The National Museum in Yangon

The highlight of Myanmar’s National Museum in Yangon is the lion throne (simhasana) of the Mindon dynasty. Once carted away by the British as a spoil of war, it has now been brought back and displayed in teakwood-lined room in the museum. Unfortunately one is not allowed to take photos here.

Photography is allowed in all other rooms of this small but interesting museum. There is enough variety here for any interest: from royal dresses and fossils to items of daily use. One of the things that impressed me was from the gallery which showed household instruments. The large orange press in the shape of an elephant’s head, which you see in the featured photo, must have belonged to a pretty extensive family.

Bodhisattva image in the National Museum of Yangon in Myanmar

There were wonderful pieces from many different periods. I had to hurry through the museum and did not have the time to appreciate the changes in styles over the centuries, but the variety of media was interesting. Buddhism arrived early, soon after the Indian emperor Asoka’s time, and stayed. The Indian influence has merged with Chinese to create a very different aesthetic. Here is a photo of a wooden sculpture of a dancer which shows this melding.

Tablet in the National Museum of Yangon in Myanmar

When one has little time to travel across a country, a national museum is often the place to head to. Myanmar is no exception: the museum has a curated display of some of the finest pieces of art I saw in the country. The tablet with a scene from the jatakas which you see here is an example. The pagodas of Bagan and Indein are full of beautiful art, but to see the quality and variety that is easily accessible here, one has to spend much time at those places, and others. Another way to look at a museum is as motivation you to explore. Either way, the National Museum succeeds in showcasing the artistic genius of Myanmar.

Among the other exhibits which I found interesting was the hall which showed the evolution of the modern Burmese script. The exhibits in the natural history section were also interesting; among the fossils was an exhibit of an early anthropoid and cave art and artefacts from the neolithic era.

The temple of unending happiness

As we came to the Ananda temple in Bagan, Zaw Zaw, our guide for the day, told us that it meant endless in Burmese. The Sanskrit word Ananda means happiness, and the word has come unchanged in sound and meaning into most modern north-Indian languages. The word for eternity in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages is Ananta (technically the word means endless). I was happy to note that the Wikipedia article on the temple comments on this etymological confusion.

Ananda temple: the south facing Kassapa Buddha

From Zaw Zaw and others I learnt of the Theravada Buddhist belief in five Buddhas in the current kalpa (era), of whom Gautama, the historical Buddha, is believed to be the most recent. One is yet to come. In many temples in Bagan the remaining four Buddhas face the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. These temples have a symmetric cross shape, with a corridor which goes around the cross so that you can see all four by simply following the corridor. From the outside one sees four porches, surmounted by terraces, leading to a pagoda and an umbrella above it called the hti.

Statue of king Kyanzittha in Ananda temple, Bagan

The Ananda temple is built in this style, and is more than 50 meters tall. The first impression is of a temple from Orissa, but differences are visible as one nears it. We entered from the south, and saw the immense, almost 10 meters tall, statue of the Kassapa Buddha in front of us (photo above). At its feet was a small statue (photo alongside), probably of the king Kyanzittha, who caused the temple to be built in 1105 CE. The height of the statue makes the space look much smaller than it is.

Corridor of the Ananda temple in Bagan
Sculpture inside a niche in the Ananda temple in Bagan

We walked around the corridor. The temple had been damaged in the 1975 earthquake and has been restored with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India. We’d seen beautiful glazed panels running at chest height along the outside (featured image) which recount stories from the Jatakas. The inside was more mixed: there were parts which were painted and gilded, like this arch set into the corridor. Other parts were barer, but had niches running from head height up to the top of the corridor, with a gilded sculpture sitting in each niche. The one here is a typical example. I liked the look of serenity in the face of the Buddha. Notably, the faces look Indian. By the end of our perambulation we realized that we had run counter to the designed sense of the corridor, because we began to recognize the story of the birth of the Buddha in the sculptures. I guess if we had gone around in the right sense we would have followed the story of the Buddha in more detail. There were very few paintings visible: the corridor walls were white washed, and what little was visible was restricted to the walls behind the large Buddha statue.

The Ananda temple is one of the biggest sights in Bagan. I was impressed, but later I visited other temples which I found more beautiful.

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