Pilgrims, healers, and wizards

2 Oct 2014 — 11 Jan 2015 at the British Museum in London, United Kingdom

Detail from: A cosmology manuscript, Late 1800s, Burma/Myanmar, Pigment on mulberry paper,  Funded by the Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Detail from: A cosmology manuscript, Late 1800s, Burma/Myanmar, Pigment on mulberry paper, Funded by the Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund © The Trustees of the British Museum.
6 NOV 2014

‘Pilgrims, healers, and wizards’ draws on the strengths of the British Museum’s mainland Southeast Asian collections to explore how the principal religious systems in the region have functioned in the lives of real people. Featuring objects from the 18th century to the present, this exhibition shows the variety of religious practices in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, and how Buddhism, spirit worship, divination and other activities interact. In the 19th century, Western scholars viewed Buddhism as an austere religion that focussed upon meditation and nirvana - the escape from the cycles of rebirth. This exhibition is the first to explore in imagery and objects, many of which have not been on display before, religious practices in Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).

The entrance to the presents the viewer with a Thai altar of the type in use from the past 200-300 years and a display case of ephemeral offerings typically used in present-day religious activities. This sets the stage for the variety of material in the exhibition.

The Buddhist universe has 31 levels. All beings are reborn in one of these levels as a result of past behaviour. Good actions, such as paying homage to the Buddha, can lead to an individual being reborn on an upper level, conferring high social status, power, and eventually supernatural abilities. Anger, ignorance, and hatred, however, can result in rebirth in an unpleasant existence, as an animal or ghost, or even in one of the hells. This is the law of cause and effect that governs the universe, and is exemplified by the Buddha’s lives. A stone sculpture of the god Sakka, which has not been on display since its arrival at the British Museum in the late 19th century, shows him recording beings’ karma.

In his past lives, the Buddha perfected the ten virtues necessary for enlightenment, and in his final life he became an awakened being and exited the cycle of rebirth. Representations of the cosmos, the life of the Buddha, and the Buddha’s previous lives have been popular for over a millennia, and can be seen on objects ranging from buildings to popular prints. On display for the first time is the BM’s superb cosmology manuscript that shows the 31 levels of the universe and its central axis, Mount Meru, surrounded by seven mountain ranges. Cosmology situates people within the great plane of existence and demonstrates the potential pleasures of heaven and the horrors of hell. In order to improve their karma, people generate merit by paying homage to the Buddha and supporting his dispensation and the monkhood (sangha). This section looks at ways of paying homage, advancing spiritually, and expressing wishes to the Buddha and other powerful beings in the universe. Gifts to gain merit include such objects as banners, manuscripts, popular posters, and votive tablets on display here.

The third section of the exhibition presents some of the powerful beings who occupy the universe. For instance, a stunning sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva and the Buddha vying for supremacy is on show for the first time. The Burmese and Thai worlds are populated by spirits, some of which are named, given biographies, and represented in sculpture and painting. Other powerful beings include famous monks, both historical and living, and mythological ones, as well as minor deities, wizards, and alchemists. Some of these are potential sources of trouble and need to be propitiated, while others contribute to people’s efforts at improving their luck and ensuring protection against difficulties in life.

The final section of the exhibition explores the activities of devotees that draw on the powers emanating from the Buddha, monks, wizards, spirits, the cosmos, and sacred sites. There are many ways to place oneself under the protection of or draw upon another’s power. One is to acquire powerful objects, such as amulets associated with the Buddha and notable monks or yantra (protective diagrams). Another is to wear, via tattoos or charms, protective Buddhist scriptures or imagery of powerful beings, including particular animals, the Buddha, and spirits. The British Museum has a group of thirty silver charms, inserted under the skin permanently for protection, that were taken from the body of a deceased man from Shan State in the late 19th or early 20th century. Posters remind people of protective chants (paritta) by representing them visually. Tattooing, amulets and charms, powerful diagrams, divination, horoscopes, medicine, and the days of the week and the zodiac play a significant role in protecting against malevolent forces and generating good luck.

Thai and Burmese religious practices can be seen as a personal selection of activities. Individuals choose these activities depending on established personal practices, current needs, and financial abilities. This exhibition presents a few of the options available to practitioners in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand over the past 200-300 years.