MANDALAY — Unlike other mountainous places, a village located at the foot of Sagyin Mountain, 32 miles north of Burma’s second largest city, is not an ordinary tourist destination nor a hill station geared for relaxation.
It is instead the birthplace of the centuries-old marble craft that is more commonly seen at a Mandalay lane named Kuauk Sit Tan, which is one of the most fabulous attractions drawing tourists in the city.
The village, surrounded by peaks high and low, is covered with a white haze coming from the digging process in the mountains.
On the only bumpy and dusty road in the village, various vehicles are busy transporting white marble stones and crafted statues.
More dust, and the sound of drilling, rises from every workshop. Such establishments make up about 80 percent of the village, where houses, trees and craftsmen themselves are covered with a fine white marble dust, as if the village was covered with snow.
Visitors might be concerned about air pollution in Sagyin village, but the 5,800 villagers, young and old, do not worry much about their health, and are more concerned about their business.
The village has been here for many decades, but the pollution was never as bad as now. In the past four years, electric drills and tools have taken over from traditional hand tools, increasing pollution.
“There are many health problems relating to breathing problems, but it’s not a severe issue yet. However, it will soon become an important health issue for villagers,” said Dr. Aung Zin Myint, who has operated a tiny clinic in the village for about eight years.
“These [respiratory] problems arose just three or four years ago. It is probably relating to the dust, but nobody seems aware about this, despite our campaigns for them to wear masks and goggles.”
A deep-rooted belief that eating bananas neutralizes any negative effects of the dust is a major obstacle for the health workers trying to educate the craftsmen.
“We never get bad health problems relating to this dust,” insisted Myint Tin, a father of two whose family has been in the marble craft for four generations.
“As the dust comes from the stone, it is cold and has no affect on our health. If we inhale lots of dust, we eat bananas and they dissolve it and we feel better.”
Instead of on their health, the minds of craftsmen like Myint Tin are concentrated on getting the best quality stone to carve, how to carve the most impressive sculptures and finding markets to increase their earnings.
At Sagyin village, not all of the villagers are craftsmen. Some own or run marble mines and are the ones who dig out the stones for the craftsmen to carve.
Every year, tons of marble is extracted here. Some premium-quality stones are transported to the Sino-Burmese border to sell to Chinese craftsmen.
The crafted sculptures include images of the Buddha or figures related to Buddhism. Most of those are bought up by traders on Kuauk Sit Tan.
Unlike Kuauk Sit Tan, though, Sagyin village also offers a range of statues relating to Chinese culture, such as statues of Kwan Yin, the laughing Buddha, and Chinese spirits and goddesses.
Fully crafted statues are also transported to the Chinese border. Another market is Thailand, from where orders come for premium quality Buddha statues made in porcelain-white first-grade marble.
“We have foreign markets, mainly China where the Chinese traders come here to make direct orders. If we get such orders, our profits are more than satisfactory,” said Soe Win, a craftsman.
“However, we can only get such orders if we have good connections. Sometimes, because the costs of transportation are high, especially if the order is just a small statue, it means the profit is too little. Most of the craftsmen expect to get huge orders, such as life-sized statues.”
As well as health worries, there are concerns about the damage the marble trade is doing to the local environment. The mountains themselves are slowly being reduced to nothing by the miners.
Mass production of marble by large companies, using modern mining techniques and heavy machinery, is making locals worry that the mountains, and their livelihoods, will soon be gone.
Locals complain specifically that Chinese companies are using such techniques and point out a valley which they say was a mountain just a few months ago.
“They [large companies] are trying to buy plots owned by the villagers, offering high prices. The problem is the local craftsmen have to buy raw materials from the companies at high prices and never get the premium-quality raw marble stones,” said Soe Win.
Despite an awareness of the environmental impacts of their business, craftsmen say they have no other options for work.
“We know only how to craft and will pass this knowledge to the young generation as well. We are aware that these mountains will soon be gone forever,” said Ko Ko Lwin, who owns a marble production plot and a sculpting workshop.
“If the day comes when we can’t find marble, we will have to stop crafting. But we believe that there will be another marble mountain and we will have to move to that area. Or we might have to change profession. But we will craft like this until that day arrives.”
There are about five mountains that can produce white marble in this area at present, but they are being rapidly diminished. And local monks are trying to prevent nearby Phayar Taung mountain from becoming yet another source of marble.
On the summit of the mountain sits the 300-year-old Shwe San Shin Pagoda. However, it is said Phayar Taung contains some of the best marble, and businessmen have begun eying the mountain for mining.
Local monk Ashin Tharwara said plans were underway to rescue the pagoda by listing the whole mountain as a religious site.
“If we can register the area as religious land, no one can destroy it. This will automatically maintain the area around this mountain. But we worry that the companies will move faster than the registration process,” said Ashin Tharwara.
“These mountains will be gone sooner or later. But we want to keep this mountain with the pagoda to be preserved for history and to tell the future generations about the mountains and the glory of Sagyin village.”