The Historical Archaeology of Bagan and Texts of the Birth of the Buddha

SOAS University of London (Alphawood alumni)

This paper considers texts and the material culture of historical Bagan to question existing perceptions of a solely Theravada tradition in the ancient city. The focus is on the Nativity, one of the sacred events of the Sakyamuni Buddha’s life story, illustrated by Sanskrit and Pali literature of Mahayana and Theravada sects, murals and sculpture, including Myinkaba Gu-byauk-nge, Ananda, Kyauk Gu Umin, Lokatheikpan, and Nandamannya temples. In Mahayana Sanskrit texts, the Bodhisattva emerged from the right side of his mother supported by Pajapati and Devas with Brahmas receiving him. In contrast, the Theravada Pali text does not mention how the child was born. Moreover, Mahayana texts mentioned how the Bodhisattva lived in his mother’s womb, a life history that is clearly depicted in the mural painting of Abeyadana Temple. In Myanmar, Gupta and Pala influence is seen in nativity scenes in Pyu Sriksetra (2nd-9th centuries) and at Bagan (11th-13th centuries). From the eleventh century, and with the arrival of three Pitikas from Thaton at Bagan, the art was closely connected with Pali sources, but the iconography of the Buddha’s birth was not specified in these texts. Compared to North Indian nativity scenes, Mahayana influence is seen in the Gupta (4th-6th centuries) and Pala (8th-12th centuries) periods - thus many Bagan scenes Bodhisattva’s birth appear to have been inspired from North Indian Sanskrit textual sources, such as the Lalitavistara, rather than Pali texts. This article addresses the relationship between textual sources and images in Buddhist material culture to highlight the cosmopolitan religious character of ancient Bagan.