Myanmar: Artisan Traditions, Lovingly Tended

Myanmar: Artisan Traditions, Lovingly Tended

WWC3.jpg

At Inle Lake, the only way to get around is by longboat. It's also the only place in the world to find fabric made from lotus plants.

Keith Hajovsky

From outside its borders, the land of Burma seems shrouded in mystery and controversy. A military government has controlled it since 1962 under a policy of economic isolation, and the nation, now known by the sometimes disputed name of Myanmar, is one of the least-visited countries in Southeast Asia. Few outsiders come here, and even fewer know about ancient Burmese crafts such as lacquerware and lotus weaving that have been handed down for generations.

Many of these crafts and the people who practice them are suffering in the face of flagging tourism, which accounts for up to 90 percent of artisans' sales. That's a shame, because anyone who ventures into Myanmar will find that the country - with its welcoming people, natural beauty, and vibrant culture - has much to offer.

The 11th-century town of Bagan, home to a thousand ancient temples, lies along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River (formerly known as the Irra­waddy River) near the center of Myanmar, and boasts a rich history along with a wealth of artisan craft. It is the epicenter of traditional lacquerware, a labor-intensive craft deeply ingrained in the town's fabric since it was founded a millennium ago. Lacquerware is used in royal palaces, temples, and ordinary Burmese homes.

At Bagan House Lacquerware Workshop, one of the largest production shops, you can watch craftspeople at work and visit a showroom of exquisite tea sets, platters, chests, and furniture. But it's at the smaller family-owned shops where you'll find the real heart of the craft. The Golden Cuckoo, for example, is a family-run shop stretching back four generations. At Mya Thaw Tar, another modest shop, craftsman Sein Naing explains the time-consuming steps of the craft, taught to him by his father and grandfather.

"Each piece starts with a bamboo or horsehair base, which is then coated with seven to 16 layers of lacquer, which comes from Melanorrhoea - similar to a rubber tree but found in the jungles of northern Myanmar," he says. After each coat, the piece is set aside in an underground drying room for seven days, then smoothed with a knife. Three coats of buffalo bone powder go on next, followed by thin, high-quality cotton and more lacquer for strength.

The piece is now ready for its intricate design. Using teakwood charcoal, cinnabar, indigo, and other natural powdered color, the craftsperson creates an ornamental treasure using a small etching knife or needle. The finished product is dried underground for a month, then polished with a petrified root powder before going to the showroom for sale. A small cup can take six months to produce; Naing's favorite piece, a large chest designed on the inside as well as out, took him three years to complete.

"Each piece has its own long journey," he says. "At any time I am working on hundreds of pieces at various stages of the process."

Eastward from Bagan lies Inle Lake, a magical place where villages and monasteries rise from the water on wooden stilts amid floating gardens. The only way to get around is by longboat. This is the only place in the world where fabric is woven from lotus plants. The women who craft the material do so by hand, as has been done for centuries, originally to create sacred robes for Buddhist monks.

In a painstaking process, the artisans pull the sticky fibers from inside the stem of the padonma kyar lotus by hand; a full set of monk's robes requires as many as 220,000 stems to produce. Once the fibers are twisted into threads and spun on a spindle, they're washed; they may be left their natural cream color or dyed with natural materials to produce vibrantly hued yarn. Now ready to start weaving, the women load the yarn onto large wooden hand-looms and create handbags, robes, shawls, and other clothing, in an array of intricate patterns.

A small scarf takes a weaver one or two days to make; for a full set of monk's robes, as many as 60 weavers will devote 10 full days. Watching the process take place in a workshop such as the fourth-generation Myat Pwint Chel in Inpawkhon village, while boats glide past to the market, is like stepping back in time 200 years.

These magnificent traditions are only part of the charm of Myanmar. While the ethical debate over tourism continues (Does it support the ruling party or help individual citizens more?), local people are eager for visitors and the dollars they bring. It is a safe and welcoming place for travelers, who are guaranteed enchantment by the friendly people, gorgeous landscapes, and time-honored crafts.

Shelley Seale is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.