Known as Bagan’s most acclaimed shopping village, Myinkabar is famous for its beautiful and creative Lacquerware. Items in all shapes and sizes are created in the friendly village. Several large families work together in this co-operative business which makes the most exquisite and unique artwork, it is the main industry in Myinkabar. When we first arrived Bagan I noticed the delightful crafts but had no idea the process behind it. One of my husband’s co-workers, Mike, then arranged a tour for us with one of the sellers that shows up at the landing site each morning, selling his items to the balloon passengers. Aung Htoo and his family have lived in Myinkabar for many decades and he is always pleased to show visitors his village and how the lacquerware items are crafted. This family business has been passed down many generations. Lacquerware craftmanship dates back to the 13th century.
The bamboo is delivered on boats along the Irrawaddy River. It comes from the Chin State, in west Myanmar to Bagan. It arrives in very long lengths and the first step is to cut the large bamboo into smaller sticks which are then stripped into thin strands, one by one.
The strips of bamboo are then weaved and created into the various shapes, depending on the items they are making. Many items are created; cups, bowls, dishes, jewl boxes, vases, serving trays and even furniture.
Aung Htoo explained that the traditional process – which his family continues to make are very high quality – made using clay instead of glue and many layers of lacker. The clay is made from sand from the Irrawady River. This is Myanmar’s largest and most important commercial waterway and flows from North to South through Myanmar. The sand is mixed with water to create the clay and then applied over the bamboo, creating more structure to the weaved bamboo pieces. A few layers of clay are added and sanding is done between the layers so it is smooth before moving on to the next step – the black lacquer application.
Lacquer in Myinkabar and around Myanmar is made from a mixture of sap from the thitsi tree. The black lacquer is applied all over, inside and out. Once the lacquer has been applied it then must dry for one week, before the second layer is added. Successive coats of black lacquer cover the bamboo, making the items very durable. The higher quality lacquerware will have many coats, the cheaper versions (which they do not make) have just a few layers. All items are moved underground for the drying process, this keeps any dust from getting stuck to the lacquer and keeps them out of the sun – which would cause bubbling or cracking. Once dry they will then be polished before moving on to the next step, the designs.
As you can see much patience is required in the following process – the designs are etched into the black lacquer. Aung Htoo explained that only certain artisans are able to create the designs – it comes with experience and over time one will pass down the traditions to other family members. The markings are so intricate! Traditional designs were inspired by the stories of Buddhas life. Others tell love stories of ancient folklore or astrology.
Once the artist has carved in first set of designs they will then continue with the next set of lacquer, this time the red colour is added. The red fills the groves and once dry the excess will be wiped away and the red lacquer remains in the etchings. It will dry, again for nearly a week before they move on. Now the product is black and red with detailed patterns. Another set of designs will then be scratched in for the next colour, yellow. The process is continued and lastly the green is added. These are the traditional colours used, however Aung Htoo did mention other colours such as purple are more “modern”. From start to finish the process takes nearly 5 months for the multicoloured artwork!
It was so impressive to see the care and detail that goes into each piece of creative work. I highly recommend you visit Myinkabar, if not to tour the village and see the artists and learn about the process but at least to purchase some of the beautiful lacquerware items. For the amount of time and energy they put into their work the pieces really are reasonably priced. This village sells their items all over Bagan. We had the pleasure of visiting Aung Htoo’s home, where he has a small shop selling the lovely artwork.
Here’s a video I created of the artists at work. A big thanks to Aung Htoo for taking the time to give us a tour of his village and to Mike for arranging the visit.