Vision of hells run by prison guards

February 21, 2003

Trying to understand Burma as a single cultural entity is as difficult and complicated as trying to peel a deformed onion from the inside out.

Geographically, Burma is located at the connecting point of India, China and Thailand, and surrounded by impassable mountains. Despite the geographical isolation provided by nature, the country has long been on the receiving end of cultural imports and its inhabitants have forged their individual and national identities by adapting external influences to their needs and claiming them as their own. The richness and complexity of Burma's cultural and racial make-up attract many scholars to the country and, by the same token, frustrate them in equal measure. As the country is now becoming more impoverished, and invaded metaphorically and physically by aggressive market forces, it is hard to imagine how it will survive these onslaughts without losing its soul.

There has been a dearth of books to illumine Burma's cultural situation since Ne Win's military coup in 1962. The junta that seized power that year closed Burma to the outside world and cocooned itself in self-aggrandising nationalism. Its aim was to wipe out all influences and inheritances that it deemed "foreign". The consequences were tragic, if sometimes comical as well. Scholars in Burma who wanted to take a deep look or raise questions that departed from official orthodoxy about Burmese history were certainly not encouraged or funded properly by the regime.

Burma: Art and Archaeology is an effort to reintroduce readers to the long-forgotten and diverse cultural and archaeological inheritances of Burma. The book is a collection of papers on specialised subjects ranging from the prehistoric sites to the spirit-worshipping tradition and costumes of ethnic nationalities.

The origin of Burmese or Burman civilisation is shrouded in myths and legends, many of them officially endorsed, to such an extent that it is very difficult for a scholar to analyse the claims made about it rationally and professionally. The occasional discovery of artefacts introduces some objective evidence, but this has never been enough to establish a new, more rational story about the remote past - as the first two chapters of the book demonstrate. Discoveries at archaeological sites in central Burma throw light on pre-Pagan Burma, especially on the prehistoric era that was never explored properly in the past or was overlooked altogether. They give us glimpses of unique civilisations that in form and content are so radically different from the later Oriental ones that they seem to belong to an Homeric Bronze Age rather than to what we have come to stereotype as Burma. The real problems arise from discrepancies between archaeological evidence, oral and written history. The conflicts between these sources raise exceptional problems in assessing evidence. But the authors are not biased against even folklore traditions (although they question them), which is important given that without folklore there would be gaps in the historical record. They allow this to take its place along with other evidence, such as place names.

To the Burmese mind, the coming of Theravada Buddhism was a dispersal of the dark mists of prehistory, after which Burmese Buddhism shone on Burma like the morning sun with the promise of peace and serenity. It is an extremely beguiling picture, and it would be hard to understand Burmese culture without understanding the Burmese version of Buddhism, as it has been the main source of refreshment for the soul of its people as a whole.

It has been the only institution preserving Burmese identity that has an unbroken history and that still solidly survives. Historically, the border between Burma and its neighbours has been shifted back and forth since time immemorial. The one we know now was demarcated by the British colonial power only at the end of the 19th century. As a result, it is still disputable which arts and traditions within the boundaries of modern Burma are authentically Burmese. An achievement of the book is that it nudges readers to forget artificial borderlines or any other physical limitations when it comes to understanding the influences of art and religion.

Present-day Burmese Buddhism is composed of many heterogeneous elements.

Some were developed as a result of outside influences, including early Christian missionaries and, of course, colonialism. These influences were revamped and localised, and eventually became organically and quintessentially Burmese. They were even exported to neighbouring countries. There are examples of Burmese influence in Siam that were exported from Burma before Siam became part of modern Thailand.

The subtle and gradual outside influences on Burmese art could also be detected in one of the most important factors in Burmese Buddhism: the statues of Buddha. It is worth remembering that devout Burmese Buddhists do not regard them as mere statues but address them as yoke pwa daw , which could be roughly translated as "the multiplied image of the Lord". Thus, the statues of Buddha as religious icons and as works of art are closely intertwined and yet remain separate in Burmese minds. Richard Blurton presents an intriguing treatise on Burmese bronze statues based on the ones in the British Museum.

Continuing the Buddhist theme, Alexandra Green and Patricia Herbert examine the modes used in Burmese wall paintings and the cosmological charts in old Burmese manuscripts. Burmese religious arts were created with local materials, and the artists relied on local styles to illustrate the life of Buddha and his teachings as passed on by Burmese religious masters. From these examples, we could say that Buddhism in Burma became thoroughly "Burmanised" by the 19th century. The Buddha stories tend to have the royal palace in Mandalay as the setting and centre of attention, rather than any scene in India, where Buddhism originated. Even Buddhist hells and heavens resemble quotidian Burmese political and social scenes in which the guardians of hells are represented as arrogantly menacing brown Burmese prison officials. You can find the equivalent now in Burmese refugee camps, with paintings that portray hell as a place run by Burmese soldiers in green uniforms.

Along with Buddhism came the spirit or nat -worshipping cults. They are not part of Buddhism but, due to its tolerance, they play important roles in the psyche of the Burmese people. The places where individual nats dwell are as much feared as revered. The assistance of the various tutelary spirits was said to have been sought in recent political struggles among the generals of the ruling junta. The spirit-worshipping tradition in central Burma is different from that practised in the hills, in the sense that the nats in central Burma are not nature spirits but human beings who died violently and attained almost godlike status after their deaths. The tradition could be compared to Cuban cult of Santeria in that it stems from the main religion, takes some of its ritual elements, and yet entirely dispenses with spirituality. This rarely researched subject is discussed in depth by Benedicte Brac de la Perri re with fascinating histories of some spirits and the rites used in their worship.

Unfortunately, many fine ancient Burmese wooden monasteries and their wooden sculptures are in urgent need of repair and conservation. Some were burnt down during the second world war and some were simply abandoned to the jungle and nature. Like many other Burmese national treasures, drastic measures have to be taken if they are to survive. There is a danger of further loss to the historical and cultural record.

No study of Burma would be complete without a look at the way of life of the ethnic minorities and hill tribes who inhabit areas surrounding the Burman heartland. There are at least ten major ethnic groups and more than 100 sub-tribes with their own languages and distinctive traditions, who differ from the Burmans as much as the Tibetans do from the Han Chinese.

The book gives an excellent account of them. Unfortunately, these tribes cannot be the objects simply of anthropological interest, since their traditions and attempts to suppress them have been among the causes of violent conflict.

Sandra Dudley explores the identity crisis of a refugee community on the Thai-Burma border through traditional female clothing. The author points out the confusion among the refugees when it comes to their own identity, depending on when they arrived at the camps and where they come from. Mandy Sadan explains the origin and the significance of Kachin totems, or manaus , in Kachin State, northern Burma. Susan Conway examines patterns of court dresses and clothing worn by princes and princesses of Shan states in eastern Burma. The styles and materials of their dresses are not only different from one state to another but also from the people they ruled depending on which major power they are close to.

What the three chapters have in common is the fact that politics plays an important role in the development of the cultures of ethnic-minority groups. They show how the cultures and ways of life of these people change over the years and how people cling to aspects of legends and symbols to retain a sense of identity. The most acute problems facing researchers of the histories and traditions of ethnic minorities in Burma are lack of written records and difficulties arising from the dispersal of people and artefacts because of war and what has been, in effect, ethnic cleansing.

Records exist in the form of oral tradition, but the old people who transmit them are dying out as fast as their knowledge can be recorded.

There is the usual problem that young people, as a condition of embracing the modern, lose any interest in inheriting the old wisdoms.

Burma: Art and Archaeology gives a comprehensive view of Burmese civilisation as a whole, and it whets one's appetite for more information on the disappearing and endangered old Burma. The last two chapters point out how some Burmese artefacts and records could be found in unexpected quarters. Recently, a friend told me that some of the earliest records on Burma by westerners could be found in Italy and Portugal, whose merchants and soldiers were among the earliest explorers of the country. It is sad to say that the preservation of the cultural heritage within Burma itself is not assured.

Pascal Khoo Thwe is the author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey .

Burma: Art and Archaeology

Editor - Alexandra Green and T. Richard Blurton
ISBN - 0 7141 2406 0
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 180

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