Ancient Treasures from Myanmar

by Maganjeet Kaur

The on-going (well, it ends on 5th Mar) exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore titled ‘Cities & Kings: Ancient Treasures from Myanmar’ brings together 60 artefacts from 4 museums: National Museum Nay Pyi Taw, National Museum Yangon, Bagan Archaeological Museum, and ACM.

The ACM building has a long history. The oldest part of the building was constructed between 1864-67 using convict labour from India. A flagstaff at the top of the building was the Origin of Coordinates for Singapore. The building originally housed a number of government departments. In March 1964, the Singapore Branch of Bank Negara, Malaysia was officially opened in the building. This was the bank’s second branch outside Kuala Lumpur, the first was in Penang which opened in March 1961. ACM has occupied the building since 2003.

The exhibition showcases the culture and history of the country from the early Pyu and Mon civilisations up to the Mandalay Kingdom.

The Pyu civilisation developed in upper and central Myanmar in the early centuries of the first millennium and remained a force for close to a thousand years. It had among the earliest, if not the earliest, urban centres in Southeast Asia and saw the emergence of large walled cities such as Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra. These cities, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River amidst fertile agricultural plains, had sophisticated irrigation systems and participated in long distance trade. The culture adopted Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Hinduism. It is thought that Buddhism flowed into Central Myanmar through present day northeast India and Bangladesh which were part of the Pala Kingdom. Here was also located the Nalanda University which expounded Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhist thought and these strands of Buddhism flowed into the Pyu culture.

This bowl with a peacock motif in the centre surrounded by foliate (dated to the 9th century) was found at Sri Ksetra, a Pyu city. The lobbed design of the bowl indicates Chinese influence as it parallels a four-lobbed bowl with mandarin duck design found at Famen Temple near Xian. However, the bowl is believed to have been made in Myanmar with inspiration taken from China signifying a trade relationship between the two cultures.

Contemporaneous with Pyu was the Mon civilisation in Lower Myanmar. Large urban centres with specialisations in trade developed at Thaton, Kyaikkatha, and Winka-Ayetthema. These were coastal cities connected by trade routes to India, Sri Lanka, Dvaravati (a Mon Kingdom in today’s Thailand), and the Hindu-Buddhist polity at Bujang Valley (Kedah). Theravada Buddhism prevailed in Lower Myanmar showing a close link with Sri Lanka.

This terracotta plaque, dated to the 5th or 6th century, was found at Kyontu, an early Mon city. Two musicians flank a central figure (face damaged) which is either riding or fighting a bull. Three more figures fill the space above. These three-dimensional figures are surrounded by a circular frame set within a larger frame with floral motifs on each corner.

Bagan (previously Pagan), founded by the Bamars (Burmans), rose to prominence during the 11th to 13th centuries. It was an inland polity situated on the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River between Kyaukse and Minbu, two rice producing regions. Rice surplus from these two regions was centralised at Bagan and this allowed Bagan to exercise control throughout the Ayeyarwady basin, including the Mon controlled coastal areas. Bagan became the first royal capital of Myanmar. Its first king, Anawrahta (reign: 1044-77), introduced Theravada Buddhism to Bagan after sacking the Mon city of Thaton in 1057 to obtain a copy of Tipitaka, a text on Theravada Buddhism. The population of Myanmar today remain Theravada Buddhist.

left: a sandstone from  Bagan (11th century) showing Prince Siddharta cutting his hair, symbolising his break from royal life and starting his path towards Buddhahood. right: a miniature stupa, made of bronze with gold-leaf lacquer, from Bagan dated to the 19th century. Miniature stupas were used to house relics, an enduring tradition that has lasted till today. This stupa has five sides with five lion-like mythical figures projecting from the base. The five niches would have each contained a miniature Buddha and each niche has a makara-like figure above it.
Lacquered betel boxes from Bagan known as kun-yit-gyi. The cylindrical boxes contain two inner trays in which the ingredients necessary for betel chewing are stored. The designs on the boxes are incised with red, green, yellow, and black lacquer. The box on the right tells the story of Prince Wee-Ta-Na-Pa and his astrologer, Ah-Nu-Ya.

Power shifted to Inwa (previously Ava) in the mid 14th century. As Bagan disintegrated, a new Mon kingdom was established at Bago (previously Pegu) in 1281 and a king appeared at Rakhine (previously Arakan). The Shans, who had dominated the northern highlands, started moving to the lowlands. King Mindon (reign: 1853-78) moved his royal capital from Amarapura to Mandalay in 1857. This was the last royal capital as the British captured Mandalay in 1885 and King Thibaw was exiled to Ratnagiri, India. The British moved the capital to Yangon (previously Rangoon) which they had captured in 1852. Nay Pyi Taw, 300 km to the north of Yangon, became the capital of Myanmar in 2005.

Indigenous animistic spirits, known as nats, continue to be worshipped although the population is predominantly Buddhist. Nats can take human and animal forms as illustrated in this display. From left to right: Lat Lay Pat Nat, four armed nat; Paunte Maung Tint Tal Nat, Handsome Blacksmith, a household guardian; Koe Myoe Shin Nat, Lord of the nine towns; Pale Yin Nat, sister of Koe Myoe Shin.

 * photos taken at ACM