Bronze Casting | Wood Carving | Alabaster Buddha Statues in Burma
The most beautiful Buddha Statues in the world are crafted in Burma, also known as Myanmar, officially renamed in 1989 by the ruling military government of the time. The most common materials used in crafting a Buddha statue in Myanmar are marble, wood and bronze and less common are the hollow lacquer Buddha statues, which are much lighter and more portable. This type is currently enjoying a revival due to modern techniques of manufacture, reducing the amount of time and intensive labour to those that were made up until the early 20th century.
Burmese Antique Alabaster Buddha Statues
The marble and alabaster used in the making of Burmese Buddha Statues is mined in Myanmar (Burma). The art of carving stone and marble is referred to as “Pantamaw”, meaning carved and polished by hand. Today this age old method of hand carving and polishing a Buddha statue is being been replaced with modern tools and machinery due to the increased reliability of electricity.
Burmese marble is reputed to be among the hardest marble in the world, with colours ranging from a bluish grey to pure white, and is regarded as one of the finest marbles in the world. The largest marble mines in Myanmar are located approximately 21 miles north west of Mandalay at the foot of Sagyin Mountain, part of a range of seven hills, and an extension of the mountain ranges of Mogok, approximately 200 kilometers north of Mandalay in the division of Mandalay, reputed for the high quality rubies, sapphires and other precious and semi precious stones that are mined in this area.
These marble mines are now controlled by the government of Myanmar which has changed the pace in which marble is being mined, using more sophisticated machinery and dynamite, expediting the process of mining large areas quickly. Prior to this mining marble and alabaster was cut out of the hill by hand by locals, this has increased the price of marble immensely, making it less profitable for craftsmen to obtain and carve a statue using traditional methods.
Marble from Sagyin mountain is highly sought after by China and Thailand for its pure white colour. It is in the Sagyin area where many of the very large Chinese Buddha statues, Guan Yin and other deities are crafted locally on site or crafted in nearby Mandalay, then shipped to countries such as Thailand and China for their domestic market.
Many of our statues are alabaster, a fine grained gypsum which is softer than marble with a lovely translucency not found in marble which is made up of calcite.
Burmese Bronze Buddha Statues
Myanmar has a 3,000 year old history of bronze casting, objects that have been excavated dating to the bronze age have identified as grave goods, bronze axes, spearheads, swords, daggers and agricultural implements.
Bronze objects and other artifacts excavated in and around the Pyu city sites dating to the inhabitants of these areas include glass beads, bronze artifacts related to Hinduism and the animist beliefs of the time, small bronze ritual goddess mother figures and ornaments, thought to be grave objects, other finds include bronze bells, small figures, bronze spears, axes, weights, urns and coins.
Repeated invasions by the Bamar people from the Kingdom of Nanzhao weakened the Pyu race, this resulted in a gradual integration with the peoples of the new Pagan Empire, but their language still existed up until the late 12th century.
Although the structural remains of walls and monasteries have been unearthed on these ancient sites no bronze Buddhist sculptures have been excavated which date further back than the 8th – 9th century. Buddhist iconography at the Pyu site at Sri-ksetra and Halin have however unearthed some sculptures which have given clues to the religious beliefs of the times, which included Mahayana Buddhism, Brahmanism and Tantric practices from India.
King Anawrahta of Pagan (1014 – 1077 AD., formalized Buddhism, making it the main religion of Myanmar, although some exceptions to the animist beliefs of the people were accepted and to this day coexist alongside Buddhism.
The casting of bronze Buddha statues in Burma became popular from the 9th century and were made solely for venerating and worship of the Buddha. In earlier times when casting a bronze statue, precious metals such as gold and silver were often added to the mix of copper and tin to give added reverence to the Buddha, they were then frequently gilded. Today many Buddha statues are often decorated with gold foil rather then gold leaf. These days the alloys used in casting bronze statues is made up of just two ingredients 4 parts of tin to 6 parts copper.
Historical records show that from the Pagan period, Buddha statues were often placed inside stupa’s or temple wall alcoves, not as a means of hiding them but more so to give merit to the donor of the Buddha statue.
Many surviving bronze Buddha statues from this early period have survived, and are in relatively good condition due to the protection given whilst encased in these structures.
Elizabeth Moore has written some excellent papers on the bronze age in Myanmar, these can be viewed on Academia
Teak Wood Buddha Statues
Teak wood has been used to craft Buddha statues in Burma since the Pagan Dynasty, with just a few surviving statues from this period still in reasonable condition, the most famous being the wooden stele dating to the 13th century (Pagan era), showing the Buddha’s descent from Tavatimsa heaven, flanked by the Hindu Gods Brahma and Indra with his disciple Sariputta kneeling at his feet. (Sandstone version of this scene)
Antique and older teak wood Buddha Statues from Myanmar and Thailand are often heavily embellished with mosaics, thayo lacquer decoration, (sap of the tamarind tree) and gilded. Although most new statues are decorated with artificial gold leaf, older statues were gilded with real gold leaf.
The teak wood tree (Tectona grandis) is a tropical deciduous tree growing up to 40 metres tall, once in abundance, it is becoming a rare commodity due to the world demand and long history of logging which escalated during the British colonial period. Illegal logging still persists today in some remote areas of Myanmar; most of this wood is shipped to the international market and often used in the shipping industry due to its hardiness in water.
Natural teak wood forests exist in only four Asian countries, Myanmar, India, Laos and Thailand; with around 75% of the worlds teak market originating from Burma, although this is changing due to government restriction on exporting teak wood to foreign countries in order to allow the teak wood forests to recover. There are currently regeneration programs in place to grow new teak wood forests in Myanmar (Burma), which will of course take many years years to grow into mature trees.
Today many wood Buddha statues in Myanmar are crafted using other types of hard wood and soft wood.
Burmese Hollow Lacquer Buddha Statues
Hollow lacquer Buddha statues in Myanmar are referred to as man phaya – “man” meaning covering with a pasty substance or hnee phaya – ” hnee”, meaning made with bamboo strips, although not all hollow lacquer Buddha statues are made using bamboo strips, many are made using the dry lacquer technique.
The process of creating a hollow lacquer Buddha statue was a lengthy process and could take up to three months to complete. Starting with the clay, it is kneaded and shaped into a rough form of the image, a coating of straw ash and water is then smeared over the clay image, after which strips of cloth usually from the robe of a monk or scarf of an elder of the family is soaked in lacquer and wound around the smeared image. Thayo plaster is then applied up to half inch to one inch over this layer.
The features of the Hollow lacquer Buddha Statue is then carved into the thayo plaster with an iron implement. When the image has dried and hardened the clay is removed by washing. The mold is then cut open to remove the clay from the less accessible areas, it is then rejoined and sealed with lacquer after which another coating of lacquer plaster with straw ash is applied.
When this coating has hardened the finishing touches are applied such as smoothing, polishing, rewashing and varnishing. The preferred ornamentation such as painting, gilding or glass mosaic decoration is then applied.
The weight of these hollow lacquer Buddha statues can be very deceiving, since they can closely resemble wood Buddha statues which are much heavier.