Myanmar stone carving: The stone art of Mandalay

Do you know why Myanmar stone carving is so popular and abundant around Mandalay?

For centuries, most of villagers from central Myanmar have carved a life out of stone. Why? The reason is simple. Many villages around Mandalay, especially in the north, are surrounded by a mountain range with a large quantity of marble. An abundant amount of marble, ‘Sa’kyin’ (စက်င္) in Burmese, is considered Myanmar’s pride as a natural resource and the villagers are proud of themselves as craftsmen. Most of the families earn a living from making and carving statues, mostly religious items (Buddha images).

As you know, all areas of the world use different kinds of stones for their sculptures. But not all areas are rich in good stones. ‘Sa’kyin’ is highly rated for its hard texture, varying in colors from clear white to bluish gray. Fine and hard marbles are increasingly becoming rare (just like in other areas of the world), not to mention a perfect quality of marbles which is no doubt very hard to find.

History of stone work

The history of stone sculptures is dated back from a very long time ago. The first early stone sculptures in Myanmar have been unearthed in one of the ancient Pyu (ပ်ဴ ) cities, known as Beikthano (ဗိႆ နိး) a city that was at its zenith between the 1st and 5th century AD. The ones found in Beikthano (ဗိႆ နိး) include two huge sandstone blocks in a shape of human feet, a fragment of stone sculpture and a stone seal. Surprisingly, no Buddha’s statue was found. Moreover, in Hanlin (ဟန္လင္း) city, many stone sculptures from the 5th to 9th century AD have been discovered.

The biggest book in Mandalay

In Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay, there are 729 marble slabs. These slabs are known as “the World’s Largest Book”, and the entire Buddha sayings were inscribed in Pali (ပါဠိ) on the slabs, each piece of marble being kept in its own pagoda.

Carving workshops

Carving workshops in Myanmar began thriving in the early 1990s and their production rate also started to increase due to the use of advanced electric tools. Since then, the number of workshops grew very rapidly. For instance, even a small village in northern Mandalay has now become home to more than 100 workshops, most of which export Buddha statues mainly to China and Thailand. But, there are still problems for the workers such as high cost of transportation and the lack of good quality marbles.

Stone-Carving Road at Mandalay

In the royal city of Mandalay, workshops line Kyauk Sitt Than (ေက်ာက္ဆစ္တန္း), literally meaning “Stone Carving Road”, is the main place for distributing stone products. Some marble carving workshops can also be seen near Mahamuni Pagoda. You can buy many forms and styles of Buddha from their shops. Statues and images from other religions apart from Buddhism are made to order.

It is evident that the arts of marble carving have lived on and are maintained as one of cultural values in Mandalay. Many tourists come to see the way the carve men work on stones and transform them to amazing sculptures. This is why a number of families depend on carving as an occupation to sustain their earning.

Since marble is clearly what the villagers cannot earn a living without, a question I don’t even want to imagine for an answer is “when marble no longer exists, what would they do?’