Book Reviews

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The Buddhist Murals of Pagan

Timeless Vistas of the Cosmos

Claudine Bautze-Picron
with photography by
Joachim Karl Bautze

2003. 280 pp., 253 colour plates. 28 x 22 cm., hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-025-7 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-025-4

Book review by Elizabeth Moore

(Cambridge University Press)

(Social Anthropology, Volume 11/3, October 2003)

There are few books on the eleventh to fourteenth century A.D. wall paintings of Pagan, making this a welcome contribution. These paintings, on the interior walls of the city’s many remaining temples, are unmatched elsewhere in South-East Asia, and provide a wealth of information on the legacy of Pagan. Bautze-Picron’s volume is organized into seven chapters: 1. The murals of Pagan, presentation; 2. The miraculous life of the Buddha; 3. The previous lives of the Buddha; 4. Dipankara and the Buddhas of the past-Mettaya, Buddha of the future; 5. Iconographic ornamentation; 6. The ornamental decoration; and 7. The murals of Pagan, a guide. To give an idea of the range of topics, chapter 1 covers depictions of the life of the Buddha, the multiplication of images and the flamed and the cosmological Buddha. Also dealt with are some of the complexities introduced by scholars such as Luce and Ba Shin in focusing analysis of the murals on their ink glosses in Mon and Burmese. The guide in chapter 7 consists of descriptions of thirty-six temples. A number of these have only received brief mention in English-language sources such as Pichard’s Inventory of Monuments at Pagan (Vols 1-8, Paris/Gartmore: Unesco/Kiscadale Ltd, 1992-2001). However, they unfortunately do not include the various temples at Sale (Hsale) that are such a useful part of Bautze-Picron’s work. The descriptions are followed by a conclusion, endnotes, bibliography, glossary, index of monuments, and a general index.
    The book (A4 in size) has 254 colour plates. None of these are full-page, but many are at least half a page and give good detail from the scenes. Sometimes the division of the text makes them less effective than they might have been had they been arranged by temple. For example, the plates from the Loka-hteik-pan are well lit, which is difficult in this temple; however, they are scattered throughout the book, so that when one comes to read the description of the temple, finding the references disrupts the author’s aim of presenting the inner space ‘globally’ (p. xiii). The plus side of the plethora of examples is that a number of parallels incorporate paintings at smaller or lesser known temples. On the whole, the book is more useful in this regard, linking various details, than in its thematic aspects. For instance, the concept of a ‘cosmological’ Buddha is referred to in the foreword and conclusion, as a ‘cosmological being’ (p. xiii) and in the context of the ‘cosmological nature of the Buddha’ (p. 208). Both visual and textual evidence for this would have benefited from clarification. This ‘cosmologic understanding’ (p. 5) is placed within a Theravada context although, as has been pointed out by Handlin elsewhere, cosmographic inquiries concerned not the Buddha’s nature but soteriology.
    Not only the emergence, but the flowering, of Pagan has yet to be fully documented and we lack much information about how the varied temple plans related to local sponsoring sects or to more international contemporary movements in Buddhist thinking. Bautze-Picron makes some reference especially to this second aspect in her repeated mention of contact with Bihar and Bengal, resisting the notion that this interchange also brought adherence to Vajrayana practices then developing in north-east India. Here the author acknowledges the work of Frasch in documenting the architectural links to the Bodhgaya pyramidal spire seen in the temples and votive tablets of Pagan. Bautze-Picron also discusses the ‘Mon’ temples and ink glosses at Pagan, along with the traditional bringing of Theravada texts to Pagan from the Mon city of Thaton in the late eleventh century. However, little else is said about the nature of the Buddhist legacy from Thaton, although the reviewer’s research on the walled sites of the Mon State links many of these with the Asokan missionary tradition and the development of hierarchies from which the later reputation of Thaton could well have emerged. Another route of Buddhist influence discussed by Bautze-Picron is that of Sri Lanka, which despite the assistance of Anawratha in sending monks and other aid for the resuscitation of the monastic community, has provided little in the way of stylistic affinities to explain the wall paintings of Pagan. Inclusion of at least reference to these varied interchanges at Pagan is important, for in common with many of the region’s other monumental cities, the contemporary texts are relatively scarce; with the material remain significant sources from which to try to reconstruct ancient practice.
    It is easier to find fault with a volume of this sort than it is to put one together. At times the book reads as if it suffered from editing or perhaps translation, for Bautze-Picron is able to draw links from a wide range of the paintings at Pagan and would have found it difficult otherwise to devise the book’s chapters. In the documenting of the subjects covered in the murals, therefore, Bautze-Picron’s book offers much that has not previously been published. And to have this compressed within one volume, while compromised in certain respects, makes this book a very useful reference. It can only be hoped that it will encourage more scholars to address the many important facets of Pagan yet to be fully understood.

[Read a review from Artibus Asiae] [Read another review from The Asian Arts Society of Australia] [Read another review from The Journal of the Siam Society] [More Orchid Press Reviews]