Murals in Temples

The earliest murals can be seen in Bagan temples.

During the reign of 33 years by King Anawrahta Theravada Buddhism was established and he initiated the building of thousands pagoda that stand to this day.


Most of the wall paintings in Bagan are of Buddhist themes, not only as appropriate decoration but to spread the knowledge of the life story of Buddha and the Jataka Tales of his previous lives, especially the ten last ones known as the Ten Great Tales. By the time Myanmar artists discovered the western style of art and chemical paints, it became an easier task to decorate pagodas by lining the top of walkways with framed canvases of painted Buddhist scenes.


In Bagan there are many temples with wall paintings, although a few were painted in the 18th century.


The best and most interesting samples of Bagan works can be seen at Wetkyi In Gubyauk Gyi, Myinkaba Gu Byauk Gyi, Abeyadana and Thambula Temples; the last two were built by the two queens of King Kyansittha, also a great ruler who strengthened Anawrahta's legacy. The Abeyadana is especially interesting as the painting incorporated many tantric elements.


Other murals not to be missed are at the Paya Thonzu Temple, some not completed but left as sketched outlines done in swift and graceful strokes of charcoal, as if the artist was interrupted in his work.  The Nanda Manya Temple has beautiful murals including a controversial painting of a line of women of all ages escorting a young girl who by her body language looks reluctant. Some scholars thought it was a virgin bride taken to be deflowered by animist priests while others believe it was to her own wedding. The Thadhamma Yanthi which is temple number 585 lies not far from the Nanda Manya and has nicely-preserved murals.


 Some rare paintings can be seen at the Kyansittha Umin Monastery, not far from the Shwezigon Pagoda.  The monastery was built in the early 12th century but the paintings were from the 13th century. They show Mongolian soldiers who had invaded Bagan in 1287 and also a line of dancers and musicians with old style costumes. However, the faces were painted in a very unusual manner, looking almost like modern art.


The beautiful murals at the Ananda Oke Kyaung Monastery and Sulamuni Temple are from Inwa, a post-Bagan period. The style is very different, with arched eyebrows, oval faces, curly lips and delicate, long fingers.


Sale is a town 34 miles south of Bagan, and famous for an ancient teak monastery covered with carvings. However a little-known temple exists not far from this famous Yoke Sin Kyaung Monastery, called the Shin Pin Sarkyo Pagoda. It is believed built by King Nara Patisithu who reigned from 1173 to 1210. The upper parts of the walls in this temple have high-relief stone figures painted in natural colours while just under them are narrow panels of paintings.


These the Shin Pin Sarkyo wall paintings are unique that some are in the 11th to 13th century Bagan style, which has some Indian influences in the early art work, some in the 14th to 17th century Inwa style which is elegant and very beautiful, and the rest in the late 18th to 19th century Konbaung style, which has fluid, graceful lines and themes that incorporated secular scenes. There are many pagodas and temples wit wall paintings scattered all over the country but here we can see these three periods in one place.


Many early Inwa style paintings can be seen at the Tiloka Guru Cave temple in Sagaing.  It is a small dark temple with narrow corridors and all the walls covered with colourful paintings. The darkness of the temple has kept the colours bright but some seepage of damp has damaged them in several places. Many are court scenes and the painting might have coincided with the time betel chewing became fashionable, for the faces of kings and ministers on these murals have one bulging cheek as if a quid of betel is tucked inside, which is a normal practice for those who enjoy this habit.


Almost from the same time frame but less colourful and more beautiful in line are in the cave pagodas of Po Win Taung not far from Monywa, a town across the Ayeyarwaddy from Mandalay. The paintings thickly covered all available space, mostly of Buddha images, praying monks, as well as flora motif intercepted with real and mythical animals.


Art of the later Konbaung period can be seen at the Shweguni Pagoda in Kyaukar Township, known fur its simple and tough lacquerware household utensils. Shweguni is a small but well-known pagoda, enshrined with the famous image kept under lock and key. The walls of the shrine pavilion are covered on the upper parts with detailed and beautiful paintings of curt life, jungles etc.


A lesser-known temple with paintings from the same period but different in character is the Po Kala Gu Temple, just behind the more famous pilgrimage site of the Shwesar Yan Pagoda some miles north of Mandalay, on the read to Pyin Oo Lwin. The scenes were painted with predominantly red and green colours; the lines are simple, fluid and very beautiful.


Nearer to Mandalay on the far side of the wooden U Bein Bridge across Taung Thaman Lake is the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda, a smaller copy of the Ananda Temple of Bagan. It is known as the Taung Thaman Kyauk Taw Gyi to differentiate it from the one of the sane name in Mandalay. Kyauk Taw Gyi simply means the Great Royal Stone, as each pagoda is enshrined with a huge image carved out of a single block of marble. The wall paintings here are of famous pagodas all over the country with some secular scenes of people's lives under and around the pagodas, while in the sky celestials and winged angels fly among puffy clouds.


In one of the less busy walkways of the Maha Muni Pagoda of Mandalay, the upper parts of walls and the ceiling with steep slanted sides are covered with colorful murals, probably painted during the late 19th to the early 20th century. The workmanship in these particular wall paintings has freshness and vibrancy to make up for the lack of perfect execution as seen in those done by artists of centuries past.  .


The sites mentioned above are only the better known temples with murals; there are many more places all over the country with wall paintings perhaps fewer in number but of no less beauty or importance in our heritage of traditional art.