Culture of Burma

Culture of Burma
Painting and sculpture
Theatre, Opera, Ballet
Burmese painters


Burmese language


The culture of Burma (or Myanmar) has been heavily influenced by Buddhism and the Mon people. Its neighbours, particularly India, China, and Thailand, have made major contributions to Burmese culture. In more recent times, British colonial rule and westernisation have influenced aspects of Burmese culture, including language and education.


Historically, Burmese art was based on Buddhist or Hindu cosmology and myths. There are several regional styles of Buddha images, each with certain distinctive characteristics. For example, the Mandalay style, which developed in the late 1800s, consists of an oval-shaped Buddha with realistic features, including naturally curved eyebrows, smaller but still prominent ears, and a draping robe. There are 10 traditional arts, called pan sè myo listed as follows:

  1. Blacksmith (ba-bè)
  2. Woodcarving (ba-bu)
  3. Goldsmith (ba-dein)
  4. Stucco relief (pan-daw)
  5. Masonry (pa-yan)
  6. Stone carving (pan-ta-maw)
  7. Turnery (pan but)
  8. Painting (ba-gyi)
  9. Lacquerware (pan-yun)
  10. Bronze casting (ba-din)

In addition to the traditional arts are silk weaving, pottery, tapestry making, gemstone engraving, and gold leaf making. Temple architecture is typically of brick and stucco, and pagodas are often covered with layers of gold leaf while monasteries tend to be built of wood (although monasteries in cities are more likely to be built of modern materials). Burmese literature has been greatly influenced by Buddhism, notably the Jataka Tales. Since orthodox Buddhism prohibited fiction, many historical works are nonfiction. However, British colonisation introduced many genres of fiction which have become extremely popular today. Poetry is a prominent feature and there are several forms unique to Burmese literature.

Pwe (performances) often feature an ancient form of dance called yodaya aka which is an imitation of formal Thai dancing, in which a woman uses only her hands and feet to express emotions. The name yodaya is a Burmese corruption of Ayutthaya.

Various types of Burmese music use an array of traditional musical instruments, assembled in an orchestra known as saing waing which the Burmese saing saya Kyaw Kyaw Naing has made more widely known in the West. An instrument unique to Burma is the saung-gauk, an arched harp that can be traced to pre-Hittite times. Singing in classical times stemmed from various legends in Pali and subsequently in Burmese intermingled with Pali, related to religion or the power and glory of monarchs, and then the natural beauty of the land, forests and the seasons, eventually feminine beauty, love, passion and longing, in addition to folk music sung in the paddy fields. Pop music, however, dominates the music of Burma today, both adopted and homegrown.pakado sila


Burma is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country. Buddhism reached Burma around the beginning of the Christian era, mingling with Hinduism (also imported from India) and indigenous animism. The Pyu and Mon kingdoms of the first millennium were Buddhist, but the early Bamar peoples were animists. According to traditional history, King Anawrahta of Bagan adopted Buddhism in 1056 and went to war with the Mon kingdom of Thaton in the south of the country in order to obtain the Buddhist Canon and learned monks. The religious tradition created at this time, and which continues to the present day, is a syncretalist mix of what might be termed 'pure' Buddhism (of the Sri Lankan or Theravada school) with deep-rooted elements of the original animism or nat-worship and even strands of Hinduism and the Mahayana tradition of northern India.

Islam reached Burma at approximately the same time, but never gained a foothold outside the geographically isolated seaboard running from modern-day Bangladesh southward to the delta of the Ayeyarwady (modern Rakhine State, known previously to the British as Arakan, and an independent kingdom until the eighteenth century). The colonial period saw a huge influx of Muslim (and Hindu) Indians into Yangon and other cities, and the majority of Yangon's many mosques and temples owe their origins to these immigrants.

Christianity was brought to Burma by European missionaries in the 1800s. It made little if any headway among Buddhists, but has been widely adopted by non-Buddhists such as the Chin, Karen, and Kachin. The Roman Catholic Church, Myanmar Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God of Burma are the largest Christian denominations in Burma. Burma is home to the second largest population of Baptists in the world, after the United States.

The Chinese contribution to Burma's religious mix has been slight, but several traditional Chinese temples were established in Yangon and other large cities in the nineteenth century when large-scale Chinese migration was encouraged by the British. Since approximately 1990 this migration has resumed in huge numbers, but the modern Chinese immigrants seem to have little interest in religion.

Some more isolated indigenous peoples in the more inaccessible parts of the country still follow traditional animism.

There are no totally reliable demographic statistics form Burma, but the following is an estimate of the religious composition of the country:

  • Buddhists: 89%
  • Animists: 1%
  • Christians: 4%
  • Muslims: 4%
  • Hindus: 2%

Burma has nominal guarantees of freedom of religious expression, although religious minorities (Christians and Muslims), particularly those in the countryside are subject to discrimination. Sporadic riots between Burmese Buddhists and Burmese Muslims are not uncommon, and tensions between the two religious groups are high, particularly in major cities. In 2001, after the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, religiously motivated riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims across major cities in Burma, including Sittwe, Pyay, Taungoo and Bago. The current regime's nationalistic policy of Bama san-gyin, which considers Buddhism a key element of Burmese-ness, does provide a systemic bias in favour of Buddhists in terms of preferment in the armed forces and other State structures.

Pagodas and monasteries

Aspects of Burmese culture is most apparent in religious sites. The country has been called the Land of Pagodas as the landscape is dominated by pagodas or stupas. The four most important Burmese Buddhist pilgrimage sites are Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Mon State, and Bagan, an ancient capital by the River Ayeyarwaddy where thousands of stupas and temples have stood for nearly a millennium in various states of repair .

Pagodas are known by their Pali term zedi or pahto, but are also commonly called hpaya which is synonymous with "Buddha". Monasteries are known as hpongyi kyaung, hpongyi meaning monk, and since they have traditionally been places of learning where village children are taught how to read and write including and more importantly Pali, the language of the Buddhist Scriptures, school also came to be called kyaung in the Burmese language.

Traditional festivals

There are twelve months in the traditional Burmese calendar and twelve corresponding festivals. Most of the festivals are related to Burmese Buddhism and in any town or village the local paya pwè (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 Burmese New Year (first day of Tagu, around 17 April). Similar to other Southeast Asian new year festivals (eg. 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.


Burmese cuisine has been influenced by Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines as well as domestic ethnic cuisines. It is not widely known throughout the world and can be characterized as having a mildly spicy taste, with a limited use of spices. The most famous Burmese dish is mohinga, rice noodles in a rich fish soup. Salads (thoke) are also popular dishes. The Burmese traditionally eat with their fingers, although the usage of Western utensils and chopsticks have become more widespread, especially in towns and cities. White rice is the staple food of a Burmese diet, but Indian breads like paratha and naan as well as noodles are also commonly eaten with dishes.


The most popular sport in Burma is football (soccer). Chinlone, an indigenous sport utilises a rattan ball, and is played using mainly the feet and the knees but the head and also the arms may be used except the hands. Burmese kickboxing called Let-hwei is popular and tournaments may be seen at pagoda festivals. A form of Burmese martial arts derived from the Shan called Thaing, divided into Bando (unarmed combat) and Banshay (armed combat) rather similar to Chinese Kung fu, is also practised. Of the twelve seasonal festivals, regattas are held in the month of Tawthalin (August/September), and equestrian events were held by the royal army in the time of the Burmese kings in the month of Pyatho (December/January).

National holidays

Date (2008) English name Burmese name
4 January Independence Day (Lut lat yei nei)
8 January Kayin (Karen) New Year (Kayin hnithikku)
12 February Union Day (Pyidaungzu nei)
2 March Peasant's Day (Farmers' Day) (Taungthu lè thama nei)
21 March Full Moon of Tabaung (Tabaung la byei nei)
27 March Armed Forces Day (formerly Resistance [Revolution] Day) (Tatmadaw nei) (formerly Tawhlan yay nei)
11 - 16 April Water Festival (Thingyan)
17 - 18 April Burmese New Year (Hnitsan ta yet nei)
1 May Labour Day (A louk thama nei)
19 May Full Moon of Kason (Kahsoun la byei Boudda nei)
17 July Beginning of Buddhist Lent (Wazo la byei nei)
19 July Martyrs' Day (Azani nei)
14 October End of Buddhist Lent, Festival of Lights (Thadingyut)
Oct - Nov Diwali (Deiwali nei)
12 November Tazaungmone Full Moon Festival, Festival of Lights Tazaungdaing pwe
22 November National Day (Amyotha nei)
25 December Christmas (Hkarissamat nei)
Nov - Jan Eid (Id nei)


The "traditional" Burmese greeting is mingalaba (from Pali mangala and roughly translated as 'auspiciousness to you'), which is relatively recent as the custom started in schools in the 1960s effectively replacing the English "Good morning/afternoon, teacher" in the newly nationalised missionary schools; it is also considered formal and only used in certain instances. Greetings such as, "Have you eaten?" (Htamin sa pi bi la) and "How are you?" (Nei kaung la) are still more commonly used as they have always been. "Hello" is also becoming a popular greeting nowadays whereas it used to be confined to answering the phone.


The traditional garment of the Burmese is called longyi, a sarong still worn by both men and women. Traditionally, Bamar men wear a short collarless jacket over a white mandarin collared shirt, while Bamar women wear a blouse and a shawl. However, these are mostly worn on more formal occasions in modern times. In urban areas, skirts and pants are becoming more common particularly among the young.


In language, the Bamar are very age-oriented. The use of honorifics before personal names is the norm, and it is considered rude to call a person just by their name without the honorific unless they are known from childhood or youth or in the case of a younger underling. Young males are addressed as Maung or Ko (lit. brother), and older or senior men as U (lit. uncle). Likewise, young females are addressed as Ma (lit. sister), and older or senior women as Daw (lit. aunt) regardless of their marital status. 'Aunty' is commonly used as well. The pronouns 'you' and 'I' vary depending on whom one is speaking to and are age-dependent. Elders are spoken to in a different and more respectable manner and a special vocabulary exists for speaking to monks.


Age is still considered synonymous with experience and wisdom, hence venerated. Parents and teachers are second only to the Three Jewels (yadana thounba), together making up the Five Boundless Beneficence (ananda ngaba), and are paid obeisance at special times of the year such as Thingyan, beginning and end of lent, and usually parents before one leaves on a journey. Elders are served first at meals, and in their absence a spoonful of rice is put aside first in the pot as a token of respect (oocha) before serving the meal. Young people would avoid sitting on a higher level than the elders or passing in front of them unless unavoidable when they would tread softly and with a slight bow. Things would be passed to the elders using both hands together. Men may cross their legs sitting on a chair or a mat but women generally would not.

Children are taught from young 'to venerate one's elders, to respect one's peers, and to be kind to the young and weak' (kyeethu go yothei, ywedu go layza, ngethu go thana). Parents are believed to be solely responsible for their children's behaviour as reflected by the expressions mi ma hsoumma, hpa ma hsoumma (undisciplined either by mother or by father) and ami youk tau hnoukkyan, ahpa youk tau ko amu-aya kyan (bad language from bad mother, bad body-language from bad father). Saying "thank you" however is not Burmese custom between friends and within the family.

It is considered rude to touch a person's head, because it is the "highest" point of the body. It is also considered taboo to touch another's feet, but worse still to point with the foot or sit with feet pointing at someone older, because the feet are considered the lowest. Also, pointing a finger at Buddha images is considered blasphemous, although this custom has slowly eroded. Shoes are always taken off upon entering homes and temples. A custom of the Burmese is to perambulate clockwise (let ya yit) around a pagoda, rather than counter-clockwise (let wè yit).

Physical demonstrations of affection in public are common between friends of the same gender or between members of the family, but seldom seen between lovers. It is thus common to see friends walking together holding hands or with arms round each other, but couples rarely do so except in major cities.


Traditional Burmese folklore considers love to be destiny, as the Hindu god Brahma writes one's destiny in love on a child's brow when he or she is six days old, called na hpu za. A Burmese wedding can be religious or secular and extravagant or simple. Traditionally, a marriage is recognized with or without a ceremony when the man's paso (sarong) is seen hanging from a rail of the house or if the couple eats from the same plate. Dowries are typically unheard of, and arranged marriage is not a custom of the Burmese.

However, many Burmese couples opt for more extravagant affairs. Generally speaking, Buddhist monks need not be present to conduct the wedding and solemnize the marriage. A more extravagant wedding requires months of preparation, including consultation with an astrologer in choosing the most auspicious time and setting of the event. Also, a master of ceremonies, typically a Brahmin, is hired to preside over the ceremony. The bride and groom sit on cushions next to each other. At the beginning of the wedding, the Brahmin blows a conch shell to commence the ceremony and joins the palms of the couple, wraps them in white cloth, and dips the joined palms in a silver bowl. The Burmese word let htat i.e. to marry literally means to join palms together. After chanting a few Sanskrit mantras, the Brahmin takes the couple's joined palms out of the bowl and blows the conch shell to end the ceremony. Afterward, entertainers perform, and the wedding is ended with a speech by a guest of higher social standing. Wedding receptions at a hotel, serving tea and ice cream, are common in urban areas.

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