The Exquisite Art of Wood-carving

By Pyi Phone Myint


        It can safely be stated that a country's culture is her worth, the life of her people and quintessence of her nationals life. Our country possesses her own culture. Our Burmese culture is the life of her songs and its own national character has been inherited, nurtured and developed from days of old through the ages. A glance at the history of Burma will show that the Burmese culture has  passed through various chapters of our history such as the earliest Pyu and Pagan eras up to the Yatanabon dynasty and present age.

        It is a law of nature that as old orders wither and perish , new orders are born and take the old's place. IN accordance with this law of nature, the Burmese people have accepted and built the present-day culture on the basis of old heritages. The processes through which one of the main aspects of our culture, namely the Burmese wood-carving, which has passed and reached the present standard bears ample testimony to this assertion. The Burmese wood-carving flourished as long ago as the Pyu era. The level of wood-carving excellence reached during the Pyu era can be judged from the floral designs discovered on the great brass bells of the Pyu times found in the archaeological excavations of the Pyu capital Sare-khittaya. The floral designs of early Pagan age possess a serene and serious character while in later Pagan period they underwent a distinct change into something more active and energetic. This style was preserved in the following first Ave period and early Nyaung-yan era. New floral designs in wood-carving could be noticed in the later Nyaung-yan and early Konboung ages. Amara-pura era saw emergence of flowers, single and in clumps, while Yatana-bon times shifted the emphasis to leaves and twigs in wooden figures. The present-day floral design in wood-carving may be taken as an improvement open the style of Konbaung Yatana-bon times.

        The main tool of the Burmese wood-carver is the chisel, made of iron with a wooden handle and a hammer-like wooden beater. The sizes of the chisel number as much as fifty and the shapes of the iron edge are also different such as straight, curved and concave. The complete art of wood-carving is divided into our principal phases. They are drawing , cutting out hollow parts, carving floral designs and putting final finishing touches to the work of art and these four stages are performed by artisans with varying degrees of proficiency. The present-day lessons in wood-carving still use the terms and names which were extant during the Yatana-bon era. For instance, a three-forked leave is called 'Thonsa-ywet', a five-forked leave ' Ngasa-ywet' and 'thon-ywet' for leaves with more than five forks or prongs. Those designs which are the products of modern day innovations are termed 'Ywet-sann'. Apart from these techniques invented by craftsmen of old to denote various aspects of wood-carving are still in use by their modern followers.

        The wood-carving of floral designs, called 'Kanote-pan' in Burmese is only one of the four features of traditional wood-carving art and the remaining there are Nari, Kapi and Gaza. The Kanote-pan carving covers all parts of a floral design such as petals, flowers, bulbs, leaves, stems, stalks etc. The Burmese literature is rich in compositions relating to Kanote-pan. Here are some excerpts:-

        Our forefathers had left posterity their traditional cultural heritage in floral wood-carving on the religious and social edifices. The second feature of Burmese wood-carving namely 'Nari' depicts figures of the Buddha, human beings, sprits and such beings. this feature of wood-carving is most evident on the well-known Mandalay Palace and Salin Monastery and Shwekyaungdaw Monasteries of Mandalay. Another center of great renown for wood-carving not only for the Burmese but also for foreigners is Pakokku, where traditional arts of Shwegu and Thi-ho-shin temples have been attracting art connoisseurs. There famous carving were executed on panels of 'yamanay' wood, about six feet in lengths . The carvings illustrate the well-known episodes of Lord Buddha's life and stories of his previous existences. It is noteworthy that there pictorial stories were shown entirely on wood with floral backgrounds and without the help of either masonry or iron-work.

        Another feature of Burmese wood-carving called Kapi is related to beasts, birds, ogres and spirits in animated and nimble actions. These wood-carvings of massive and enormous figures in somber postures are called Gaza form of carving. The Burmese art of wood-carving is therefore a well-established and firmly based culture brought down to the present stage through eras of traditional heritage. This fact finds expression in literary works of many generations such as the followings:-

        The traditional wood-carving called 'Pan-pu' art forms one of the ten branches of Burmese art, idealistically termed 'Ten flowers' because the word 'Pan' in Burmese is 'Flower'. There 'Ten Flowers' which figure prominently in adorning religious and public structures, are (1) Pan-pae ( iron-smith) , (2) Pan-tain (fold or silver smith), (3) Pan-tin (brass-ware making), (4) Pan-tawt (floral design with cement), (5) Pan-yan (masonry), (6) Pan-pu (wood-carving), (7) Pan-tamawt (stone-carving), (8) Pan-put (craft of wood turners lathe), (9) Pan-chi (painting) and (10) Panyun (lacquer-ware work).

        The Burmese people have exhibited their cultural excellence through generations by utilizing the above-mentioned 'Ten Flowers' on glorious religious structures and imposing social edifices. These forms of art have borne witness to the irrefutable fact that we have possessed our own tradition of nationals culture.

        We can assume that there remain in various parts of  our country many works of wood-carving unknown to us. Let us continue our endeavours to strengthen the foundation and widen the knowledge of this cultural legacy, the art of Pan-pu left to us by our forefathers.