Book Reviews

The Buddhist Murals of Pagan

Timeless Vistas of the Cosmos

by
Claudine Bautze-Picron
with photography by
Joachim Karl Bautze

2003. 280 pp., 253 colour plates. 28 x 22 cm., hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-025-7 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-025-4



Book review by Virginia McKeen Di Crocco

(Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 92, 2004)


The Buddhist Murals of Pagan compose a unique ensemble in the Buddhist world of the eleventh to the fourteenth century, giving a glimpse of past splendor and showing that Pagan held a major political, spiritual and artistic position during the period. Claudine Bautze-Picron in her research on Pagan murals did not confine herself to just a small select grouping as has often been the case with earlier art historians, but over a five year period studied the numerous monuments that cover the whole plain of Pagan. In her learned and eloquent text she points out that the monuments once must all have been gorgeously adorned, thus constituting evidence that painted ornamentation was a fundamental part of the sanctuary, giving its real meaning to the temple. Her method of research was, as she puts it, to ‘dissect’ the monuments. The first step was to isolate the various components of the different iconographic programs painted on the walls and ceilings of the temple in order to identify the respective iconographies; the next step was to reconstruct the complete program and understand its meaning in the light of its various components. She maintains that while this dissection is required, it should never blind one to the fact that the inner space of each monument has to be apprehended globally, in its total, since this reveals the monument as a visualization of the cosmos and reflects the cosmological nature of the Buddha and his identification with the monument which in turn becomes the living presence of the Buddha.
   In Chapter 1, The Murals of Pagan, Presentation, the author reviews the works of historians and art historians on the Pagan murals. She criticizes Gordon H. Luce, writing that he was a historian, not an art historian, because in his monumental work, Old Burma-Early Pagan, he claimed a Mon ancestry and style for the murals of early Pagan, dating them to late eleventh to mid-twelfth century, on the basis of glosses in Mon describing the murals. What, she asks, can the languages used in glosses tell us about the inspiration of the murals and monuments containing them? Then she goes on to relate that their style and part of their iconography of the period clearly find their inspiration in the Pala art of eastern India, in Bihar and Bengal. Hers is a long-needed stylistic and iconographic interpretation and one that she is very qualified to make. Indeed, the main focus of her research for many years has been the art of eastern India, about which she has published a large number of articles considering stylistic as well as iconographic issues. That research culminated in the catalogue Eastern Indian Sculpture in the Museum of Indian Art, Berlin, Berlin, 1998. She writes that Pagan in the late eleventh to mid-twelfth centuries appears to have been a place of transition where Indian models, both contents and form, were assimilated and transformed into a genuinely local formulation. That formulation coincided with the introduction through Mon Thaton to the south of new spiritual values based on the Sinhalese Theravada canon, at times in both Mon and Pali scripts. The peak of the Indian and Mon influences was reached in the monuments built to the east of the walled city of Pagan and around Myinkaba, south of the city, after which they started to dilute. Often, moreover, the same monuments, such as the Abe-ya-dana or the Kubyauk-gyi, combined the ground plan traditionally considered to be of Mon origin and murals of east Indian style and iconography based on Sinhalese Theravada texts. She emphasizes that while eastern Indian styles and iconography were employed in the murals, the iconography does not relate to the Vajrayana Buddhism then blossoming in eastern India. This is significant because, beginning with Charles Duroiselle in an article in the Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India 1915-1916, several scholars have suggested evidence of Vajrayana Buddhism in the Abe-ya-dana and other murals. One of the iconographic programs, she points out, in constant use, which finds its source in Bihar, is the depiction of the eight great events. Bodhgaya was the center of the Buddhist world at this time and thus the presiding Buddha in each monument was represented seated under the Bodhi tree and touching the earth with the fingers of his right hand as in Bodhgaya rather than having his hands in the meditating position as was traditionally depicted in Sri Lanka. Indeed she points out that what has survived from the murals of Sri Lanka before the eleventh century reveals inspiration entirely different in iconography and style from that in the late eleventh century Pagan murals, one which relates to South Indian tradition. However, the presence of Jataka murals in the entrance hall, a frequent feature at Pagan, found its first rendering in Sri Lanka.
   Later murals clearly reflect a blossoming of growing local stylistic and iconographic traditions as best illustrated in the monuments of Minnanthu east of the walled city of Pagan and can be globally dated to the thirteenth century. King Narapatisithu (r. 1174-1211) had sent a mission to Bodhgaya to get a precise picture of the political situation where Buddhists were practically thrown out of their homeland and the entire north was swept by Muslim armies. From this grew a new perception of Pagan as the center of the Buddhist world and serving as a substitute for Bodhgaya and a place of influence for Buddhist monks from all over the world.
   The author points out that specific topics were illustrated in the murals of Pagan, where they were distributed according to very strict rules. A major theme illustrated in practically every monument is the life of the Buddha. This is the subject of the latter part of Chapter I and Chapters II, The Miraculous Life of the Buddha. The plates accompanying the text are arranged in such a manner that the reader witnesses the changes in styles of painting over the two centuries. Included are welcome scenes from the rarely published murals in Yanzatthu in Sale at the south of the Pagan plain. The reference work for the life story, including the ‘seven stations’ or weeks after Enlightenment, was the fifth century Pali text, Nidana-katha, in the Theravada Buddhist canon and the author quotes liberally from the N.A. Jayawichrama translation of it. One of the most important ideas introduced in The Buddhist Murals of Pagan is that at Pagan the Buddha was perceived as a cosmological being, while the temple was felt to be a reflection of the universe. The cosmological Buddha is usually associated with Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism rather than Theravada. The author, however, prevails when she provides sufficient evidence from the Nidana-katha text and murals based on it. She argues that in the five dreams that the Bodhisatta had prior to Enlightenment given in that text reveal the cosmological nature of that Bodhisatta and in turn that of the Buddha:
   ‘While he was still only an unen­lightened Bodhisatta, the great earth was his couch; Himalaya , king of mountains, was his pillow. His left hand lay in the Eastern Ocean, his right hand lay in the Western Ocean; his feet in the Southern Ocean. That was the first dream. While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, a creeper grew up and out of his navel and stood touching the clouds. This was his second dream that appeared to him…While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, white grubs with black heads crawled from his feet to his knees and covered them. That was the third dream…While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, four birds of different colors came from the four quarters, and, as they alighted at his feet, they all became white. This was his fourth dream…while he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, he walked upon a huge mountain of dirt without being fouled by the dirt. This was his fifth dream…’
   Depictions of the Buddha reclining on cosmic waters as in the first dream with a creeper growing out of his navel as in the second and birds as in the third and fourth appear in murals in Maung-yon-gu and Monument 585 north of Minnanthu and Yanzatthu at Sale. These paintings relate to a particular understanding of the Buddha as a cosmological being arising out of cosmic waters. In the Monument 585 mural flames accompany the image. In fact the Pagan murals often depict the Buddha with flames bordering his body. The author writes, ‘The presence of flames irradiating from the entire body of the Buddha clearly relates this type of image to the miraculous deeds of Savatthi, but we may wonder whether selection of this particular iconography was not made to meet another criterion, to illustrate the Buddha irradiating light erect at the very center of the universe. Over and above the fact that these images evoke the fire miracle of Savatthi, the overall presence of flames recalls the ‘six glories’, or rays of different colors irradiating from the body of the Buddha, or the golden light pervading the universe at specific moments in the Buddha’s life, such as his birth or his awakening.’
   Chapter III, The Previous Lives of the Buddha, is devoted to murals based on the Jataka stories in the Nidana-katha. The author demonstrates that the early murals had various scenes of each Jataka depicted and how their importance was marginalized until only one scene from each of the 547-550 Jatakas was given, and in the late murals often only a small number of Jatakas were painted and placed in a broad frame surrounding a depiction of the Buddha.
   Chapter IV, Dipankara and the Buddhas of the Past-Metteyya, Buddha of the Future, describes the 28 Buddhas of the past in accordance with the information in the fifth century Pali Buddhavamsa, yet another text in the Sinhalese Theravada canon. The Bodhisatta Metteyya, prophesized by the Buddha Gotama in that text as the Future Buddha, appears in but a few murals and not with the 28 Buddhas who are arranged in rows.
   Chapter V, Iconographic Ornamentation, addresses specific iconographic motifs: Sakka and Brahma, the pair of Bodhisattas, the monks, the army of Mara, the sun and the moon, the Buddhapada, the universe, Lake Anottata, and the horoscope.
   Chapter VI, The Ornamental Decoration, stresses that the ornamentation is not purely decorative but constitutes a frame, a scaffolding behind the official iconography and articulates the different zones of the programs from each other. The author urges that the decorations be carefully analysed and their evolution traced since that it would appear that their evolution could help suggest a chronology for the monuments.
   Chapter VII, The Murals of Pagan, the Guide, introduces the reader to the sections of the Pagan plain where monuments with murals are extant and guides the reader through the most important murals.
   The Buddhist Murals of Pagan has an extensive and excellent bibliography and almost all the author’s comments are accompanied by one if not more references placed at the rear of the text in the endnotes. Preferably the latter should have been placed at the end of each chapter. This reader found that photocopying the endnotes and keeping them to one side while reading the text made following the many references quoted much easier.
   Augmenting the text are Joachim Karl Bauze’s superb photographs. He has illuminated for the reader many of the wonders of Pagan murals, especially what is at times fantastic ornamentation high in the ceilings, which is hardly visible to the viewer.
   The Buddhist Murals of Pagan is not for the casual tourist but rather to be savored by a scholar familiar with the Pagan monuments and their murals or for the uninitiated who want to learn in depth about them on the spot with the book in hand.

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