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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A Burmese Spirit Guide

I just made my second trip to Myanmar. Or Burma, as the country was once known. My sister Pam and I spent a grand weekend exploring just a few of the thousands of temples at Bagan. [1, 2] Most date back to the 11th – 13th Century.

Sunrise with hot air balloons over Bagan’s Mon temples
Carved and gilded wooden temple roof in Bagan, Myanmar

Along with the temples that seem to grow out of the ground everywhere you look, Bagan is a major center for traditional art forms including lacquerware, sand paintings and wood carving.

Carved temple door
Temple door detail

On previous trips Pam has purchased hand carved figures from a local artist. We went in search of his shop, and a figure known as a spirit guide accompanied me back to Germany.

Khim Maung Zaw creates and sells from a small shop. He graciously signed the sandalwood figure I wanted, and allowed me to photograph his art.

Master Wood Carver Khim Maung Zaw

I am delighted to  recommend Mr. Zaw and his beautiful carvings. [3] His shop’s address is:

Diamond Crown Wood Carving: Ko  Khim Maung Zaw + Ma Thida Aye. Thiripyitsaya (4) Qr., Nyaung OO (Bagan), Myanmar. Telephone: 09-47221551. Email: diamondcrown.bagan@gmail.com

I hand-carried lacquer ware and my spirit guide for the long 24 hour journey back home. When I removed all the bubble wrapping he seemed surprisingly alive. I gently unwound the cloth strips, feeling anxious.

I was delighted that he’d survived the trip intact. A spirit guide now stands in my home, pointing the way towards the path to enlightenment. [4]

NOTES: [1] I’ll write more about Bagan arts and Myanmar soon. [2] Bagan is one of the three most important Buddhist sites in SE Asia. The other two are Borobodur on Java, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. [3] I receive no discount or special deal for this endorsement. I simply believe that beautiful work deserves a wider audience. [4] We can never have too many such guides in our lives © Jadi Campbell 2017. All photos © Jadi Campbell. To see Uwe’s photos from our earlier trip to Myanmar go to viewpics.de.