A group of Phoongyees. Of these there are many thousands in and around Mandalay
Photographer: Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1837-1912)
Medium: Photographic print
Photograph of a group of Buddhist monks or pongyis at Mandalay in Burma (Myanmar), taken by Willoughby Wallace Hooper in 1886. The photograph is from a series documenting the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-86), published in 1887 as ‘Burmah: a series of one hundred photographs illustrating incidents connected with the British Expeditionary Force to that country, from the embarkation at Madras, 1st Nov, 1885, to the capture of King Theebaw, with many views of Mandalay and surrounding country, native life and industries’. Two editions were issued, one with albumen prints, one with autotypes, along with a set of lantern slides. Hooper made the series while serving as Provost Marshal with the British Expeditionary Force, which entered Mandalay, the Burmese royal capital, on 28 November 1885. King Thibaw (reigned 1878-1885) was deposed and taken prisoner, and a military occupation of the city began. Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were exiled to India, and the war culminated in the annexation of Upper Burma by the British on 1 January 1886. Mandalay was founded in 1857 by King Mindon Min (ruled 1853-78) on a site close to Mandalay Hill, an ancient sacred mount, in fulfilment of a Buddhist prophecy that a religious centre would be created there. As a consequence of royal patronage, there were pagodas and monasteries throughout the city and a considerable population of monks. Hooper describes them in a caption accompanying the photograph: “Their dress is a yellow robe which they wrap round the body; it is usually thrown over the left shoulder. The head, which is shaven, is always uncovered, and they carry in their hand a fan made from a Palmyra leaf to be used as a protection from the sun. A Phoongyee [pongyi] is a Buddhist monk; he is not a priest, rightly so called, though he performs religious ceremonies, instructs others in religious matters and teaches the young; he can leave the order if he pleases and be readmitted at any time; he lives on charity, and is supposed to lead a life of self-denial and devotion, in fact he professes to keep the law of Buddha, as laid down by Gautama, in so perfect a manner as will gradually lead him to that perfection which will qualify him for, and entitle him to, the state of Seighan, viz., entire and absolute annihilation or absorption into the Divine essence…The old man in the picture, with the others around him in respectful attitudes, is the head Phoogyee in Mandalay; he is seated in the doorway of the Golden Kyoung built for him by Soopy-a-lat at a cost of 5 lakhs of rupees.” Hooper was a dedicated amateur photographer and his photographs of the war in Burma are considered “one of the most accomplished and comprehensive records of a nineteenth century military campaign”. The series is also notable for the political scandal which arose following allegations by a journalist that Hooper had acted sadistically in the process of photographing the execution by firing squad of Burmese rebels. The subsequent court of inquiry concluded that he had behaved in a “callous and indecorous” way and the affair raised issues of the ethical role of the photographer in documenting human suffering and the conduct of the British military during a colonial war.