It’s dusty and backbreaking work. Covered from head to toe with thick white dust, crouching low on their haunches, the young men and boys use simple angle grinders to carve the shape out of solid blocks of white marble.
Some of the statues will be only a couple of feet tall. Others will tower 8 to 10 feet of solid marble. With remarkable skill, the artisans add ever finer detail with their angle grinders. Others in the workshop, often women and children, will later polish the statue’s surface to a smooth finish.
Myanmar lies in the historical heartland of Buddhism, and it often seems that everywhere you look you see one or more temples or stupa. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s estimated 56 million people identify as Buddhist.
That creates a healthy demand for statues of The Buddha, whether it’s for public temples or shrines in private homes or businesses.
And much of the demand from around the country (but not all of it) is met by this cluster of workshops on Kuauk Sit Tan Street in the Chanmyathazi neighborhood of Mandalay surrounding the Mahamuni Temple, one of the country’s holiest pilgrimage sites.
The artisans create all of the statues by hand. Customers can choose from amongst the hundreds of finished statues lying out, with an endless variety of sizes and styles. Or they can order one customized to their preferences, specifying important symbolic elements like particular facial expressions or hand gestures.
Many of the statues on display in the workshops remain unfinished, with blank blocks for the heads, awaiting a customer’s instructions. Transporting the larger statues to the customer is another feat–these can be incredibly heavy.
Photos of the Marble Buddha Workshops of Mandalay
What to Know Before You Go
These are active workshops. You’re welcome to wander around and have a look in most of them. Mind the uneven steps and power cables strewn about, and expect thick clouds of dust in the air.