As you pass south of Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay and enter Kuauk Sit Tan Street, you will suddenly find yourself facing an army of clones. White, gray, and lettuce-green, tall enough to overlook the roofs of nearby houses and pocket-sized, completed and unfinished. Many have a polished, glittering body, but only a rough rectangle in place of the face. Some are not even human, not even real - animals, dragons, mythical creatures. But most are Sakya-Muni, infinite copies of Lord Buddha. This is the ultimate guide to marble carving street of Mandalay, with whining power tool, thundering hammers and billowing clouds of stone dust. Artisans squat between sculptures, producing new ones on the go. Sales are conducted on the spot. And while it is not a tourist destination per se, travelers crouching with their cameras en garde, trying to align the workers with the statues for that perfect frame, are a common sight, too.
The history of marble carving in this part of Myanmar is long, stretching all the way to the ancient civilizations. Archaeologists have been unearthing marble statues at most Burmese excavation sites – that is, lost cities of the once-powerful empire of Pyu. Nowadays, the trade is flourishing, supported by the large deposits of this easily processed rock to the north of Mandalay. The work is hard on the body, with stone dust slowly damaging the workers’ respiratory system, but rewarding. Thai and Chinese merchants, the main buyers for the sculptures, pay rather well. An average-sized statue sells for a few hundreds of US dollars, which is a lot in this predominantly agrarian country. This, of course, is shared between the craftsmen, with the sculptors taking most of the profit. Auxiliary workers – cutters, polishers, and such – get very little, but it is still a reliable job. One problem currently on the rise is that China does not stop shipping out the ready statues. A number of Chinese or Chinese-funded companies have recently been purchasing plots in the marble hills of Sagyin, mining the stone industrially. Should it ever run out, this age-old Burmese craft will be doomed.
“Marble” in Burmese is “sagyin”. Sagyin is also the name of a village situated about 40 km north of Mandalay, at the foot of tall hills made of marble – the largest such deposit in the country. Some even claim that it was not the mineral that gave its name to the village, but the other way around. More or less the entire population of Sagyin is involved in the carving industry one way or another: mining the stone, transporting, cutting or sculpting it. For a traveler, this spot may be preferable to the artisans’ street in Mandalay. While it takes more effort to get there, the experience is more wholesome, as you would witness the full chain of production, and the natural environment clearly beats the city as a background for photographs. Public transport is scarce, essentially limiting the options to a taxi or hitchhiking. Once again, although this is not a tourist attraction, local craftsmen are inevitably hospitable, and will be glad to invite you into the workshops. In fact, most of work is done outdoors, and the roads to and from the village are lined with giant Buddha statues. A bit further out, there is a calm, reflecting lake, and beyond that, the ultimate landmark: the white marble hills of Sagyin.
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