‘Occult’ Statues of Buddha Undergoing Alterations After Removal From Myanmar Monastery

By Zarni Mann 9 July 2020

MANDALAY—After their removal from a monastery compound in Naypyitaw due to unorthodox designs and features incorporating “occult practices”, more than five dozen Buddha statues are now undergoing alterations in Mandalay to ensure they embody the grace appropriate to a Buddha statue.

The 66 statues were donated by members of the country’s former military regime. Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culturordered the removal of the stone figures, saying their designs were “disgraceful” and went against the tenets of Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

Among the donors of the statues are general-turned-politician Thura Shwe Mann; senior members of the country’s former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); military commanders; and high-ranking government officials.

Among the unorthodox physical features of the statues are their hand gestures, described as “one hand behind the back and the other in front with the palms facing outward” and a “spiked” hairstyle: neither are found in statues sculpted according to the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Shortly after the government’s removal order, the statues in question were shipped to some stonemason workshops in Kyauk Sit Tan in Mandalay’s Chanmyatharzi Township for restoration.

“We will have to cut off the hands, the ears and the tops of the heads, and then re-carve the statues to restore the grace that Buddha statues should have,” explained a stonemason in Kyauk Sit Tan, who requested anonymity as the government has ordered them not to talk to the media about the issue.

A Buddha statue with an unauthorized mudra is displayed at the Seindamuni Monastery in Pyinmana, Naypyitaw. / Htet Naing Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture were not available for comment on Thursday.

The stonemasons said the job of altering the unorthodox statues would be time-consuming work, adding that the ministry had not set a deadline for the job.

“It is more difficult to repair a finished statue than to carve a new one. Since we have a limited number of stonemasons due to the COVID-19 situation, it will take time; the client did not mention a time frame,” another stone carver said.

At the workshops, The Irrawaddy saw stonemasons remove the idols’ unusually positioned hands and spiked hair using grinders. The hands will be replaced with hands in traditional gestures.

The creation of Buddha statues with unusual designs is an act of Yadaya—Brahman rituals enacted to prevent misfortune or secure wealth and power under the guidance of astrologers. The practice is wildly popular among Myanmar officials and the country’s powerful generals.

It was reported earlier that former Myanmar military chief Senior General Than Shwe had a jade Buddha statue made with his own face, and had it placed at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

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