Polychrome, Wooden Image of the Alchemist Bo Bo Aung
This well carved image of Bo Bo Aung has a particularly fine face. He holds in his left hand a plaque which in Burmese declares him to practice superior alchemy. In his right hand he holds an alchemical mercury ball. Typically, he is dressed in white.
In the Burmese Buddhist pantheon, Bo Bo Aung is accorded higher status than the nats but of course is beneath the Buddha. (‘Bo Bo’ is a common Burmese honorific which translates as ‘uncle’). He is a legendary figure who supposedly lived in the seventeenth century and was associated with the court of the then king. A shrine dedicated to Bo Bo Aung is on the eastern side of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.
Bo Bo Aung became associated with the Freedom Movement against British colonisation in the first half of the twentieth century when the movement sought to draw on the deity’s mystical powers. Freedom leader Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) is even thought by some to have been a manifestation or reincarnation of Bo Bo Aung.
The Burmese have long been fascinated by alchemy or the transmutation of base metals to precious metals. Between the fifth and eleventh centuries the practice of alchemy had become so adhered to and widespread that it had taken on the complexion of a cult.
Even today, alchemy is pursued by many Burmese. It is an acknowledged profession and the house of every practicing alchemist will have at least one image of Bo Bo Aung.
In terms of condition, this example has some weathering and age-related loss of polychrome, particularly to the base of the image.
Fraser-Lu, S., Burmese Crafts: Past and Present, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Inventory no.: 998
Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk
Click on the video to see the relative size of this item.