Culture in Myanmar

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Architecture & Arts

It is the architecture that one sees as the strongest evidence of Burmese artistic skills and craftsmanship. The religious architecture of Myanmar is probably the most independent of the Indian architectural style, which is predo-minant in many parts of Southeast Asia. Burmese buildings take two basic forms – pagodas and temples. Traditionally only the latter have been made of permanent materials; monasteries and all secular buildings were, until recently, constructed of wood, and thus, only few non-religious buildings of former times remain to be visited.

Pagodas are found almost everywhere in the country in big numbers. They are basically seen as a focus for meditation or contemplation, and are supposed to house holy relics from the Buddha. The great Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon enshrines some of his hair, as it is said.

Over the centuries, the architectural style has grown more elaborate, depending on the region and cultural influence of other cultures nearby. All pagodas, however, have in common a bell-shaped structure, which in later centuries was erected on top of a foundation.

Temples are constructed mainly to house images of the Buddha. The walls are often decorated with beautiful paintings depicting episodes from the lives of the Buddha.


The religious life of Myanmar is dominated by the omnipresent Theravada-Buddhism, which was brought to the country as early as the 11th century AD. Today, about 88% of the population call themselves Theravadas, the remaining 12% of the Burmese are Christians (7 %), Muslims (3%) and Hindus (0.5 %).

There are no reliable figures about the percentage of followers of the traditional animistic beliefs that are still to be found especially in remote mountainous areas.

Buddhism has a long history, which started in the 6th century BC in Northern India, where Siddharta Gautama was born, and later became “Buddha” (The Enlightened One). Legends provide detailed accounts of his early life, being the local king’s son and therefore enjoying royal privileges and amenities.

He discovered for himself the “four noble truths”, which became the pillars of Buddhism: life is determined by suffering, the reason of suffering is desire, suffering ceases when desires are overcome, the way to overcome desire and suffering is to follow the “noble eightfold path” taught by the Buddha. This path is also called the “middle path”, that is, a path between the extremes of leading a worldly life of luxury and a life of utter asceticism. An ethical and moral lifestyle, meditation and discipline, as well as wisdom and knowledge of the doctrines of the Buddha, determine the “middle path”.

The Buddha soon began to teach his philosophy and many people started following him and spread his message further. Soon after his death, a first council of monks was held in order to preserve his teachings, which were transmitted in oral form only. At the second council, held some hundred years later, open conflicts occurred regarding the teachings of the Buddha, respectively their handing down by different schools of Buddhism which meanwhile had started to evolve.

One school was called “Mahayana”, or, the “Large Vehicle”, indicating that their doctrines are easy to follow and that even lay people are able to attain salvation. Another important school of Buddhism, “Theravada”, meaning “Path of the Elders”, is stricter in many ways and promises salvation only to a monk.

To comprehend the meaning of Buddhism it is necessary, above all, to understand the fundamentally different Buddhist perception of the world, namely cyclic recarnation and karmatic retaliation which play a vital role in civilization throughout the Far East. The belief is that people are born and again reborn, according to their deeds, in higher or lower conditions, for as long as they don’t find their way out of this cycle. Buddhism offers this way to its followers.

The history of Buddhism in Myanmar began in 638 AD, when the Mahayana creed started spreading there. During the 11th century, the people of Bagan turned to the Theravada-Buddhist school.

From the 13th century onwards, the Shan tribes invaded Myanmar destroying many Buddhist temples and pagodas, burning scriptures and slaughtering monks. But the Shan didn’t succeed in eliminating Buddhism. In the 17th century, the Buddhist scriptures were translated from Pali into Burmese. In the 19th and 20th century, two councils were held in Mandalay and Yangon, respectively, to clarify differences regarding the teachings.

Manners reoit9odriygo kogtf

The usual Asian rules of conduct apply in Myanmar, plus a few specific Burmese ones. It is unseemly to show too much of your emotions, loosing your temper over problems and delays gets you nowhere; it is better to stay calm at all times just as the Burmese do.

You should always take your shoes off when entering a pagoda or temple and also when you visit private houses.

You should wear appropriate clothing. For men and women it is advisable to cover their shoulders and wear knee-long skirts or trousers.

Wearing bathing suits or trunks should be limited to the beach or hotel pool. The head is regarded as the particularly holy part of the body. You should never touch anybody’s head intentionally, and offer an excuse if you do so by chance. Accordingly, the feet are literally the lowest part of the body - do not point your feet at somebody.


The Burmese language belongs to the group of Tibeto-Burmese languages, which in turn is part of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. Burmese is spoken by about 80% of the population of Myanmar, and is the official language of the country. Besides Burmese, there are more than 100 languages and local dialects spoken in different regions and by different ethnic groups. English is widely spoken, especially in business and tourist areas.

Spoken Burmese has a distinctive rhythmic character. The meaning of a word often depends on the pitch of a certain syllable. For an untrained speaker, correct pronounciation might be quite difficult - the Burmese say that chewing a little betel might help! Here are some useful words and phrases:

Mingalarbar (Formal Greeting)

Hoke Yes

Ma hoke boo No

Kyai zoo pyu baa Please

Nay kaungye lar Hello

Thwar taut mei Good bye

Khwint pyu baa Sorry

Kyai Zu tin ba day Thank you

Beh mah lay Where is

Be lauk lay How much

Gaun bee OK

Shayawung Doctor

Yeh sa khan Police station

Say yown Hospital

May 28, 2005 change by giorgio

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