The Sand Painters of Burma

One of the most unique art forms you’ll ever see is the sand paintings of Bagan, Burma. Artists paint on cloth using sand. I visited a hut on stilts where the artists crouched over spanned cloth, painstakingly applying the grains by candle light.

Buddhist image painted with sand, image from a Bagan temple, Burma

Traditionally, artists reproduce religious murals found on the walls of Bagan’s 1,300 temples. [1] Sand paintings may be black and white, or composed of colored sands. When I visited Burma for the first time with Uwe in 2009 there were few tourists. We reached the temples by horse carriage; now mopeds and air-conditioned vans carry visitors to the sites.

Sand painters still sell their work inside or outside small temples or in the courtyards as you approach. Some artists are branching out and painting their personal riffs on traditional images, or creating their own modern ones. Take your time if you are interested in purchasing a painting. Be wary of any artist who claims too aggressively, “This image is my own. I discovered this new technique.” (Amazing how many sand painters simultaneously invented an image involving contemporary animals.…)  But the work is mostly beautiful, and the artists are carrying on a unique tradition.

Foot print of the Buddha

Bagan is also famous for lacquerware, a costly and time-consuming art form. Sand-painting is an easier and less expensive way for local craftspeople to make money. Unlike lacquerware, sand painters can simply roll up and carry their wares to potential customers.

Eturbonews explains the history and process so well that I’ll quote them in entirety here:

“[T]here are dozens of mostly young artists displaying their paintings on the floor of temple compounds. They generally take inspiration from 700-year-old murals who adorn some of the most famous temples, such as Ananda or Gubyaukgyi, where paintings depict the life of the Buddha.

According to locals, Bagan’s artist community emerged following a terrible earthquake in 1975. In the turmoil generated by the earthquake, which saw hundreds of pagodas collapsing, locals got access to the temples and started to copy the murals on carbon. Paintings sold at temples are drawn using a sand technique, a peculiar aspect of Bagan art.

It consists of sketching replicas of murals with a stylus on a piece of cloth, which is then covered by acrylic glue. Then sand is sprinkled over the cloth, precisely following the lines from the drawing. Once the glue is dried, painting is added, giving the finishing a colorful touch to the motif. It takes a couple of days to finish a large-scale painting. The technique requires patience and skill.” [2]

I have given sand paintings as gifts to special friends.

A painting can be expensive to frame as the canvas needs to be stabilized so it won’t sag. On that first visit I purchased 3 paintings that took me forever to finally get framed. Uwe had selected an image with two tigers: I surprised him years later with the framed sand painting for his birthday.

On my first visit to Bagan I discovered artists had covered a temple’s altar with bags of colored sands. The artists brought them as offerings to Buddha. When I returned to Bagan this past spring, I didn’t find that temple again. But I remain delighted to know that it exists.

NOTES: [1] See my earlier post A Burmese Spirit Guide for more on Bagan’s temples and the talented wood carvers who work there. [2] Eturbonews.com   [3] When I view the sand paintings that hang here in my home, I am reminded of the mandalas that Tibetan Buddhist monks paint with colored sand. When the painting is finished, the monks sweep the sands away. It is art as meditation on the temporary nature of all things. Sand mandalas  © Jadi Campbell 2017. To see Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

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6 thoughts on “The Sand Painters of Burma”

  1. We went to Bagan in 2013 and travelled around the temples by horse and buggy so maybe this possibility still exists. I hope so. It seems to me you’re somehow closer to it all travelling by horse and buggy than in an air conditioned van. I loved the sand paintings. We went for a walk one day down a back lane to a river and came across an artist in his home working on a painting of Buddha’s feet. We bought it from him and he delivered it to out hotel completed the next morning.
    Alison

    1. The horse carts are still there, but motorized vehicles are definitely in the majority now. The slower trips between temples and pagodas via horse carts were definitely the nicer way to see them. And the young man who drove the horse cart took us to see where his family lived on the river. PS: I like knowing that you and Don have a footprint painting too…

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