Art History of Burma: Synoptic Overview

A. The Prehistoric Period - c. 1100 BC to 200 BC

The Pre historic Period in Burma is known from a limited number of excavations that were carried out in selected rock shelters, caves and other sites along the middle course of the Irrawaddy River. Since Burma even today is sparsely populated, it would not be surprising to find that early cultures in Burma developed in isolation.  However, the artifacts uncovered in these digs resemble those in other parts of Southeast Asia indicating that there was meaningful contact over wide areas at a very early date, and the arts in Burma were not isolated even at this early time. This pattern of intra-area contact continued into the later historical periods.

Since there are no written records for this early period, we know little about religious practice.  However, since the artifacts that have been discovered conform to those used in small-scale societies for animist rituals, it might be presupposed that these early societies practiced a type of Animism. Therefore, Animism, and artifacts associated with its practice, will be discussed as a bridge between this most remote period and contemporary animist art forms.  

B. The Pre-Pagan Period - Mon and Pyu Urbanism - c. 2nd BC – 8 AD

During the Pre-Pagan Period there is ample evidence that the lowland peoples in Burma adopted ideas from India as indicated by a few standing structures, numerous excavated foundations, and a wide array of artifacts. These materials were produced for worship in Animism and Hinduism as well as Mahayanna and Theravada Buddhism.

The first cities appear throughout central Burma and were directly dependent on extensive irrigation systems. Thus begins the parmountcy of the central region of Burma that continues until the present. The cities occur in well-planed forms that are a combination of indigenous and Indian concepts. Within these cities, the first buildings in non-perishable materials were constructed. These brick and mortar buildings were all used for religious purposes whereas secular buildings, even palaces, continued to be made of perishable materials until the modern era. This dichotomy between the type of material used for construction and the use of the building generally continued through all later developmental periods.  Also, at this time, a particular interest develops for two types of religious structures – the Buddhist stupa and the Buddhist temple.  Brick foundations of what were most probably the first monasteries are dated to this period. 

Although the number of images from the Pre-Pagan Period is limited, the diversity of styles and subject matter is generally broader than in later periods.  The Mon and Pyu languages are written using alphabets and concepts adopted from India. A Burmese calendar was later created that begins with the fall of the Pyu dynasty in 836 AD.

C. The Pagan Period - 11th to 13th centuries

Classic forms emerged during the Pagan Period for many aspects of Burmese culture, including the economic, political, religious, social, and artistic.  These forms were the models used by later Burmese dynasties to create new but related forms, often through slightly modifing their content.

Classic architectural forms emerged as embodied in the Shwezigon Stupa and the Ananda Temple that were repeatedly copied by later donors. The styles of sculpture from the Pagan Period were also periodically revived. Theravada Buddhism became the preferred faith and thereafter remained the predominant Burmese religion.  The first examples of figurative painting occur on temple walls and employ the Pala style of India and Nepal.  Although Pagan ceased to be the political capital of Burma in the 13th century, the city continued to be a respected religious center and many later monarchs returned to Pagan to endow new foundations or refurbish old ones.

D. The Post Pagan Period -14th to 20th centuries

After the decline of Pagan, Burma fragmented into a number of small kingdoms that looked back to Pagan for validation and for artistic inspiration. None of these kingdoms rivaled the earlier period in art and architectural accomplishments and all can be seen as “Pagan writ small”. Pagan buildings were proudly copied, but often with significant modifications. The stupa became the most favored religious building and temples were rarely built. Wooden monasteries constructed on a raised wooden platform largely replaced the brick and stucco monasteries of Pagan. A number of Burmese styles arose, particularly in sculpture, as a result of fewer contacts with India due to the Muslim invasions there and the Muslim destruction of Buddhist religious sites. Burmese styles of painting develop and in the nineteenth century borrow pictorial devices from the West.

The Mandalay Style that arose during the latter half of the Post Pagan Period became dominant in central Burma and has continued until the present as the preferred style in Burmese art.