The making of sculpture in wood has been widely practiced but survives much less well than the other main materials such as stone and bronze. The reason is that it is vulnerable to decay, insect damage, and fire. It therefore forms an important hidden element in the history of art in many cultures, including Burmese.
In ancient Burma, the temples and palaces of the old were magnificently decorated with carved wooden gables and eaves, and other fabulous ornamentation comprised of the most creative and intricate woodcarvings. Myanmar’s woodcarving emerged before the Bagan period and subsequently improved in the middle of the Bagan era. It is a pity that many examples of the true genius of Myanmar wood carvers have suffered in the course of time but, fortunately, some of the most exquisite woodcarvings still survive in monasteries and pagodas. In Bagan, the Shwezigone Pagoda and Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay contain ornamentation of filigree-like woodcarving with scrolls, flowers, animals and supernatural-beings arranged in intricate patterns. One can also see the wooden carvings of nats, or marionettes, or mythical traditional spirits, and figures of animals.
In Myanmar, the woodcarving is done mainly on the teak wood (Tectona grandis) which is the world’s most valuable hardwood. Teak is a native species in the rain forests of Burma, India, Laos, and Thailand, and now grows in about 40 countries throughout the tropics. Its golden brown lustre, decorative grain and unique properties have made it one of the most demanded woods of the world. In the early 1800s, sailors and traders discovered that girdling selected trees, found deep in a Southeast Asian rainforest, allowed the timber to die and dry on the stump over a period of several years. This made logging teak much easier, as the wood was much lighter and more moveable. Teak has been particularly useful in shipbuilding because it does not crack or turn black when in contact with metals, so it is ideal for marine use. Teak is used most in boat construction industry.
Also, teak wood is one of the few woods in the world that has a natural oil to retard water and keeps teak from wrapping, cracking or becoming brittle. Teak is extremely resistant to rot and has a natural resinous substance that repels termites, marine borers and other insects. High grade teak lumber and veneer plywood is in great demand. The best example of Burmese teak architecture is the Shwenandaw Kyaung Temple built in mid-19th century. The temple is fragile yet a significant masterpiece of the wood-carver’s art. It is a large multi-tiered building with four separate roof levels. Newly restored flame-like decorations define the roof lines, which also contain profuse embellishments as well as numerous avian creatures. Rich carvings on the bargeboards and balustrades and wooden entries further hint at the glory of the former royal palace. Surrounding the building at the main entry level is an imposing teak platform with elaborate carvings and marble finials on the parapets. There are rich ornamental carvings, wonderful serpentine dragons, lively dancing figures, mythical animals, flowers and vines on carved teak panels both on the outside and the inside. The structure was once gilded and covered with glass mosaics. The main hall having golden interior has massive teak pillars, an imposing ceiling, and the replica of the Lion Throne.
In Myanmar, Bagan is a vast archaeological zone and a historic region. of the ancient and It was the former capital of the first Burmese Kingdom. Some 13,000 temples, pagodas, monasteries and other religious structures were originally built here. Here, monasteries were generally made of wood. Most of them are 500 years old and are in poor condition. Many of the wooden monasteries with architectural significance have disappeared over the centuries for a variety of reasons. Unlike the temples and stupas, which were sites of public veneration and worship, monasteries were places of residence for monks who had little or no income. Wealthy individuals had often built elaborate monasteries and enclaves as personal donations to earn merit along the road to Nirvana. But the maintenance and renovation of these buildings did not carry the same weight among their descendants who preferred to build their own new structures. Thus many fell into disrepair and decay. Also, wooden structures were less susceptible to the dangers of earthquakes. Myanmar has a long tradition of producing wooden handicrafts which show the art of exquisite wood carving. Burmese wood carvers are expert craftsmen. Their wooden carvings are usually intricate and dimensional. The oldest remaining examples of wood carving date to the 11th century in Nagayon, Bagan. What exists there tells of a much greater lineage of craftsmanship that has since disappeared. Most visitors to Myanmar are struck by the diversity and beauty of the arts and crafts unique to this culturally rich country.
The main inspiration for much of the Burmese wood carved handicrafts is Buddhism as well as pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs. This philosophical outlook, together with a rich tradition of story-telling and myth, along with a highly developed appreciation of aesthetics has been the inspiration for the creation of works of art that are uniquely Burmese. The range of crafts made from teak wood and other types of wood is phenomenal.
Burmese arts and crafts continue to be a source of pride to all Burmese people and within Burmese communities artisans still enjoy a good measure of respect. Myanmar’s handicrafts sell for both local and foreign buyers. The market has grown in the last couple of years, and venues to buy handicrafts have expanded from historical pagodas to art galleries and shopping malls. The art of woodworking is also observed both in architecture and on decorative objects, such as columns and beams, on doors and shutters, pulpits, mosque niches, ceiling ornaments, and balcony railings; on furniture turban stands, trousseau chests and tables, and as accessories.
The rare beauty of Burmese teak lies in the fact that darkens as it ages. Sometimes there are dark patches on it. There is a strange scent in newly cut wood. It is a well-protected wood. Elephants are still used extensively to extract teak because of their low impact upon the environment.
Traditional wood carving art of Myanmar is preserved by people in the villages and craftsmen try to pass down the technique and skills to the next generation. The prices of handicrafts are low in Myanmar, especially for wood carvings, although they are of a very high standard. However, that makes it difficult for youths to enter the profession, essential for producing a new generation of artists. Many young artists have moved to carving shops in China for work, highlighting that Myanmar wood carvings do not get a good price.
Despite the challenges faced by the wood carving artists of Myanmar, the traditional art will continue to bring fame and name to the country.