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Work in Marble


Marble carving was introduced into the old Burma 235 years ago during the reign of Thalumintragyi, the builder of Kaunghmudaw pagoda at Sagaing, and the industry was developed in the Konebaung dynasty of King Alaungpaya.

The most venerated of all images in Burma is a marble image carved under the orders of King Bagyidaw soon after he ascended his grandfather Bodawpaya's throne at Amarapura. It is at Taungtaman just outside Amarapura and is known as Taungtaman Kyauktawgyi.

A huge marble image of Buddha at the foot of Mandalay Hill was carved under orders from King Mindon in imitation of Bagyidaw's image at Amarapura, and was given the same name Kyauktawgyi, or great royal stone). Although much larger in size, the image is not as well proportioned as that of King Bagyidaw's.

Marble of very good quality is quarried from Sagyin Hill, 21 miles north of Mandalay. The quarries have been worked for several generations and the work is difficult and dangerous. Sometimes workers have to excavate from the face of a steep cliff, or in a deep cave, or on the edge of a precipice.

Marble is usually extracted in cubes a yard square. The block is cut out by chisel and hammer, and one man can only extract two blocks a month.

Once the block of marble is extracted, it laboriously rolled down the hill and often blocks are chipped during this roll. The blocks are then taken by boat, and cart or lorry to Mandalay. Sometimes purchasers buy blocks directly at Sagyin and sometimes the blocks are brought to Mandalay to be sold.

Marble now fetches high prices, depending on the size and quality of the stone. Marble of very good quality is carved into Images of Buddha. A few images of Rahantas or Arahats are still carved today. Marbles is also used for stone slabs for inscriptions, such as those in the Maha-Ioka-Marazein pagoda enclosure, and for dedicatory inscriptions at pagodas.

Some of the Buddha images are carved at Sagyin, but the Mandalay carvers are much more skilful and most of the images are made just south of the Maha Myat Muni or Arakan pagoda). Majority of these skillful carvers live and work in a street called Kyauk- sic-tan or Carver Street). The same name is given to another locality in the west of Mandalay where there are also marble carvers. A great many Buddha images are made without prior order, but really good Buddha images have to be specially ordered. The demand for images has increased lately.

The wages of carvers depend entirely on their skill. Their carving tools are few and very simple. They consist of chisels and punches of various sizes made by the carvers from old files bought from saw-mills. The metal of old files is especially hard and suitable for carving. Marble carvers never use iron hammers, only wooden mallets they make from the heart wood of cutch or tamarind trees.

After carving is finished the figure has to be filed (with new files), and then rubbed with different kinds of stone in succession for several days. The first kind of stone used is a coarse stone, the next is a medium stone for another day, and finally a smooth stone.

Rough and medium stones come from Katha. The smooth stone is a jeweler's touch stone. Finally the figure is rubbed with sandpaper for a day and it is then finished. Figures other than Buddha images are not so carefully finished - they are merely filed and then rubbed with a coarse stone.