Murky reflections of temples and images

Burma's Lost Kingdoms
August 9, 2002

Pamela Gutman's book Burma's Lost Kingdoms is a long-awaited work on the relatively unexplored kingdom of Arakan. As studies on the art of Arakan are extremely limited in number and extent, this publication is a very welcome addition to scholarship on southeast Asia, especially since the area appears to have been important in transmitting ideas and concepts between India and southeast Asia.

The book is divided into two sections. The first briefly presents the history of the Arakan area, and the second, which comprises the bulk of the text, focuses on cities, buildings and sculpture. The centres of Dhanyawadi, Vesali, the Le-Mro valley and Mrauk-U represent the chronological development of the Arakanese state and its art. What is evident throughout the book is the fact that Arakan was a flourishing and important culture in early southeast Asia that influenced and was influenced by surrounding states. India, China, Sri Lanka and Tibet all played a role in the formation of Arakan's art. Hinduism and Buddhism were both relevant to the religious complex, and elements of each were incorporated into the cult of kingship, often expressed architecturally and sculpturally. Arakan forged its own artistic identity at an early period, however, and even after falling under strong Burmese influence and ultimately political control, it retained its separate character.

While each city mentioned above is examined in turn with information on the historical factors and influences that affected its art, the focus of the book is on the site of Mrauk-U with its many still-extant buildings and extensive sculpture. Various temples and stupa-forms remain at Mrauk-U, but the Shit-thaung (Temple of 80,000 Images) and Koe-thaung (Temple of 90,000 Images) sites are the most impressive. Not only do both have complex layouts, but they are covered liberally with images and narrative sculptures.

In general, Mahayana Buddhist imagery and depictions of Vishnu characterise Arakanese sculpture, but of particular significance is the Mahamuni image. This is supposedly the one true likeness of the historical Buddha that was produced when he miraculously flew with 500 disciples to Arakan to preach to the king. This image came to be strongly associated with the Arakan state, and it is little wonder that the fortunes of the area declined when the Burmese removed the image to Mandalay. Not only do the buildings and the sculpture reflect the religious beliefs of the Arakanese, but Gutman links the art to issues of state and kingship. For example, city layouts imitated Tavatimsa Heaven, where the king of the gods, Indra, resides. Indra is also emulated in Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Thus, Gutman's extensive descriptions and analyses of the architecture and sculpture of Arakan serve as valuable records of the area's art style and religious emphases, as well as demonstrating conceptual and artistic links with other parts of southeast Asia.

Although this book is a valuable contribution to scholarship on a less well-known area of southeast Asia, it is disappointing in several ways. These stem primarily from the fact that the publishers have attempted to produce a coffee-table book. The result is over-designed, with wide margins, too elaborate page numbering, claustrophobic lines on either side of the text and unprofessional illustrations, diagrams and maps. The photographs and line drawings are among the most frustrating aspects of the book.

Landscape scenes are excessively represented, and sometimes the art objects included in Gutman's discussions are presented in such a poor fashion as to render them useless visually. Plates 32 and 33 are examples of this, as they are not only small, but the photography is dark and it is hard to get a sense of the material shown. Poor illustrations leave the reader without visual corroboration of Gutman's discussion; occasionally, a few additional plates would have clarified some of her comparisons. For example, she mentions mosques that influenced Arakanese architecture, yet no pictures of the mosques are included.

Black-and-white maps and plans are fuzzy, and pictures suffer from an extremely odd colour balance. In some of the outdoor scenes, the sky is a shade of yellow incompatible with sunsets (if the photographs were taken in the late afternoon), and even in some of the pictures of sculpture, the images have a very yellow tint. Too many buildings are represented in a hazy fashion, a problem that could have been easily rectified with better photographic technique and reproduction. The vague appearance of some of the buildings may have been deliberately encouraged so that the book seems more "arty", but this type of photography does nothing to enhance the information presented.

The text itself has been generalised to fit with the less academic appearance of the book, so there are no footnotes or endnotes, the bibliography is limited and punctuation is kept to a minimum. The lack of references in the text seriously hampers the book's value to those wanting to use it for research purposes.

The result of these problems is an uneasy combination of text that wants to be scholarly and pictures that are romanticised or are not always relevant to the information presented, a trend in art books on southeast Asia. The disjointedness is not necessary, however. Information and photographs that are useful to the scholar are not automatically uninteresting to the general reader. A slightly greater detail in the writing, the use of endnotes, a greater selection of pictures that relate directly to Gutman's discussions, and better photographic reproductions would transform this volume. Striking a balance between producing something that sells well and that is also academically useful is difficult, but it is not impossible if the publishers are willing to make the effort and are not focused on the coffee-table look without regard for the content of the publication. It is a shame that the publishers did not present Gutman's academic work on Arakan, for which she is justifiably well known and for which the academic community is in great need, in an appropriate fashion.

Alexandra Green is lecturing in art and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Burma's Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan

Author - Pamela Gutman
ISBN - 974 8304 98 1
Publisher - Orchid Press
Price - £29.00
Pages - 176

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