- Of Golden Palaces and Celebrated Rulers: Inventing Traditions in Pre-colonial and Contemporary Myanmar
Investigating how Myanmar’s official historiography is shaped by an evolving political culture, this article explores the case of the development of palace architecture over a period of eight centuries since the Bagan Period. Two official narratives provide insights into this development from two significant moments in Myanmar history. The first is illustrated by a folded manuscript produced by court dignitaries after the defeat of the royal troops in the Second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852. The second consists of a publication, a permanent exhibit at Yangon’s National Museum, and the reconstruction of ancient palaces developed by the Ministry of Culture under the now defunct SLORC and SPDC’s military regimes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These illustrated palace plans developed into a visual narrative that, in turn, served as the basis for the reconstruction of ancient palaces. This article attempts to elucidate the underlying concerns and to show the shifting emphases of this expanding narrative, hoping to contribute more broadly to the scholarship on “invented traditions.”
Historical narratives are in most cases written ones. The one presented here is peculiar in that it is a visual narrative composed of art and architecture—specifically palaces that illustrate the development of royal architecture over a period of eight centuries since the Bagan Period. In its initial form, this visual narrative was featured in a folded manuscript [End Page 223] produced in the mid-19th century during the reign of King Mindon. Like many court records compiled at the beginning of a ruler’s reign, the manuscript provided the king with a select range of precedents that he could choose to emulate. Mindon, who became King in February 1853 after the defeat of the royal army by British-Indian troops in December 1852, planned to build a new royal capital.1 With an illustrated compendium of plans of ancient palaces in hand, the new king and his advisors could plan the construction of the new palace in Mandalay. Not a mere guidance tool, the manuscript had a larger goal. Its preamble indeed states that it was produced so as to be “noted by posterity.” More than a century and half later, this goal has been achieved: the Myanmar Ministry of Culture under the now defunct SLORC and SPDC’s military regimes produced a permanent exhibit at Yangon’s National Museum and a printed volume that embraced the mid 19th-century narrative and reproduced its contents without questioning the historicity of some of its sections. Moreover, the ministry’s officials expanded the illustrated sequence by inserting new data that was subsequently used to re-create three ancient palaces.
Examining how a mere illustrated sequence first expanded into a visual narrative which in turn was used for materializing bold architectural statements helps us understand how supposed traditions of palatial architecture have served the political objectives of Myanmar rulers, be they monarchs or military generals. The attempt here is to deconstruct the mechanism of an “invented tradition.” The notion was defined by Eric Hobsbawm as “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically [End Page 224] implies continuity with the past.”2 In repeating itself over a span of 150 years, the practice of generating these officially sanctioned compendia of palatial architecture not only formalized in a bolder manner, but it also reflected changing political and moral motives. It first emerged as a means to legitimize a king’s plan, placing the king’s palace at the apex of palatial traditions, and enhancing his moral and religious stature; its impact, however, was confined to the royal court. It eventually turned into a tool for celebrating the country’s political consolidation, promoting the military generals’ political views of a unified Myanmar, and enhancing the generals’ political stature in line with prominent historical precedents; at this stage, it targeted a large audience of Myanmar citizens.
Yet the process by which these compendia of palatial architecture were produced 150 years apart resorted...