Chapter III The Pagan Period: Burma's Classic Age - 11th To 14th Centuries


Part 4




1. General Introduction


The buildings still standing at Pagan are impressive, not only in their numbers but also in their architectural techniques, size, decoration, and creative floor plans. This leads logically to an expectation that there would also be a vast number of extant images since each temple would have had at least one major cult image and no doubt several secondary images. Surely, there would have been also an abundance of small images for personal use in household shrines during a prosperous period of more than two hundred years.  Alas, that is not the case. Other than images that have remained within the temples, there are relatively few images extant from the Pagan Period numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands.


This situation is explained in part by the fact that the major image(s) in most temples were made of brick and stucco and, over time, all of these images were gutted by vandals while seeking the contents of the small deposit boxes that were placed behind the neck and navel. If this explanation accounts for the brick and stucco images, why then are there so few images of stone or metal? (Sandstone was primarily used for secondary images placed in temple niches for only a short period during the late11th & early 12th centuries and was then abandoned.) Why there are so few metal images remains a mystery.


2. A Thematic Discussion of Iconography and Meaning  


a. The Enlightened Buddha


One of the peculiarities of Buddhist sculpture is that the most important event in the Buddha’s life from the point of view of mankind is not the event most frequently represented in sculpture.  Depiction of the Buddha's personal enlightenment vastly outnumber representations of all other events in his life including that of his first sermon in which he shared his recently discovered knowledge with all humankind. The multiple images of the Buddha in Burmese art are excellent examples of this peculiarity in which the Buddha is most frequently shown seated with legs folded; left hand in his lap, palm upward; right hand on his shin, palm inward with fingers pointing toward the earth (bhumisparsa mudra). This hand gesture is symbolic of his overcoming the last obstacle to enlightenment, self-doubt. After years of asceticism and many days’ meditation under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha began to doubt that his past lives had been sufficiently perfect to warrant attaining enlightenment. This was because he believed in rebirth - a belief that the soul, like energy, cannot be created or destroyed, but instead experiences changes only from one form to another.  Therefore, the Buddha, like all mankind, had innumerable past lives, all of which would have had to have been lived to perfection if the Buddha was to achieve Nirvana.  His difficulty lay in the fact that, like other mortals, he could not remember all his actions in all his former lives. Therefore, he could not be absolutely sure that enlightenment was eminent. By placing his hand on his shin and pointing towards the earth, he summoned the Earth Goddess to come to his assistance. Since in his former lives, the Buddha had participated in the common practice of pouring water on the ground to witness each of his meritorious acts, the Earth Goddess was able to wring a "tidal wave" of water from her hair that had accumulated over the Buddha's many previous lifetimes which was proof of his steadfastness and perfection. The Earth Goddess (Vasundari - Pali or Wathundaye - Burmese) is presented as a woman wringing water from the tresses of her hair, which constitutes one of the rare instances where women played an important role in the Buddha's life.  This role, however, was not trivial. It was of pivotal importance because without her witness and assistance the Buddha would not have gained enlightenment.


The Earth Goddess wringing water from her hair

The Earth Goddess below the Buddha's Throne (manuscript illustration)


Since the Buddha's complete enlightenment occurred immediately after "Calling the Earth Goddess to Witness" and since enlightenment takes place within the body without necessarily any outward indication, the iconographic position of "Calling the Earth to Witness" has come to be accepted as representing the enlightenment of the Buddha. To enhance this association, the cranial protuberance (usnisha = cosmic consciousness or supramundane wisdom) and the enigmatic "smile of enlightenment" were also employed.


Images of The Buddha seated in bhumisparsa mudra have been endlessly replicated in the art of Burma and Southeast Asia because it is a reminder to all mankind that there is a way to end human suffering.  Therefore, as such, the creation of every additional image of the Buddha is a meritorious act that improves the donor's karma. The multiple images of this event stamped on clay votive plaques evidence the zeal of ancient donors who at times created forty or even one hundred images of the Buddha with a single impression of a metal mould. Because of the large number of Buddha images, these plaques were thought to be especially efficacious in assuring the ritual purity and power of a specific site and, therefore, were often placed in underground chambers below the center-most point of the sanctum in a Buddhist building.


b. The Buddha’s Two Disciples


In Burma, two devotees frequently appear at either side of the Buddha's throne and are identified by the Burmese as his two chief disciples, Mogallana and Sariputta, although their presence at enlightenment is not  historically (i.e., canonically) correct.   At the time of enlightenment, all the Buddha's friends had abandoned him and it was not until later that disciples came to learn his newly discovered knowledge. The insistence of the Burmese to place these two figures at the feet of the Buddha, from at least the 11th century onward, may be explained in part by the Burmese belief that Buddhism was introduced into Burma during the Buddha's lifetime by two of his disciples. This serves to strengthen Burmese ties to the purest version of the Buddha's message – a particular concern of the Theravada Buddhists - which is considered to have been pure and without corruption during his lifetime - although none of the several names given to the early Buddhist missionaries to Burma is Mogallana or Sariputta.


c.  Buddhist Monks and Their Belongings


 Most Burmese males are expected to join the monkhood at some time during their lives, if only for a brief time. Boys, usually between ages 8 and 13, enter a monastery as a novice after their ceremonial induction or Shinbyu. The entire community is invited to this ceremony, which re-enacts the various stages in the Buddha's life up until the "The Great Renunciation" when the Buddha adopted the restricted regimen of an ascetic (=monk).  Ordained Buddhist monks are invited to perform the induction ceremony for a novice and receive gifts of the few necessities allowed them by canonical law. The rules and regulations under which the novice and the monks must live are contained in the Tripitika, excerpts from which are recorded within the Kamawasa, an especially ornate form of Burmese Buddhist manuscript that is produced for use during a Shin Byu ceremony.  A new Kamawasa is presented by each novice and is then used to instruct the fledgling novice how to read aloud the Pali language of the Tripitika text, which is a required part of the induction ceremony. The manuscript is then donated to the monastery by the novitiate and his family.


Buddhist monks, as part of their vows, renounce the things of this world including all personal property. The monastery loans each monk their few personal belongings that often vary according to sect and country. In Burma the permitted items are an alms bowl with cover and carrier; three cotton robes (untailored, simple rectangles of cloth), a belt, sandals, a fan, a staff, a rosary, a razor, and a drinking cup. Two sheets, Towels, toothbrush, toothpaste, and simple herbal medicines are also allowed. A monk may travel and carry all these items on his person. This can be seen in sculptures such as those of the Burmese monk, Shin Thiwali, who is the Burmese patron saint of travel. His image within the home is also thought to prevent domestic fires and theft.


Wooden gilded image of Burmese monk Shin Thawali, 19th  century
Burma Collection, NIU Art Museum


In Burma an acceptable, but non-canonical, item a monk may possess is a betel nut canister, because the chewing of betel is considered to be medicinal and health promoting and monks are allowed a few, select herbal remedies.


Lacquer ware betel nut canister, 20th century
Burma Collection, NIU Art Museum


Monks spend all of their time in religious pursuits and therefore do not work at mundane tasks. They exist entirely on the donations of the laity and leave  the monastery each morning at dawn to collect donated food in their alms bowls. Since the laity views these donations as a means to make merit to improve their own karma, on ceremonial occasions monks are invited to ritually receive large amounts of food.   Large, ornate alms bowls are used for this ritual presentation of food by the laity to the monks.


When worn out, all items are returned to the head monk for disposal and discarded monk's robes may be used as the foundation from which to make the pages of a Kamawasa manuscript.



Kamawasa manuscript: top to bottom – outer face of wooden front cover, leaf painted on lacquered cloth, lacquered back cover




d. Religious Manuscripts and Books                     


Ancient Buddhist books were written in the Buddhist language, Pali, (or possibly Sanskrit) on specially prepared fronds that had been picked from the talipot palm. This produced nearly illegible engraved lines that were then made distinct by rubbing each engraved leaf with soot and oil.  The leaves were then arranged on a short wooden rod or peg that passed through a small hole in each page. The bundle of pages was then placed between two wooden covers, often bound with a cord, and inserted in a cloth envelope. The long, rectangular shape of the palm leaves determined the shape of a Buddhist book whose proportions are inverse to those of western books: Buddhist books are much broader than tall, whereas western books are usually more tall than broad. The format of a manuscript made of palm leaves was retained when the Kamawasa was created by the Burmese from cloth, lacquer, and gold leaf.


The Shan peoples in northeast Burma created religious books from a paper made from the cambium of the mulberry shrub.  Although made of paper that is concertina folded, the form of these books conforms to that of a stout palm leaf manuscript. Each accordion folded page is read in succession on one side of the single sheet and then the book is inverted in order to read the succession of folds on the opposite side.


Parabeik, concertina folded manuscript
Burma Collection, NIU Art Museum


All types of books when not being used were kept in wooden chests to prevent damage from insects, mold, humidity, and light and consequently were among the most valued objects within a monastery.


Manuscript Chest or Sadaik
Burma Collection, NIU Art Museum

(Large picture is highly detailed
and may be slow to load)


e. Creatures of the Himavanta Forest


In Buddhist cosmology, the thirty-three most powerful gods of Hinduism and Buddhism live on the highest peak of Mt. Meru. Mythical creatures inhabit the Himavanta Forest that grows on the lower slopes of Mount Meru. When these powerful beings enter the world of man, they are usually benevolent, if treated properly. These creatures include the Chinthe, a leonine creature with flaming mane and body, who is a guardian of Buddhism, and today is the national symbol of Burma.  Chinthes are ubiquitous in Burmese art and often appear in pairs as guardians on either side of the entrance to a Buddhist temple or stupa.



Chinthe carved in ivory, 20th - century

Burma Collection, NIU Art Museum


The Manukthiha is a uniquely Burmese creation that consists of the bodies of two lions with a single head. Often, in late examples, the torso and head is that of a human, not a lion


Slide: Manukthiha from Shwedagon Stupa, 20th century - to be added Spring 2003


Another composite creature type that combines human with avian characteristics is the Kinnara (male) or Kinnari (female) who appear frequently in adoring pairs and are considered the "love birds" of the Himavanta Forest. It is these creatures that are used to adorn the walls of temples as well as the pulleys that are attached to Burmese looms, which are frequently operated by unmarried girls whose thoughts, when not on weaving, often turn to thoughts of love and their future family.  Excellence in weaving is considered a desirable characteristic to attract a husband.


Wall painting of a Kinnari, Pagan, 13th century

Image of a Kinnari, 19th century
Burma Collection, NIU Art Museum



An inhabitant of the forest with a normal anatomy is the Hamsa (Hintha - Pali) or brahmani duck, which symbolizes marital fidelity, since this species has a single mate for life. Hamsas hold a branch of fructifying foliage in their beak as a symbol of prosperity and fertility .   



Bronze Hamsa market weight


3. Examples of Buddhist Sculpture


a. Stone and Metal Images


 Stone and metal images in Burma most often depict the Buddha seated with legs crossed on a stylized lotus throne with both soles of the feet visible (= padmasana). The right hand, palm inward, points downward across the middle shin and the left hand, palm upward, rests in the lap (bhumisparsa mudra). Depictions of the Buddha in this position first begin to predominate during the Pagan Period, a trend that has continued to the present day.

Bronze image of the Buddha, Early Pagan Period

The five most common hand gestures (mudras) employed in sculpture of Gautama Buddha

Gold repouse plaque with seated Buddha and two disciples

Early Pagan Period

Standing sandstone image of Buddha with hands in dharmachakra mudra, Kyauk ku Umin temple

Early Pagan Period


There are, however, a few images that show the Buddha in other body positions - as dictated by the event being depicted - such a standing, walking or lying down.  These body positions are most frequently used when depicting the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life or the events of the Seven Weeks after Enlightenment, in which there was a particular interest during the Pagan Period.


The convention used at Pagan to indicate walking is of interest because it does not show the body or feet in motion (as later, in Thai art). Instead, body movement is shown by having the Buddha’s robe swing asymmetrically to one side or by placing one of the Buddha’s feet at a slightly higher elevation than the other. 


Walking Buddha – asymmetrical robe,  Ananda Temple


There are at least two styles of sculpture that date to the Pagan Period.


One style best evidenced by the early stone images found in Mon temples is derived from the Pala style of Bihar and Bengal of the 8th to 10thcenturies.  This style juxtaposes the bold, smoothly modeled forms of the human body against precisely detailed ornamentation – often of a throne backing. The body is full and plump without any indication of the muscle groupings or bones within the body. The shoulders are broad and round while tapering to a relatively narrow waist. In standing images the thighs appear as effeminately full and round, a visual expression of the canonical dictate that the Buddha should have thighs that resemble the buds of a lotus flower. The head has sharply defined features and may be  triangular to oval with a pointed chin and flat cranium. The hair is represented by small, snail shell curls. The cranial protuberance or usnisha , sits well back on the head, is relatively small and may terminate in a small flame-like finial.  The eyes are half closed and look downward (rather than directly at the worshiper, as is frequently the case with Buddha images in Thailand). The long, aquiline nose is almost continuous with the broadly arched eyebrows.  The mouth is small and pursed, with the upper lip often slightly protruding. The ears are long, do not touch the shoulders, and appear concave when viewed frontally. The neck is of normal length and often has three semi-circular lines or wrinkles considered to be beauty marks.  The fingers are of normal length. The monastic robes, consisting of two parts, clings to the body and is almost invisible except for the hems that are lightly incised across the chest and are more boldly indicated around the wrists and shins.  A third robe, folded into a rectangle and draped across the shoulder terminates, in fish tail folds. This Pala style image is generally replaced by the middle of the Pagan Period by a Burmese Style of image, and is revived in later periods only when there is a conscious desire to imitate the classic age of Pagan.  


Bronze image of the Buddha, Pagan Period

Bronze image of the Buddha, detail, Pagan Period


The second style is evidenced at Pagan by number of seated Buddha images that typically have a more corpulent body, a head that is tilted forward with a short-to-non-existent neck, long earlobes that may touch the shoulders, and fingers of uniform length. This style becomes part of the mainstream of Burmese art and examples frequently occur during later periods.


            Among the objects unearthed among the temples at Pagan are three elegant bronze lotus buds held upright on elaborately decorative stems. The eight petals of each open outward to reveal a seated Buddha, a stupa or a shikhakra temple at its center.  On the inside of each petal is depicted one of the Eight Great Events in Buddha's life.  Similar lotuses have been found in Nepal and Tibet and all were probably used ritually on a temple altar.


Bronze Lotus Bud, closed position

Bronze Lotus Bud, open position




The finest caving that has survived from the Pagan Period is found on a series of over forty-seven miniature stone plaques that are carved from a fine-grained steatite (andagu – Burmese).  These carvings most often represent the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life with the Enlightenment being placed in the center. A particularly Burmese sub-set of these plaques includes in an inner band of small images representing the events of the Seven Weeks after Enlightenment.  At times, the central Buddha image is shown wearing a crown.


Stone plaque with Eight Great Events    

Stone plaque showing Eight Great Events in outer arc of figures and Seven Weeks after Enlightenment on either side of the central image. 

Detail from stone plaque showing Eight Great Events in outer arcof figures and Seven Weeks after Enlightenment on either side of major image.

Detail from stone plaque showing Eight Great Events along outter edge and Seven weeks adjacent to central image.


b. Wood Sculpture


A wooden image depicting the Buddha’s decent from Tavatimsa Heaven, where he had gone to preach the Four Noble Truths to his mother, is remarkable for a number of reasons: the subject is not often presented as an  independent image, it is one of the few wooden sculptures to have survived until today, and it is well composed and sensitively modeled. 


Woodcarving of the Buddha’s Descent from Tavatimsa Heaven

Detail, Head of Buddha from Descent from Tavatimsa Heaven

Detail, Head of Brahma from Descent from Tavatimsa Heaven


 Unusually, The Buddha is shown standing in the elegant thrice-bent stance of tribhanga. Sections of the jeweled tripartite ladder can be seen above his shoulder and behind his feet.  The two Hindu gods that accompany him are: Brahma with three of his four heads visible holding an umbrella over the Buddha’s head while Vishnu carries the Buddha’s alms bowl. The small figure seen kneeling at the Buddha’s feet may represent King Udayana who, according to some versions of The Descent, had a sandalwood likeness of the Buddha created when he left this world for Tavatimsa Heaven.  King Udayana brought the image with him when he came to receive the Buddha at his descent, an indication that the Buddha had not been forgotten during his absence. If this account is true, King Udayana would have been responsible for creating the first image of the Buddha. (Images of the Buddha were not produced in abundance until the 1st century AD.)  Unfortunately, the hands and anything they may have held is now missing from this sculpture.


            c. Votive Tablets


The most numerous and, perhaps, the most intimate objects from the Pagan period are the clay votive tablets that were stamped out and signed by many kings and nobles.  The creation of these tablets, each displaying at least one image of the Buddha and some including over 100 images, was thought to produce good merit for its maker.  The incentive for their creation is not in doubt, like so much concerning the Pagan Period, because many donors wrote and signed their intentions on the back of the tablet. King Anawratha’s tablets state that “This Buddha was made, with his own hands, by Sri Maharaja Aniruddhadeva, with the object of emancipation [i.e. gaining Nirvanna]”.  Anawratha’s tablets had his tablets inserted into religious foundations throughout his kingdom.


The face of the tablet often displays a Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra seated within a temple that is similar to the one constructed at Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Two lines of Sanskrit in North Indian characters of the 10th to 11th centuries is often imprinted below the Buddha images.  This is a statement of the Buddhist creed in its most compressed and basic form: “The Buddha hath the causes told, Of all things springing from causes, And also how things cease to be, Tis this the Mighty Monk proclaims”.


            Although the use of votive tablets at Pagan continued a tradition that originated in India and some tablets found in the two countries are identical, it is clear that votive plaques were created at Pagan because bronze and clay molds have been discovered there. Also, the Pagan donors signed many of the plaques in script.


13 Buddha Image Votive Tablet, 11th c. Pagan


11 13 Buddha Image Votive Tablet

      Verso writing states

          tablet made by King Anawratha’s

wife, Oueen Chipe 


Tablet from Taugaung with seated Buddha flanked by two standing Buddhas 

Seated Buddha in Mahabodhi like shrine with Bodhi tree

13th century plaque with 100 miniature Buddha images



5. Painting


a. Wall Paintings


The interior decoration of Pagan temples consisted almost entirely of wall paintings that covered the ceiling vaults as well as all of the interior walls. Painted designs were fitted into a framework of architectural moldings that could be executed three-dimensionally in stucco or two-dimensionally in trompe l’oeil painting. More than 387 Pagan Period temples preserve some trace of their once colorful interiors.


Wall painting of Buddha under Bodhi tree with disciples

Wall paintings surrounding door opening

Wall painting of Jataka TalesKubyauk gyi, Wetkyi-in

Wall Painting of Standing Buddha with disciples

Frieze of deity and vegetation

Wall Painting of Hamsas

Wall Painting of Miracle of Double Appearances

Wall Painting of Buddha flanked by disciples

Painting of niche moldings and wall

Painting on ceiling of Buddha’s footprints 

Wall painting around door includes Buddhas, Kinari and animals

Payathonzu Temple



The walls were first prepared with several coatings of fine mud or stucco that were let thoroughly dry before receiving the multi-colored hues produced from natural colorants. Scenes were created from preliminary drawings whereas stencils were probably used for motifs that were repeated.


The program of paintings within a temple usually included a Bodhi tree realistically painted above the brick and stucco image of the Buddha that served to frame and emphasize this central feature. On the wall on either side of the three-dimensional Buddha image were painted images of the Buddha’s attendants and disciples, often Mogallana and Sariputta. A frieze encircling the remaining three walls of the major shrine might be composed of large tear-shaped Bodhi leaves or kirtthimukha masks. Below this often appear images of the Twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, while lower down are painted scenes of the Buddhas life, usually the Eight Great Events. Elsewhere within the temple, often on the walls of the entrance hall, appear small squares each representing one of the 550 former lives of the Buddha referred to as Jataka Tales. Below each square the chapter number and name of each Jataka was written in Mon or Old Burmese so that each scene is easily identified.  The decorative programs in a few temples include scenes from the history of Buddhism, the Buddha’s footprints and horoscope, or a Buddhist cosmological map. The ceiling vaults were most often covered with small, identical, endlessly repeated motifs of small seated Buddhas, a motif known as The Thousand Buddhas.


b. Paintings on Cloth


Paintings on cloth from the Pagan Period were unknown until in 1984 when a fragment was found wrapped around the arm of a stucco figure in temple number 315. Eventually, with expert restoration, some 30 fragments have been identified as belonging to the same painting that depicts a Jataka tale in long horizontal registers that include captions. The style of painting is exactly the same as the wall paintings found in the Lokateikpan and the Myinkaba-Kubyaukgyi and therefore can be dated to around 1113 AD. Thus, this is the earliest known narrative scroll in the Pala style in existence. All Pala style paintings in India have disappeared due to the more demanding climate.


The style of  wall paintings at Pagan was derived from the Pala style first developed in India.  A major characteristic of this style is the outlining of all forms with a black or red line and the absence of shading and modeling when coloring the enclosed areas.


F.  Pagan Period - Conclusion


            The broad art historical significance of the Pagan Period is that Burmese forms in art and architecture were invented and broadly articulated that were often copied in later periods. Iit is these forms that  have continued as “classic forms” until today.


Great wealth was spent during the Pagan Period not only on the construction of so many religious foundations but also in providing for their perpetual upkeep. The considerable lands as well human laborers donated to the temples and monasteries escaped in perpetuity royal taxation so as the temples prospered, the state was progressively deprived of its tax base.  By the end of the 13th  century, this process seriously undermined the economy so that when the Mongols threatened to invade from the North, the king could not mount an effective response and the kingdom shortly thereafter broke apart into smaller polities.



<Table of Contents>



U Aung Thaw, Historical Sites in Burma (Ministry of Union Culture, Rangoon, 1972, Reprint 1978).


Michael Aung Thwin, Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma, (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, ,1985).


Michael Aung Thwin, "Jambudipa: Classical Burma's Camelot", Contributions to Asian Studies, Vol,  XVI (1981), pp. 38-61.


J. Paul Bennett, "The 'Fall of Pagan': Continuity and Change in 14th Century Burma", Conference Under the Tamarind Tree: Three Essays in Burmese History, Yale University Southeast Asia Monograph Series, no. 15 (Yale University Press,  New Haven, 1971), pp. 3-53.


Charles Duroiselle,  "Stone Sculptures in the Ananda Temple at Pagan", Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, Delhi, 1913 - 1914, pp. 63 - 67.


Charles Duroiselle, "The Ananda Temple at Pagan", Memoire of the Archaeological Survey of India, No. 56, (1931).


D.G.E. Hall, Burma, 3rd edition (London, Hutchinson's University Library, 1960).


Frederick K. Lehman, "Monasteries, Palaces and Ambiguities: Burmese Sacred and Secular Space", Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. XXI/I (1987), pp.169-86.


U Lu Pe Win, Pictorial Guide to Pagan (Ministry of Union Culture, Rangoon, 1955. Reprinted 1975).


G.H. Luce, "The Greater Temples of Pagan", Journal of the Burma Research. Society, Vol.  VIII/3 (1918), pp. 189-98.  Reprinted in Fiftieth Anniversary Publication, Vol 2 (Rangoon, 960), pp189-198.


G.H. Luce, "The Smaller Temples of Pagan", Journal of the Burma Research Society, Vol. X/2 (1920), pp. 41- 8.  Reprinted Fiftieth Anniversary Publication, Vol. 2 (Rangoon, 1960), pp.179-190.


G.H. Luce, Old Burma, Early Pagan, 3 vols (Locust Valley, NY, 1969-1970) [Artibus Asiae Supplementum No. 25; contains comprehensive bibliography till 1969]


Pratapaditya Pal, "Fragmentary Cloth Paintings From Early Pagan And Their Relations with Indo-Tibetan Traditions",  in Donald M. Stadtner, ed., The Art of Burma New Studies ( Marg Publications, Mumbai, 1999), pp. 79-88.


Pierre Pichard, Inventory of Monuments at Pagan, Vols. I –VII  (Kiscadale Publications, Gartmore, 1993).


Pierre Pichard, The Pentagonal Monuments of Pagan (White Lotus, Bangkok, 1991).


Paul Strachan, Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma (Kiscadale, Arran, Scotland, 1989).