A diverse range of indigenous cultures exist in Myanmar, the majority culture is primarily Buddhist and Bamar. Bamar culture has been influenced by the cultures of neighboring countries. This is manifested in its language, cuisine, music, dance, and theatre. The arts, particularly literature, have historically been influenced by the local form of Theravada Buddhism. Considered the national epic of Myanmar, the Yama Zatdaw, an adaptation of India’s Ramayana, has been influenced greatly by Thai, Mon, and Indian versions of the play. Buddhism is practiced along with nat (spirits) worship, which involves elaborate rituals to propitiate one from a pantheon of 37 nats.
In a traditional village, the monastery is the center of cultural life. Monks are venerated and supported by the laypeople. An initiation ceremony called shinbyu is the most important coming of age events for a boy when he enters the monastery for a short period of time. All boys of Buddhist family need to be a novice (beginner for Buddhism) before the age of 20 and to be a monk after that age. It is compulsory for all boys of Buddhism. The duration can be as little as one week. Girls have ear-piercing ceremonies at the same time. Myanmar culture is most evident in villages where local festivals are held throughout the year, the most important being the pagoda festival. Many villages have a guardian nat, and superstition and taboos are commonplace.
British colonial rule also introduced Western elements of culture to Myanmar. Myanmar’s educational system is modeled after that of the United Kingdom. Colonial architectural influences are most evident in major cities such as Yangon.
Until the 1880s, the nobility was an important source of support for artists. After the fall of the monarchy, support came from newly rich merchants and British colonial officers. From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was relatively little support from the government or the public. State schools for the fine arts were opened in Yangon and Mandalay in 1953, and there was a revival of interest in traditional art forms. The military regime of 1962 encouraged art forms supportive of its nationalist and socialist agenda. Since 1988, there has been little government support.
The literature of Myanmar spans over a millennium. Myanmar literature was historically influenced by Indian and Thai cultures, as seen in many works, such as the Ramayana. The Myanmar language, unlike other Southeast Asian languages (e.g. Thai, Khmer), adopted words primarily from Pali rather than from Sanskrit. In addition, Myanmar literature has the tendency to reflect local folklore and culture.
Myanmar literature has historically been a very important aspect of Myanmar life steeped in the Pali Canon of Buddhism. Since orthodox Buddhism prohibited fiction, many historical works are non-fiction.
The focus of writing within Myanmar society was, and to a large extent still is, focused on writing for theatre performances (pwe) and producing texts relating to Buddhism. In addition, since the 19th century there is a fair amount of popular fiction. There is also some British fiction from the colonial period that is set in Myanmar. Among the early British works of fiction concerned with Myanmar are two novels by H. Fielding: The Soul of a People (1898) and Thibaw’s Queen (1899). By far the best known British novel set in Myanmar is George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934), a critical examination of British colonial rule. Poetry is also a prominent feature and there are several forms unique to Myanmar literature.
Furthermore, Myanmar literature played a key role in disseminating nationalism among the Myanmar populace during the colonial era, with writers such as Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, an outspoken critic of British colonialism in Burma.
The graphic arts include temple sculpture in wood, stucco, stone, and wood; temple mural painting, usually in tempera; other forms of wood carving; ivory carving; work in bronze, iron, and other metals; jewellery; ceramics; glassware; lacquerware; textiles and costume; items made of palm and bamboo; and painting on paper or canvas.
Lacquerware entails the covering of an object made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap. These objects include containers as well as tables, screens, and carved animal figures. The process preserves, strengthens, and waterproofs objects and has been developed into a decorative art form. Its origins are ancient. Pagan is the largest and most important centre for lacquerware. The Government Lacquerware School was established by local artists in Pagan in 1924. The Shan also have a distinctive lacquerware tradition.
Weaving is a highly developed traditional art form; it reached its highest form in the production of lun-taya acheik cloth. The technique was brought from Manipur in the 18th century, but the complex motifs are distinctly Myanmar. This style of cloth is still woven near Mandalay for sale to elite Myanmar. There are distinctive textile traditions among the ethnic minorities.
Traditional painting on paper made from tree bark or bamboo pulp is known as parabaik painting. The earliest known example dates back to the 18th century. Pigments were made of tempera, with gold and silver inks used for the costumes of nobles and deities. The paintings also formed folded pages in books. Initially these paintings depicted religious scenes, court scenes, or astrological charts, medicines, tattoo designs, and sexual techniques, and the painters were itinerant artists employed by the court. In the 19th century, the court in Mandalay employed full-time artists, and a system of apprenticeship was put in place. Among the new styles of painting that emerged after the fall of the monarchy were paintings of happy families sold to the newly rich. Traditional painting declined in the 1920s as local patrons and artists became more interested in European styles. A revival of interest in Myanmar themes took place after the 1962 military takeover. The new regime held an annual painting exhibition to promote select painters. The exhibitions ended in 1988, but the military regime allowed the fine arts school to remain open.
Most painters today are dependent on sales through a handful of private galleries that cater largely to resident expatriates. The themes of newer paintings continue to be Myanmar, especially religious paintings and landscapes.
Popular performances often combine music, dance, and drama in a pwe. These shows take place at fairs, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, and sporting events. They generally are held at night and can go on all night long. A pwe typically includes performances based on legends and Buddhist epics; comedy skits; singing, dancing, and music; and sometimes a puppet show.
Traditional music and dance have been influenced by Thailand. Traditional instruments played in an ensemble include a circle of drums, a 13-stringed boat-shaped harp, a circle of gongs, a xylophone-like instrument, an oboe-like instrument, a bamboo flute, a bass drum, small cymbals, and bamboo clappers. Today these traditional instruments are combined with Western ones, including a guitar. The Kon-baung court employed performers specialising in recitation, singing, dancing and acting. Highly stylised dramatic performances were accompanied by music.
There is also a tradition of popular public performances such as the nebhatkhin (a pageant depicting the birth of Buddha) and the more secular myai-waing (an earth-circling performance) conducted by travelling actors and musicians. After 1885, entertainers performed for a new public, and more lively forms of entertainment were developed, including all-female dance troupes. Western-style stage plays were introduced at that same time.
There was interest in newer forms of performance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Such performances ended with the outbreak of World War II. After independence, there was a revival of interest in traditional dance, drama and music. The 1950s saw a revival of traditional art forms and the emergence of a new form of modern melodrama called pya-zat. These were modern plays that rarely dealt with traditional subjects.
While secular performance arts now dominate popular entertainment, the military regime has continued to support more traditional performances and the fine arts schools still teach traditional forms of dance and drama, although the audiences consist largely of tourists, resident expatriates, and members of the ruling elite.
The traditional garment of Myanmar is called longyi, a sarong worn by both men and women. In formal occasions, Bamar men wear a collarless jacket over a mandarin collared shirt (sometimes donning a turban called gaung baung), while Bamar women wear a blouse buttoned at the front, called yinzi or to the side, called yinbon and a shawl. In urban areas, skirts and pants are becoming more common, particularly among the young.
During the British colonial era, Myanmar nationalists associated traditional clothing, in particular Yaw longyi, a type of longyi from the Yaw region, and pinni taikpon, a fawn-colored collarless jacket, with anti-colonialism and nationalist sentiment, because of a clampdown in the 1920s over increasing dissent. Wearing “traditional” clothing was seen as a mode of passive resistance among the Myanmar people. However, British rule nonetheless influenced hair fashion and clothing. Cropped short hair, called boke replaced long hair as the norm among Myanmar men. Similarly, women began wearing hairstyles like amauk, consisting of crested bangs curled at the top, with the traditional hair bun. The female sarong (htamein) became shorter, no longer extending to the feet, but to the ankles, and the length of the sarong’s top decreased to reveal more waistline. This period also saw the introduction of a sheer muslin blouse for women, revealing a corset-like lace bodice called za bawli.
There are 12 months in the traditional Myanmar calendar and 12 corresponding festivals. Most of the festivals are related to Myanmar Buddhism and in any town or village, the local paya pwe (the pagoda festival) is the most important one.
The most well-known festival is Thingyan, a four-day celebration of the coming lunar new year. This festival is held prior to the Myanmar New Year (first day of Tagu, around 17 April). Similar to other Southeast Asian new year festivals (e-g. Songkran), people splash water on one another. However, Thingyan has religious significance, marking the days in which Buddhists are expected to observe the Eight Precepts of Buddhism.