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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