Enchanting Myanmar Enchanting Myanmar

Contents | Letter to Our Readers | Pagodas of Sagar:Lost Treasures | Marble Images |
Mysterious Jewels of the Jungle | Guardian on the Northwest | Birders' Delight | Pwe | Events Calendar


By Khin Khin Lay
Photo: Maung Maung Latt (Chit Nyo) & Sonny Nyein

Myanmar is known as the Land of Pagodas, as in almost every turn in river or road in the city, village, empty fields or mountaintops you come across pagodas of all sizes. Places like Bagan have over two thousand. The number of images enshrined within these premises, or in monasteries and private homes as well as neighbourhood prayer halls in the whole country is therefore quite uncountable. In spite of this, there is all evidence that more are being produced everyday. One of the most beautiful images are made of marble and it is fortunate that the quarries of Sa-gyin a few miles north of Mandalay have an abundance of pure white translucent marble. These quarries have been producing marble enough for tens of thousands of images and some very big ones.

King Hsin Byu Shfn who reigned from 1714-1733 was the patron of a 2Oft high marble image he enshrined in the Lay Kyun Mahn Aung Pagoda in Sagaing.

The marble image in the Lawka Tharapu Pagoda of Inwa, that he also built in 1730 was carved in a different manner. The 491 tonned marble block was half buried of its length, and then the image carved from the topper most part. The image measures nearly 28ft. 

King Bagyidaw, who reigned from 1819-1837, was patron of a 19ft 9 inches high marble image which was first enshrined in Inwa. Later on another monarch, King Bagan shifted the image in 1847 to his newly built pagoda the Maha Thet Kya Yan Thi on the banks of Taungthaman Lake, Amarapura. The pagoda is popularly known as the Taungthaman Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda.

King Mindon who reigned from 1853- 1878 and second-last king of Myanmar founded the capital of Mandalay in 1859. He was a deeply religious monarch who was the patron of many pagodas and monasteries and he also held the Fifth Buddhist Synod in 1857. His Majesty had the texts authorized by the Synod carved out on 729 marble slabs set up in the Kuthodaw Pagoda he had built. This pagoda became known as the world's biggest book.

In Mandalay, King Mindon built the Maha Setkya Marazain Pagoda in 1865, enshrined with a 26ft 3 inches high marble image carved from a single block. This pagoda is also commonly known as the Mandalay Kyauk Taw Gyi. 

These are the four biggest marble images of Upper Myanmar, not counting the many slightly smaller ones. 

In Yangon, the biggest image was enshrined only a couple of years ago on Min Dhamma
Hill. The marble, 37 ft high and 24 ft wide by 12 ft thick was the biggest found so far. The formal title of the image is the Lawka Chantha Abhaya Lahba Muni Image, the Great Image to Protect the World from Strife and Bring it Joy and Prosperity. 

The marble for these greatly revered images came from the same source, sa-gyin. The best carvers are also from Mandalay, as they alone have the skills handed down for generations in carving marble. Mandalay craftsmen bring to it the same level of expertise in woodwork that they are famous for. U Taw Taw, a
master stone carver and his team who had first discovered the stone also carved from it this great Image, coming down to Yangon to work after the 500 tons roughed-out marble block was brought ceremoniouly down the Ayeyarwaddy River by a special barge. U Taw Taw and his workmen were so proud of their discovery and their assignment!

Along the Eastern side of the Maha Muni Pagoda of Mandalay, there is a long line of marble workers. When Mandalay was made capital in 1859 King Mindon laid out the city carefully, with various traders having their own designated streets and neighbourhoods. The marble cutters of the old capital Amarapura were shifted to this area.

They carve mostly Buddha images but with orders coming from abroad they carve statues of Kwan Yins ( the Chinese Goddess of Mercy), angels,and sometimes, decorative figures. They excel in cutting out the Bama letters in neat circles, so exqu isitely done that its beauty could hardly be replicated on paper with pen.

One can see row upon row of images of all sizes lined up in the workshops, while huge ones are set outdoors. To see the carvers work on the images at various stages is fascinating. Even as an everyday chore, they love to work in marble, which comes alive under their fingers. To commence on marble cutting works of importance, an auspicious day and time to the minute must be chosen by an astrologer and the stones 'blessed' with a sprinkling of holy water and a homage offering, which is a green coconut nestled in three hands of bananas.

The master marks out the outline, and makes the first cut after the solemn rituals had been performed and prayers offered. The first cut must be in the exact instant of predicted auspiciousness. Then the more experienced apprentices make the rough cuts, with the master looking on and giving a hand while instructing his students. The newest appren- tices can only fetch and carry tools, serve tea, or polish the final product with chamois to make it gleam softly.

In the final carving stages the master takes over and under his tools the marble peels away as if it were soft wax. The furls on the Buddha's robes seem to flutter in the wind; the grace of the fingers raised in preaching seem about to move; and the expression of peaceful love radiating from the face makes it hard to believe that you are looking at inanimate marble. Perhaps the love and care of the carvers instill some life into the stone they love so much.

Contents | Letter to Our Readers | Pagodas of Sagar:Lost Treasures | Marble Images |
Mysterious Jewels of the Jungle | Guardian on the Northwest | Birders' Delight | Pwe | Events Calendar

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