Burma has a rich history of Buddhism. For centuries, Buddhism has been the primary religion of the state. It comes as no surprise then that Buddha statues are commonplace in Burmese art. Buddha statues have been a part of art throughout Burmese history. There is an abundant history of art in Burma that can be seen through the evolution of Buddha statues in Burma. Through Burmese Buddha statues, one can see the movement of art styles throughout history.
Burmese art can be divided into four periods: the prehistoric period, the pre-Pagan period, the Pagan period and the post-Pagan period. While there is little information on the pre-historic period, what art historians do know is that animism was a key part of this period. The Pre-Pagan period is notable for borrowing from Indian art style and its use of religious symbols. Statues, particularly religious ones, were typically made with brick or mortar. As one can see through the names of these periods, the Pagan period is the golden age of classical Burmese art. Buddhism was the main religion of the Pagan Period and art styles were further developed. Instead of focusing on moving forward, the post-Pagan period mainly looked back to the Pagan period. While the Pagan period only lasted from the 11th to 13th centuries, it had a profound impact on Burmese art.
There are eight periods in art history for Buddha statues in particular. While they have their own distinct features, they fit into the larger categories for Burmese art history in general. Naturally, since the prehistoric period focuses on animal motifs, Buddha statues are not typically seen in this period. Yet, the later three periods we see a variety of different styles of Buddha statues.
Although there is only one period of Buddha statues in the pre-Pagan period, the Pyu period is still a noteworthy period in Burmese art. As standard for art in the pre-Pagan period, it borrows heavily from India. Yet this period of Buddha statues also borrow from local Pyu art. What we see as a result is a unique mixture of cultures. While Buddhist motifs were just beginning to gain prominence, Pyu period art mixes this with local materials. At this time, most religious buildings were built from non-perishable materials. Therefore, we see a large amount of Buddha statues built from materials like brick and mortar during this period. The Birth of Buddha is an example of this style; built with durable materials, but still showing a deeply spiritual scene. It is fortunate that artists of this time made these masterpieces with strong materials so that they can be seen today.
In the Bagan Pagan period of Buddha statues, there is more of a transition between pre-Pagan and Pagan art style. While the art is still heavily influenced by India, it begins to experiment more with art styles. The statues became well defined as well as ornate. Although the Pagan period is the golden age for art in the border periods, these are the main themes we see in this period. The Pagan period only lasts about two centuries, whereas the post-Pagan period lasts six. This is explains the vast amount of development in Buddha statues in the post-Pagan period.
The Toungoo Period is arguably the golden age of Buddha statues. It occurs after the Pagan period in one of the kingdoms that form after the break-up of the Pagan Kingdom. Buddhism also heavily influenced the Toungoo Kingdom. At this time, Buddha statues became more muscular while simultaneously meditative. In different kingdoms, we see different styles of Buddha. Ava-Shan Tai Yai Buddhas show the Buddha having a rounder face. More materials can also be seen, including bronze and wood. In Amarapura, more changes can be seen in the face. These changes also take place in Buddha statues in Thailand at this time. The Mandalay period is another key period in Buddha states. King Mandon, a devout Buddhist, commissioned many Buddha statues. Therefore there is an influx of Buddhist statues made at this time. The Rakhine period follows previously seen ornateness of Buddha statues in Burma, often showing Buddha with a crown. The Mon period shows Buddha with a smile, looking peaceful. It is important to note that many of the periods of Buddha statues took place simultaneously due multiple kingdoms in Burma, but because of this multiple styles can be seen.
Through the larger art history periods in Burma, we see the evolution of Buddha statues. While the majority of Buddha statues are made in the post-Pagan period, it is still important to note the art styles key to this period. Also, the post-Pagan period looks to the Pagan period for guidance. Therefore the motifs we see each kingdom emulate in post-Pagan period art come from the same Pagan kingdom. Without understanding the larger history of Burmese art, one cannot understand the advancement of Buddha statues in Burma.