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Arts of Asia March/April 1981 issue

by Sylvia Fraser-Lu

THE BURMESE received the technique of metal casting from India, just as they had received the tradition of stone sculpture. While in the first instance images may have been imported from that country, the Burmese soon proved themselves adept craftsmen of the cire perdue (lost wax) and repousse techniques. They also showed a particular genius for assimilating foreign influences in sculpture from the various schools of India, Ceylon, China, Thailand, and possibly Cambodia and Nepal. It was not very long before a bronze import became stamped with the mark of native adaptation.

Gold Pyu Buddha in virasana, the hands in dhyana mudra, from Khin Ba Mound, Srikshetra. Height 3-5/8 ins. 6th-7th century. Photo, courtesy of Archaeological Dept., Rangoon (A.D.R.)

Standing Pyu image with the left hand in abhaya mudra, the right hand missing. 6th-7th century. (A.D.R.)

It is natural that the bronze statues from the Pyu period (circa A.D. 200-900), the earliest known civilisation of Burma, should bear the imprint of Indian craftsmanship. Small figures of Lord Buddha between two and eight inches high, made of silver, gold, lead and bronze, and thought to date from the seventh and eighth centuries, have been uncovered from Srikshetra, the best known Pyu site just outside present-day Prome. Like their counterparts in stone they reflect a strong Gupta influence, especially in the facial features which in many cases are distinctly Indian.

Pyu bronze Buddha seated in virasana, with the right hand in earth touching position. 6th-7th century. (A.D.R.)

Cylindrical silver casket embossed with four Buddhas in bhumisparsa (earth touching position) and four standing disciples. Round rim is inscription in South Indian writing. Height 26 ins, diameter at base 16 ins. 6th-7th century. (A.D.R.)

The Pyu Buddha image has a round face with plump cheeks. The eyebrows are finely arched, while the nose is broad and well formed. The mouth in some cases may be small, but in others it tends to be thick and overhanging. The head is crowned with a cap of peppercorn curls topped by a very slight usnisha (cranial protuberance) and the ear lobes scarcely touch the shoulders. A short neck loses itself on a superman-like torso, which is broad shouldered and chesty, tapering to a fairly narrow waist. In most cases clothing has a semi-transparent look, revealing the body contours, although very occasionally one may see an image draped in deep Gandharan folds. Lines of clothing may be shown around the neck or by a diagonal line from the left shoulder passing under the right breast and arm. Other turns of clothing are indicated by a curved line extending from the left wrist, over the same thigh and around the ankles. Some images show auspicious circular marks on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The legs are usually in the virasana position with the right leg over the left, although the lotus position with soles turned upwards against the thighs, is by no means uncommon. The hands, with well formed fingers of differing length, display the full range of Buddha mudras (symbolic hand positions).


Bronze standing Buddha from Tadagale, Rangoon,
with right hand in abhaya mudra, left in varada,
shows Gupta influence. Circa 9th century. (A.D.R.)


Two of the most prevalent are the bhurnisparsa (witness) mudra where the right hand is seen in the earth touching position with the left hand resting on the lap, with or without a bowl, and the dhyana (meditation) position with both hands resting palm upwards in the lap. Varada (charity), the boon granting gesture with arm pendant and palm facing outwards; abhaya (protection), showing the hand upwards and the palm extended outwards; and vitarka, the gesture of argument where the tips of the thumb and index finger touch forming a circle, can all be seen on Pyu bronzes.

The heads of some images have a detach-able halo and a back plate finely repousséd with animal and vegetal motives. Other beautiful repoussé examples can be seen in silver relic caskets embossed with four seated Buddhas which have been excavated from mounds in the Prome district.

Apart from a few scattered remains from the Pegu-Moulmein area, there has been very little in the way of bronze statuary recovered to provide a chronological link between the Pyu and the Pagan period (A.D. 1044-1287) which is generally regarded as the most glorious epoch in Burmese art.

Heinrich Zimmer, the eminent scholar of Indian art, has described the Pagan Buddha image as "having a simplicity and composure, a sober cleanliness of contour that rejects exuberance of ornament and detail and a cool pure atmosphere nicely balanced between a dignified graceful emptiness and a sweet spiritual life." Pagan bronzes have been particularly singled out for praise by art historians. In this medium the Buddha image may be depicted in either a standing or a seated position.

The form of the Pagan standing image resembles that of the colossal Gupta image of Sultanganj now in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, England. In this style Lord Buddha stands serenely on a plain round, or lotus, pedestal. The hands are beautifully moulded; the right hand is raised from the elbow in abhaya, while the left holds a lapel. Clothing appears as sheer muslin and clings to the body to reveal a broad shouldered figure tapering to a narrow waist, rounding out at the thighs to give a slightly feminine aspect, which does not detract from the general manliness of the statue as a whole. Both shoulders are covered and the folding of the gown is confined to the periphery. A line below the navel marks the lower garment and the hem is shown by a double wavy line at ankle level. As with stone sculpture of the same period, the face is oval to triangular with a slightly pointed chin. The eyebrow arches are almost joined together in a V-shape and in many cases are set with an urna (a mark of Buddha-hood in the middle of the forehead). The eyes gaze down past a long aquiline nose and a small smiling mouth. The elongated ears do not touch the shoulders. The head, covered in rounded curls, is crested by a flame niche above the usnisha which is set well to the back of the head. Images range in height from the colossal 13 feet of a standing Buddha, at the Shwezigon in Pagan, to the miniature 5-1/2 inches of another from a relic chamber at Myinpagan.

Bronze standing Buddha from Shwezigon Pagoda, Pagan. Height 13 ft. 11th century. (A.D.R.)

Bronze standing image of Lord Buddha from the Ananda Kyaungdaik, Pagan. Height 3 ft 8 ins. 11th century

The Pagan seated Buddha became the ideal for subsequent casters of bronze statues to emulate. Beginning with the images sanctioned by King Anorahta (A.D. 1044-1077), Pagan's greatest monarch, the dominant schema for Burmese images is the Lord Buddha seated cross-legged on a lotus throne in the padmasana (lotus) position with soles turned upwards against the thighs, the left hand resting in the lap and the right hand, in bhumisparsa, extending over the knee to touch the ground in front of the shin. In the Burmese mind the earth touching pose represents the supreme moment of the Enlightenment, when Lord Buddha over-came the forces of evil and began his illustrious mission to mankind on earth. Professor Luce, the leading scholar of the Pagan period, has suggested that the nerve centre of a Burmese image in the bhumisparsa position lies in the pendant right arm. This position is so prevalent in Burma that it has become an art form in its own right.

As in Pyu times, a few seated Buddhas are backed by an elaborate reredos edged with wreaths of fire and flame, or crowned with a lion mask disgorging wreaths of foliation at the apex, ending in outward-facing hamsas (goose or swan emblems of Brahma) seated on makaras (a mythical crocodile-like creature) supported by ramp-ant lions. Worshippers (usually detach-able), in the form of a pair of small monks or bodhisattvas, are sometimes found on either side of the image.

Seated bronze image from Pagan. Right hand is in earth touching position, feet in lotus sana. (A.D.R.)

Bronze earth touching Buddha with elabo-rate reredos and lotus throne. Height 14-1/2 ins. Pagan, 11th-12th century. (A.D.R.)

Buddha image, of hollow gold plate, with detachable head and neck, found near the Ananda Kyaungdaik. Hcight 10 ins. Circa 12th century. (A.D.R.)

Crowned bronze Buddha image in bhumisparsa seated on recessed throne, from Hsameikshe, Thazi township, Meiktila district. Circa 12th-13th century. (A.D.R.)



Gold repousse plate image from Myinpagan. Lord Buddha is in bhumisparsa mudra, with two disciples; two devas
above offer lotuses.
Pagan, 11th-12th century. (A.D.R.)


Although bronze dominates the Pagan period, a number of smaller Buddha figures were also made of silver and gold. Several 10 inches high hollow gold plate images of the earth touching Buddha were found within the enclosure walls of the Ananda temple. The torso of these images is in Pagan style, while the facial features have a rather Mongolian cast. The hair is not delineated and resembles a slightly pointed cap. A few pleasing examples of repoussé have also been uncovered. One of the finest is a gold plate repoussé image from Myinpagan, which depicts an earth touching Buddha flanked by his chief disciples, Sariputta and Mogallana. Around the Buddha's halo are a pair of devas (gods) in the act of offering lotuses. In the Pagan Museum there is a thin bronze plate showing the parinirvana (the death of Buddha) scene. Buddha is shown reclining on a couch with two disciples seated at either end of the bed. Brahma, Sakra and two other celestial deities watch, while two distraught attendants gaze from the far side of the couch.


Bronze lotus with Buddha in centre circled by petals depicting
Eight Great Scenes on inner side. Two nagini figures
support the stand. Height 10 ins, Pagan, 12th century

Popular in Indian art and also found at Pagan, are bronze lotus which can be opened and closed by means of a spring. The centre contains either a small pagoda or a seated image of Buddha. On the inner side of the eight petals are modelled the Eight Great Scenes of Lord Buddha's life in the most intricate detail. The lotus is mounted on a stand ornamented with floral designs, supporting disciples and other human and animal figures. Some are engraved in a North Indian script which suggests that they could be Indian in origin.

The Pagan dynasty, brought to an untimely end by the Mongol invasion in 1287 A.D., was followed by a period of intense disorder. The country broke up into petty kingdoms which were constantly at war with each other - a state of affairs not conducive to the production of great works of art. It was the custom at the conclusion of hostilities for the victors to loot the pagodas of the vanquished and carry off their images. This has made it difficult to trace the date and provenance of many Burmese images.

During the latter part of the Ava period, from 1635 A.D. onwards, conditions in Burma became a little more stable. Images dating from this time have been recovered and continuing into the Konbaung period (1752-1885) follow the Pagan schema with some modifications. The face has become more triangular and the eyebrows less V-shaped. The nose remains sharp and pointed and the mouth is small and bow-like. The peppercorn curls remain, but the usnisha has become somewhat more fleshy and is now set a little further forward on the head. It is topped by a small bulbous finial, which tends to get longer in later images. The ears curve outwards where they touch the shoulders. The head droops slightly forward on a short neck. The body assumes a plumpish look compared with the Pagan image, yet in most cases it retains an elegance in proportions, unlike some of the stone figures which became heavy and clumsy in the post-Pagan period. The dress remains the simple garb of a monk. The statues are invariably in the earth touching position and the fingers are now of equal length, occasionally sup-ported by a prop of metal under the hand. Thrones tend to be tall and waisted and are usually in the form of either a double row of lotus petals or a stepped triangle. On some thrones there are rings for attaching smaller statues of disciples and other devotees or guardian animals such as lions.

Bronze earth touching Buddha with left hand missing. Height 20 ins.
Probably 16th-17th century

Earth touching Buddha of bronze, with remains of lacquer adhering to it. Throne is broken. Height 10 ins. Probably circa 17th century

Bronze Buddha seated on throne with lions at base and rings for attaching monks and devotees. Height 24 ins.
Probably 16th-17th century

Bronze gilded image in bhumisparsa mudra on high waisted lotus throne, with loops for attaching small figurines of devotees. Height 21 ins.
Probably circa 18th century

During this period crowned images became popular. The idea of representing Lord Buddha in something more splendid than his characteristic monk's garb is thought to have come from a story where the Master dressed in royal attire to humble a proud overbearing king, Jambhupati, who was threatening one of his followers. The arrogant king was suitably overawed and subsequently converted. Buddha figures in kingly robes have come to be called jambhupati images. This type of Buddha figure is popular throughout Southeast Asia, and had its origins in Indian art belonging to the Pala period (circa A.D. 750-1150).

Crowned images found in the Irrawaddy valley during the Ava period are characterised by tall leaf-like crowns surrounding

a towering spire above the mukuta (chignon hair style. Open-work flanges spring from the band of the crown, twirl upward: towards the spire and twine along the side: of the shoulder and upper arm. The earring: are either in the form of a round plug wid petals trailing over the shoulders, or 0 catkins curving outwards over the chest Necklaces fall in cascades over the breast ending at the waist. Bracelets and armlet: arc often worn, as well as rings. In many images a monk's robe is lightly etched in under the jewellery. The right hand is in the earth touching position, while the left hand sometimes holds a small kalasa pot (water vessel, container of elixir of life). As with other Ava images, the throne is tall and waisted.

Some of the loveliest crowned images in Burma undoubtedly come from the kingdom of Arakan. These images have a special importance in the history of that state, for according to an unbroken tradition the kings of Arakan, at the climax of their coronation, took an oath to rule wisely and support Buddhism by holding aloft a specially cast image of Lord Buddha, beatuifully ornamented in full regalia. Such images came to be known as mahakyain phara images (royal oath Buddhas). Historical records report an elaborate ritual which accompanied the casting.

Bronze crowned image with traces of lacquer. Kirita crown surrounds a chignon. Height 15 ins. Probably 16th-17th century

Bronze image of Lord Buddha wearing royal dress, with monk's robe etched in under the necklaces. Crown, flanges and chignon are broken, and base of throne is missing. Height 12 ins. Probably 17th-18th century

Bronze Buddha image in bhumisparsa, on round lotus throne, in close imitation of Pagan style, with unusually fine proportions. Height 14 ins. Probably 18th century

Arakan crowned images have also been greatly influenced by the Pala art period of India and the best, moulded with great delicacy and precision, are thought to date from as early as the eighth to tenth centuries A.D. The images have a rounded triangular face and the finely arched eve brows are, ,set on a small forehead above heavily lidded downcast eyes. The nose is straight with flaring nostrils, while the mouth is fixed in a serene half smile. As in most Burmese images, the neck is short. The leaf-like kirita (crown) is of smaller proportions than the Irrawaddy crowned images. It encloses a knotted chignon surmounted by a lotus bud or a flame finial. The ears are decorated with circular earrings, surrounded by ribbons. The chest is covered with elaborate necklaces. Many wear a beautifully draped shawl over the shoulders, with the folds echoed in the circular draping of the robe over the legs locked in the lotus position. The soles of the feet are edged with anklets. Instead of the usual earth touching pose, many images are in the dhyana mudra with the hands resting open in the lap, one on top of the other, more often than not holding a small kalasa pot.

Bronze crowned image from monastery at Amarapura. Right hand is in unusual position, palin turned outwards instead of in earth touching mudra.
Circa 17th-18th century

Bronze jambhupati Buddha image in bhumisparsa on high waisted throne. Flanges are not complete. Height 20 ins.
Probably 18th century

Bronze jambhupati Buddha image, left hand holding a kalasa pot while right is extended, palm outwards. Height 28 ins.
Probably 18th century

A number of less sophisticated crowned images have also been recovered from relic chambers in Arakan. They generally have large heads mounted with petal crowns. Earrings in some cases curve like handles from the ears to the shoulders. The usual complement of necklaces, anklets and arm-lets adorn the torso. In common with many images found in Arakan, the feet are placed right over left in the virasana position, while the hands in dhyana mudra hold a kalasa pot. Many thrones are waisted and are wrought in an openwork foliage pattern. Devotees and miniature pagodas may be attached to the sides. Occasionally a pair of guardian animals and a figure of Vasundhara, the Earth Goddess, may be seen moulded on to the base of the throne.

Bronze earth touching image from Pagan, with a solidity more typical of stone sculpture than of bronze. Height 30ins.
Probably 16th-17th century

Crowned image in bhumi-sparsa, from a ruined stupa east of Thinkyitaw, Vesali, now in Mrauk-U museum. Monk's robes are etched in under the jewellery. Height 16-1/2 ins. Photo, courtesy of U San Tha Aung

Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay. Bronze, with torso covered in gold leaf. Present crown and earrings were made in 1884. Height 12 ft 7 ins

Very fine crowned Buddha image from Vesali Arakan, with hands, in dhyana mudra, holding a kalasa pot. Height 12 ins. Photo, courtesy U San Tha Aung

One particular bronze image that has played a very important part in the history of Arakan is the Mahamuni Buddha, which according to tradition is supposed to represent an actual portrait of Lord Buddha made during the time of his visit to Arakan. (There is no historical evidence that Lord Buddha actually did pay a visit to Arakan, but Burmese history is rich in legend pertaining to Buddha being in Burma during his lifetime or in previous incarnations.) This image was set in a pagoda at Kyauktaw, some sixty miles from present day Akyab, which over the centuries became a religious centre of the kingdom. The fame of the bronze spread far and wide, and it worked on the envy of the kings of the independent kingdoms of Burma, such as Prome, Pagan, Pegu and the Shan States, many of whom made numerous attempts to overcome the Arakanese and take the image from them. In 1784 King Bodawpaya of Burma finally succeeded in carrying it off to Mandalay. With the removal of the image Arakan's history as an independent kingdom ended. Today the 12 feet 7 inches high figure sits resplendent in Mandalay, in the Mahamuni pagoda, framed by an archway of deeply carved and profusely gilded woodwork. It has been decorated in the latest jambhupati style with a pointed crown, epaulettes, and a royal insignia across the chest. As it has been lavishly gilded by the faithful it is now irregular in outline. Every night it is wrapped in special shawls by the pagoda trustees, so highly is it regarded.

Crowned Buddha image in dhyana mudra, with legs in the lotus sana. From Myohaung. Height 18 ins. (A.D.R.

Buddha image recently found in Arakan, of unknown provenance and date. Head-dress is like that on some Cambodian images, and has been seen on other images from Arakan. Height 20 ins

Crowned Buddha image from Sandoway, of less sophisticated type. Right hand holding something is in unusual position, feet in virasana. Guardian animals and Earth Goddess are attached to base. Possibly as early as 7th-8th century. Height 9 ins

Bronze Buddha in earth touching mudra, seated on stepped throne. From Myohaung. Circa 14th-15th century

Another part of the country, noted for a slightly different style of bronze image, is the area of the Shan States in eastern Burma. The main group of people populating these states is ethnically Thai, and as a result there is evidence of Thai influence in many statues. Shan images are generally more attenuated than Burmese Buddha images and are not usually large, being between six to twelve inches high.

Shan Buddha image seated in bhumisparsa. Usnisha is topped by a .tall gourd-like finial, with details of face, robes and throne shown by incising. 19th century. Height 5-1/2 ins

Shan Buddha image similar to the last, dating from the 19th century. Height 71 ins

Shan Buddha image in bhumisparsa, seated on terraced and waisted throne. Some of these images have an inscription at the back of the throne. Height 6-3/4 ins

Another Shan image dating from the 19th century is shown here. Height 10-1/2 ins

The face is oval and the eyebrows, placed high on the forehead, well above the eyes, are shown either as an etched line or a series of hatched strokes. The nose is either sharply pointed, or Hat with wide nostrils. The mouth is small and upturned in a half smile. The face is framed by a fillet band, with a high usnisha above placed fairly well forward on the head and surmounted by a tall gourd-like finial. The large ears swing outwards to touch the shoulders. The neck is longer than a Burmese Buddha's and three characteristic creases on the neck are visible. Like their Burmese counterparts, Shan Buddhas usually sit in the lotus position with the right hand touching the earth. The fingers are usually of the same length and the thumbs are prominent. The thumb of the left hand is sometimes supported by a plug of bronze in the palm of the hand.

The Shan Buddha sits on a waisted throne above three to five steps. The throne is triangular in shape except for a flat part at the back on which inscriptions might be made. The clothing is fairly light. The main garment sweeps diagonally from the left and covers the right nipple before disappearing under the right arm. The outer garment falls in three folds over the left side of the chest and down the back. The right shoulder is usually bare, although in some instances it is covered with a small shoulder cape, suggestive of Chinese influence. Incising plays an important part in the decoration of a Shan image, the facial details and clothing usually being shown by incising rather than moulding. The Shans, too, have expressed a fondness for the crowned image and pleasing examples have been found.

Bronze Buddha image in Mandalay style with thick folding robes, right hand in bhumisparsa mudra. Usnisha is round and fleshy. Height 18 ins.19th century

Brass Mandalay Buddha in a small family shrine at Shwedagon Pagoda. Height 3 ft. 20th century

Brass Buddha image from the Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon, in the Mandalay style. 20th century

Another brass Buddha image from the Shwedagon Pagoda. These very large images are bigger than life size.
20th century

Reclining Buddha image in Mandalay style. Exposed parts of the body are of pewter while robe is of bronze. Length 36 ins. 19th century

As in images in marble and wood, the predominant style in metal today is the so-called Mandalay style which evolved during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its blandly attractive, slightly Mongoloid face framed by a wide fillet band, and its heavily folded robes, have been beautifully transposed into bronze and other metals. Most of the new images in pagodas throughout the country are in this style. The Shwedagon in Rangoon has become a virtual repository for images of this type. One can see many a devotee, in almost any shrine, prostrate before such an image, hands full of fragrant flowers, small paper flags and umbrellas, reverently reciting the Buddhist Three Fold Formula of Protection: 

I take refuge in the Buddha.

I take refuge in the law.

I take refuge in the Brotherhood of Monks.

The Buddha image is not only an aid to meditation and concentration, it serves as a reminder of the Great Compassionate Teacher and the way to Salvation that he taught.

A pair of Mandalay style brass Buddhas in a prayer hall at Shwedagon Pagoda. Clothing has been gilded and inlaid with glass mosaic. Height 5 ft. 20th century

Mandalay style brass Buddha image from Shwedagon Pagoda, larger than life size. 20th century

Standing brass Buddha from Shwedagon Pagoda, with both hands in varada mudra. Height 3 ft. 20th century


For further reading on this subject, please go to our on-line articles entitled
Buddha Images from Burma, Part I: Sculptured in Stone and
Buddha Images from Burma, Part III: Wood and Lacquer
by Sylvia Fraser-Lu

Please visit our Burma page for current inventory of similar items

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