Wooden backdrops carved as layers in wooden logs depicting Buddhological plots of sculptural works can be seen at the back rest of throne on which Buddha images are kept in Gandakuti Chambers of some eminent temples and stupas in Myanmar. Among these masterpieces, a significant backdrop takes a position in precinct of Maha Thatipahtan Monastery in Minhla of Bago Region.
Background of the town Minhla
There are two Minhla townships across the nation—the town Minhla in Thayet District of Magway Region is called Upper Minhla and the town under the same title in Thayawady District in Bago Region, called Lower Minhla.
Local people accepted two ideas for emergence of the name Minhla in Thayawady District. They assumed the town was established by Thadoe Latt (nephew of Bagan King Narathihapatae, and the name was changed to Minhla from Minlatt. And, some assume that a very beautiful medium woman Ma Min Hla resided in the town as location of now Minhla. Her reputation was famous for the name of Minhla town. Minhla Township is 19 miles long from the east to the west and 13 miles wide from the south to the north. Its total area is 258.31 square miles. The township takes a position at an altitude of 76 feet, sharing border with Kyaukdaga Township in the east, Monyo Township in the west, Letpadan Township in the south and Okpo Township in the north. Minhla has 91 miles access to Yangon by car and by train.
Minhla Township, home to 126,369 population based on the data released in September 2018 is formed with Minhla and Sitkwin towns, 12 wards and 246 villages of 54 village-tracts. Bamar people accounting for 91 per cent are residing in the township together with Kayin, Shan and Rakhine ethnics. The majority of the people believe in Buddhism.
A total of 52 temples and stupas, 18 Christianity buildings, three Islamic mosques, one Hindu temple and two Chinese temples take positions in the township. The brick building built in 1915 with colonial era works and backdrop is located in the precinct of Maha Thatipahtan Monastery in Minhla.
The backdrop is a back rest decorated with carved wooden or masonry works of Myanmar traditional arts and crafts. Generally, backdrops are kept behind the sitting and standing Buddha images.
Some people call throne and backdrop as throne-backdrop decorated with 12 kinds of crafts –sculptural statues of lion, flying elephant, peacemaker celestial being, peacock feather fan, elephant ear, door post, celestial king, mythical bird with human head, virtuous deva, stylized figure resembling a lion, lotus and floral motif on either side of Indra. The throne must be based on lion statues.
Throne-backdrops were created with plots of Jataka on three layers, five layers and eight layers of wood flanked by floral works in detail. Currently, most of the wooden backdrops were decayed in climatic condition in Bagan, Inwa and Nyaungyan era but wooden backdrops in Konbaung era can be seen till today.
Finials of Myanmar architecture are decorated and carved works and reliefs on woods, stone, concrete, gold, silver, iron and minerals. Likewise, ornamental motif in stucco of ogre, mythical king of bird, mythical bird with human head, celestial king, peacock, elephant and lion statues were decorated with floral arabesque. Among these finials, people are interested in crafts of wooden backdrop.
Moreover, concrete backdrops can be seen at arches and entrances to pagodas. Mostly, arch-backdrops were made of wood at ancient monasteries with statues of celestial king, celestial beings, parakeet and peacock.
Wooden backdrops decorated with reliefs and sculptural works in floral works were different in locations and eras. Especially, the backdrops in Konbaung were created with the best retail artistic works.
People can observe just photos of backdrops which were ablaze at Thihoshin Pagoda in Pakokku. Such pagoda had two backdrops. The east backdrop was shaped with three standing Buddha image at the archway and the west backdrop behind the east one. Such two backdrops were burnt together with Gandakuti chamber and prayer halls of the pagoda in April 1964. So, new backdrop was made with modern art works.
Carving of the original east backdrop was started by sculptor U Kan Gyi and son U Te on full moon day of Waso in 1275 Myanmar Era. Donors U San and Daw Kyue from Mesalipingon Village of Pakokku Township contributed K1,000 to the sculptors. The two sculptors linked three Yamane logs and carved the log into a festoon by taking a year. They shaped episodes from preaching of Dhammacakka preached by the Lord Buddha to the Parinibbana including king, queen, celestial being, celestial king and other reliefs totalling some 1,000.
Those two sculptors carved the western backdrop of the pagoda within three years with donations of Daw Ein Min on Potan Street in Pantaw Ward of Pakokku. It cost K3,000. The carving completed on full moon day of Tabaung in 1271 ME. A log of Yamane wood was used for the backdrop in eight layers of floral works depicting episode of the Lord Buddha in leaving the royal palace and 25 episodes from Vidhura Jataka.
Shweku backdrop which is the most famous among other backdrops in the nation is being displayed in the glass box in the east of Gandakuti Chamber of Shweku Pagoda in Pakokku. The backdrop made of Yamane wood behind the five feet and two inches high standing Buddha image is five feet and 10 inches long, 12 feet and 10 inches high and eight inches thick. The backdrop was decorated with 136 sculptural works and 18 animal statues in addition to 12 episodes from Devarohana, Nemi, Sadhina and Bimbisara Jatakas in eight layers.
Shweku backdrop was made by U Kan Gyi and son. They started work with charge of 4,000 coins on 3rd waning of Tabaung in 1269 ME. They used five wood logs to shape the eight inches thick backdrop with eight layers of floral works, according to the backdrop inscription. Well-wishers were U Hin Nga and wife Daw Zee Zi and daughters Mei Thit and Mei Myit from building 575 on Zayhaung Kyaungdawya Street in Pakokku. Left floral arabesque was impressed with Saya U Kan Gyi and son Maung Te and the right one with meritorious deeds of Ma See San, Ko Hin Nga and Ma Mei Thin.
A Tharekkhan Buddha image was kept on a throne based on 14 elephant statues in Gandakuti chamber of Shwetanttit Pagoda, three miles east of Pakokku. Its backdrop was 13 feet and three inches high and 10 feet wide.
The backdrop at Shwetanttit Pagoda was created with floral arabesque and stocks of lotus. It was donated by U Toe, Daw Oh, son U Pe, Daw Bwint, grandson Ko Ngwe Zone and Ma Mya from Shwetanttit Village. Such backdrop was carved by U Chan Tha from Shwetanttit Village and Saya Aye from Pakokku within three years, two months and 10 days from 1895 to 1898. Carving charge cost 1,500 coins.
The backdrop was made of 13 logs of teak and Yamane depicting 13 episodes of Vidhura Jataka on floral layers.
The backdrop behind Maha Lawka Muni bronze Buddha image, nine elbows and two mikes in height, was very magnificent in Phayagyi Monastery of Yaiksu Ward in Kanaung of Myanaung Township in Ayeyawady Region. The backdrop made of Yamane log with 18 feet and eight inches high, 15 feet and three inches wide and six inches thick depicts plots of Buddhology on four layers. Kanaung backdrop was craved by U Kan Gyi and son U Te within three years. It cost 3,000 coins. Eastern part of the backdrop was shaped with Buddha-to-be who opened the royal mosquito, the western part some plots of Vidhura Jataka and the top plots of Maha Janaka Jataka.
The backdrop was carved at five layers on five teak logs decorated with floral arabesques, human, celestial beings and animal statues. The sculptors took three years for carving the backdrop. It cost K9,600, in comparison with value of three visses of gold at that time.
Pyilone Chantha Buddha image kept in precinct of Dekkhinayama Pariyatti Monastery in downtown Kyaunggon of Ayeyawady Region is 25 feet in height and 23 feet in diameter. Its backdrop is six inches thick on the left side of the Buddha image and seven inches on the right side. The backdrop, 25 feet and seven inches high and 15 feet and 10 inches wide, is the highest and largest in wooden backdrops across the nation. Bhaddanta Kesara ordered sculptor U Kan Gyi and his son U Te to carve the backdrop.
Shweku backdrop is 12 feet and 10 inches high, Shwetanttit backdrop, 13 feet and three inches high and Pyilone Chantha backdrop 25 feet and seven inches high. Shweku backdrop is five feet and 10 inches wide, Shwetanttit backdrop 10 feet wide and Pyilone Chantha backdrop 15 feet and 10 inches wide. Pyilone Chantha backdrop depicted the people asking Shin Maha Moggalana for return of the Lord Buddha from Tavatimsa abode after preaching Abhidhamma Desana in 15 plots created on the top of backdrop.
Minhla backdrop and building in colonial era
The backdrop of Buddha image kept in Ananta Miba Myitta Mingala ordination hall in the precinct of Satubonmika Maha Thatipahtan Monastery in Minhla of Bago Region is 10 feet high, three feet and five inches wide and seven inches thick. It was made of Yamane wood with seven layers of floral crafts on which 60 statues were carved. The backdrop bears seven plots of Buddhology and plots from Ramayana Jataka.
The backdrop donor was U Pun Nan and Daw Ngwe Thet who were also donors of Maha Thatipahtan Monastery. Sculptor Maung Bo Min from Pakokku carved the backdrop within three years starting from 1301 ME. The donor awarded 100 coins and three sets of suits to the sculptor, according to the backdrop record.
A brick building in colonial era between Myole Monastery and Maha Thatipahtan Monastery in northwest of Minhla was famous thanks to social media pages. Maha Gandakuti brick chamber was built in 1277 ME with 30,000 peacock coins contribution of farmland owner Daw Hsar Pwint from Minhla. Before construction of the chamber, Daw Hsar Pwint built two pagodas near the current site of the chamber in 1250 ME.
It can be assumed that the brick building facing the eastward might be two-storey building in the past but it was shifted into one-storey building. Four dimensions of the chamber were installed with brick ladder each but the western, southern and northern entries were closed by concrete works. Now, travellers can enter the building through the eastern stairway. A large Buddha image facing the eastern ward is kept in the building.
Daw Hsar Pwint built Myole Monastery in 1288 ME. Then, her daughter Daw Ngwe Thet built Maha Thatipahtan Monastery and fenced Maha Gandakuti Chamber, two pagodas and Maha Thatipahtan Monastery. So, two monasteries are separated by a street.
As Minhla could preserve two buildings in colonial era and the backdrop well, people from four corners of the nation can observe them till today. Likewise, Myanmar’s arts and crafts at wooden backdrops were maintained in various regions of the country so that new generations can observe Myanmar cultural heritages. (Translated by Than Tun Aung)
Myanmar Encyclopaedia Volume X
Throne-Backdrop (Hlaing Win Swe)
Clarifications of abbot from Maha Thatipahtan Monastery