The Tradition of Wood Carving in Southeast Asia

December 30th, 2017

Southeast Asia has always been thickly forested, so it was natural that the first material to be used for artistic purposes should have been wood, though because of its lack of durability, it is hard to trace the earliest examples of wood carving in the region.  The wood carving tradition, dating back to ancient times, prevailed even after the use of metals and stone emerged. Wood carving flourished long after the great age of stone sculpture and stone architecture, which ended in the 13th century.

Nowhere has the tradition of wood carving in Southeast Asia been more prolific and impressive than Burma. Temples and palaces were richly decorated with highly detailed roof edges, gates, Buddha images, images of monks, effigies of celestial beings, doorways and panels, and windows all carved from hardwood in designs uniquely Burmese. Wood carvings of religious significance were often gilded and decorated with a glittering mosaic of stained glass.

Antique Wood Carvings
Gilded Buddhist Antique Wood Carvings from Burma and Laos

The work was done with a variety of different sized chisels and mallets made from tamarind wood of varying weights, depending on the degree of detail required. Apprenticeships under the guidance of a master carver with several decades of experience lasted as long as ten years. Burmese wood carving is noted for its wonderful spatial arrangement, sense of freedom, and flow. Mostly, work was done in teak to survive the rigours of a climate of intense heat and humidity followed by long dry periods. For highly articulate work, Burmese carvers preferred fine-grained woods such as yindaik, similar to ebony. Popular designs imitated foliage such as vines with flowing outlines, and the use of holes to create a sense of depth with light and shadow.

Buddha images were sensitively carved with the objective of conveying a sense of peace, equanimity, and faithfully portraying the countenance of one who has overcome suffering in the world. The flowing lines of the Buddha’s robes, the tranquil facial expression, and detailed bases such as the lotus pedestal, all contribute to producing works of art that inspire reverence amongst devotees.

Buddha Wood Carvings
Burmese Buddha Statues and Pair of Teppanom Angels Carved from Wood
Burmese Buddhist Wood Carvings of Monks
Antique Wood Carvings of Monks from Burma

Nat spirits were also carved in wood, and while less refined in execution than Buddhist images, were highly expressive. There are 37 ‘official’ Nats and there are said to be as many as 2000 lower Nats of various forms. A favourite Nat of ours is Nga Pyi, Rider of the White Horse (shown below), who was executed for his tardiness in delivering an important message on behalf of a prince.

Antique Burmese Nat Wood Carvings
Burmese Nat Spirit Wood Carvings

Even utilitarian objects in Burma were decorated with attractive forms carved from wood, such as the ox cart, which in the past would have on its bow an ornament carved from wood. An example of this is featured below; the Feng Huang, said to be a mythical bird of infinite grace.

Antique Wood Carving
Antique Burmese Ox Cart Ornament, Javanese Husband and Wife Statues, and Ox Wood Carving

Wood carvings other than those from Burma featured in this blog include a wonderful pair of rare 19th century statues from Java, Indonesia, known as ‘husband and wife statues’, a pair of antique Thai roof gable ornaments decorated in lichen, a Buddhist panel from Laos, and a rare shamanic ritual printing woodblock from Vietnam.

Antique Wood Carving
Antique Naga Wood Carvings and Roof Gables
Antique Wood Carvings
Antique Saddle Ornament, Opium Weight / Scales Box, Shamanic Woodblock

Antique wood carvings have a unique organic quality and possess the sense of presence instilled in objects lovingly made by hand in times past, before the homogeneous conformity of factory produced goods became commonplace.

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