Tracing the Art of Ivory Carving in Myanmar

Little is known about the history of ivory carving in Myanmar, where it is called sinswe pan pu in Burmese language. Pan pu refers to wood carving, which is one of the pan sai myo or ten arts.

Existing master carvers still exist only in Mandalay, Myanmar. Today, acquiring raw ivory is too difficult to sustain the ivory business. This is due to worldwide pressure on ending ivory trade because of the near-extinction of both Asian and African elephants.

In Myanmar, only males are taught to carve because they meet required strength in doing such. Boys start performing menial tasks as apprentices in a workshop at the age of 10 to 12. Their apprenticeships also include watching the process of cutting, sketching and carving of pieces. They will begin practicing carving on softwoods when they reach 14 to 15 years old. At the age of 17 to 18, they might be given a simple small ivory piece if they perform well in the previous years.

There are five forms a craftsman must master to become an expert in carving. Some carvers may opt not to master the five forms. Rather, they may concentrate on one or two of them. They can also choose to remain carving on simpler jewelry pieces, chopsticks, and signature seals.

The first form is hathi or shaping of an animal, usually the elephant. The second is gumbi or the ogres that figure in Burmese mythology. Other forms include the na yi or woman and the ka noke or the convoluted style of depicting lotus stems, buds and flowers seen on Buddhas or Jataka story carvings. The last is the Buddha in his various positions (mudra in Burmese language).

The yeh kyaw pan and kun char are other notable carving motifs. The former are floral designs and flowing branches seen most often at the base of elephant bridges that symbolize the forest. The latter is a rare one. It is a filigreed outer layer with a carved figure within.

There are two carving styles in Myanmar. One is formal and aesthetic style, while the other is the informal and naturalistic style. The former is used with religious items such as Buddha, bodhisattvas, Taoist immortals and sages or historical figures like kings, and hero generals. The latter style is used with subjects of traditional Burmese life such as cane-ball players, fishermen, and a women fetching water.

Most of the time, the subjects of ivory carving are determined by the clients and not of the craftsmen. The most common Burmese subjects are the Buddha, Jataka stories or Buddha's life on tusks or plaques, the arhat Shin Thi-wa-li or a revered Buddhist monk who reached spiritual perfection, dancing nats or nats holding up Buddha, and the "King riding an elephant." Other popular subjects also include General Pan Du Hla who defeated the Thais in a 19th century battle, royal figures, and ogres. Animals, except for elephant, are not serious subjects in Myanmar.

Before Myanmar has joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1997, the government supported the ivory industry. It even sponsored a nationwide ivory carving competition to stimulate ivory sales among tourists in 1996. To date, the government cracked down on all illegal wildlife trade.

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