Myanmar, previously known as Burma, is a rather unsung country in Southeast Asia with rich cultural treasures unknown to many. The second-largest country in the region in terms of area, Burma shares its borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, and hence reflects influences in its adopted architectural styles from these neighbours, along with the impacts from the process of westernisation during its colonial rule.
Since attaining independence in 1948, the officially renamed Republic of the Union of Myanmar faced several internal disputes and turbulences in its governance. It was because of these frictions that the marvels of Burmese architecture hid under shadows for decades. It was not until a few years ago, until the civilian government rose to power, that stability was restored and tourism improved.
This article aims to shine a light on the little-known details of Burmese Architecture and uncover some of its interesting tales and wonders.
1. The land of a million pagodas
Buddhism is primarily practised in most Burmese households. Recent censuses record about 89% of the population of Myanmar recognising themselves as Buddhists. Consequently, much of traditional Burmese architecture was built in Buddhist styles with the most prominent structure being the pagoda, a derivation from ancient Indian stupas.
The basic hemispherical dome-shaped stupas from India evolved into various forms in Southeast Asia, the characteristic pagodas of Burma being one of them. Burmese pagodas soar into tower-like spires from a curvaceous bell-shaped base and these structures are scattered throughout the country in every village and every street corner.
Comically, travellers are said to experience a phenomenon called “pagoda fatigue” because of the sheer number of them visible while exploring the country. The Bagan temple complex and Kakku Pagodas complex are examples of some mystical Burmese sites with thousands of pagodas magnifying the landscape.
2. Use of gold
Gold cladding is a sacred practice of traditional Burmese architecture, reinforcing the importance of majestic structures. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon (previously known as Rangoon while it was the capital city), is covered with gold leaves and plates.
This popular pagoda is said to contain the strands of Buddha’s hair along with other Buddhist relics. The shimmering Shwedagon pagoda does not fail to catch one’s eye and it is an important site for both pilgrimage and political activism.
Apart from the many pagodas highlighting Buddhist culture in Myanmar, the presence of monasteries or resting places for Buddhist monks within the compounds of temple complexes are also significant structures of Burmese architecture.
These monasteries were typically built of brick or timber in two-storeys to accommodate single or multiple occupancies. The cells of the monks would be arranged around a central rectangular courtyard and some common features include a library, a shrine or an attached well.
4. Distinct brick sizes and arches
The early Pagan structures of ancient Burmese architecture were constructed with brick and plastered with stucco. These kiln-fired bricks were thinner and much larger than the regular ones used in the West, typically measuring about 36 x 18 x 6 centimetres.
Clay was used as mortar while laying the bricks instead of plaster which would have provided stronger bonds. Arches and vaults were common elements of Pagan structures and bricks that were chiselled to trapezoidal shapes were arranged systematically with their narrower sides facing inwards.
5. Stucco and Wood carving
For centuries, Burmese architecture had preserved traditional arts such as stucco and wood carving. The tropical climate in the region required the rebuilding of heritage monuments and these crafts aided in renovating damaged traditional features over time.
The Mandalay Palace, which was the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy, was constructed entirely with teakwood with the use of wood carvings and stucco for ornamentation. This palace, however, underwent several reconstructions and while much of the stucco work is lost, the original teak is now reinforced with concrete.
6. Traditional Burmese houses
The olden Burman houses were made of various types and materials depending on the economic status of residing communities. The wealthier families lived in houses made of mahogany that were sheltered by tiled roofs. These houses were raised off the ground on posts and had plank floors.
The lower-income families lived in bamboo houses with thatched roofs and mud floors. The thatch from palm trees proved to be cheaper rainproof materials providing relative cooling effects. The bamboo structures were tied together with rattan, a fibrous wild creeper, or palm leaves instead of iron nails.
7. The Colonial era
At the end of the 19th century, Burma was colonised by the British empire as a result of the eastward expansion of the British East India Company. Therefore, the years between 1900 and 1920 witnessed massive construction of colonial buildings throughout Yangon, previously Rangoon, which then became a multi-ethnic capital.
These buildings ranged from villas constructed of wood and plaster to collonaded mansions of bricks and plaster. The Minister’s office which housed the British administration is an example of the colonial architecture built during this period.
Although most of these structures cease to exist in Yangon today either due to decay or demolition, the city is remembered as “the city that captured time” and efforts are being made to preserve what remains.
8. Downtown Yangon
The streets of the downtown area of Yangon were laid out in a gridiron pattern by Lieutenant Alexander Fraser, who also designed Singapore. This region experienced the most destruction during the Second World War and hence contains streets lined with some dilapidated colonial buildings, some restored monuments and plenty other modern inserts.
Walks along downtown Yangon and the riverfront area narrate fascinating tales of the passing time and events of Burma.
9. Chaotic Streetscapes
An unusual and interesting fact about post-colonial Myanmar’s streetscapes is the right-hand drive on the right-hand side of the road. The right-hand-drive on the left lanes practise was one among the many norms adopted during the British rule and suitable cars were imported accordingly from Japan.
However, after independence, a mere superstition led general Ne Win who led the country at the time to switch lanes of driving. This decision led to confusing and chaotic urban streetscapes in larger cities such as Yangon. It was not until recent governing authorities switched to the import of appropriate cars that this disorder in urban centres was addressed.
However, the bizarre chaos continues until every automobile in the cities is replaced.
10. Contemporary architecture of Myanmar
In the early 21st century, a newly planned city called Naypyidaw replaced Yangon as the capital of Myanmar. This greenfield site was a blank canvas for contemporary architects of Myanmar to explore new styles while carrying forward the rich Burmese heritage and legacy.
Although modern materials such as concrete, steel and glass are used for construction, a tribute to traditional Burmese architecture is evident in most administrative and public buildings. Some replicas of ancient structures from Yangon are also visible in Naypyidaw defining its vocabulary as an amalgamation of the old and the new.