SOAS University of London

Celebrating Diversity in Ancient Myanmar Hindu-Buddhist Art: Mythical Creatures Proceedings of the Bagan Alphawood Alumni Conference at Bagan

21 January 2020

The Myanmar Alphawood Alumni held the Inaugural Conference of our group, from November 9-11, 2019 in Bagan. Called Celebrating Diversity in Ancient Myanmar Hindu-Buddhist Art: Mythical Creatures, it was a landmark event, both for being the first time all fourteen Alumni have gathered together and for the topics.

SOAS Alphawood Alumni (Myanmar) in front of the Bagan Archaeological Museum
SOAS Alphawood Alumni (Myanmar) in front of the Bagan Archaeological Museum

From The Conference Programme 

Aim

The 2019 inaugural Myanmar Alphawood Alumni Conference highlights the significance of myth and diversity of Myanmar art epitomised in the ancient Hindu-Buddhist art of Bagan and related kingdoms of the first and early second millennium CE. The diversity of the Hindu-Buddhist traditions reflects the local ecology, the plants and animals as seen today and in ancient tests. It also suggests the close relationship between local perceptions of the sacred and completeness connected to place and those stimulated by the international cosmopolitan culture of Bagan. Some of these concepts are interpreted from texts, others from the architectural, artistic and performative traditions that emerged within the particular balance of elements at Bagan. Several of the papers address these concepts.

Myth was a significant part of the ancient Hindu-Buddhist traditions at Bagan and contemporary kingdoms. As with diversity, myths and their depictions drew upon local and international narratives and their artistic expressions. Given the unbroken tradition of Buddhist teachings merging with other traditions for over 2000 years, virtually all aspects of the historical and present culture relate to Buddhism in one way or another. For example, mythical ‘nature spirits’ interact with celestial deities of the Buddhist realm and often in the Jatakas, the stories of the previous lives of the Buddha. Examples are seen in mural paintings, the choice to depict certain ‘mythical’ creatures including deva, hintha, toe-naya, pyinsarupa, naga and kinnaya, and the use of colour to best illustrate these. As the Alumni Conference papers highlight, while our conference title uses two words to highlight aspects of Bagan, both are part of the complex religious environment of Bagan. Site visits on November 9 allow for informal reflection on the topics, with presentations and a follow-up discussion and planning session on Sunday and Monday, November 10-11, 2019.

Photographs of the conference site visits and art of Bagan