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Standing buddha with naga overhead in Nagayon Temple, Bagan
Standing Buddha with naga overhead in Nagayon Temple, Bagan

Burmese Standing Buddha Sculptures with Nagas Overhead

Burmese Standing Buddha Sculptures with Nagas Overhead are rarely seen, if at all in modern Buddhist iconography, nagas are typically seen in artworks or sculptures of the seated meditating Buddha with the head of the Naga or snake overhead or rising upwards behind the Buddha’s head. Nagas or snakes are prominent in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, legends and myths. Naga worship in Burma predates Buddhism when animist beliefs were a popular form of worship. Many villages possessed a dedicated Naga shrine and utmost caution was exercised to avoid offending the nagas.

Today in Burma, some pagodas house snakes that are given reverence. Burmese astrologers continue to believe in the significance of nagas and carry out rituals to avert calamities that may arise if the nagas are annoyed.

Naga worship became less popular when King Anawrahta the founder of Pagan proclaimed Theravada Buddhism as the main religion. However, the story related to the Naga kings remains strong and plays a significant role in Buddhist beliefs. Soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment he travelled to Uruvela to the banks of the Neranjara River and sat under a Mucalinda tree. Whilst meditating under the tree the heavens grew dark, followed by an unseasonal downpour lasting seven days. Whilst the Buddha meditated, Mucalinda, the naga king rose from his earthly abode at the foot of the Mucalinda tree coiled his body around the body of the Buddha seven times and held his large hood over the head of the Buddha to shelter him from the rain. When the skies cleared the serpent removed his coils from the Lord’s body and took on the appearance of a young man who stood before him and venerated him.

The first known sculpture depicting naga Mucalinda protecting the Buddha dates to the 1st or 2nd century BC and is depicted in a Railing pillar from Jagannath Tekri, Pauni (Bhandara District), now displayed in the National Museum of India.

Railing pillar in Jagannath Tekri
Railing pillar in Jagannath Tekri

Buddha in Naga Yon Temple with Nagas overhead
,center>Buddha in Naga Yon Temple with Nagas overhead

As mentioned previously standing Buddhist sculptures with a naga overhead are extremely rare in almost any country where Buddhism is the dominant religion. As far as I can find, only one in Burma today is housed in the Nagayon temple. The image above is as it appears today, another image taken more than 100 years ago shows it almost unchanged other than regilding and the snakes repainted. Another sculpture in the same book “Mandalay” by Scott O’Connor remains a mystery, it may have been destroyed during one of the major earthquakes that have damaged so many temples in Bagan.

Pagan Standing Buddha and the Nagas
Pagan Standing Buddha and the Nagas

The Origins of the Naga Cult in Burma

There is no clear evidence as to the origins of the Naga cult or worship in Burma. In the first decade of the 20th century (around 1907) in the book “Mandalay” O’Conner mentions the founding of Tagaung by an Indian Prince, possibly this was the beginning of the Naga Cult in Tagaung. Scott O’Conner writes that during a visit to Tagoung, it was discovered that there existed an inscription on a stone slab dating back to 416 A.D. This inscription documented the departure of Gopala the Prince from his home in Hastinapura, an early historical site situated in north central India. After engaging in various wars, Gopala established a new Hastinapura, also known as Tagoung, along the Irrawaddy River.

In the Book “Folk Elements” written by Dr. Htin Aung he discusses the cult of the Naga as a pre-Buddhist cult which still plays a part In the beliefs and customs of the Burmese people in present times, particularly when examining the Burmese Calendar. Should an individual venture into the mouth of the Naga, calamity will ensue, and if one goes against the alignment of the Naga’s scales, misfortune will follow. For instance, during the months when the Naga’s head is facing east, it is imperative to completely refrain from journeys from due east to due west and minimize travels from due west to due east as much as possible. As previously mentioned, the veneration of the Naga was widespread in the realm of Tagaung.

One of the prominent Nats in Burmese folklore is Lady Golden Sides, it is believed that she became merged with a Naga-goddess, for the worship of the Naga-dragon was prevalent in Tagaung on the upper Irrawaddy and traces of the cult of the Naga still exist at Tagaung and up until the present day in the worship of ‘Bobo Gyi of Tagaung’, ‘the Great Grandfather of Tagaung’.

The Lady Golden Sides, Lady Three Times Beautiful, the Little Lady with the Flute, the Brown Lord of Due South, and the White Lord of the North are Pyu gods who were worshipped at Prome and were later worshipped at Pagan.

Note:
Scott O’conner in his Book “Mandalay”, mentions that Mr U Aung Thaw of the Burmese Archaeological Survey excavated the area and was unable to find any evidence to support the ancient connections with India as reported in the Burmese chronicles.

The Abode of the Naga Kings

According to legend, the Nagas inhabit the depths of rivers, seas, oceans, and even the depths of the earth, they can also inhabit lakes and wells. Although they possess the ability to fly, they rarely do so, as it would make them vulnerable to attacks from their eternal adversaries, the galon (garuda) birds. Nagas serve as protectors of meditators, bestowing wisdom and harnessing formidable magical powers known as theikdi. They manifest in various forms, both peaceful and wrathful.

The Zatadawbon Yazawin Chronicles is the earliest extant chronicle of Burma written sometime in the late 13th or early 14th centuries, also known as the ‘Chronicle of Royal Horoscopes’ mentions a king of Pagan Nyaung-u Sawrahan (924 – 1001), also verified by stone inscriptions who had a great image of a Naga in his garden for worship before Theravada Buddhism became the main religion.

King Anawrahta’s son King Kyansittha (1084 – 1113) commissioned the building of Naga Yon Temple which houses a large standing Buddha statue with a naga overhead. King Kyansittha like King Nyaung-u Sawrahan were likely influenced by the Ari Monks who practised a mix of beliefs such as naga worship, nat worship, Vedic and tantric beliefs and Mahayana Buddhism which is evident in the murals in this temple.

In Burmese myth and legend, the Naga is mentioned as one of the builders of the city of Prome. His tail was held by the King of the Gods while he moved around in a circle, thus marking the circumference of the city. Before the advent of Theravada Buddhism an image of the Naga was set up with those of the village gods and goddesses outside the eastern gate of a village.

The mud volcanoes of Minbu still have a tradition where it is believed that Nagas live beneath it. There are villages whose names refer to Nagas, and in some parts of the Shan States, there remain traces of a Naga cult. It may well be that there was a Naga god or goddess among the Thirty-six gods, or even that the Tagaung dragon was one of the chosen nats by Anawrahta and replaced with the Nat spirit of one of his heroes.

Mystery disc acquired in Burma

Recently when showing the following metal disc to a person who considers himself somewhat of an expert in Burmese Iconography, he informed me that there was no such thing as a standing Buddha with nagas overhead therefore this round disc must be fake as there is a statue of a standing Buddha with snakes overhead, for this reason, I researched the subject, finding that there is scant information related to standing buddha sculptures with a Nagas overhead. However, I was lucky enough to come across the publication “Mandalay and Other Cities of The Past in Burma” written by V. C. Scott O’Connor in 1907 where two images of a standing Buddha sculpture were photographed at the time of his writing 1907, one at least dated to early 12th century and is the original sculpture of a standing Buddha with Nagas in the Nagayon temple. The other standing statue appears to be in the Pagan style, its whereabouts unknown, possibly this has been destroyed or buried in one of the major earthquakes in Bagan.

We believe this metal disc predates King Anawrahta’s Pagan of the 11th century, it is influenced by Indian Hindu Buddhist beliefs and we believe it to be tied in with the beliefs of the Ari monks of Burma who practised Mahayana Buddhism, Tantricism, Nat worship, Shivaism and Vedic beliefs as well as Naga worship.

This disc has elements of both Hinduistic and Buddhist influences, the scenes may be in line with the beliefs of the Ari monks during the second half of the 1st millennium depicting their love of partying, naked women, drinking and tantric practices mixed with Buddhist scenes. It is primitive not only in its manufacture but also in the scenes presented compared to the Andagu stone carvings from the Pagan period where the scenes are well known and follow the purer beliefs of the Buddhist doctrine.

Naga worship in Burma was known from around the 6th century, We assume the three faces in the image seen below are those of the Hindu trinity with the faces of Visnu, Brahma and Shiva, towards the centre is a standing Buddha with Nagas overhead, which inspired this article regarding a standing Buddha with Naga overhead. All sculptures both past and present of the Buddha with Nagas overhead show the Buddha seated on a lotus pedestal even those of Indian Hindu/Buddhist origin.

The two standing statues presented above attest to the fact that nearly 1000 years ago in Bagan standing images of the Buddha with the Naga overhead did exist and that one still exists in the Naga Yon Temple which means protected by the Naga Serpent.

This metal disc has various scenes of figures of semi-nude females standing next to male figures, standing Buddha with Nagas overhead, three faces together which we interpret as that of Visnu, Brahma and Shiva, praying monks, the Buddha is seen at the top in pari nirvana and other scenes which are difficult to interpret. It weighs over 3.2 kg with a diameter of 19 cm and 1.2cm in thickness.

Burmese Standing Buddha Sculptures and Naga King Overhead
Burmese Metal Buddhist Disc
Buddha with Naga overhead
Figures on Buddhist Hindu Influence Metal Disc
Scenes on Buddhist Hindu influenced metal disc
Brahma - Vishnu - Shiva
ack view of Buddhist Metal Disc
Burmese Standing Buddha Sculptures with Nagas Overhead
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