There’s more to Myanmar than temple-studded plains and tranquil lakes. Beneath the surface lie stories of kingdoms risen and fallen, indigenous spirits and major religions, and local aristocrats and British colonial powers.
And it’s all charted in Cities and Kings, an exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum, where one step across the gallery takes you centuries through the country’s history. We break things down and take you on a tour of tales yet untold.
An offering vessel
The ruins of the Pyu city-states along the fertile valley of the Ayeyarwady River mark the beginnings of the country’s earliest-known inhabitants. In the first millennium AD, these cities actively traded with China and India, which brought Buddhist and Hindu teachings from India. Reflecting the religion adopted in this period, Pyu architecture in the form of stupas flourished alongside the production of monumental stone images, both Buddhist and Hindu.
The Mon cities
Alongside the rise of the Pyu, urban and religious traditions were also developing in Lower Myanmar. This region, at large, was under the rule of an ethnic group called the Mon.
With its excess of temples and pagodas, the port city of Bago would soon rise to prominence as the epicentre of Mon culture. Just 25 km north-east of Bago, Kyontu is replete with terracotta plaques dating to the 5th or 6th century, some of which you’ll find in Cities and Kings.
Celebratory depictions of revelry were weaved into these structures – such as a plaque whose three-dimensional body captures a moment in time. Titled ‘Musicians’, the plaque depicts a chubby figure fighting a bull and led by the thumping rhythm of musicians while spectators look on.
An 11th-century statue of Buddha
Birthplace of Buddhism
It was only until the 9th century, though, that the foundations of Burmese Buddhism were laid as the Pyu and Mon kingdoms declined. In what is today known as the Mandalay Region, the Bagan city rose – and with it, temples and stupas erected by King Anawrahta, who declared Theravada Buddhism the official state religion. With this mandate, he set in place the regal tradition of building temples and funding monasteries as a symbol of gratitude. It was, as you’d say, Myanmar’s shining city on a hill, where karmic points were earned based on what one could afford.
Over a period of 300 years, some 4,000 temples lined the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, each grander than the last. Gilded spires loomed over toddy palms, stupas were studded with stucco and glazed tiles, vaulted temples bore elaborate murals, and ornate sculptures symbolised the life of Buddha. The practice of the religion was not without external influences, either. An 11th-century statue of Buddha is dressed in a robe reminiscent of those popular in the Pala Kingdoms of northern India and bears facial features that are distinctly pinched. Even today, it continues to attract donations from its spot in the museum – visitors leave flowers as a karmic gesture.
A box meant to hold the Quran
Road to Mandalay
Myanmar’s last royal capital, Mandalay, was founded by King Mindon in the 19th century. Spurred by a Buddhist prophecy, he dismantled his palace in Amarapura, loaded the parts onto elephants, and reassembled the palace at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The palace was a series of one-storey teak buildings, fitted with ornate doorways of gilded wood, swirling foliage and carved indigenous spirits.
Mandalay’s reign came to an abrupt end in 1885, when Myanmar fell to British rule. Troops stormed the palace, exiled the ruling King Thibaw and his queen, and transformed the palace into an opulent social club for themselves. What remained was the art of Burmese lacquerware and the craftsmen, many of whom came from Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Characteristic of Burmese lacquerware are gold leaf finishes and glass inlays, all elegant designs that reflect their purpose in religious rituals. A few 19th to mid-20th century offering vessels – they’re part of the exhibition – resemble a stupa and were unearthed in the shrine of a Mandalay temple. But lacquerware evolved to serve a more profane use: as commemorative souvenirs between the locals and the British.
The onset of the colonial period also brought with it a surplus of Indian Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, the Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. A large box meant to hold the Quran dates back to the same time as the offering vessels, and bears intricate inscriptions like the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith.
A four-armed nat known as Lat Lay Pat
Today, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all present in Myanmar. Alongside these world religions, nat worship – the indigenous form of animism – is also prevalent. Nat are local guardian spirits, and sit on altars and shrines in villages and temples across the country. Even today, visitors to prominent pagodas in Myanmar will find nat shrines beside Buddhist sculptures.
Like a four-armed nat, which dates back to as recently as the 20th century, and is on proud display in Cities and Kings. Also known as Lat Lay Pat, the figure wields several implements that resemble those carried in common depictions of the Hindu deities Vishnu and Shiva.
Myanmar’s religious diversity extends far beyond the picture painted by these artefacts.And with recent shifts in the country’s political and economic structures, as well as the easing up of travel laws to the nation, the country is paving the way for a new chapter to be painted on the body of her glorious past.
Cities and Kings is at Asian Civilisations Museum until Mar 5.