Artist Showcase: Durham’s Yousuf Zafar Intimately Observes Burma’s Theravada Buddhism | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Artist Showcase: Durham’s Yousuf Zafar Intimately Observes Burma’s Theravada Buddhism 

Monk in a doorway. Located in Yangon, the Botataung (or "one thousand military officers") Pagoda was supposedly built more than two thousand years ago, when seven sacred hairs from the head of the Buddha were brought from India to Burma. As the story goes, the thousand officers were present at the current site of the pagoda, awaiting the arrival of the relics. Today, Botataung is the lesser of the three main temples in Yangon. In this image, a young monk, framed by the bright drapes and walls often seen in pagodas, leaves the main prayer hall to wander across the sunny courtyard.

Monk in a doorway. Located in Yangon, the Botataung (or "one thousand military officers") Pagoda was supposedly built more than two thousand years ago, when seven sacred hairs from the head of the Buddha were brought from India to Burma. As the story goes, the thousand officers were present at the current site of the pagoda, awaiting the arrival of the relics. Today, Botataung is the lesser of the three main temples in Yangon. In this image, a young monk, framed by the bright drapes and walls often seen in pagodas, leaves the main prayer hall to wander across the sunny courtyard.

This series, Theravada, completed in 2016, reveals the transforming lives of the Burmese people as the heavy hand of government slowly eases. In Myanmar, the prominent religion is Theravada Buddhism, which touches every aspect of life. Many young Burmese—especially the poor—live as monks or nuns, cloistered from friends and family for a year or more, availing themselves of a free education in monasteries, along with room and board. Temples are found throughout the country, often housing relics in their walls. These temples are open to the public, and Theravada Buddhists can be found practicing freely. The government supports this form of religion. As a Muslim, it was not lost on me that the government has been actively promoting violence and oppression against the Muslim Rohingya minority. My goal was to capture the vibrant practice of Theravada Buddhism as intimately as possible without being a nuisance. This often required spending time in cramped temple corners, half-standing, looking as inconspicuous as possible with a large camera covering my face.

See more of Zafar's work at the Durham Art Guild in the Click! Photography Festival Oct. 20 through Dec. 9.

Bo Bo Gyi. Literally translated as "great grandfather," Bo Bo Gyi is the guardian spirit of Buddhist temples. At the Botataung Pagoda, Bo Bo Gyi is said to guard the sacred hairs of the Buddha. Good luck supposedly comes to those who bring a gift of coconut and banana, touch their foreheads to Bo Bo Gyi's outstretched finger, and place money in his hand. Over the past few years, this particular Bo Bo Gyi has become popular with Thai tourists, who travel to Yangon specifically to pray here. This photograph was particularly challenging to take because I had to squeeze myself between the statue and a near wall while a line of worshippers snaked into the small room. I was struck by how the intimacy of the moment is framed in such lurid colors and textures.
  • Bo Bo Gyi. Literally translated as "great grandfather," Bo Bo Gyi is the guardian spirit of Buddhist temples. At the Botataung Pagoda, Bo Bo Gyi is said to guard the sacred hairs of the Buddha. Good luck supposedly comes to those who bring a gift of coconut and banana, touch their foreheads to Bo Bo Gyi's outstretched finger, and place money in his hand. Over the past few years, this particular Bo Bo Gyi has become popular with Thai tourists, who travel to Yangon specifically to pray here. This photograph was particularly challenging to take because I had to squeeze myself between the statue and a near wall while a line of worshippers snaked into the small room. I was struck by how the intimacy of the moment is framed in such lurid colors and textures.


Dhammayangyi. Two women pray before a large seated Buddha in Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan. At the base of this Buddha are common offerings of money, flowers, and incense. For reasons still unknown, the central halls of this temple were bricked off when it was first built in the twelfth century. Today, only the outer halls are accessible. This temple has not been restored as well as others, so the brickwork is clearly visible through the cracked plaster. Legend has it that when the temple was built by King Narathu, he threatened to execute the brick masons if a needle could be pushed between any of the bricks.
  • Dhammayangyi. Two women pray before a large seated Buddha in Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan. At the base of this Buddha are common offerings of money, flowers, and incense. For reasons still unknown, the central halls of this temple were bricked off when it was first built in the twelfth century. Today, only the outer halls are accessible. This temple has not been restored as well as others, so the brickwork is clearly visible through the cracked plaster. Legend has it that when the temple was built by King Narathu, he threatened to execute the brick masons if a needle could be pushed between any of the bricks.


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