Myanmar Arts and Literature

By | March 23, 2022


Since its acquisition, the Buddhist canon in pāli (1057 AD) influenced the entire Burmese literature, where compositions with a Buddhist religious background (pyo), celebrations of royal lineages (egyin), illustrations of events of the kingdom (mawgun), themes about the contemplation of the forest (taw-la) and various compositions (yadu). Representative authors include Shin Sīlvamsa (late 15th century), Shin Raṭthasāra (mid 16th century) and the peasant poet Pade-tha-ya-za (17th-18th century). From the 18th century. new literary genres emerge (“songs” myittaza) with their greatest interpreters, U Sa (18th -19th century) and U Pon-nya (19th century). Between 19th and 20th century comedies and the novel assert themselves. Among the narrators we mention in particular U Lat, open to the influence of literatures from other countries, and U Lun, of a progressive tendency while respecting the values ​​of the national tradition.

  • The foundation of the innovative Khitsan movement (“Contemporary experience”, 1928), which later turned into a political movement, and the promotion of the struggle for independence carried out by the Nagani circle (“Red Dragon”) contributed to the spread of Marxist ideals and to the political awareness on the part of intellectuals. Among the most significant narrators: Maha Shwe, author of short stories and novels pervaded by patriotic ideals; Thein Hpe Myint; Dagon Khin Khin Lay, fruitful novelist. The poem counts among its most appreciated representatives: U Thein Han (active under the pseudonym Zawgyi) leading exponent of Khitsan, author of numerous historical essays and co-author of a history of national literature; Ngwe Tayi, author of poems that stand out for the delicacy of feelings and for the freshness of the images.
  • The attainment of independence fueled the birth of a feeling of national pride in the country. Literary creation was encouraged by the institution of prizes, the first of which was awarded in 1949 to Min Aung for the social novel Mo auk mye byin (‘The earth under the sky’, 1948), considered the most significant 20th century. Other notable novelists who deal with the problems of the society of the time in their works are: Tet Toe (pseudonym of the writer U On Phe), who in Ming hmu dan (“The official”, 1950) denounces the crimes of the colonial bureaucracy, also the author of remarkable stories centered on psychological analysis and crossed by a subtle humorous vein; Thadu, who describes the atrocities of the military environment in the pages of Tat the ga myat koko (“Noble brother of the army”, 1951); the writer Mama Lay, who in Mong yue mehu (“Not out of hatred”, 1955) sharply illustrates a condition of widespread malaise; Dagoun Taya (pseudonym of the writer Thei Myaing). Equipped with a sense of humor and above all skilled in recalling suggestive atmospheres, she reveals herself as Khing Hning Yu.
  • Following the coup d’état of 1962 and the takeover of power by the military, who imposed open political aims on artistic works, there was a significant impoverishment and decay of literary production. Most of the titles published are consumer novels (adventurous and sentimental stories, detective and espionage stories), while literary or historical works have gradually disappeared or have been reduced to simple philosophical disquisitions or biographies of famous characters, artists and by Western scientists. The independence of the writer appears to be limited to the poetic genre, whose expressive forms and the usual vocabulary appear, however, forced into very reduced and simplified schemes.


The most important archaeological area is represented by the plains of central Myanmar The three main cities (Pyu of Beikthano, Halin and Shrikshetra) show in the economy, in the level of urbanization, in the architecture, in the materials used in construction and in religion important characteristics prior to the Indianization process. The dating of the timber samples from the Pyu city of Beikthano represents the oldest chronological datum referable to an urban context in Southeast Asia (about 1950 years ago). The cities were equipped with irrigation works and fortifications. Important were the funerary practices (burial of the dead in terracotta urns or construction of large funerary monuments of wood and bricks) and the cult of ancestors.

  • The assimilation of the cultural values ​​of India by the communities of Southeast Asia took place in an extremely selective way, allowing the rapid emergence of purely local traditions in religion, writing, art and architecture. The Pyu sites of Myanmar provide the oldest documentation in Southeast Asia on the adoption of Buddhism, together with the testimony of the assimilation of some of the Indian cultural achievements, such as writing, sacred literature, art and architecture monumental. Among the archaeological data attesting the passage of the Pyu to Buddhism, those provided by Beikthano (3rd-4th century AD) and by Shrikshetra (5th century) are fundamental. The oldest example of a Buddhist text in the Pali language, inscribed on 20 sheets of pure gold (450 AD),


Burmese art, held in constant contact with India, has drawn numerous elements from it; however, there are also Chinese, Muslim and even European ones (starting from the 18th century). The artistic flowering begins with King Anorattha (1040-77), who would have built more than 5,000 shrines in his kingdom. The most famous building of the Myanmar is the grandiose temple of Ananda (1108-90); a Greek cross, built in brick and covered on the outside with bas-reliefs in glazed terracotta, it includes a large number of chapels inside, preceded by vestibules.

  • Burmese architecture is a mixture of various styles and traditions: the pagodas are generally square or cruciform in plan and are topped by overlapping canopies; on the outside, the bricks of the building (the use of stone is rare) are covered with plaster, with a picturesque effect. Chinese and Indian motifs blend in the decoration. Among these stands out the Shwedagon of Yangon, with its imposing golden roof. In the same city there is the presence of civil architecture (19th century-early 20th century) of English colonial style. The grand palace of Mandalay (completed in 1859), a complex of several walled buildings, is a faithful imitation of a medieval residence.
  • The Burmese sculpture is not particularly original: the wooden statues, usually gilded, with glass incrustations are particularly noteworthy. Among the paintings, the frescoes of the temple of Kyanzittha are important, recalling the capture of Pagan by Qubilai Khan (1287). Manuscripts often have rich illuminated decoration. Also noteworthy are the silk weaving and goldsmithing.

Myanmar Arts and Literature