Christophe Munier and Myint Aung, Burmese Buddhist Murals, Vol I – Epigraphic Corpus of the Powin Taung Caves
Bangkok: White Lotus, 2007. Pp. xvi, 451; colour plates, maps, illustrations, apps., bib. (http://www.whitelotuspress.com/bookdetail.php?id=E22609)
To the east of Mandalay, near the city of Monywa, lies the site of Powin Taung. It is home to an impressive complex of cave temples containing ancient Buddha images and brilliant mural paintings. While fossils found in this area suggest that it has been inhabited since very early in human history, credible dating of its cave temples places their creation between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, A. D., during the Nyaungyang and early Konbaung periods.
In Myanmar temples dating from the Bagan Period of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, one can still see mural paintings of various designs. As Buddhism developed, the work of Bagan artists centered increasingly on scenes from the life of the Buddha. Myanmar mural paintings of the fourteenth century differ from those of the Bagan period. They depict hair- and dress-styles, and scenes from people’s daily life.
Burmese Buddhist Murals, Vol I, offers the first comprehensive survey of all aspects of mural paintings in Powin Taung. It includes short versions of the most important Buddhist stories depicted in the temples’ murals. Its historical overview covers the political situation and foreign relations, the economic and social conditions, and the religion and dress of the Nyaungyan period (1599-1752). Also included are interpretations of the captions of the murals found in twenty-nine of the hundreds of cave temples at the site, and of an additional “unnamed temple” (p. 15). The book features both fifty-six colour and four hundred black-and-white photographs, along with floor plans of each of Powin Taung’s caves and maps of their mural-covered walls.
The highlight of this work is in the epigraphic evidence that has been found in ink writings on the walls of the Powin Taung caves. Except for two, each of these caves was man-made; not meant for human habitation, they were carved into sand-stone formations. Their walls are almost completely covered with murals, leaving no space unpainted. Only narrow gaps between the images of the Buddha and the entrance to each cave can allow a person or two to prostrate himself, herself, or themselves on the floor to pray or to meditate in front of the Buddha image or images. As the eminent historian Dr. Than Tun observed, the didactic role of the murals is to emphasize to those who view them how the Buddha has finally retrieved himself from reincarnation, from the cycle of miserable rebirth (1).
Pictures with legends written in the Myanmar language of the period underneath each mural at Pawin Taung present this basic tenet of Buddhism. These elucidate stories of the Buddha’s lives and other significant episodes connected with the Buddha. Only in five instances can dates for these murals be ascertained; in each case, they are not earlier than the eighteenth century, A.D. Though those dates fall in the Konbaung period, the style of the murals places them among the artistic endeavours of the Nyaungyan period, which lasted into early Konbaung times.
The flourishing religious writings and other prose works of the Nyaungyan period are so intricately connected to the murals of Powin Taung caves that they interact with those murals in an artistically and thematically integrated whole. Difficult as the work may seem to be, the conscientious effort in Burmese Buddhist Murals to present these epigraphs in their original form serves the book very well.
The themes of the captioned registers (or sections of each mural) of the Nyaungyan period murals are laid out according to a standard pattern; that is, from top to bottom. In each cave, the twenty-eight Buddhas occupy the upper register, just below the ceiling. The life of the Gautama Buddha starts on the registers below those showing the twenty-eight Buddhas. In some caves, that life starts in the same register as that treating the twenty-eight Buddhas. The last ten great Jatakas (The Mahanipata) occupy the lower registers, though, again, in some cases they start on the same register as the life of the Gautama Buddha. The lowest register may depict the hells from the Nemi Jataka.
Religion, more than artistic style, was clearly of greatest importance to the Burmese who contributed to the construction and decoration of the Powin Taung caves. The authors of Burmese Buddhist Murals point out the resulting absence of perspective in the caves’ mural paintings. They also highlight the most important feature of Nyaungyan-style murals, that they express
the Burmese cultural identity through a wholly Burmese style – they are Burmese, not Indian – with foreign elements reflecting the political and cultural relations of the time, i.e. the presence of foreigners such as Muslims, Indians and Europeans. But there are as yet no foreign stylistic influences such as Chinese (flowers, rocks) and Western (perspective, landscapes) in these murals. (p. 35)
The authors also emphasize the presence in the murals of scenes involving commoners, creating salacious and comical breaks between the Buddhist narratives. As noted above, such scenes are not found in the murals of the same period in Bagan (p. 37).
The work and attention to detail that went into Burmese Buddhist Murals, Vol I, will be evident to anyone who even casually examines the book. So, too, will White Lotus Press’s success in publishing a lovely volume, with very high production values. At the same time, in future volumes in this series, Burmese and English texts of the captions to illustrations from the murals (along with other relevant data about chronology and context) might best appear on the same pages as the illustrations themselves. Similarly, in the volume under review, the presentation and translation of the original Burmese text does not follow the chronological order of the names of Buddhas from the first, Tanhankara, to the twenty-eighth, Gautama. Nevertheless, the authors of Burmese Buddhist Murals, Vol I, do succeed in presenting the events in the lives of the Buddha with clear reference to social context.
The text presented in this volume will allow for the careful study and detailed discussion of the new words, phrases, idioms, grammar, and syntax of the Burmese language of the Nyaungyan period, not least in the context of other available literature of the period. The authors’ achievement in undertaking such a study is very much welcome. That achievement will prove beneficial to students, scholars, and all those interested in turning to this book as a linguistic and historic resource.
As the title of Burmese Buddhist Murals, Vol I, makes clear, the book under review represents only the first volume in a project of great scope and importance. Due to last a decade and ultimately to result in ten volumes, the project as now envisioned will include three volumes on Nyaungyan murals dating roughly from 1600 to 1750, tracking and periodizing those murals’ style. Work on the first of these volumes is currently under way; its co-authors are the Russian historian and epigraphist Alexey Kirichenko and U Aung Kyaing, the retired deputy director of the Myanmar Archeaology Department. The projected fifth volume of Burmese Buddhist Murals will treat “the proto-Konbaung style”, and the next three volumes the Konbaung styles. The ninth volume will cover murals dating from the period of British colonial rule in Myanmar, and the tenth volume will be a study of the few surviving, often badly damaged–and therefore difficult to analyze–murals from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Each volume in the series will focus above all on narrative murals and their epigraphic corpus. The standard of comprehensiveness and scholarly value set by Volume I in this ambitious project must leave all readers interested in Myanmar, Southeast Asian, and Buddhist art and literature eagerly awaiting the appearance of future volumes.
Nanyang Technological University
(1) Than Tun, Buddhist Art and Architecture, with special reference to Myanmar (Yangon: Monwya Books, 2002), pp. 34-35.