The Mandalay Shrine
The shrine, and its associated group of objects, bring together the skills of several craftsmen and unite them in the service of Buddhism, which was the purpose of a great deal of Burmese art. But, although it may be possible to imagine the brilliant surroundings in which the shrine was originally placed as the object of devout adoration, its links with royalty and the symbolism of its design are not immediately obvious.
Yet it probably once belonged to a member of the Burmese royal family, and its shape is similar in many ways to that of a royal throne. This connection grew up as a result of an odd misunderstanding. In popular imagination the idea arose that monarchs were deities although this had no religious basis and was never formally accepted.
On the other hand, in spite of contrary teachings, during the later history of Buddhism the concept evolved that the Buddha possessed the qualities of a Universal Monarch. While these two ideas had little or no formal sanction, they appealed strongly to a large section of the community and tended to overlap. Consequently Buddha images were often made with elaborate crowns, robes and jewelery and set in shrines that were very similar to royal thrones.
The kings' thrones, of which there were nine in the royal palace, were intended to enhance his appearance on ceremonial occasions and to place him above and apart from the people to whom he was giving audience. Each one resembled an ornate doorway with double doors which were opened so that the king could make his entrance from the back, and take his place on a platform just in front of the doorway.
This was supported by a row of lotus petals resting on a stepped, hour-glass section underneath, the sides and the top being very similar to doorways used in Burmese architecture. Each part had its symbolism, such as that representing the authority of the monarch. One of these was the row of lions placed in niches round the lower part of the throne that can be seen (empty) in the illustration. They symbolize the prestige and wordly power of the monarch. Similar lions in niches, along the bottom of the pedestal of the shrine, make it almost certain to have belonged to a member of the royal family, if not the king himself.
It is not certain who the figure holding the lamp is intended to represent but it is likely to be Sakka, who is also shown on royal thrones. He was a deity who is said to have been present at all the most important incidents in the Buddha's life and was appointed to stand guard over Buddhism, punish the wicked and reward the faithful. Whoever he is, he serves as a reminder of the Buddha's injunction to 'Be a lamp unto yourselves'.The objects arranged in front, and to the side, of the shrine are there to help the worshipper in his devotions. The figures on couches, Buddha's two chief disciples Sariputta and Moggallana), set an example in piety, forming a congregation that contributes a suitably religious feeling to the surroundings.
The vases and containers, including the two shaped as decorative geese are for the offerings of fruit, flowers, betel, etc., that often form part of an act of worship. These are conventionally found as accessories to Buddhist shrines, but the two dome-shaped objects guarded by three carved and painted figures are unusual. It is possible to tell from their dress that they were intended to represent alchemists (in Burmese, 'zawgyis') but why they should be included in the context of Buddhist worship is not entirely clear.
Their main concern was the study of magic, in particular the search for the philosopher's stone. Like their western counterparts, they wanted this for its powers of transmutation, but they also thought that if they held it in their mouth it would enable them to fly and also give them long life. Buddhism frowned on these activities, even if the desire for longevity was in order to be able to witness the arrival of the next Buddha on earth, Metteya.
A possible explanation for these unorthodox objects in the shrine group may be that they were put there by King Pagan Min. He is said to have been deeply interested in alchemy, and the bringing together of two apparently incompatible beliefs may have been the result of his influence. A slight difficulty arises over this royal attribution because Pagan Min's capital was at Amarapura whereas the shrine was collected in Mandalay. However, Pagan Min's chief religious foundation, the Eindawya pagoda, lay somewhere between the two places, which are not far apart. If the shrine belonged to the Eindwya it may later have been loosely described as having come from Mandalay.
The Eindawya pagoda still stands. But the royal palace at Mandalay has been almost completely destroyed and with it much of the material associated with the former Burmese royal family. However, the shrine has survived, as, perhaps, a unique reminder of Burmese regal patronage and its provision of sumptuous and glittering focal points for the worship of the Buddha and the hope of eternal salvation.
Written by John Lowry, 1976, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series. Revised 2007.