The Marvel of marble images
Traditional Myanmar crafts are listed as the Ten Flowers of Art and include painting, sculpture, blacksmithing, metal casting, stucco moulding, lathe work, marble carving, masonry, jewellery making and lacquerware.
Marble carving, or pan t'mawt in Myanmar, is an old art form, whose popularity can be seen in the number of famous Buddha images spread all around the nation.
The Sagyin quarry, situated about 25 miles north of Mandalay is responsible for a number of these famous marble works and continue to produce enough stone to fuel the nation's unquenchable thirst today.
And while carved Buddha images can be found in many towns and cities, there is a handful of particular note, including four in Upper Myanmar and one in Yangon, which is the largest and most recent.
All five images are seated and carved into the same pose. The four upper Myanmar images in the chronological order they were enshrined are as follows: Inwa is home to an 18-foot-high image inside the Lawka Tharapu Pagoda that was donated by King Hsin Byu Shin in 1730. The same king also donated the 20-foot-high image at the Lay Kyun Mahn Aung Pagoda in Sagaing.King Bagan was patron of a 19-foot, 9-inch image at the Maha Thet Kya Yan Thi Pagoda near Taung Thaman Lake of Amarapura, which he donated in 1847. This Pagoda is popularly known as the Taung Thaman Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda.
In 1865, a huge block of unblemished alabaster block of a fine quality was discovered in the Sagyin quarry. King Mindon, the 10th and second –l ast king of the Konbaung Dynasty, had a 26-foot, 3-inch image carved from this block that he later enshrined at the Maha Setkya Marazain Pagoda, commonly known as the Mandalay Kyauk Taw Gyi.
As required, a religious ceremony of consecration called an A-nay Kaza-tin was held after the king himself painted in the eyes. This ritual is called "Opening of the Holy Face" and is done by the donor of important images.
However, marble is and was used for a lot more than just Buddha images. King Mindon was the founder of Mandalay as Myanmar's capital city, moving from nearby Amarapura in 1859. Two years previous, while the city was still under construction, he built the Kuthodaw Pagoda.
When he held the 5th Buddhist Synod from 1860 to 1868, he had all the confirmed texts inscribed on 729 marble slabs and erected in the Kuthodaw Pagoda precinct. Each slab is housed in an individual pavilion. This stands as the biggest book in the world.
In 2000 the biggest alabaster block yet was discovered from the same Sagyin quarry. It was brought down to Yangon by rafts specially built for the occasion, with overnight stops on the way where people flocked to donate money towards its carving and enshrinement.
The seated image carved from this immense chunk of marble is now enshrined on Min Dhamma Road and is called the Lawka Chantha Abhaya Lahba Muni Image, the Great Image of Brining Fortune to the World and Protecting it from Harm . It is 37 feet high and 24 feet wide.
In 1997 an accidental enshrinement of a marble image took place in Pyin Oo Lwin, a hill station a few hours' drive from Mandalay. Tliree marble images were being transported by truckto a customer in China and as it passed through Pyin Oo Lwin, one 15-foot-high seated image fell off onto the road. It was not damaged but could not be lifted back on the truck however hard the villagers and truck driver tried, so it was left behind. Locals say a monk from a nearby monastery sat by the image and recited sutras and preached to the public for seven days, after which the image was easily lifted.
It is now safely enshrined in Pyin Oo Lwin as the Maha Arnt Htoo Kan Thar Pagoda — the Glorious Amazing and Fortunate Image.
Almost all 10 of the Fine Arts are produced in Mandalay, and when King Mindon
planned this city he gave each trade a place of its own so that knife makers lived and worked in one neighbourhood, bamboo traders lived in another and marble carvers had their own place next to the famous Maha Muni Pagoda . Their open ateliers line the street, with uncut blocks of marble lying next to finished works. Works- in-process show delicate features emerging like magic from the jagged stone.
As most of the work is connected to religion, each project-especially large ones - must begin with due ceremony. On the exactday and time as chosen by an chosen by an astrologer to be most auspicious, a ritual of making offerings to the Buddha and celestialsmust be done. The stones are "blessed" with a sprinkling of holy water. For the most important projects monks are invited, offered food and then recite sutras. The master craftsman must make the first cut and it is he who will skillfully form the basic figure, for it is most important that the features and body parts conform to traditional proportions. The second stage of cutting a recognizable form is usually done by his helpers, while the final and delicate touches are made by the master ; one mistake and the whole process can be ruined.
Mandalay's marble masters are so skilled that the final product of a seated, standing or reclining image glows with life. The tranquil face of alabaster has delicately smiling lips that seem to promise peace to all devotees. The edges of the robe curl as if made of soft silk and not hard stone.
A final polishing of the image is tenderly done by girls using a piece of chamois soaked in oil. The alabaster looks more translucent after they have done their work.
To be properly enshrined the images would go first through an A-nay Kaza-tin ceremony, after which the family or public devotees can worship it with the necessary reverence in their hearts.