In Mandalay, a Road to Ruin for City’s Sculptors

By Zarni Mann 6 July 2013

MANDALAY — Tropical winds carry white dust through the air, welcoming visitors who stroll along the lane of Mandalay’s marble-carving epicenter.

The dust covers craftsmen who work with electric drills here on Kyauk Sit Tan, the stone sculpture lane near the west entrance of the city’s famous Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, while marble statues of various sizes line workshop after workshop.

Mandalay is widely known as the heart of Burmese culture, drawing tourism interest in its traditional craftsmanship. The city is famous for its embroidery, gold leafing, wood carving and marionettes, but also for its stone sculptures, largely carved of alabaster.

This centuries-old area of craftsmanship is one of Mandalay’s major tourist draws, but the road’s workshops have dwindled from more than 100 to just 80 today. Some worry that stone sculpting may be a declining facet of the ancient city’s cultural heritage.

Dozens of workshop owners along Kyauk Sit Tan were told to relocate last year as Mandalay officials set about widening the road to accommodate increasing vehicle traffic.

“The municipal department forced us to move from the area starting in August 2012,” said Soe Lin, a marble sculptor. “Since we will not get a substitute area and will have to relocate to wherever is suitable for us, we don’t want to go.”

Workshops owners are reluctant to abandon the area, where many of the sculpting operations have existed for 150 years.

“Most of the workshops were owned and inherited by generations since the Konbaung Era [1752-1885]. When King Mindon built Yadanabon Palace, he located our ancestors here to work together,” said another workshop owner.

Since King Mindon’s reign in the mid-19th century, craftsmen, embroiderers and gold leaf makers have congregated in various Mandalay quarters where many of the fellow residents share the same trade. In an area named Myat Par Yat, all of the workshops specialize in gold leafing. Those seeking purveyors of traditional embroidery can find what they are looking for in the Shwe Chyee Doe Yat quarter.

For stone sculptures, Kyauk Sit Tan is the place to be.

Mandalay’s reputation as a major center for stone sculpting is on the rise, drawing local and foreign collectors and casual buyers. Statues of the Buddha are in particular demand.

Sculpting’s Double-Edged Knife

As the industry moves from hand-crafted to machine-made sculptures, production rates have doubled or tripled—and so has the dust.

“Working with electrical equipment speeds up the production and the dust as well,” said sculptor Khin Maung Zaw as he shook some of the statues’ fine white byproduct from his hair. “But these particles haven’t interrupted our health yet. Maybe we are not aware of the effects.

“Sometimes, we try to put masks on but the hot weather forces us to not wear the mask as we are suffocated by them,” he added. “Working without a mask feels much better. We have not suffered serious illness due to the particles yet.”

Like Khin Maung Zaw, many other workers and shop owners said concern about the health effects of the dust take a backseat to the threat of forcible relocation.

The Mandalay sculpting industry’s rising reputation has been a blessing and a curse.

In forcing workshops to move their operations, the city’s municipal department reportedly said the road was narrowing due to the growing piles of uncut stones, half-crafted figurines and polished statues being showcased. The spillover—a sign of a prospering industry that was blamed for worsening traffic congestion—was cited along with the increased dust created by the sculptors, which officials said was negatively affecting neighboring residents’ health.

Since the August announcement, more than 40 workshops have been forcibly shut down.

“Every month, we’ve been forced to sign a letter in which we are agreeing to find new locations by ourselves. But how is that possible? We’ve worked here for many centuries and it’s very hard to find a new place in Mandalay. It seems like we all have to move to Sagyin Mountain, where all the raw alabaster is produced,” Soe Lin said.

“If we have to move to another place, we can find [locations] only on the outskirts of the city, which will cause difficulties in showcasing the statues. The customers will also have a hard time finding us, a convenience of the current Kyauk Sit Tan location,” he added.

Local residents and elders acknowledge the challenges to Mandalay’s ancient sites and landmarks in the face of modern development pressures. Many are urging the government to maintain them in order to preserve a cultural and historical heritage that has endured for centuries.

“Another stone sculpturing area located in the western part of Mandalay, Tha Mee Daw Kyauk Sitt Tan, was extinct a long time ago for the same reason, to widen up the streets,” said Hsu Hnget, a prominent writer and resident of Mandalay. “Only Kyauk Sit Tan of the Maha Muni Pagoda area remains as an image of Mandalay’s stone sculpting industry. This area must be preserved as it is a living museum of Burmese culture.

“Moving the workshops to widen up the road is not the only solution we have. We can choose another road alternatively. The workshops’ owners, and workers as well, have to take responsibility to reduce the waste, dust and particles spreading … It is very important to share responsibility and understand the value of the culture we have.”