of the Maha Myat Muni pagoda.74 These paintings were to comprise illustrations of the 547 jātaka stories, an inscription of the Buddha’s teachings, the story of the spread of Buddhism to Burma, and the event in which the Buddha gave eight of his hairs to the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika. Donations from the officer of the Royal Granary and five wealthy men named in the order supported the monks and the painters’ production.75

Beyond practical factors, however, there are other reasons for promoting the use of common elements. Standardization depends on conventions and common knowledge in order to be an effective form of communication. To create a standardized form, the imagery must be presented in comprehensible and repetitive patterns that stand (p.54) as paradigms for others of the same type, the very conformity of which authenticates the material and facilitates communication.76 The repetition of stories, scenes, and gestures found in these Burmese murals validates the imagery and the spaces in which they are housed, because it tautologically reaffirms and enhances the efficacy of the visual typology.

Maintaining a form indicates a desire to hold onto specific traditions.77 Donors were complicit in creating a visual status quo because their gifts of temples, wall paintings, and so forth were only as legitimate as the system’s authority. The Burmese lay populace generally focused on the realms of existence and the hierarchy found in the Buddhist universe, with an understanding that a being’s position implies a partial explanation of one’s past, present, and future lives. Material support, through donations of food, necessities, temples, paintings, and so forth, was made in exchange for spiritual gain. In other words, the acquisition of charity-derived merit was and is a primary form of religious practice with an individual’s ability to support the religion as evidence of his or her personal power, previous merit, and current social status. A person’s quotient of merit is also reflected in his or her wealth, beauty, spirituality, and so forth. The imagery in the wall paintings emphasized a general homogeneity of belief, and by exemplifying the benefits of participation in specific religious practices through the repetition of the material benefits of good kamma, the murals also enticed the complicity of the practitioner. Standardization thus became hegemonic, promoting a specific religious and social orthodoxy espoused by those who were wealthy enough to donate and embellish a temple.78

The dispersal of wall paintings across the central zone can thus be viewed as a cultural map of an area consisting of networked secondary centers with links to the central political and religious administration. The murals demonstrate that specific religious concepts were widespread across the central zone, with standardization both defining cultural concepts and legitimizing them. Longstanding central beliefs on which Burmese society rested, including faith in the merit path to awakening and the importance of kingship, ensured the maintenance of a high level of uniformity in the murals’ narrative subject matter and the manner in which it was portrayed through a series of political and religious crises in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Burmese kings exerted varying levels of control over the central zone. The court provided an exemplary institutional model that people aspired to and attempted to (p.55) emulate, and thus, even though subordinate areas of power grew stronger in Burma in the first half of the eighteenth century and a new dynasty came to power in the middle of the century, the new leaders followed already established precedents of religious and social behavior. The close connection between kingship and merit was influential in institutionalizing the subject matter of the wall paintings, and the Buddhist belief system of the merit path to enlightenment never came into question.79 The subject matter of the murals was relatively unaffected because the fundamental concepts underpinning Burmese society and core religious practices at the time did not alter significantly, despite political and religious upheavals during the course of the eighteenth century.

The visual and textual standardization seen in the wall paintings corroborates the cultural homogenization of the central zone and demonstrates the establishment of an artistic canon for murals. The promotion of cultural orthodoxy and the centralized location of the painting sites in close proximity to each other and along routes of communication, the rivers, encouraged the development of an artistic canon that endured for well over one hundred years from the late seventeenth into the early nineteenth century.80 Thus, while a variety of artistic productions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries reflects the long integrative trend that occurred in Burma, particularly exemplary of a cultural orthodoxy are the murals from this period painted on the walls of numerous temples and religious complexes.

Exceptions to the Norm

However, while drawing upon a body of material and representing it in similar ways and in related arrangements, each temple is unique in its combination of textile patterns, non-biographical matter, and imagery associated with the Buddha’s life stories. Such differences arise from both institutional and individual sources and demonstrate the variety of beliefs, practices, Buddhist and local knowledge, and painting formats.81 An example of the differences can lie with the varying layouts of the temples, which, while maintaining a generically typical form, have differing lengths of entrance passages, ceiling heights, dimensions of the internal room, and the size of the main, sculpted Buddha image. These all affect the amount of space available for the murals and hence contribute to the differentiation of the imagery. For the latter, there is scanty evidence of the agency of individual artists, in part because painters worked in groups. As mentioned, the royal order of April 7, 1633, stated that five hundred artists had been directed to paint the surrounding walls of a temple, and while this may be a hyperbolic exaggeration or an effort to use the number five hundred which is found in Buddhist narratives when listing groups of people, it indicates the communal nature of wall painting production. (p.56)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.18 Ceiling, Yokson temple, Myitche, late eighteenth century.

This is not to say that there is no evidence of individual expression or the agency of a group of artists. Ceiling patterns can vary in their coloration, as does the selection and combination of textile motifs. Sometimes new motifs are introduced, as can be seen at the Ananda Ok-kyaung at Pagan (1785) and the Yokson temple (late eighteenth to early nineteenth century) in Myitche (fig. 1.18). At the Ananda, new forms of geometric and interlocking motifs are used, while in Myitche, the ceiling combines Indian textile patterns in a sumptuous new arrangement that is seen at only one or two other temples in the same region but in duller colors and in a smaller size. Clothing and other details also presented opportunities for innovation, as did embellishments to stock scenes. For instance, at the village of Anein, between the narrative scenes at a number of temples, there is the occasional representation of a goat climbing a ladder set against the city walls, the meaning of which is unclear. At the Lokahmangin temple in Monywe, the painted Buddha images have long, skinny necks and oval faces in contrast (p.57)

A Formula to Honor the Buddha

Figure 1.19 Manohari wringing out her hair, Manohari Jātaka, Kyanzittha temple, Zedi Daw Daik complex, Anein, eighteenth century.

to the popular contemporary style of shorter necks and faces with broad foreheads and narrower cheeks and chins.82 A few sites, such as the Ananda Ok-kyaung, Tilawkaguru at Sagaing, the Powindaung caves, and a temple next to the Shwemoktaw monastic complex in Ma U village, portray jātaka stories other than the last ten. At the first is a selection drawn from the first tales in the compendium of 550. The second temple portrays jātaka stories taken from the last fifty, while the last combines the Vessantara Jātaka with those numbering in the high two hundreds and low three hundreds. There are also alternative narratives, including the Manohari Jātaka and some unidentified stories (fig. 1.19). Minor variation, located in the details, is not hard to find, and local agency can be seen in what was chosen for depiction within the constraints of the established repertoire.83 While there is much discussion of the agency of artists, the variations can equally have been produced at the behest of the donors and the monks who supervised the production of the paintings. The acceleration of variation in the nineteenth century sowed the seeds of destruction for the integrated world vision presented by the standardized painted, sculptural, and architectural forms of the earlier period.

(p.58) Despite the variations, however, there is an overwhelming continuity of subject matter and arrangement over the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, and the emphasis upon Buddhist biography and the themes of kamma, homage, enlightenment, and protection was a trend that strengthened over the course of the eighteenth century, revealing a resilience in Burmese religious and artistic practice. The addition of new material, such as representations of pilgrimage sites, protective diagrams, and the eighty exceptional individuals raises the question of how to understand continuity in the overall organization and subject matter over time. When the new imagery, much of which was related to Buddhist biography, was introduced, it did not dominate the murals, nor did it totally displace the representation of narratives and imagery usually given primacy or the organization of the imagery, demonstrating that it was merely incorporated into the standardized schema. What is therefore visible is a formula, a pattern of material that became an accepted way of decorating temple interiors, and the imagery that was utilized in the reproduction of the formula came from a particular repertoire of motifs, stories, and arrangements. The structure, however, was sufficiently flexible to allow the incorporation of new concepts without damaging the presentation of the original ones. Repetition of a model can be considered as a form of memory,84 yet the reuse of material looked to the future of the community and the patrons who benefitted from the donation of the murals by anticipating the fulfillment of the wishes—social, material, and spiritual—expressed in the accompanying inscriptions.

The question of why the formula developed is pertinent, and there are a number of possible explanations that I develop in the next two chapters. Structural changes could interrupt comprehension, alter audience responses, and in turn affect the validity of the wall paintings as an appropriate way to construct a religious space. As long as the ideological concepts represented by the paintings continued to be relevant to Burmese society, the incentives to alter the representations were limited.85 More particularly, the importance of specific ritual behaviors, such as circumambulation, making offerings, and narrating the stories of the Buddha’s lives, as embedded aspects of Burmese religious activities, functioned to maintain a canon of visual imagery. The processes of donation and production were meritorious, devotional activities, and the repetitive performance of practical options for religious and social action enabled practitioners to pick and choose their own configuration of ritual activities. The importance of maintaining a specific “ritual” imagery in the course of creating the paintings cannot be overlooked.86 Although the subject matter of the wall paintings appears to comprise an extensive body of material, the focus upon a specific repertoire for more than a century and the fact that it falls within narrow thematic parameters—the centrality of Gotama, (p.59) how to worship him, and the power that emanates from spiritual awakening—demonstrates the religious and social constraints placed upon it. The stability of the subject and organizational structure in turn enabled the interpolation of variations precisely because it was possible to insert them without disturbing the foundations.


(1.) Sections of this chapter and chapter 3 were originally published in the article “Religious Networking and Upstream Buddhist Wall Paintings in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Burma,” in Secondary Cities and Urban Networking in the Indian Ocean Realm, c. 1400–1800, ed. Kenneth R. Hall (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), 233–58. Lexington Books has kindly permitted the reuse of the material.

(2.) The wall paintings in this study are drawn from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for several reasons. Extant Pagan period (1044–1287) murals are highly concentrated at Pagan and a few surrounding towns, such as Sale and Pakhangyi. There are numerous buildings from the Pagan period scattered around the central zone, which probably once contained wall paintings. Few murals of the fourteenth- to seventeenth-century period remain, and most likely shifting political centers and multiple capitals, as well as significant warfare, contributed to this dearth of material. The merit-making activity of white-washing temples to make them appear clean and new has also taken its toll on artistic material through the centuries. Similarly, extant murals from the nineteenth century are very limited, and, interestingly, they are quite disparate in style; the reasons for this are unexplored and go beyond the scope of this volume. The cohesive nature of the late seventeenth- to early nineteenth-century material coupled with a large number of existing sites, however, provides the scholar with a significant body of material to explore. It should be noted that few sites from this latter period are located within the capital cities; most of them are in secondary centers within the central dry zone of Burma.

(3.) Ann Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51 (1986): 273–86. McDaniel applies this in his analysis of modern Buddhism in Thailand. Justin McDaniel, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 104–5 and 225–30.

(5.) Elizabeth Arweck and William Keenan, “Introduction: Material Varieties of Religious Expression,” in Materializing Religion: Expression, Performance and Ritual, ed. Elizabeth Arweck and William Keenan (Surrey: Ashgate, 2006), 1–20. David Morgan, “Introduction: The Matter of Belief,” in Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief, ed. David Morgan (London: Routledge, 2010), 1–17.

(6.) The use of formulaic material is observable in other Asian contexts, including manuscripts. For an example see, D. P. Ghosh, “Eastern School of Mediaeval Indian Painting (Thirteenth-Eighteenth Century A.D.),”in Chhavi: Golden Jubilee Volume (Varanasi: Bharat Kala Bhavan, 1971), 91.

(7.) See Michael Satlow, “Tradition: The Power of Constraint,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. Robert A. Orsi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 144 on how tradition supports these areas.

(8.) Ibid., 148.

(9.) For a summary of this theoretical approach, see Satlow, “Tradition.” Tradition can be identified as a resource that religious actors draw upon, the authority of which exercises a constraining force on change. On the ideological power of repetition, see Maurice Bloch, “Symbols, Dance, and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority?” Archives Européennnes de Sociologie 15, no. 1 (1974): 78–79.

(10.) Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 169. Bell writes that “[t]he degree to which activities are ritualized … is the degree to which participants suggest that the authoritative values and forces shaping the occasion lie beyond the immediate control or inventiveness of those involved.” The more formal the representation, the more authoritative it is.

(11.) See Sarah Shaw, “And That Was I: How the Buddha Himself Creates a Path between Biography and Autobiography,” in Lives Lived, Lives Imagined: Biography in the Buddhist Traditions, ed. Linda Covill, Ulrike Roesler, and Sarah Shaw (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), 36.

(12.) The “long century” from the late 1600s to the early 1800s has been neglected in Southeast Asian studies. The efflorescence of Burmese wall paintings occurs precisely during this period of time, and therefore opens up questions about the social, political, and religious stimuli in the production of this art form. David K. Wyatt, “The Eighteenth Century in Southeast Asia,” in On the Eighteenth Century as a Category of Asian History: Van Leur in Retrospect, ed. Leonard Blussé and Femme Gaastra (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 39–55.

(13.) The Ananda Ok-kyaung’s circumambulatory corridor measures 11.32 meters by 11.30 meters at the external wall. The room that houses the paintings dating to 1856 at the Pokala temple at Shwezayan to the east of Mandalay is 5.34 square meters with 2.5 meter extensions at the four faces. List of Objects of Antiquarian and Archaeological Interest in Upper Burma (Rangoon: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1901), 2.

(14.) This layout resembles the stupas set behind the west end of a Thai vihan, and may have arrived with the Thai after the sack of Ayutthaya in 1767.

(15.) Victor Lieberman, “Secular Trends in Burmese Economic History, c. 1350–1830, and Their Implications for State Formation,” Modern Asian Studies 25, no. 1 (1991): 30.

(16.) William J. Koenig, “The Burmese Polity, 1752–1819: Politics, Administration, and Social Organization in the Early Konbaung Period,” Papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 34 (Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1990), 54.

(18.) Ibid. See also Victor B. Lieberman, “Europeans, Trade and the Unification of Burma, c. 1540–1620,” Oriens Extremus 27, no. 2 (1980): 203–26.

(20.) Ibid., 16.

(21.) Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 177.

(22.) For specific details, see Lieberman, “Was the Seventeenth Century a Watershed in Burmese History?” in Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period: Trade, Power, and Belief, ed. Anthony Reid (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 236–49.

(25.) This is recorded in J. George Scott and J. P. Hardiman, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, vol. 2 (Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1900), 169. They comment that the acquisition of the title paya-daga gains the donor the “assurance of future bliss and the approbation of his neighbours.” See also J. George Scott, Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information (London: Alexander Moring Ltd., 1906), 329–30. Juliane Schober, “Religious Merit and Social Status among Burmese Buddhist Lay Associations,” in Merit and Blessing in Mainland Southeast Asia in Comparative Perspective, ed. Cornelia Ann Kammerer and Nicola Tannenbaum (New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1996), 198.

(26.) Alexey Kirichenko, “Changes and Continuity in Burmese Buddhism” (paper read at the “Syncretism in South and Southeast Asia: Adoption and Adaptation” Conference, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand, May 24–27, 2007), 13. See also Alexey Kirichenko, “Circulation of Buddhist Texts and Monastic Practices in Myanmar from the XII till the XIX Centuries,” Herald of Moscow State University, Series no. 13: Oriental Studies 4 (2005) [in Russian].

(27.) Michael W. Charney, Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma’s Last Dynasty, 1782–1885 (Ann Arbor: Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 2006), 12–16.

(28.) Alexey Kirichenko, “Dynamics of Monastic Mobility and Networking in Upper Myanmar of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” (paper read at “The Buddhist Dynamics Conference,” Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center, ISEAS, Singapore, March 10–11, 2011), 12–13.

(29.) Ibid., 14.

(33.) Victor B. Lieberman, “Provincial Reforms in Taung-Ngu Burma,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 43, no. 3 (1980): 568.

(34.) Victor B. Lieberman, Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580–1760 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 194–98.

(36.) See Alexandra Green, “Creating Sacred Space: Thai and Burmese Wall Paintings of the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries,” in Rethinking Visual Narratives from Asia: Intercultural and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Alexandra Green (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 183–89.

(38.) Ibid., 13–14.

(39.) I am grateful to Angela Chiu for pointing out the latter variant.

(40.) The number twenty-eight is unusual. Most other regions, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka focus on the most recently arising twenty-four Buddhas. In Burma, three Buddhas from the very distant past are also included, and these twenty-seven are believed to have made prophecies about Gotama’s future Buddhahood. Gotama is the twenty-eighth.

(41.) The Buddha was born in Lumbini and brought up in his father’s palace at Kapilavatthu. At twenty-nine, he saw four omens—an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk—which convinced him to abandon his life of luxury to search for an escape from the suffering of existence. He departed from the palace and became a monk, trying different forms of religious practice, including asceticism. Upon abandoning the latter, a woman named Sujātā offered him sustenance and he attained enlightenment shortly thereafter under the Bodhi tree. The seven weeks after his awakening were spent meditating in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree, before he decided to teach and preached his first sermon in the deer park near Sarnath.

(42.) These narratives were particularly popular in Southeast Asia and were often represented to the exclusion of other jātaka stories. As Peter Skilling writes about the jātakas, “they are the expression of the ‘Theravadin cult of the bodhisatta’ which is an outstanding feature of South-East Asian Buddhism, in which the bodhisatta acts as exemplar, transmitter of folk-wisdom, sanctifier, and embodiment of power and perfection.” Peter Skilling, “Jātaka and Paññasa-Jātaka in Southeast Asia,” in Buddhism and Buddhist Literature of South-East Asia: Selected Papers, ed. Claudio Cicuzza (Bangkok: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2009), 204.

(43.) Eastern Indian manuscripts, particularly those from Assam, from the eighteenth century contain similar images. See R. Das Gupta, Eastern Indian Manuscript Painting (Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala Sons and Co. Pvt. Ltd., 1972), ills. 60–61.

(44.) Assamese manuscripts display similar features, showing the strong connections between murals, manuscripts, and textiles. For some manuscript examples, see Manuscripts from the Himalayas and the Indian Subcontinent catalogue (London: Sam Fogg Rare Books, 1996).

(45.) This is a popular theme in Thailand where it is associated with the Vessantara Jātaka. Angela Chiu, personal communication, 2014.

(46.) The representation of intertwined nāgas can be found in non-Buddhist contexts in Southeast Asia as well.

(47.) See Das Gupta and the Sam Fogg catalogue for comparanda. D. P. Ghosh’s article on Eastern Indian manuscripts mainly illustrates examples from Orissa and West Bengal, which have a different appearance to the Assamese ones. D. P. Ghosh. “Eastern School of Mediaeval Indian Painting (Thirteenth-Eighteenth Century A.D.),”in Chhavi: Golden Jubilee Volume (Varanasi: Bharat Kala Bhavan, 1971), 91–103. Assam was the region through which overland trade routes between Bengal and Southeast Asia ran. It is therefore not surprising that the manuscripts of this region had an impact on Burmese art forms.

(48.) For earlier discussions and stylistic analyses of late paintings, see Jane Terry Bailey, “Some Burmese Paintings of the Seventeenth Century and Later: Part 1, a Seventeenth-Century Painting Style near Sagaing,” Artibus Asiae 38, no. 4 (1976): 267–86; “Some Burmese Paintings of the Seventeenth Century and Later: Part 2, the Return to Pagan,” Artibus Asiae 40, no. 1 (1978): 41–61; “Some Burmese Paintings of the Seventeenth Century and Later: Part 3, Nineteenth-Century Murals at the Taungthaman Kyauktawgyi,” Artibus Asiae 41, no. 1 (1979): 41–63. Ono Toru and Inoue Takao, Pagan Mural Paintings of the Buddhist Temples of Burma (Tokyo: Kondansha, 1979). Anne-May Chew, The Cave-temples of Po Win Taung, Central Burma: Architecture, Sculpture and Murals (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2005). U Myo Nyunt, Pagan desa shi naung kit bi thu ka hnin anu lekya mya (Yangon: Popa Publishing House, 2007) [in Burmese].

(49.) For stylistic analyses, see John Guy, Woven Cargoes: Indian Textiles in the East (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 56–58. Claudine Bautze-Picron, “Textiles from Bengal in Pagan (Myanmar) from the Late Eleventh Century and Onwards,” in Studies in South Asian Heritage: Essays in Memory of M. Harunur Rashid, ed. Mokammal H. Bhuiyan (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2015), 19–29.

(50.) Assamese manuscripts display highly similar imagery. See Das Gupta and the Sam Fogg catalogue for examples, in particular, Das Gupta, ills. 2–3, 40–44, and 65 showing the Lava Kushar Yuddha manuscript from the early eighteenth century, the Gita Govinda manuscript from the late seventeenth century, and the Bhāgavata manuscript, book 10 dating to 1539. The first two are in the Assam State Museum in Gauhati, and the third is in Nagaon district, Assam.

(51.) Alexandra Green, “Buddhist Narrative in Burmese Murals” (PhD dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, London, 2001), 253–56.

(52.) For similar spatio-temporal relationships in other Asian visual narratives, see Vidya Dehejia, “India’s Visual Narratives: The Dominance of Space over Time,” in Paradigms of Indian Architecture: Space and Time in Representation and Design, Collected Papers on South Asia no. 13, ed. Giles Tillotson (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1998), 80–106.

(53.) This imagery that is also found on textiles from India’s Coromandel Coast.

(54.) All of these features are clearly seen in Eastern Indian manuscripts from the eighteenth century.

(56.) The full impact of the Thai deportees on Burmese art has yet to be studied. Alexandra Green, “From Gold Leaf to Buddhist Hagiographies: Contact with Regions to the East Seen in Late Burmese Murals,” Journal of Burma Studies 15, no. 2 (2011): 337–49. Bryce Beemer, “Southeast Asian Slavery and Slave-Gathering Warfare as a Vector for Cultural Transmission: The Case of Burma and Thailand,” The Historian 71, no. 3 (2009): 481–506. See also Ba Maung, “The Thais (Siamese) Who Arrived in Myanmar during the Feudal Era” (paper read at the Tenth International Conference on Thai Studies, Thammasat University, 2008).

(57.) The role of textile patterns in the wall paintings is discussed in chapter 3. See also Alexandra Green, “Pattern of Use and Reuse: South Asian Trade Textiles and Burmese Wall Paintings,” in India and Southeast Asia: Cultural Dialogues, ed. Anna Dallapiccola and Anila Verghese (Mumbai: K. R. Cama Institute, forthcoming 2018).

(58.) Klaus Wenk, Murals in Burma: Paintings from Pagan of the Late Period, 18th Century, vol. 1 (Zurich: Verlag Inigo Von Oppersdorff, 1977), 21–22. Christophe Munier and Myint Aung, Burmese Buddhist Murals, Volume 1: Epigraphic Corpus of the Powin Taung Caves (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2007), 37–40.

(59.) For further details, see Ono Toru and Inoue Takao, 228.

(60.) Rodolfo Luján, “The Techniques of Wall Paintings in Bagan (Pagan) Myanmar (Burma)” (manuscript at SOAS library, 1991), 4–6.

(61.) Exceptions include such sites as the Thirimingala temple at Nyaung Hla and the Taungbi Ok-kyaung at Pagan.

(62.) Tampawaddy U Win Maung has noted that the turquoise coloration is a copper sulfate pigment (personal communication, July 2009). Chompunut Prassasaset, “Pigments and Layer Structure of Mural Paintings at Wat Mai Thepnimitr, Thonburi,” Muang Boran 14, no. 4 (1988): 84.

(63.) See Green, “From Gold Leaf to Buddhist Hagiographies,” for a fuller discussion of the topic.

(64.) Lieberman, “Was the Seventeenth Century a Watershed,” 242–43. For a description of monks’ training, religious exams, and punishments for failure, see Than Tun, ed., Royal Orders of Burma, AD 1598–1885, vol. 4 (Kyoto: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 1986–1990), 44, 184–85 (March 12, 1784 and October 17, 1787).

(69.) Ibid., 196–99.

(70.) There are examples of such copybooks in Thailand, and there must be some remaining in Burmese monastic libraries. For Thai examples of such copybooks, see Jean Boisselier, Thai Painting (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1976), 231–35. See also Christian Lammerts, “Notes on Burmese Manuscripts: Text and Images,” Journal of Burma Studies 14 (2010): 229–53.

(71.) Patricia M. Herbert, The Life of the Buddha (London: British Library, 1992), 9–15. Nineteenth-century murals of the twenty-eight previous Buddhas, the life of Gotama Buddha, and the Vessantara Jātaka at the Shwegunyi in Kyaukka follow the format of the late eighteenth-century illustrated manuscripts, including the use of a yellow ground for the extended captions.

(73.) Kirichenko, “Dynamics of Monastic Mobility,” 8. He notes that “all evidence I have on the process of selection of scenes for painting and regulation of content of the murals indicates that this job was handled by monks. The emergence of common tradition of Buddhist art in Upper Myanmar together with a number of particular decorative conventions and genre paintings testifies not only to movement and circulation of ideas, techniques, and painters but also to a degree of coordination on the part of the monks responsible for editing the content.”

(74.) The number 500 indicates a large group of people, and was a standard method of citing large numbers in Buddhist biography.

(75.) Than Tun, ed., Royal Orders, vol. 1, 36–37 (April 7, 1633).

(76.) The idea of repetition as a communicative and ideological tool has been discussed in a variety of fields. See Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 113–60. Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 97–103. Jeremy Tambling, Narrative and Ideology (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991), 77–79. And, as mentioned earlier, Bloch, “Symbols, Dance, and Features of Articulation.”

(77.) Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 28.

(78.) See for instance, Christine E. Gray, “Buddhism as a Language of Images, Transtextuality as a Language of Power,” Word and Image 11, no. 3 (1995): 225–36. Gray discusses a “religiously based aesthetics” as the center of power relations in Thailand; similar uses of imagery can be seen in Burma. See also Juliane Schober, “Venerating the Buddha’s Remains in Burma: From Solitary Practice to the Cultural Hegemony of Communities,” Journal of Burma Studies 6 (2001): 111–39.

(79.) Green, “Buddhist Narratives,” 294–99, and Alexandra Green, “Deep Change? Burmese Wall Paintings from the Eleventh to the Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of Burma Studies 10 (2005/06): 1–50.

(80.) Elements of this canon are still in use today.

(81.) Stanley K. Abe, Ordinary Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 24.

(82.) Alexandra Green, “La datazione delle tarde immagini birmane del Buddha in un contesto storico-artistico” [Dating late Burmese Buddha images in an art historical context], in Dana: L’Arte Birmana Del Dono, ed. Céline Coderey (Milan: Mazzotta, 2013), 48–59.

(83.) Ilana Friedrich Silber, “Pragmatic Sociology as Cultural Sociology: Beyond Repertoire Theory?” European Journal of Social Theory 6 (2003): 429–34. Silber assesses pragmatic sociology for its contribution to the theory of culture and its connections with repertoire theory. Pragmatic sociology explores the “principles of evaluation or ‘regimes of justification’ that are indeed mobilized within, but also transcend specific situational contexts.” She presents repertoire as both enabling and constraining; within the parameters, the actor can follow practical options, while choosing a specific configuration from the repertoire. With their wide variety of imagery and options for action and response, the wall paintings do just this.

(84.) Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 255.

(85.) See Green, “Deep Change?” for an analysis of the Burmese focus on Buddhist biography in the wall painting context.

(86.) Wu Hung, “What Is Bianxiang? On the Relationship between Dunhuang Art and Dunhuang Literature,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 52, no. 1 (1992): 137.