Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mandalay Artisans

Mandalay is the artistic capital of Myanmar. While you can find artisans at work all over the country, the greatest concentration is found here. In addition to gold beating, there is a marble carving, bronze casting and tapestry making.

The most noticeable of the craft shops is an entire area of the city devoted to stone carving. Buddhas and Nat deities carved from marble, line the small road on both sides, some ready for shipping, some still incomplete. While most of them are lifesize and slightly smaller, a few tower three meters or more in height.

Workers squat beside their statues. The sound of electric grinders drown out the tapping of the chisels as the carvers prepare the marble.  A surprising number of statues are completely carved except for the face. This remains as a rough block of stone. Presumably, a more skilled artisan would complete the face. Perhaps it requires some customization such as to carve it into the appearance of the buyer?

The whole area is covered in marble chips and dust. The ground near the carvers is a gravelly beach of marble rocks and sand. The air, too, is full of marble and it takes only a few minutes to start accumulating white dust on clothes and hair.

The artisans work in small teams, each person specializing in a particular technique or a particular part of the sculpture. Men do the actual carving while the women generally do the polishing and finishing. The statues are nearly all Buddhas and the local Burmese deity, the Nats. They all take a similar form, the traditional poses of "The Enlightened One." The Nats are a bit more novel as the finished version is usually given some paint highlights.

Not far from the marble carving area is the bronze foundry area. A dozen small shops cast everything from souvenirs to prayer bells to larger than life bronze Buddhas. There are few statues on display here; probably because the work is created to order. There are, however, plenty of brown clay models and molds.

Most shops use an in genious makeshift apparatus for polishing the metal. The device consists of an electric motor turning a cable inside a stiff hose. To the end is attached a wire wheel or whatever abrasive/polishing device they need. Sometimes they'll take the electric motor, pop a polishing wheel to the end of it and just use the whole contraption by hand. While not as powerful or versatile as a regular grinder, it gets the job done cheaply.

Tapestries are also big in Mandalay. Small teams of women gather around wooden frames stretched with red fabric. By the light of the window, they guild threads of bright color and gold through the cloth.

The complete tapestry is a rectangle about one by two meters. It contains Hindu and Buddhist scenes from history or allegory.

See the larger images here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Irrawaddy Riverbank Life

Compared to Yangon, Mandalay is laid back and peaceful. However, to see some organized chaos, you have but to wander down to the river.
The sandy banks are practically overrun with bamboo huts. I'm tempted
to call them makeshift, but many of them have a feel of semi-permanence
about them. I'm sure a lot of them survive the wet season when the
Irrawaddy swells. Others are rebuilt year after year.

The banks of the Irrawaddy are lined with boats for as far as the eye
can see. There are no dock facilities, no jetty, just boats pressed
against the shore - and to each other.

While quite a few are used as informal houseboats, most are in the process of unloading cargo.

Finished goods arrive from Yangon while raw materials, mainly wood, travel downriver from various places. When it's time to unload the vessels, everyone pitches in. Baskets are the prefered way of moving smaller items.

Here a family loads a local truck with bamboo brought from up river. The riverbank has quite an industry cutting and preparing these poles.

The early morning light makes for gorgeous photos. On the top of the bank, along the roadside, I tried to get a group of kids to pose as they sat on the stone wall, but they were surprisingly shy. These two girls, working at a tea shop, happily volunteered.

Just about everything of potential value is reused on the riverbank. These oil drums, for example, have been battered, beaten and repaired countless times.

The storage areas on shore also provide excellent photo opportunities.

One of the more unusual raw materials arriving at Mandalay is one that is in abundance along the river: sand. Construction projects continue in the city and sand is a vital component of the concrete. The sand from the many islands in the middle of the river are best since they are free of organic matter (unlike that on the shore where I stood). Most of the small boat operators haul the sand to the bank by the basket load, but the more technologically advanced use a water pump to draw the sand through heavy hoses. It provides the local kids an opportune place to play.

Just a bit upriver from the "commercial bank," an inlet acts a bit of a harbor. It's not deep enough to let the larger boats in, but it makes a fine place to organize an prepare floating materials such as these logs.

People walk across the log rafts as they would a sidewalk. It is quite common to see people fishing from them and it's the ideal location to wash your clothes or whatever else needs a good scrubbing.

The most interesting thing about these log rafts is that not only do people work on them, they actually live on them. I saw numerous lean-to and hut dwellings, complete with cooking fires.

There's a small village on the other side of the inlet. Several boats ply between the shores, taking people to work and kids to school. The rowers use a peculiar crossed oar method to power their boats.

As the sun sets on the other side of the Irrawaddy, I'm given one more beautiful vista to enjoy.

See the full size photos here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mandalay Gold Beaters

Gold leaf is one of the most common materials in a Buddhist temple. In addition to statuary and sacred items being layered in gold leaf, it's also used by worshipers. They take tiny squares and carefully apply it to statues and other items as a way of making merit. Some items, like the sacred Buddha images of Inle Lake have had so much gold leaf applied to them that they appear as shapeless blobs. Gold leaf is in demand and this particular Mandalay shop employs a large staff to prepare it.

In the final product, small squares of gold leaf are cut from a larger round piece and carefully places on the yellow paper. The squares are then stacked in a box. A box of twenty-five squares may sell for between fifteen and twenty dollars depending on the price of gold. You're not actually paying for gold so much as the labor that goes into the preparation.

The round pieces of gold have been pounded against sheets of heavy bamboo parchment. Here, the shop's top gold trimmer shows the product as it comes from the gold beaters.

The process begins with a ribbon of gold about 0.025 mm thick. This is cut into squares of about 3 cm and sandwiched between sheets of specially prepared bamboo parchment. Preparing this paper is a task unto itself and requires a few days, from soaking select bamboo pieces to pounding out the finished product. Pounding the bamboo sheets is performed by a group of women squatting in a small, very noisy, dimly lit and very humid basement room. They pound the parchment until it is the right consistency for the next phase of the process. 

Upstairs, the men go to work on the gold. Numerous squares are sandwiched between layers of parchment and wrapped in sheepskin before being tied against a large stone.

Leaning against a wooden rail, the men begin a rhythmic beating of the packages. Although they each start with their own cadence, they inevitably form a constant beat that is remarkably musical. A small bowl with a hole in the bottom is placed in a jar of water to measure the amount of time the gold is pounded. When the bowl sinks, the men reposition the packages to ensure even distribution.

Each man has his own personal hammer. He usually begins in his teens as a sort of apprentice, spending a few weeks practicing the pounding technique on packages of bamboo sheets without gold. Once the masters are satisfied with his abilities, he is given his first gold to beat. After a few years of this, they are in remarkably good physical condition.

I was granted the opportunity to try my hand at the task, with a dummy package, of course. In bare feet, I positioned myself over the stone. One of the men tied the package and showed me how to strike it. The hammer is understandably heavy, but when I hit the sheepskin-wrapped package, I was pleasantly surprised; the hammer bounced. Instead of having to physically haul the hammer back to the overhead position, I had only to maintain the momentum and start the downward swing. It was like beating a very large drum. I kept up with the rest of the crew for a few minutes until the bowl sank in the jar.

I had the guys gather for a formal portrait. It took several attempts because they could not help laughing.

As I left, I ran into one of the senior gold beaters and had him pose with his hammer. Years of work have carved him into a gold pounding machine with a physique envied by any westerner of his age. As monotenous as the job may be, I can't help but wonder if it might not be a good retirement option: move to Mandalay and get into shape by taking up gold beating.

It beats the hell out of golf, that's for sure.

See more photos here.