- By Maung Tha (Archaeology)
Buddha images can be seen at religious edifices such as pagodas and monasteries where members of the Sangha stay in Myanmar where the majority of the people follow the Theravada Buddhism.
Although people in successive eras have been passing the oral history on to new generations that Theravada Buddhism reached Bagan in the reign of King Anawrahta, some evidences have been found that the Theravada Buddhism arrived in Myanmar in Pyu era which was earlier than Bagan era. Palm leaves made of gold bearing excerpts of Buddha Pitakat literature excavated from Khinba mound in ancient Pyu city state Sri Kestra as well as pagodas and Buddha images built in Pyu era can be seen till today.
Earthen-baked votive tablets
People in Myanmar have carved Buddha images made of stone, timber, brick, concrete, gold, silver and bronze in successive eras, including earthen-baked votive tablets.
Votive tablets are found at the confluence of Ayeyawady and Shweli rivers in northern Myanmar, in Myeik region in southern Myanmar, and in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. As anybody may make votive tablets easily, the votive tablets made in success eras can be found in various parts of the nation.
Votive tablets are shaped with Buddha images made of earth or clay which were moulded and then baked. As such, it can be called the earthen-moulded Buddha image. Votive tablets can be found in excavation with research purposes, in repairing of old pagodas and in unearthing the caves. Sometimes, a large number of votive tablets may be found in a single place. For example, votive tablets in good conditions and broken ones with the measurement of five bullock carts were discovered at Shwezigon Pagoda in ancient Tagaung city.
Some persons travelling between India and Myanmar brought votive tablets to their regions. Then, they made the tablets themselves and production process gradually spread out other regions. As people can make votive tablets to be donated to pagodas and stupas, the tablets can be seen in various parts of the nation in successive eras. Of them, some votive tablets were brought from India. Earliest votive tablets were found in Pyu era and a large number of votive tablets were made in Bagan era. Among the tablets, the votive tablets with inscriptions that these tablets were made by Anirudda Deva (King Anawrahta) were the most popular and these became invaluable heritages in literature, culture and archaeology.
New structures of votive tablet
Various types of votive tablets were made in Myanmar during the period from 5th century to 15th century. The majority of votive tablets in Pyu era was made in shapes of banyan leave and of arch types but the tablets in Bagan era were in 17 types of designs. An eight inches high and six inches wide motive tablet unearthed from Bagan mound No 1526 was significantly found with bearing 125 shapes of pagodas. Likewise, a motive tablet found from the field, east of Ananda Pagoda in Bagan, was expressed with 65 names of crops, flowers and plants, without concerning the religion.
Generally, the motive tablets were expressed with inscriptions on names of donors and letters of prayer on the reverse and the Buddha image surrounded with His followers on the converse. Mostly, these tablets were five inches long, seven inches high and two inches thick. Inscriptions in Sanskrit and Pali languages were mentioned under the Buddha image in ancient Pyu, Mon and Myanmar alphabets. Embossed Sylheti Nagari alphabets were expressed on the conserve of the votive tablets with inscriptions on both frames of converse side.
As votive tablets were kept at pagodas and stupas, bricks at some pagodas were paralleled with votive tablets in a row and some tablets are kept in the caves as well as enshrined at the pagodas. Sometimes, already baked votive tablets were found in good conditions because these objects did not suffer impacts of bad weather.
With regard to works of fine arts, votive tablets in Bagan era were shaped with eight episodes of Buddhology on giving birth of embryo Buddha, enlightenment of Lord Buddha, preaching of the Lord Buddha on Dhammacakka, descending of Lord Buddha from the Tavatimsa celestial abode to human abode, staying of Lord Buddha at Palileyaka forest, demonstration on supernatural powers, victory over Nalagiri elephant and final rites as Parinibbana. The tablets in Pyu era described nine episodes including the scene of offering Ghana milk meal by lady Sujata to the Lord Buddha.
Although various types of hand postures (Mudra) and foot postures (Asana) of Lord Buddha were made on the tablets, the Buddha images in majority of votive tablets were expressed with the shape of touching the ground with fingers called Bhumiphassa Mudra and the shape of taking intense concentration mind called Jhanasana. Likewise, the tablets in Pyu and Bagan eras were made with Buddha images in Bhumiphassa Mudra and Jhanasana placed on the lotus flower thrones. It can be seen that votive tablets were carved with the Lord Buddha or the Buddha-to-be rounded by disciples, wife and congregations. Mostly, the tablets in Bagan era were found with Buddha images flanked by disciples or Buddha-to-be.
In respect of the votive tablets, King Bodaw supplicated to first Maunghtaung abbot, asking what languages and meanings were expressed in inscriptions at the foot of votive tablets. The abbot replied that they were in Sanskrit and Pali languages, but Yun language and that generally, the inscriptions mentioned Yedhamma Hetuppabhava in Sylheti Nagari alphabets.
As votive tablets were found from the Pyu to Konbaung eras, the works in Pyu era were better than those of Bagan era. The tablets in late Bagan era were better than those of early Bagan era but did not meet the works in Pyu era.
Nonetheless, votive tablets depending on initiatives of donors express many works of Buddhist culture. Names of donor were described at the foot of throne of the Buddha on the conserve and on the reverse. Well-wishers consist of kings, queens, counsellors of court and members of the Sangha as well as ordinary people. Thanks to donor lists, the tablets expressed titles of kings, princes and princesses in Bagan era.
Large votive tablets similar to King Anawrahta’s votive tablets found from Maungtee Pagoda in Twantay Township were excavated from the prayer hall of Kyauksagagyi Pagoda, south of Thiripissaya Village in 1993. These works were 15.75 inches long, 10.5 inches high and 3.75 inches thick. In 2017, a large votive tablet, 16 inches long, 21 inches high and four inches thick, was unearthed from the west of Kyauksagagyi Pagoda together with large votive tablets with the title of King Sawlu and broken ones with images of 28 Buddhas.
Experts can identify the works of Buddha images on the tablets to estimate who made them and when they were made. Although votive tablets are not in similar among them, all the works dedicate religious heritages. Likewise, the tablets expressing eight episodes of Buddhology are evidences of Myanmar’s cultural heritages. As such, it needs to systematically preserve the works of votive tablets in order to uplift cultural prestige of Myanmar.
Votive tablets in ancient Sri Kestra city
The earliest votive tablets of Myanmar were found from ancient Sri Kestra city. However, no votive tablet was found in ancient Pyu city states such as Beikthanoe, Hanlin and Mongmaw. The tablets were found from Sri Kestra bear Buddha images of Theravada Buddhism as well as Mahayana Buddhsim.
The votive tablets found in Sri Kestra were in oval shape at the base and sharpening to the tip. Moreover, the tablets were in shapes of square, circle and rectangular, and the shape with rectangular at the base and circular at the top. Among them, the tablets in oval shape and oval shape at the base and tip at the top were found in large number. The smallest votive tablet was 1.5 inches wife. Generally, the tablets were in sizes of 2.25 inches to five inches wide and three to four inches high. Some votive tablets in Sri Kestra were framed and some were not framed. Many earthen-baked votive tablets found from Muhtaw Village in ancient Sri Kestra city were discovered in 1927 and 1928, and these works were five inches high and three inches in radian.
Hand posture of the Buddha image on the votive tablet of Sri Kestra mentioned Bhumiphassa Mudra. The Buddha image was flanked by a pagoda each on either side. The throne was seen with a head of lion with a vase each on both sides. The base of the throne was scripted with Gatha which started Yedhamma. The reverse of the tablet was scripted with Bamcake in Pyu alphabets assumed as name of donor. Experts estimated the tablet was made between 8th centuries AD and 9th centuries AD.
The Buddha image was carved with the posture of staying on the lotus throne in the centre of the votive tablets, found in Sri Kestra, in shape of rectangular at the base and sharpening to the tip. Hand posture showed Abhaya Mudra expressing that two hands kept on the chest. The base of the throne was scripted with the properties of Lord Buddha which were excerpts from Mahavagga Pali, Dhighanikaya, Suttanta Pitakat Treatise. An archaeologist professor made analysis that inscription style on the tablet was similar to Telagu writing style used in Southern India from 5th to 7th centuries AD.
The earthen-baked votive tablets found from Sri Kestra concerning Mahayana Buddhism were expressed with pictures of Bodhisattha, Avalokitesara, Adibhuta Buddha and Lokanatha. Some Avalokitesara images could be seen with crowns on the heads and some without crowns. Bodhisattha images on the earthen-baked votive tablets excavated from Hmawza were depicted with a sitting posture on the lotus throne in dangling positions of legs.
The votive tablet unearthed from Taunglonnyo Village was 4.5 inches high with carving of three Buddha images. The middle image among the three was carved with sitting on the lotus throne and a headdress on the head. The remaining two were carved with sitting positions facing the middle one.
The votive tablets found from Sri Kestra can be classified as that of Theravada Buddhism, that of Mahayana Buddhism, and the mixed ism between Theravada and Mahayana. As votive tablets expressing Buddha images and Bodhisattha images as well as Buddha images flanked by god images of Mahayana Buddhism were found, it can be assumed that Pyu people in Sri Kestra had religious faith not only of Theravada Buddhism but of Mahayana Buddhism. Likewise, three types of earthen-baked votive tablets were discovered from Sri Kestra. The first one was scripted with Itipiso Bhagava Gatha, the second with Yedhamma Gatha and the third with Yedhamma Gatha together with Bodhisattha or Avalokitesara or Lokanatha image.
In BC 200, the Buddhism split into Mahayana and Theravada isms. Mahayana Sect used Sanskrit language while Hinayana called Theravada Buddhism used Pali language, according to the Indian researchers. Some votive tablets found in Sri Kestra were related to Theravada Buddhism because they were carved with Yedhamma Gatha in Pali language. The votive tablets made in 5th to 7th centuries AD scripted with Itipiso Bhagava Gatha were also related to Theravada Buddhism.
Experts assumed that the votive tablets bearing Bodhisattha image scripted with Yedhamma Gatha in Sanskrit language might be made in 8th or 9th centuries AD. As such, it was possible that Theravada Buddhism might arrive in Sri Kestra before 7th century AD but Mahayana Buddhism after 7th century AD.
That is why earthen-baked votive tablets found in Sri Kestra dedicate faiths of Pyu people residing in Sri Kestra. As earthen-baked votive tablets were found in Hmawza, Mahtaw Village, Ngashint mound, Myinbahu Pagoda, Kanthonhsint Hill, Tavatimsa Kywekyaungkon Pagoda and Pyokhingyi, not far from Sri Kestra, these tablets can be observed in the book with title of Buddha images on ancient votive tablets in second volume compiled by stone inscription director U Mya.
Translated by Than Tun Aung