Myanmar's treasures on display at Asian Civilisations Museum

Nats – Myanmar’s indigenous spirits, Mid-20th century
Nats – Myanmar’s indigenous spirits, Mid-20th centuryPHOTOS: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM
Royal epistle case, Mandalay, 19th century, silver with precious stone inlay, National Museum, Yangon
Royal epistle case, Mandalay, 19th century, silver with precious stone inlay, National Museum, YangonPHOTOS: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM
Buddha seated in dharmachakramudra ,Bagan, 11th century, sandstone,115x68x26cm, Bagan Archaeological Museum
Buddha seated in dharmachakramudra ,Bagan, 11th century, sandstone,115x68x26cm, Bagan Archaeological MuseumPHOTOS: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

The Asian Civilisations Museum showcases the country's art and culture in 60 artefacts

Featuring artefacts from sacred sandstone statues to ornate, gilded plaques, the latest exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum tells the story of Myanmar's art and culture through the centuries.

Cities And Kings: Ancient Treasures From Myanmar has been five years in the making, with the museum partnering four institutions in Myanmar to borrow 32 artefacts out of the 60 on display. Of these, 14 had never before travelled out of Myanmar.

The other artefacts are from the Asian Civilisations Museum's national collection and a private collection in Singapore.

The exhibition takes visitors through three of the most significant eras in Myanmar's history: the formative Pyu and Mon periods from the fourth to ninth century; the famed Bagan period from the ninth to 14th century when Buddhist temple architecture flourished; and the Mandalay period in the 19th century with its celebrated courtly arts.

The artefacts evolve from era to era - moving from carved stone artefacts of the Bagan period to increasingly sophisticated materials such as chiselled marble in the Inwa period and engraved metal from the Mandalay period.


Warrior stele, Sri Ksetra, 4th to 6th century, stone, 140x95x11cm, National Museum, Yangon

Mandalay's role as the royal capital of the kingdom ended in 1885 when Myanmar was annexed by the British and put under colonial rule. The country became independent in 1948.

Dr Stephen Murphy, 41, curator of the exhibition, said: "We wanted not only star pieces that would capture the public's imagination visually and aesthetically, but also pieces that told important historical moments."

He emphasised the importance of understanding Myanmar's rich culture, given that it is one of Singapore's South-east Asian neighbours.

He said: "There are a lot of Myanmar nationals in Singapore. There are shared cultural values in terms of Buddhism and Hinduism. Old colonial Rangoon also has similarities with Singapore as prevalent port cities. Singaporeans could learn more about their own culture as well by seeing a neighbour's culture."


Nats - Myanmar's indigenous spirits, Mid-20th century

Buddhism has been Myanmar's main religion for centuries, but Nats cannot be overlooked.

They are indigenous animistic spirits that act as guardians of villages and households.

According to Dr Stephen Murphy, curator of the exhibition, these artefacts are often left out of exhibitions on Myanmar.

"They were included to reflect the presence of an indigenous religion that fused with Buddhism.

"Nats are still prevalent in Myanmar society," he said.


Royal epistle case, Mandalay, 19th century, silver with precious stone inlay, National Museum, Yangon

Mandalay, the last royal capital of Myanmar from 1857 to 1885, was renowned for two forms of art that flourished in the past - silverware and lacquerware.

This polished silver epistle case is a work of elegant craftsmanship mixed with Victorian elements. The figures carved on the metal are depicted in typical Mandalay court dress.

However, a European teapot can be spotted in use, instead of the traditional South-east Asian version known as a kendi.

According to Dr Murphy, this is reflective of the period when British imports were fashionable in court.



Eight Great Events Plaque

Eight Great Events Plaque, Bagan, 11th to 13th century, dolomite, 16.5x11x3cm, National Museum, Naypyidaw

It may be one of the smallest items on display, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for with its astounding detail.

The plaque follows the Eight Great Events in the Buddha's life.

The events are: Birth, Enlightenment, First Sermon, Descent From Tavatimsa Heaven, Taming of Nalagiri Elephant, Retreat to Paraleyyaka Forest, Miracle of the Double and Parinirvana (death).

They are intricately carved onto the small plaque.


Buddha seated in dharmachakra mudra, Bagan, 11th century, sandstone, 115x68x26cm, Bagan Archaeological Museum

This carving of Buddha with tightly pursed lips, a prominent nose and a pinched face is indicative of the Bagan style.

As one of the most sacred images of Buddha, it attracted worshippers and offerings even while on display in a museum.

Dr Murphy said: "Before it was transported to Singapore, the museum staff in Myanmar prayed and made offerings for its safe journey. When it arrived, three monks came to welcome it. It blurs the lines between museum and place of worship."

  • BOOK IT/ CITIES AND KINGS: ANCIENT TREASURES FROM MYANMAR

  • WHERE: Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place
    WHEN: Till March5, 10am to7pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), 10am to 9pm (Fridays)
    ADMISSION: $13 (Singaporeans and permanent residents), free (Singaporean and permanent resident concession tickets), $23 (tourists), $16 (tourist concession tickets). Free for all this month


Warrior stele, Sri Ksetra, 4th to 6th century, stone, 140x95x11cm, National Museum, Yangon

An imposing, shield-like slab of stone greets visitors at the exhibition's entrance. Figures of warriors brandishing weapons are carved on it.

This image is associated with the Hindu god Vishnu and evokes notions of kingship.

The combination of Hindu and Buddhist imagery reflects the stance of early forms of kingship in Sri Ksetra, where elites appeared to have supported both religious currents flowing into Myanmar from India at the time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'A look at Myanmar's history'. Print Edition | Subscribe