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 neighbouring 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 practised 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 centre of cultural life. Monks are venerated and supported by the lay people. 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 modelled 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.
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