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
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