from the 12th to the 21st century
Model stupa with the 28 Buddhas of the Past
A stupa is a Buddhist structure containing relics that devotees ritually walk around. People commission model stupas to make merit and ensure the maintenance of the religion, resulting in better future rebirths. In the past, there have been countless Buddhas (awakened beings), and in the Burmese tradition, there are 28 named individuals. They are particularly important because during previous lives, Gotama the historical Buddha received a prophecy of his future Buddhahood from each of them.
Elephant tusk with the Buddhas of this era
Buddhists believe that time is cyclical, and in each round, which can last millions of years, a number of Buddhas arise. In the current cycle, there have already been four Buddhas, and one is yet to come. Commissioning sculptures of the Buddhas generates merit for the donor and promises better future rebirths.
The Buddha’s footprint
In Myanmar, footprints are honoured as the main image in a temple or are placed to point towards a main image. They mark the Buddha’s presence and demonstrate the importance of pilgrimage. The 108 symbols on the footprint include such imagery as major cosmological features of the universe and royal symbols, indicating the totality of the Buddha’s teachings and the connection between Buddhism and kingship.
There are three regions of the universe - the realm of non-form with the four highest heavens, the realm of form with 16 heavens, and the realm of worldly desires with six heavens, four worlds of the humans, demons, ghosts and animals, and eight hells. The 22 heavens of the realms of form and desires are represented by the series of 22 palace buildings with tiered roofs seen in the centre of the footprint.
Mount Meru is the central axis of the universe, uniting the three realms of non-form, form and worldly desires. It is represented as a central pillar topped by Tavatimsa Heaven and surrounded by seven mountain ranges and seven oceans. The seven hill shapes in the second row from the right are the mountain ranges, and the seven boxes of wavy lines are the seven oceans that alternate with the mountains.
On the footprint, the row directly beneath the toes and the beginning of the first row on the right contain imagery associated with kingship. These include the accoutrements of royal power, including white umbrellas and fans that indicate high rank, weapons showing the strength of the kingdom, marks of a great man that demonstrate the personal abilities of the king, particular flowers associated with spirituality, and golden palaces, offering trays and thrones that prove the wealth of the king and therefore the kingdom.
Gotama Buddha in the gesture of Enlightenment
This image shows the Buddha on the night of his awakening. When challenged by Mara, he demonstrated his worthiness to become enlightened by touching the ground and calling the Earth Goddess to witness his good deeds. Mara fled before the evidence, leaving the Buddha-to-be to become the enlightened Gotama at dawn.
Stupa deposit showing the Buddha in his coffin
The Buddha died and attained his final nirvana (the end of rebirth) at the age of 80. Here, nine figures, a numerologically significant number, honour him around his coffin. Miraculous events attended his death, and his cremation resulted in large quantities of relics that were placed in stupas for worship. This sculpture of the Buddha’s coffin would also have been placed in a relic chamber as an offering.
Water bowl with the Mahosadha Jataka
In this birth story, the Buddha-to-be was a minister called Mahosadha, who made numerous wise judgements, advised King Videha, and assisted the king to defeat his enemies. The scenes here all simply show Mahosadha in a typical Myanmar palace, indicating his high rank and therefore advanced spiritual status. This vessel could be used to hold water in the home, but such objects were also donated to monasteries or used to carry offerings to monks.
Religious tablets are made by pressing clay into a pre-formed mould. Such tablets were popular religious objects produced at pilgrimage sites for over a millennium. This example displays the eight great events from the Buddha’s life, including his awakening when he became a Buddha at the centre. Clockwise from the left are the Parileyyaka retreat, his first sermon, the taming of the Nalagiri elephant, his final nirvana, the descent from Tavatimsa Heaven, the twin miracles, and his birth from his mother’s hip. People from all classes of society purchased and donated such tablets in order to improve their levels of merit.
Kammawasa manuscripts contain texts used for formal acts by the community of monks, such as ordination. Families donate these manuscripts to monasteries when a son enters the monkhood, for which the mother particularly acquires merit. Kammawasa are made from lacquered metal, wood, ivory, or pieces of cloth, the latter often from the robes of highly esteemed monks. Decorated wooden end boards contain the pages.
Popular poster of Shwesettaw
Shwesettaw is an important pilgrimage site in central Myanmar where there are two footprints of the Buddha. During the Buddha’s lifetime, the nagas (mythical serpents associated with water) asked him for something to worship, and in response he impressed his footprint into the riverbank. In this popular print, the nagas honour the Buddha and encircle the footprint. The conches in the toes and the lotus circle on the print are clearly visible (see the stone footprint also on display here). In the background is a map of the actual pilgrimage site in Myanmar.
Jacket with protective and auspicious diagrams and imagery
This jacket is covered with protective and auspicious diagrams and imagery that draw on Buddhist figures, local spirits, numerology and potent diagrams. These designs are similar to those used in tattoos, power-enhancing diagrams and silver charms for insertion under the skin. Each feature has a specific result, such as protection from bullets or the ability to speak persuasively, and would be chosen by the wearer.
Canopy with a protective diagram
Canopies painted with protective diagrams were hung in religious and secular buildings. This particular diagram combines the power of the Buddha, sacred and powerful beings and the number 12, which represented the zodiac and Buddhist concepts of space, to keep the room and the people using it free from danger. The Buddha sits at the centre surrounded by his foremost disciples and other potent beings arranged in two circles comprising 12 sections each. The outer ring displays figures of power, such as Punnaka from the Vidhurapandita Jataka story, mythical lions, naga serpents, deities and hermits. The guardians of the four directions appear in the corners.
This exhibit was curated by Dr Alexandra Green, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia.
For more information about the Myanmar collections of the British Museum please see our online collection database.
Dr Green's most recent publication is Buddhist Visual Cultures, Rhetoric, and Narrative in Late Burmese Wall Paintings, 2018.