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  Burmese Art History

Burma (or Myanmar) is the largest South Eastern Asian country bordered by India, Thailand and Bangladesh.  With a long history of independence, Burma was claimed as a British Colony for over 50 years, followed by a short period of Japanese rule, only to regain independence in 1947.

It is believed that Buddhism was introduced to Burma when Indian monks were sent to spread the Buddha’s teachings (around 2C AD) – the ancient teachings still remaining in Burma today, some 2000 years later.   Art created to reflect the Buddhist beliefs are some of the most valuable in the world.

Burma is often referred to as the ‘golden land’, which is represented by the many gold pagodas in temples and the use of gold leaf in the worship process.

  Burmese Buddhist Arts

Tales and teachings from the Life of Buddha (‘Jataka’ stories) and the 550 former lives of the Buddha, have provided much of the subject-matter and outlets for expression in the art of Burma.

Theravada Buddhism (as practiced by the Burmese) emphasizes the need for every man to seek his own way to salvation by following the precepts, meditating and performing acts of charity to improve his karma in future existences.

Burmese craftsmen were anonymous and were expected to follow various rules and formulae when creating a Buddhist icon – failure to observe established norms would render the object unsuitable for use in worship and deem it to be sacrilegious. Initially, artisans closely copied imported models, however, over time the Burmese craftsmen showed genius for assimilating foreign influences and blending them with local style, so that works of art became unmistakably ‘Burmese’ in spirit.

  Buddhism

Buddhism has been the primary inspiration for Burma’s artistic endeavours.  Buddhism has moulded thoughts, given substance and channels for ideas and affect attitudes towards life and the material world.  It has not merely given perspective of ethical values and a philosophy of life and here after, it has shaped the very nature of the Burmese inward ‘selves’ and has exercised a curbing influence on the natural exuberances of a virile Mongolian people.

Buddhism has provided social cohesion, enabled people to participate in a common culture and hold a world-view, which has been transmitted through sacred texts memorised during male attendance at monastic schools and through dramatizations of Buddhist stories, performed as popular entertainment.

The 7 Sacred Days

The days and respective zodiac signs of Myanmar:

Sunday Garuda Bird (ga-lone)
Monday Tiger
Tuesday Lion
Wednesday (morning) Elephant with a tusk
Wednesday (afternoon) Elephant without a tusk
Thursday Mouse
Friday Guinea Pig
Saturday Dragon

Burmese zodiac animal signs are the invention of ancient, wise monks of Myanmar (formerly Burma). They created this astrological system through a keen understanding of the cosmic world and incorporated this knowledge with their observations of the skies and the animal kingdom.

Burmese mythology symbols feature on many Burmese lacquer ware products and ritual worship (according to one's birth sign) still occurs at temples, noteably the Swe Dagon temple in Yangon (Rangoon).

The ancient Burmese branch of astrology is called Mahabote (also depicted as: MaHaBote). The term Mahabote translates to mean "little vessel" or "little key," probably because it is a smaller branch-off from the larger Hindu astrological system. The Mahabote is a valuable container or key to extremely powerful insight within the realm of esoteric knowledge.

Myanmar astrology is based on the number eight. The energy of eight proposes cosmic balance and resonates at a frequency of divine equilibrium. It is said the number eight reflects harmony in energy: deflecting imbalance and ever perpetuating congruence. The essential elements of Eight in Myanmar - Burmese astrology:

  • Eight Planetary Energies
  • Eight Days of the Week
  • Eight Cardinal Directions
  • Eight Burmese Zodiac Animal Signs

Appropriately, we see the eight in all manner of powerful symbols native to Burma and its surrounding regions. Most noteworthy is the sacred lotus blossom splaying out its eight voluptuous petals for our contemplation.

In-line with the foundational Eight energy, we learn that the ancient Burmese astrological system is based on seven planets (seen in Hindu astrology), plus Rahu. Rahu is unique in that it is not a planet, but a conceptual celestial presence. Literally defined, Rahu is the point of intersection between the earth, sun and moon at the time of eclipse. For astrological purposes, Rahu serves as an invisible planet of the Burmese zodiac system. This makes eight planetary entities that dance into our own orbit and thus makes their mark on our lives as we move through time.  Mahabote is also based on the eight days of the week. To accommodate for the extra day, the ancient Burmese monks split Wednesday in half making two days: Wednesday morning (12:01 am to 12:00 p.m.) and Wednesday afternoon (12:01 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.).