Burmese Miniature Bronze Cetis
A few Burmese Miniature Bronze Cetis dating to the Vesali Period (4th – 10th CE) were made as religious objects to be enshrined in larger cetis or niches in pagodas. The miniature bronzes that have been found are similar in style and shape to the larger Cetis seen throughout Burma. The term “Ceti” is derived from the Indian word “chaitya”.
The traditional Ceti in Burma is a shrine or monument built from stone or mud bricks to commemorate the Buddha and his teachings, it can be a solid or hollow structure varying in size with no other purpose other than to memorialise the Buddha and his teachings and house Buddhist relics such as Buddhist scriptures and images.
These sacred items were frequently placed in sealed chambers, specially made for this purpose, and were often located in the basement or the dhatu-gabbha, which is situated between the bell and the finial. The construction of a Ceti is driven by deep religious sentiments and is considered a significant religious act believed to bring about spiritual merit in the next life, eventually leading to nirvana in a future existence.
Vesali (Pali) (in Burmese Waithali) was the second capital of the Rakhine Kingdom after the Dhanyawadi Kingdom ended in 370 AD, and is located in the northwest part of Burma, approximately 70 kilometres northeast of the present-day capital of Sittwe and east of Ram Chaung, a tributary of the Kaladan River. It was once a thriving trade port, trading with China, parts of Southeast East Asia and India.
During the 10th century, Vesali went into decline, possibly due to the rise of the Pagan Empire and Arawrahta’s conquest of north Arakan when he laid siege to Pyinsa, which was at that time the capital of Arakan. (Some historians claim that Vesali went into decline earlier).
The Four types of Ceti mentioned in the Pali Canon:
- A relic (Dhatu)
- Memorial (Paribhoga)
- Teaching (Dhamma)
- Votive (Udesaka)
The Cetiis in Burma serves as places of worship for future generations, ensuring the preservation and perpetuation of the Buddhist religion. A typical solid ceti consists of several essential components:
- Base platform or plinth
- Receding terraces
- Spire with upward-tapering mouldings
- lotus petals
- Banana bud
In general, a ceti is an architectural structure that encompasses the above-mentioned components, adorned, and embellished in various degrees of intricacy. At the corners of the base, one may find mythological creatures in the shape of a lion standing guard around the base. Some cetis exhibit exquisitely crafted niches around the main body, featuring figures of the Buddha seated on a lotus with the hand gesture in Bhumisparsa mudra (touching earth) facing the four cardinal directions. The terraces are polygonal in shape and may possess floral borders.
Smaller cetis or kalasa pots may be situated at the corners of these terraces. The number of terraces may vary among different cetis. Above the terraces, there is a bell, and atop the bell is a spire that tapers upwards in a telescopic manner. At the pinnacle of the spire, there are lotus petals, both upturned and downturned, with a row of decorative beads in between. Above the lotus petal adornments, there is a banana bud. The entire structure is crowned by an artistic hti or umbrella.
Numerous cetis in Arakan were constructed by various kings of the Mrauk-U Dynasty (1430-1784 A.D) and are still standing (albeit most in ruins). These cetis generally share a similar architectural structure with each possessing unique characteristics.
However, it is rare to find a ceti built by earlier kings, although references inscribed on stone related to cetis have been discovered. Most of these older ceti have either succumbed to weathering, been destroyed by acts of vandalism, and earthquakes or have been enclosed within pagodas constructed by later kings.
The Museum of Indian Art houses three miniature bronze cetis, one discovered in Tharlarwaddy village within the southern city walls of ancient Vesali, another found in Dharmarit village near the old Vesali site, and the exact location of the third one remains unknown. All three miniature bronze cetis have a conical structure with a square or round base for stability. Additionally, each ceti features miniature image halls on ornately adorned pedestals, with the cetis situated atop these image halls.
One of the miniatures features a square pedestal that has been crafted in the likeness of a royal throne. Positioned at each of the four corners of the base platform are four guardian animals, which are difficult to distinguish, most likely they are lions. The pedestal itself is adorned with an image hall, which is a small structure that has four openings, each of which is decorated with arches. These openings face the four cardinal directions. The design of the arches over the openings is like the structure behind the thrones of the Arakanese kings. Looking through the arches, one can see four seated Buddha images in bhumisparsa-mudra, positioned in the tiny hall with their backs to the central pilaster. Three circular bands, which successively diminish in diameter, are placed on the square roof of the image hall, forming receding terraces. The bell is positioned above the topmost circular band, and its lip flares out to encompass it. The curve of the bell is first concave and then convex towards the top, and it is decorated with rings. Above the bell is the dhatu-gabbha, and above this is the spire, which features moulding that telescopically tapers upwards. There are nine mouldings in total, with the topmost moulding containing the dawn-turned lotus petals. A ring separates the down-turned petals from the upturned petals. Above the lotus petal mouldings is the banana bud. There is no hti on top of the banana bud on this miniature ceti.
Another ceti also possesses a square pedestal, albeit with a distinct design. Four mythical creatures, each with the head and torso of a man attached to a lion’s body referred to as Manokthiha also referred to as Manusha guard the four corners of the base platform. (Many sculptures in Pagodas in Myanmar now show this figure with a lion head). These creatures then divide into two towards the rear, creating a visually balanced corner decoration, the top corners of the pedestal feature miniature chaityas. Additionally, an image hall is situated on the pedestal, with four openings adorned with arches in the four cardinal directions. The arch design of this ceti differs from that of the first ceti. Inside the hall, there are four seated Buddha images in the bhumisparsa mudra, facing away from the pilaster. The square roof of the image hall is adorned with five receding terraces. Above these terraces, a bell is present, embellished with a ring around its middle. The dhatu-gabbha, located between the bell and the spire, is not as prominent as in the previous ceti. The spire itself consists of nine layers of mouldings that taper upwards in a telescopic manner. The uppermost moulding is adorned with lotus petals that curve downwards. Following the lotus petal mouldings are ornamental beads and upturned petals. Above these elements, the spire is adorned with a banana bud, and finally, the hti sits atop the structure.
The third ceti, has a rare and unique structure. It features a pentagonal pedestal, with five guardian lions positioned at each corner of the base platform. On top of the pedestal, there is a circular seat adorned with delicate flower petals. This seat serves as the foundation for the image hall, which is designed with five openings embellished with arches resembling those found on the thrones of kings. Within these arches, there are five seated Buddha images in the bhumisparsa mudra. Above the roof of the pentagonal image hall, the transition from a square to a circle is smoother compared to the previous ceti. The structure consists of three circular terraces, which are devoid of any decorative elements. On top of these terraces, there is another circular seat adorned with flower petals. This seat holds the bell, characterized by three rings encircling its middle. There is no dhatu-gabba positioned above the bell. Instead, a ringed spire is immediately placed on top of it. This spire gradually tapers upwards and is composed of twenty rings. The banana bud situated at the pinnacle of the spire is not visible due to its concealment by the hti, which possesses a distinctive shape.
Each of these ancient miniature bronze ceti measures no more than a cubit in height, (a cubit measure: The length between the tips of the fingers and elbow.)
The identities of the artisans responsible for fashioning these miniature bronze ceti remain shrouded in mystery, but considering the exquisite detail it is a testament to the craftsmen who showed exceptional perception and deftness in creating these beautiful miniature bronze ceti.
Information source: “Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan” By U San Tha Aung
G. H. Luce’s “Old Burma – Early Pagan” (some of these Burmese Miniature Bronze Ceti can be viewed in our Ebook section).