British Museum blog

Pilgrims, healers, and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand

Alexandra Green, curator, British Museum

One of my first jobs at the British Museum was to examine the Southeast Asian collections. I found that the holdings from Burma (formally known as Myanmar) and Thailand contain numerous popular posters, mostly on religious themes, that have never been on display, as well as good examples of lacquer, textiles, votive tablets and Buddha images. Other religious objects in the collection include protective diagrams on cloth, tattooing equipment and manuals, and boxes that display images of the zodiac and the eight days of the week (Wednesday is divided into two), both of which are important in divination and producing horoscopes. The material seemed to cry out for an examination of religion in the two countries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western scholars considered Buddhism to be an austere, monolithic religion focused upon meditation and nirvana (the escape from the cycles of rebirth). Many people still view it this way. Such a portrayal ignores the realities of religious systems in Burma and Thailand, where numerous people combine homage to the Buddha with such activities as spirit worship, divination and numerology.

The exhibition Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand draws on the strengths of the Museum’s mainland Southeast Asian collections to explore how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices from the 1700s to the present. Burma and Thailand have a long history of interaction and share some fundamental beliefs and practices, making them a good pair to use in a display of some of the religious variety found in the region.

Buddhists believe in rebirth, and an important concept is karma, the combination of all good and bad deeds a being has performed over across his or her lives. Good actions, such as paying homage to the Buddha and making offerings to monks, can lead to an individual being reborn with high social status, power, and eventually supernatural abilities. Anger, ignorance and hatred, and the behaviours associated with them, can result in rebirth in an unpleasant existence, as an animal or ghost, or even in one of the hells. This is the law of cause and effect that governs the universe, and it is exemplified by the stories of the Buddha’s lives, which are frequently represented visually.

Painting of the Vessantara Jataka story, Thailand, late 1800s. Pigment on cloth (1926,0217,0.4)

Painting of the Vessantara Jataka story, Thailand, late 1800s. Pigment on cloth (1926,0217,0.4)

On display are a number of stories of the Buddha’s previous lives (called jataka) in textile, lacquer and painted form. For instance, there is a painting from northern Thailand that depicts the Buddha-to-be, in his rebirth as Prince Vessantara, perfecting the virtue of generosity. Vessantara achieved this by giving away all things precious to him, including his children as seen here, and thereby demonstrated his non-attachment to the world.

The Buddha surrounded by scenes from the ten great jataka stories. Burma/Myanmar, 1990-91. Printing inks on paper (1992,0728,0.5.1)

The Buddha surrounded by scenes from the ten great jataka stories. Burma/Myanmar, 1990-91. Printing inks on paper (1992,0728,0.5.1)

More recently printed posters representing Buddhist biographies have become popular in Burma. The example here shows the Buddha surrounded by the ten past lives where he perfected the virtues necessary for enlightenment. When the names of these stories are recited together, they become a protective chant (paritta) due to the power emanating from the Buddha’s perfections.

A being with advanced spiritual status has power; those reborn in low existences, such as the realm of ghosts or in hell, lack it. Power can be acquired and shared. Those with it are in a position to use it for good or ill: to protect and strengthen followers or to cause harm. There are many ways to place oneself under the protection of, or draw upon another’s power.

Leaf-shaped amulet with three Buddhas and the portrait of the monk, Luang Pho Phra Khru Samutwichan. Thailand, about 1990. Bronze and enamels (1991,1023.56)

Leaf-shaped amulet with three Buddhas and the portrait of the monk, Luang Pho Phra Khru Samutwichan. Thailand, about 1990. Bronze and enamels (1991,1023.56)

People acquire powerful objects to protect themselves and to augment their abilities. Amulets, for instance, are popular in Thailand. They can be made of sacred ingredients, such as monks’ robes, palm-leaf manuscripts, monastic clay roof tiles, or lotus pollen, that have been soaked in holy water and had Buddhist prayers chanted over them. Their power comes from an association with powerful beings and things. The examples on display in the exhibition present images of famous monks, such as Somdet To, the religious advisor to King Rama IV of Thailand (reigned 1851–68), the next Buddha who will arise in the world, sacred temples and images, and protective diagrams.

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan State, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930,1018.1)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan State, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930,1018.1)

Practitioners also adorn themselves with tattoos, charms, or embellished clothing that display protective Buddhist scriptures or imagery of powerful beings, including particular animals, the Buddha and spirits. The motifs provide protection, bring power or fortune, or charm others by drawing on the characteristics of the tattooed image, such as the Buddha, a spirit, animals or protective diagrams. Tattoos of animals transferred the abilities of the animal to the bearer. For instance, an image of a tiger would confer strength, agility and speed, while that of a bird could make the wearer persuasive with a beautiful voice. Not surprisingly, people choose designs according to personal needs. On display is a stucco figure of a man with red and black tattoos. The black ones cover his body from his waist to his knees.

Because there are so many ways to practise religion in Burma and Thailand, it is not possible to have a comprehensive exhibition or collection. However, the collection at the British Museum contains good examples of the types of activities in which practitioners engage. This exhibition also contains a sampling of the variety of religious pathways available. Together they demonstrate that religion in Southeast Asia is not necessarily an austere one, and that people choose what to focus upon, depending on their financial means, current needs and future hopes.

Pilgrims, healers, and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand is on display in Room 91 from 2 October 2014 to 11 January 2015. Admission free.

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Tattoos in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Marie Vandenbeusch, curator, British Museum

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

One of the eight mummies that are the subject of the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the mummy of a woman from Sudan, was discovered relatively recently, compared to the others. Her body was found in 2005, during rescue excavations taking place in the area of the Fourth Nile Cataract, where the building of a dam threatened to flood archaeological sites. The collection of over a thousand human remains excavated during the mission was donated by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) to the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, which then gave them to the British Museum. Arid climate and hot sand had naturally mummified some of these bodies, including the remains of this woman. Her soft tissues are so well preserved that conservators at the British Museum located a tattoo and other marks on her skin.

Evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and in Nubia is scarce, and human remains do not provide any indication of the frequency of the tattoos themselves: because of their location directly on the skin they are usually either not preserved or hidden by bandages. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC): several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns, such as lozenges, and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations. The geometrical decorations commonly adorning Middle Kingdom statuettes are very similar to tattoos found on the mummies of women who lived at the same period. However, the debate about their identification as tattoos is still open and recent discoveries regularly bring new insights to these questions.

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. Photo by permission of National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Both human remains and decorated figurines take us to the world of dancers and musicians. One of the mummies from Deir el-Bahari is thought to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose patronage of music and dance is well established. There are also depictions showing a figure of the god Bes on the thigh of young ladies who appear to be dancers and musicians. This is not surprising when we consider that Bes, a god who protected the household and the family, was also associated with music and dance. The implicit eroticism symbolised by Bes in connection with these naked dancers seems to be also conveyed by the presence of tattoos.

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

As is still the case today, the meaning and function of tattoos can vary, some showing affiliation to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic (both languages use a very similar alphabet). The monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

The monogram of St Michael is already known in other contexts, in particular in Nubia where both the monogram and the representation of the Archangel were drawn on the walls of churches or incised on pottery, but its use as a tattoo was an unexpected discovery. We can interpret the tattoo as an invocation to the saint, but it was also a way of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are still used in this way by Copts who often bear a small cross inside the wrist as a spiritual symbol of their affiliation to a community.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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