Buddha images have been integral to Burmese fine arts for almost 1,500 years, reflecting the creative skill of artisans and their deepest religious beliefs.
Images of the Buddha in Burma come in many styles, which experts divide into groups distinguished according to their historical period or region.
The earliest derives from Bagan and dates from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Whether bronze, alabaster or wood, Bagan-style Buddhas are usually heavy-set with broad shoulders and large faces. Often the head, placed on a short neck, tilts slightly forward.
An equally distinguished but separate tradition developed across the Rakhaing Yoma in and around Mrauk U. This Arakan style, which favoured stout Buddhas with square faces, joined eyebrows and often elaborate crowns, was responsible for the famed Maha Muni image taken from Rakhaing in 1784 and now in the Mana Muni Paya in Mandalay. The most revered icon in Burma, it is coated in so much gold leaf today that the lower part of the body is difficult to distinguish. Mon images, by contrast, are often slimmer and more etiolated in design, with fuller faces, downcast eyes and very long ears.
Again quite distinct, Shan Buddha images tend to have semi-triangular shaped faces narrowing towards the chin. A broad forehead arches over narrowed eyes, partly open. Ear lobes are long, noses fairly pronounced, and necks shortened.
Mandalay-style images are common in Burma. Earlier versions dating from the Inwa (Awa) period are often carved from alabaster, while later images are made of bronze or gilded wood. Eyebrows are slightly raised and nostrils flared.
The Buddha is invariably depicted with his hands in specific postures, or mudras. Inbhumisparsa mudra, or “calling the earth to witness”, the right hand of the seated figure touches the ground while the left rests on the lap. In dhammachakka mudra or “turning the wheel of dhama”, the thumb and forefinger of the image form a circle while the other fingers fan out to symbolise the preaching of the First Sermon.
In abhaya mudra, or “displaying no fear”, the palm of the right hand is raised and turned outwards to show the palm with straight fingers. In dhyana mudra, or “meditation” posture, the hands rest flat on the lap, one on top of each other, while in dana mudra or “offering” pose, the right hand is palm up and parallel to the ground.