MATERIAL: Copper (gilt)
TYPE: Bowl
DIMENSIONS: 61 cm in diameter
NOTES: For an example of a Burmese bowl with Jataka scenes, see W. R. T. Wilkinson, Indian Silver 1858-1947, London, 1999, p. 43, cat. 53. For a silver thaibek sold at Bonhams, London, see Islamic and Indian Art Including Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, 24 April 2018, lot 310.
ITEM ID: 5457
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Gilt-Copper Alms Bowl

DATE
Notes: 19/20 Century

A monumental repoussé gilt-copper alms bowl (thaibek) of deep rounded form, decorated in high relief with cartouches containing Jataka scenes, interspersed by foliate scrollwork, above further bands of foliate scrollwork.

From c.1850 to 1930, a period starting with the growing British annexation of Burma (Myanmar) and ending with a national insurrection against colonial rule and the global advent of the Great Depression, Burma witnessed a ‘Silver Age’ of artistic production. In this period, elite silversmiths that had previously worked for the Burmese monarchy now applied their superb technical artistry to cater to a burgeoning clientele of affluent Burmese, emigrant Indian nouveau riche, and European expatriates and tourists.

Produced in great numbers, the finely decorated ceremonial offering bowl is the quintessential Burmese artwork. Its simple geometry follows the shape of traditional alms bowls carried by Buddhist monks. Its function in the home was versatile – the offering bowl served as a vessel for temple offerings; as a story board for teaching and reinforcing ethical values and spiritual wisdom; as a display of wealth and status; and to simply please the senses when filled with tropic flowers.

In Theravada Buddhism, the offerings made to monasteries, temples, and shrines generate karmic merit for the donor, and the monetary value of the container used was in part proportionate to the amount of merit earned. Additionally, a highly valuable bowl would be lent to community relatives and friends to make offerings themselves, which would generate merit for both the borrower and the owner of the bowl.

Consisting of hundreds of stories about the previous lives of Siddhartha Gautama, the Jataka tales are one of the most popular forms of Buddhist literature, especially among Theravada laity. Their entertaining plots typically involve Gautama Buddha recounting a story from one of his past lives as a human or an animal, demonstrating a particular virtue he gradually perfected on his spiritual progression towards Buddhahood.

In deeply Buddhist Burma (Myanmar), where for centuries Theravada Buddhism has been the only form of Buddhism informing local cultures, the jatakas permeate tradition and remain essential elements of contemporary society. Their edifying moral lessons are central to Burmese thinking, and have inspired artistic projects in various mediums for centuries. The jatakas are the most common subject depicted by the Burmese silversmiths during the Burmese Silver Age (c. 1850-1930), giving rise to intricate vignettes containing poignant didactic instruction for everyday life. In the Mahajanaka Jataka, the bodhisattva who is later reborn as Siddhartha Gautama perfects the virtue of vigor (virya). Opening with a war and ending with the bodhisattva’s reign of 7,000 years of peace, the jataka’s representation in Burmese silver never disappoints in providing a great visual spectacle of caparisoned war elephants and cavalry.