The dazzling whiteness of their silhouettes stands out against the blue purity of a cloudless sky. The largest reach a size of ten meters. They are scattered on both sides of a dusty track that runs along a lake with banks bordered by rice fields. From a distance, they look like huge polystyrene molds posed by Hollywood decorators. As you approach, you can clearly distinguish the granularity, the volumes and the shades of white and bluishness of the material. These are sculptures of the Buddha carved in marble of exceptional quality, a rock renowned for its hardness, color and texture that is not found in Burma than in this region of Sagyin, about forty kilometers north of Mandalay. Sagyin is a succession of seven hills that separates the village of the same name from the Irrawaddy, the great river that crosses the country from north to south.
The dozens of marble Buddhas are frozen in the dust in a seated position, some have their hands resting on their knees and their fingers pointing towards the ground (posture Bhumisparsha Mudra), others with both hands resting on the knees (Dhyana Mudra).
Some are gently lying on the side, locked in wooden frames, ready to be hoisted onto trucks. Many have no face but a roughly hewn block. “They are waiting for the arrival of a master sculptor who will make their head,” explains a worker busy drilling a huge block of marble. Here, there are only a few specialists who can carve the heads of the Buddhas, because they must all look alike and above all you must not make the slightest mistake, because then the whole statue is good to throw away. »
Carved from a 900 ton block
The sculpture on stone and in particular on marble, the Pantamault in Burmese, is one of the traditional crafts included in the “Ten Flowers” list, which also includes painting, metalwork, jewelry or lacquerware.
One of the marble Buddhas that marked the history of sculpture and that of the country dates back to the discovery in the hills of Sagyin in the middle of the 900th century, under the dynasty of King Mindon, of a huge block of 10 tons . The chronicle says that it took two weeks with the help of 000 men to transport it from the quarry to Mandalay via the Irrawaddy River. There, after being carved into an eight-meter-tall seated Buddha, he was installed in the Kyauktawgyi temple and received the name Maha Thetkya Mayazein upon his enthronement in 1865. It is also in Sagyin marble that the 729 stelae of the Buddhist canon, the Tipitaka, in its version approved by the Buddhist Council of 1871. Known as the "greatest book in the world", this collection is in the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay.
For centuries, the techniques for producing marble Buddhas – from quarrying to sculpting and polishing – hardly evolved, relying on rudimentary tools such as the hammer, chisel or jack. It was not until the 1990s and the installation of a relatively stable electrical network that some mechanization developed and the arrival of electric saws, jackhammers and other sanders. "Before, with traditional tools, it took me a month to make a sculpture of about thirty centimeters, now I can make it in two days," says a craftsman.
“We do work for the Buddha and he protects us. »
The 10 inhabitants of the village of Sagyin live almost entirely from the exploitation of marble, which is worked in a hundred workshops of various sizes. Quarries, like any natural resource in the country, belong to the government. Lots of raw marble are awarded to private companies through competitive bidding, with the wealthiest winning the most promising blocks. Part of the rough or partly carved marble is shipped to Mandalay, where it is processed by craftsmen grouped in a street known to tourists, the Kyauk Sitt Than (the "Street of Stone Carvers").
The Sagyin and Mandalay workshops operate on a family basis, men with chisels, women and children with sanders. Ma Kyaw Ni Myint, a 45-year-old woman, runs one of these workshops with her husband and two of her three children. “We have been in this business for at least three generations, parents pass on the know-how to their children. Here, we work for a big company that exports statues. A worker can earn up to 5000 kyats (3 euros) per day. The master sculptor, the one who has the heavy responsibility of giving the stone all its finesse and splendor, will touch much more.
This work is not without risk. Most craftsmen, busy chiseling and polishing all day, wear no protection against the constant splashes of dust. “I don't have a mask because I've never seen anyone wearing one,” comments Ko Myint Than, a teenage apprentice. But after all, we are doing a job for the Buddha and he is protecting us. »
The Buddha of the Generals
A large part of the statues – of the Buddha, but also of Guanyin, the deity of compassion and mercy – are exported to China by truck via the border town of Ruili. A nine-ton statue sells there for around 15 million kyats (9000 euros), to which must be added an export tax of 300 kyats per ton (000 euros). Works not exported end up in one of the countless Buddhist temples in the country or in private homes.
In 2000, the dictator generals in their megalomaniac obsession with reincarnating the kings of yesteryear transported from Mandalay to Yangon by the Irrawaddy an 11-meter-high statue of the Buddha carved from a block of Sagyin marble weighing 500 tons. . To do this, they had a huge barge built which, accompanied by the prayers of thousands of faithful, took 13 days to travel the 700 kilometers of the river. Today the generals have officially put away their uniforms, but their statue continues to draw crowds of worshipers to a pagoda in the north of the city.