Burmese Buddhist Art Po Win Taung Caves
Burmese Buddhist Art Po Win Taung Caves is a complex of man made caves dug into the volcanic rocky landscape. It is located 25 kilometers west of Monywa town in the Sagaing division, north west of Mandalay. Po Win Taung literally means “Mountain of Isolated Solitary Meditation”, and is largely a Buddhist religious complex and pilgrimage site.
The Po Win cave complex consists of two sites, a kilometre apart, to the north is Po Win Hill, and to the South the excavations of Shwe Ba Taung. Due to the unevenness of the terrain Po Win is reached from below and Shwe Ba Taung from above.
The stone in which these caves are hewn is volcanic with numerous small caves having been dug out by hand, many during the British colonial period. The preservation and maintenance of Po Win Caves is derived through donor contributions, with laymen and monks who reside within or close to the complex looking after them.
The murals in this labyrinth of man made caves display a mixture of Animism and Buddhist beliefs with mythical beings, flowers and animals alongside that of wall murals depicting Buddhist art relating to the Jataka tales, whilst other pictorial paintings at Po Win show images of daily life of the Burmese people during the 17th and 18th centuries, with some paying homage to the Buddha, whilst others indicate the custom of chewing betel nut with their cheeks puffed out, other images influenced by the presence of the Portuguese, Muslims, Dutch and British show people smoking cigars or holding a pipe.
Other murals were inspired by influences from other parts of south East Asia, India and Sri Lanka, whilst some Buddha images were clearly inspired by Buddha images found in China.
The site of the Po Win Taung caves consists of approximately 790 caves and nearly a thousand temple shrines carved into the stone on various levels. Many of the entrances to the caves are framed, by partially, in the round sculptures of human beings, demons and animals which serve to guard the shrines.
Buddha statues, Monks and Mythological beings
There are approximately 3,638 Buddha images that have been documented at Po Win Caves. Most of the Buddha statues within the caves are typical of the Ava or Mandalay style, some are free standing, others are seated on stone which has been carved from, and part of the cave walls, there are numerous kneeling monks statues with hands together in worship, and other mythological beings such as nats and devas , depicted in both murals and carvings. The Buddha images are seen mostly in the standing, lying or seated in padmasana pose with hand gesture in bhumisparsa mudra.
It is not clear when the murals on the cave walls and ceilings were first created. Published literature related to Po Win Hill are scant and what is available have vague reference to Po Win. However, some studies indicate some of the murals probably date to the second Ava period in the 17th century. Many of the original murals on the walls of the caves have been damaged due to haphazard attempts at restoration or painted over with whitewash. Many Buddhist sculptures can be traced to the second Ava period in the 17th century.
Inscriptions at Po Win Taung Caves
The few inscriptions that exist in Po Win are mostly those of donors with the oldest dated 1599 found on a reclining Buddha with other later inscriptions dating to the 20th century. Layers of whitewash have all but nullified any sure way of dating accurately. Most inscriptions that legible are more recent.