The Shan people are a distinct ethnic group that today constitute Myanmar’s largest minority group. However, from the 13th until the 16th Century, they dominated most of the country. They are largely Buddhist, and their language and customs are closely related to the Thai and Laotians, their neighbors to the south and east. In the 19th Century, long after their power had eroded, they were distributed among thirty petty states that paid tribute first to the Burman King, then to the British. This arrangement remained more or less in tact until 1922 when the Federated Shan States were joined together. In 1947, a unified Shan States was created under the Burmese Constitution. Although much of their autonomy has been relinquished to the central government, the Shan retain their unique cultural identity and ethnic heritage.
In Myanmar, two disciples traditionally flank important representations of the Buddha. Their presence is historically inaccurate, considering that all of the Buddha’s friends had deserted him at the time of his enlightenment. However, it reflects a traditional Burmese Buddhist belief that the faith was introduced into Myanmar by two of his disciples during the Buddha’s lifetime. These two disciples begin to appear as early as the 11th Century A.D. and can be identified as two of the chief disciples Mogallana and Sariputta. Here, two disciples are depicted kneeling on individual double-lotus bases, meditating in quiet contemplation with their hands clutched together in prayer. They wear simple robes consistent with the monastic order. Originally, they would have been placed nearby a larger sculpture of the Buddha himself inside an ornately decorated temple. They are always depicted slightly smaller than the Buddha in order to reveal their status as disciples.