History of Myanmar’s Ivory Carving

Ivory carving has also flourished in Myanmar like Thailand, a well-known country of elephants. In the 13th century when Marco Polo went to Burma, he described the country as teeming with elephants, rhinos and other wild beasts. But unlike Thailand, there was no evidence that ivory was used either in the north or south of country until the 19th century.

Although elephants were widely used in extracting logs from the forest during the Pagan Kingdom and the Toungoo Dynasty, today’s artifacts and available historical information have not indicated any existence of iron carving during these period. The British diplomatic mission, whom deployed by the British colonizers in late 19th century, reported an existence of ivory production in two remote tribal areas in Kachin State in the north and mentioned a small paper-knife used to squeeze on ceremonial headdresses and tuck away hair.

The earliest dated item made from ivory was an ivory chair crafted for King Thibaw in 1878. Today, it is housed in the National Museum collections in Yangon. Historians estimate the beginning of ivory carving in the 1860s in the court of Kind Mindon with U Oh, Uhmyin, and U Maun. They were the only known ivory craftsmen in Mandalay. Oral histories mentioned the name U Saya Ohn too as a famous carver in Rangoon, also around the 1860s. He is known as the trainer of first generation ivory carvers and the master of the three best carvers in Mandalay.

In Burmese language, ivory carving is called “sinswe pan pu.” Pan pu refers to wood carving, which is one of the pan sai myo or “ten arts.” Historians approximate that ivory carving in Lower Burma was inspired by British colonizers and Indian traders. Meanwhile, ivory carving in Upper Burma flourished in the Court of Ava in the same decade. However, there was no collection having refined carving skills.

Ivory carving in Burma is associated with nobility and Buddhist church. In 1885 when Konbaung Dynasty ended, Mandalay’s royal patronage also ended. Ivory carvings are made mainly for the British and Indians immigrants.

Ivory carving workshops were established in Moulmein (Mawlamyine) and Pyinmana in the south in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the Burmese ivory craftsmanship during this era was not highly praised and was not flourishing.

When Japan invaded Burma at the end of 1941, it developed the ivory industry. During the Japanese colonization, there were around 56 ivory craftsmen in eight businesses in Mandalay. The Japanese soldiers were consumers of ivory chopsticks, combs, cigarette holders and cases. The Buddha figurine, which survives from 1942, showed the diversity of ivory carvers from jewelry to utilitarian materials, religious items, and decorations.

Even when the Japanese lost political power in Burma when World War II ended, ivory carving has continued in the country. Many ivory carvers passed down the tradition to their next generation. In the early 1970s when ivory-made materials became globally popular, the Burmese government brought tour groups to the country. But this did not benefit Tin Aung, a known ivory businessman.

When tourists started coming to the country, Tin Aung opened a second ivory shop in his expanded home and employed 17 carvers. As the ivory industry continued to flourish in the 1980s, competition of ivory businesses began and Tin Aung’s carvers went down to 7. In 1988, he closed down his two shops after the riots. He reopened his shop in 1990 and when he died a year after, no one carried on his business.

U Win Maung became one of the best and most successful ivory carvers in Myanmar. He was a specialist in human figurine carving and in staining to “antique” a piece. Then, he trained U Ba Pe who later became skilled carver and businessman in Yangoon. Today, there are only about seven ivory carvers left in Yangon. Others retired and some shifted to wood or moved to Mandalay. This is because acquiring raw ivory is too difficult to sustain ivory carvers. Most of the tusks in Myanmar are sold to Mandalay, Thailand or China.

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