Mandalay King Mindons Palace
King Mindons Palace, Mandalay

Most old monasteries in Myanmar are made from teak wood, most of them being no more than two hundred years old, whereas the ancient temples and pagodas seen in historic Bagan and Mrauk-U in Rakhine State are mostly made with bricks or stone with a small number nearly 1000 years old.

Buddhism was introduced into Burma around the 3rd century A.D., by their Northern Indian neighbors who practiced a mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and Tantrism. Buddhism in Burma today is still very much intertwined and coexists alongside Nat and spirit worship which is reflected in much of their art and culture.

The Burmese Buddha and Buddhist Iconography found in Burma has since Pyu times been made from different mediums, the most popular being bronze, wood and marble.

Between 1044 – 1077 A.D., the first Burman King, King Anawrahta of Pagan, attempted to discourage Nat and spirit worship, wishing to make Buddhism the main form of religious worship. Although he succeeded and Buddhism gained in popularity, Nat and spirit worship still remained strong among his people.

Further endeavors to persuade his people to convert to Buddhism resulted in the legitimization of thirty seven of the most popular nats. Although this is written in many texts related to King Anawrahta’s efforts to convert his people, it is more factual that many of these chosen thirty seven Nats came into existence much later.

Before and during the early Pagan period, Buddhism was a mix of both Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric practices. The Theravada school of Buddhism is the the main form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar today and is second to the Mahayana school of Buddhism which originated in India, and the most popular form of Buddhism practiced today in many parts of Asia such as China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and Tibet, excluding Thailand and Laos who also practice the Theravada form of Buddhism which is considered to be the purest form of Buddhism practiced today.

Burmese Buddha, Buddhist Iconography, Historical Sites

The earliest practicing Buddhists in Myanmar were the Mon and later the Pyu people, although there are different scholarly views on this subject. The Burmese Buddha and Buddhist Iconography was influenced through interactions with India and later during the Pagan Kingdom by Sri Lanka. Much of the art from the early Pyu and Mon period show a mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantrism, animism and Theravada influence, which can be seen on wall paintings and sculptures from this period.

The early Pagan period is undeniably the most significant period in the history of Buddhist art in Burma.