Burma Arts and Literature


Burma’s literature has ancient origins and is extensive but so far unexplored. The earliest documents (400-500) are written in Pali and reproduce sections from the Buddhist canon. Stone inscriptions have been preserved from the Pagan dynasty (1044-1287), which marks the very beginning of Burmese literature, while the early palm leaf texts have been completely lost. The authors – usually members of the royal house, high-ranking officials or Buddhist monks – are not named. Only during the Ava period (1364-1555) did the Burmese finally consolidate their position alongside the Pali. Important literary genres were: pyo (religious educational poetry based on jataka), egyin (historical ballad), mogun (panegyric poetry) and yadu (nature and love poetry), all written in rhyme form.

Myanmar Population Pyramid

  • Countryaah: Population and demographics of Burma, including population pyramid, density map, projection, data, and distribution.

The Burmese prose developed late; the masterpiece is “The Glass Palace Chronicle” (1832; not in Swedish translation). Of late date is also the literary drama, where one can trace a distinctly Thai influence, while the modern Burmese novel, and likewise the novel, exhibit tangible Western, mainly English, influence. It has not reached the high level of the older Burmese literature. In addition, the prose has never enjoyed the same prestige as poetry and drama. Famous playwrights are U Kyin U (1819-53) and U Pon Nya (1807-66), who both derived their material from legend, fable and mythology.


The spirit worship early expressed itself in dance and music at the invocation of the 37 spirits (nats) believed in. Even into the 20th century, the touring theaters have started the show with a spirit dance. Circular professional troops were formed in the 16th century. They called themselves spirit dancers and gave Nat Pwe, which accounted for both religious and profane entertainment. India, which exercised a cultural and religious influence over Burma, also influenced the dance forms. When Burma conquered Thailand in 1767, the army brought back large parts of the Thai head, as a war booty including dancers and musicians. India’s epic “Ramayana”, which was given as a refined form of dance drama in Thailand, was now presented to the Burmese court. The subject was not unknown. With the Vishnu cult, “Ramayana” had also been brought to Burma. Touring theater troupes provided Zat Pwe, ie. classic plays, which carried clear traces in dance, music and costume of this Thai-Burmese main drama. Zat Pwe got a major player in Po Sein (1880-1952). He reformed Zat Pwe and dramatized the sacred jatakas with artistic success. His squad, in his time, was Asia’s largest.

Initially supported by the court was the puppet theater, which in Burma is played with advanced puppet technology. A doll can be manipulated with 60 threads. The repertoire has included fairy tales, legends and jatakas, often with animals among the roles. When the British annexed Burma, the puppet theater was threatened, as the court could no longer finance it. However, the puppet theater has survived, although the few puppeteers who maintain the tradition today must have a different profession alongside.


In Buddhist shrines in Pagan, there are murals that belong to the oldest preserved visual arts and betray the influence of both China and India. They served the Buddhist edification. Themes can many times be identified through the attached inscriptions in Mon and Burmese. The images often depict reverence to the buddhan and events in buddhan Shakyamuni’s previous life from the Burmese jataka versions. The mural also contains decorative motifs such as volutes with leaves together with animals, geometric figures and surprisingly realistic representations of people. The colors span a scale from green to violet with transitions to black-brown, brown and red shades. Special emphasis has been placed on ornaments such as creepers, geometric patterns, horizontal and vertical stripes and medallions.

With Pagan’s fall, the creation of visual art also decreased. However, it was given a new boost during the 18th century with illuminated manuscripts, which took their role from the earlier murals.


Although Buddhism may have been introduced in Burma as early as the 20th century BC. there are no traces of Buddhist architecture or visual art from this time. It was only through the Mon and Pyu peoples (500-900 AD) that theravada Buddhism was fortified, and then stonework and temples were erected of bricks. The slopes are cylindrical and high, the temples square with a massive pillar in the middle. Burma experienced its first great days during the Pagan period, when the Burmese under King Aniruddha (1044-77) founded the city of Pagan. During the 1100’s and 1200’s, monk culture was taken over and further developed, until the Mongols destroyed the city in 1287. Mahayana Buddhism prevailed. Among the amount of buildings and facilities from that time, most now in ruins, typical round and square stupas as well as temples and monasteries remain. The most famous temple is Ananda, built around 1105 in cross form around an 88 m high stupa. Externally and internally, the buildings are richly decorated with Buddha images and scenes from the life of Buddha with a framework of lush plantains. The pictures are made of glazed brick or painted in al secco technique in Indian Pala style. Recent temple facilities in Burma include the Shwedagon (Golden Pagoda), built in 1564 in Rangoon.


The music in Burma has many similarities to other Southeast Asian music cultures (pentatonics, gong ensembles, multilingualism) but also exhibits certain characteristics. The folk music traditions in Burma are little explored, but the different ethnic groups use, among other things. bong ensembles, xylophones, pan flutes and mouth organ.

The art music in Burma is basically vocal, with a set repertoire of several hundred songs, which also form the basis for the instrumental musicianship. A distinction is made between tradition between large outdoor ensembles, which play at stage performances (dance, drama), religious rituals, etc., and chamber musical indoor music. Common to the different forms of art music are even rhythms, whose beats are articulated by hand cymbals and rhythms, two-partness, a seventeen scale and a system of melodic modes. The largest and most widely used ensemble in outdoor music is hsaing-waing. Here the melodies are played by gongs, oboes and pat-waing, which consists of 21 tuned drums, hung in a circular wooden frame. This instrument is now unique to Burma, as is the harp,saung-gauk, which is the most important instrument of art music. In chamber music, harp and xylophone are used as soloist instruments or in combination with flute or song. In the 20th century, Western instruments such as violin, guitar and piano were recorded in Burmese art music.

Indian film songs and Western popular music, jazz and most recently rock have also become noticeable elements in Burma’s music life.

Burma Arts and Literature