Book Reviews

Splendour in Wood

The Buddhist Monasteries of Burma

by Sylvia Fraser-Lu

2001. 344 pp., richly illustrated with over 200 colour plates, and over 150 halftones and line drawings of plans, elevations and architectural details, map, dynastic table, glossary, bibliography, index. 28.5 X 22 cm., hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-16-7 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-16-8


Review by Anna Allot

(Association of South-East Asian Studies (UK) Newsletter, April 2002)


Present day guide books to Burma never fail to draw the visitor’s attention to pagodas, especially to the glorious Shwedagon in Rangoon and to the numerous other gilded or whitewashed pagodas throughout the country, which serve as a constant reminder that one is in a Buddhist country.But the word monastery is not even given an index entry in two recent guide books, so slight has been the attention devoted by scholars until now to the traditional Buddhist monastery, made of teak, beautifully carved by Burmese craftsmen as decoration and to portray in an outstandingly life-like manner scenes from Burmese life and from the life of Buddha.
   The author of this superb book, the fruit of more than twenty years’ study of the subject, tells us that her interest was directed to monasteries by a Burmese neighbour who suggested that the key to understanding Burmese Buddhism probably lay in a study of the history and function of the monastery rather than in the perusal of sacred texts. So while stationed in Burma in the late 70s, Sylvia Lu began to visit and to photograph some of the most well-known buildings.
   As her interest widened, she became aware that many of the older, less famous wooden structures were falling into dilapidation; the original donors—the devout Buddhists who had paid for the construction of the monastery in order to donate it to an admired monk or Hsaya-daw - were now no longer able to maintain the buildings. The photographs that she was able to take on her many trips around the country, some as early as 1979, many in the mid-80s, many others in 1996 and 1998, are an invaluable record of what has since been lost, what is happily still preserved and what has more recently been reconstructed.
   The first chapter of the book outlines the development of Buddhism in Burma and the importance of monastery building as far back as the Pagan period, as evidenced by inscriptions and chronicles. Charitable giving to support the monks and to build monasteries for them to live in was from the earliest times one of the most popular means of acquiring merit.
   The second chapter demonstrates both through the text and by a masterly use of photographic illustrations how monks and monasteries have continued to be at the centre of Burmese life until the present day. Two photographs (on p.36), taken 100 years apart, of monks sitting in front of monastery entrance, show not only that these are buildings dedicated to education but also that they are most beautifully carved wooden buildings. And it is to the beauty and genius of Burmese craftsmanship as shown in the construction and embellishment of the wooden monasteries of Burma that this book is primarily devoted.
   This second chapter is delightfully illustrated by contemporary photos of events in the lives of young monks and novices—in a shin-byu procession, taking exams, sweeping the monastery compound - backed up by similar scenes from 19th century painted manuscripts. The chapter describes the young monk’s education, life in the monastery, special events such as initiation, ordination, the kathina (gift-giving) ceremony, and the offering of food to monks on special occasions. The chapter includes a rarely seen photograph from 1877 of the amazing construction of bamboo matting and coloured paper prepared for the cremation of a highly revered monk.
   The importance of the monastery and of the monk in the social life of the Burmese community having been fully demonstrated, the third chapter of the book takes us through the complex task of building a monastery. The author deals with all aspects of the process, the choice of site, procuring and preparing the vital teak wood, laying the foundations, constructing the separate apartments or ‘rooms’ of the building. Different types of doors and windows, various styles of roof, the differing heights of the pyathat roofs over the main shrine room, the main reception hall and the storeroom are all described in detail, shown in technical line drawings and given their appropriate Burmese names. One memorable photograph, taken in 1996, is of the three-tiered roof on a rather grand monk’s toilet from Salay; sadly this structure is no longer to be seen as it was dismantled when the monastery was repaired the following year.
   The techniques of traditional Burmese carpentry are illustrated by line drawings and important parts are named, even down to the types of tenon and mortise joints. We learn that it was the reliance on these traditional methods of construction, rather than on the use of nails as in western carpentry, which made it possible for a building to be easily dismantled and re-assembled in another place. As indeed happened with royal monasteries in the Mandalay area, which might be moved each time the capital was relocated.
   Halfway through the third chapter of the book we come to what is in fact the true heart of the study, the ornamentation of the monastery building. As the author says, “In many cases the erection of the basic building was but a beginning for a different group of artisans, the woodcarvers ( babu hsaya), whose task was to take a mere ‘white’ (undecorated) skeleton and through their collective decorative skill and ingenuity, transform it into a magnificent symbolic microcosm of the Buddhist universe”. For the foreigner standing lost in wonder at the beauty and intricacy of the carved wood, it is illuminating to understand that the tiered roofs of the monastery represent the realm of the heavens, the balustrades surrounding the veranda represent the realm of the mortals, while the creatures below the balustrade inhabit the subterranean world.
   Sinuous forms, half-dragon, half reptile, cling to the main under beams of the building; there is a particularly striking photograph on p.91. On the balustrades surrounding the main floor of the monastery and inside the main hall, where monks teach and lay people come to worship, are carved scenes from the jataka stories as well as many well-loved Burmese folk tales and legends. The delicate detail of this carving and the vitality of the human figures is excellently shown by the numerous fine photographs throughout the book. In fact, of 300 pages of text, there is only one single page opening which is not accompanied by a line-drawing or a ground plan or a photograph, black-and-white or coloured.
   The crowning glory of a monastery is without doubt the roof, or rather the multiple roofs of which there are many different styles. The author has spared no effort in explaining and describing these, together with copious line drawings and the relevant Burmese technical names. In chapter 4, illustrations from older books reveal the magnificent Konbaung monasteries with their towering and intricately carved roofs that so impressed earlier visitors to Burma.
   In chapter 5 we are taken through the colonial period which saw several architectural innovations, especially in styles of roofing, and then the story is brought right up to the present day. During the years 1962-1988, there was little interest in or money to spare for preservation work but, as the author points out, the 1990s saw a striking change in government policy. To ‘revive and strengthen patriotism… and encourage national culture’ the State Peace and Development Council has taken on the traditional role of the Buddhist monarch as donor of religious buildings. They have decreed traditional monasteries to be ideal showcases of Burma’s ‘cultural heritage’ and a means to ‘revive the traditional art of fine Burmese wood-carving’. A training school for abbots has recently been established in Rangoon, which offers lectures by architects and engineers on maintenance and preservation as well as instruction in traditional arts and crafts.
   In the second part of the book, in which nearly ninety individual buildings are described in detail and magnificently illustrated, we learn of recent protective and preservation work undertaken since 1988 on some of the best-known monasteries. As is sometimes the case, some of this restoration work has not met with universal approval. Over the last 20 years the author has visited and put on record buildings from many parts of the country, from Mandalay and Monywa in Upper Burma, from Pagan and Salay district in Central Burma, from Rangoon (including many edifices on the platform of the Shweidagon Pagoda), from Moulmein, Thaton and Bassein, to name a few of the main sites.
   Some of the most fascinating information in the whole study is to be found in the end-notes to each chapter, printed continuously on pages 302 to 315; the notes reveal the vast range of sources tapped by the author and her painstaking search for correct facts, the large number of abbots and resident monks who were met and talked to, the woodcarvers and craftsmen who gave of their technical knowledge, the many Burmese scholars who were consulted. The notes also reveal the author’s intimate knowledge of the Burmese scene and her love of traditional Burmese craftsmanship.
   This is not a light-weight book: the final 44 pages—the only ones without illustrations—are given over to endnotes, the list of illustrations, a glossary of Burmese, Pali and Sanskrit terms, an extensive bibliography and an index. However the work has something for every kind of reader. The text is detailed and scholarly, with rich and lively foot-notes. The technical Burmese vocabulary, essential for an accurate description of the carving and architectural features, stands out clearly in the text and is fully explained in the extensive glossary. The compilation of this glossary must have been one of the more difficult tasks for the author as there is no general agreement on how to write Burmese words in English, so there is every excuse for a certain amount of inconsistency. Finally, the numerous photographs and illustrations, each with its own interesting comment, are a feast for the eyes and are the crowning glory of the book.

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