the last glazed plaques of Bagan
By Ma Thanegi
Photo: Sonny Nyein
Myanmar has such a wealth of culture relics and traditions to study that sometimes, ancient pottery takes second place. As we do not have a legacy of fine ceramics in household use often enough we believe that that we do not have a ceramic tradition on par with the level of expertise of other Asian countries.
Nevertheless glazed wares if not of fine ceramics have always been an important part of the Myanmar crafts and to the present day there is still a strong tradition of its production in the same techniques that were used since generations past. Many pottery sites such as Twanté of the delta or Kyauk Myaung of Upper Myanmar, to name but two are still producing almost the same pots their ancestors did. Many old kilns had been discovered all over the country, and ancient city sites were found littered with shards. It is possible to date the earliest glazed ware to the Pyu era of the 8th century, as recorded in the Chinese text Man Shu, which said that the city walls of the Pyu capital were made of green bricks. There had been extensive diplomatic and culture exchanges with the Chinese and their detailed records gave us many insights into the life style of the Pyu kingdom.
If the green bricks had been glazed ware as they in all probability were, the tradition of the craft was carried on when Bagan was founded a couple of centuries
In 1963 the archeology department discovered some old kilns of glazed ware in Bagan, including one that measured 8 ft at the base and 10 ft high. The ceramic experts found out that the Bagan glazes were made up of Silica, White Clay, Calcium, Lead Oxide, Tin Oxide, Copper Oxide, Chrome Oxide, Vanadium Oxide and Feldspar.
It has now come to the notice of international scholars that Myanmar has a legacy of ceramic traditions not seen elsewhere in SE Asia. It began, when in 1984, some green and white ware of a type never before seen was discovered in an ancient burial site in a town named Tak in Thailand, near the Myanmar border. After a series of tests, the scholars found that the lead isotope ratios of these shards matched only those of the glazed ware found in temples of Myanmar from Bago and Bagan. The difference in the process of glazing found with these samples and those of glazed wares of other SE Asian countries was the addition of tin to the lead flux to whiten the colour. The ceramic specialists found that this process was unique to ancient Myanmar technology.
The sample they took from Bagan was from an early temple built in the 11th century. Since that time, various pagodas and temples in Bagan had been decorated with glazed plaques depicting scenes from the Buddha-to-be's life stories known as the 550 Jataka Tales and the biology of the Buddha. The Ananda Temple for example has the complete record of the Buddha's life in glazed plaques, unique in the world.
One of the pagodas that had such scenes of the Jataka is the Mingalar Zedi, once in a complete set of over a thousand and at present nearly half in good condition. It was one of the last pagodas to be built and the glazed ware could be considered the last legacy of its kind from the Bagan era.
The Mingalar Zedi is a 131 ft high stupa built by King Narathiha Pati who reigned from 1256 to 1287 A.D. in Bagan and is considered the last great pagodas of the era. It sits within a square wall with four gateways, and the base of the pagoda is set up on square terraces. On top of the square terraces that rose from the platform are one octagonal terrace and then a circular terrace from which rose the bulbous shape of the stupa. There are four stairways that led from the ground to the upper terraces.
Green-glazed plaques with scenes of the Jataka stories, originally numbering a staggering 1061, line the walls and terraces. The sizes differ from each level. The smallest, on the octagonal terrace, measures 10 inches by 8 inches to the biggest, 14 ˝ inches by 12 ˝ inches on the first terrace. At present 516 plates remain.
It was during his reign that the forces of Kublai Khan invaded Bagan, so he went down in history as the Tayoke Pyay Min, the King who Fled From the Chinese. He was the son of a concubine without a legal right to the throne, but palace intrigues concerning the true heir apparent and powerful ministers had unexpectedly brought him the crown. Folklore has many dramatic tales to tell of his life and death.
He also built the exquisitely decorated tem-ple after he began work on the Mingalar Zedi. It is now unfortunately known as the Tayoke Pyay Temple, its original name lost under his infamy. Chronicles say he left the Mingalar Zedi unfinished because an omen in the form of a verse, called a d’baung, was heard over the land with words to the effect that when this pagoda was completed the kingdom would fall.
The Abbot whom Narathiha Pati revered reprimanded him for being superstitious and so he continued work on the pagoda six years after he had abandoned it, and finished his work of merit in 1274. Ten years later came the invasion of the Tartars.
In his own words, on donating the Mingalar Zedi he left an inscription of how he, "King Narathiha Pati, supreme comman-der of 300,000 soldiers and who is the consumer of 300 dishes of curry daily, enshrined 51 gold and silver figurines of kings, queens, nobles and maids of honour, and over these a solid silver image of Lord Buddha Gautama one cubic high, on Thursday the Full Moon of Kason of the year 636." (Approximately in May of 1274.) It was also recorded that during the ceremony of enshrining the images, princes, princesses and nobles scattered pearls among the figurines.
King Narathiha Pati fought valiantly against the overwhelmingly superior armies of the invaders and afterwards sent a revered Abbot to travel to China to make peace, as the Tartars did not stay to reign. He was considered arrogant and ruthless but he had a deep interest in Buddhism and had exchanged many missions of monks with Sri Lanka. He also left his legacy of monuments, with Mingalar Zedi being one of the most elegant structures of glorious Bagan.
(The scientific data are obtained from Dr. Sein Tu's article on Myanmar ceramics in issue number 193 of the Myanmar Times, and from Professor Luce's book "Early Bagan.")